A Non-Voter Responds

Written by Wes Bergen.

Around election time, I often hear Christians ask each other, “Who would Jesus vote for?”  Presumably, this question is supposed to influence our individual decisions.  Since we’re good evangelicals who ask “what would Jesus do?” in situations we’re unsure about, it makes sense that we recourse to this question when it comes to politics.  Whenever I hear it, though, I want to bring up a modified version of the Euthyphro dilemma: is Jesus voting for Romney/Obama because he is a good candidate, or is Romney/Obama a good candidate because Jesus voted for him?  I don’t intend to answer that question because I don’t think it matters very much.  I bring it up partly as a joke, but also because I want to suggest that voting based on a hypothetical juxtaposition of Christ with 21st century American election culture is dangerously simplistic.  I don’t hesitate to call it dangerous because the question limits our political imaginations.  The constraint I fear the most in the question “who would Jesus vote for?” is the assumption that Jesus would vote at all.  This essay is my attempt to respond to three arguments given in defense of the notion that Christians should vote.  By responding to these arguments, I hope to provide a defense against the pressures that hinder Christians from seriously considering not voting.

Photo by The Pew Forum

In my experience, Christians don’t take seriously the idea of not voting.  The weakest argument I hear for why Christians must vote is that by not voting, we complicity agree to everything the government does.  The force of this argument is that it claims non-voters are culpable – that is, accountable – for what happens in government.  First, I’m going to point out that this argument makes no religious appeal.  At its core, it’s an argument for individual responsibility (I hope to address why Christians bother to make this argument in the fifth paragraph).  Second, I don’t see how this argument can possibly be persuasive.  Here’s a counterexample: let’s say on my way to Maves, I find Oprah’s debit card, PIN number on the back, lying on the ground.  I look up, and see her standing in front of me.  What luck!  I ask her, “Oprah, would you rather I spent your money on a Porsche or a Ferrari?”  She is utterly floored and makes no response.  If we hold to this position, after I buy the car, she has no right to complain about what I’ve done because she was complicit in my spending her money.  Here’s another counterexample: we’ve all seen advertisements asking us to sponsor poor children.  According to the principle behind this argument, it seems we must conclude that anyone who doesn’t sponsor a child after seeing these commercials is complicit with, even accountable for, the continuation of poverty.  This cannot be the case, since the viewer may be aware of flaws in child sponsorship programs and choose to contribute another way.  Abstaining from the vote does not mean one is complicit with anything America’s politicians do.

I sometimes hear slightly more compelling arguments that go something like this: God gave you the privilege to vote, and you are rejecting His gift by not voting.  This position equates rejecting God’s gifts with sinning.  The easy answer is that my ability not to vote is a gift, too.  However, clarifying what we mean by “gifts from God” into three categories may help me give a better answer.  First, there are “gifts from God” that we cannot reject.  My createdness and my humanity are in this first class.  It is impossible for me to reject them, since I can never be uncreated nor become something other than human.  Second, there are gifts we can reject, but to do so is immoral.  The gift of a loving spouse could be rejected by divorce, life could be rejected by suicide, or family could be rejected in favor of selfishness.  Finally, we have a very broad sense in which we speak of God’s gifts, e.g., a breeze on a hot day, rain in spring, a roof over my head, etc.  Rejecting these gifts is amoral – that is, it has no immediate moral significance whatsoever.  It’s neither immoral nor moral for us to stay indoors when it rains.  Rejecting the third category of gifts can’t be a sin.

I think our ability to vote is a gift from God.  It’s a gift that we don’t have bloody revolutions every four years, and it is a gift that, in theory if not in practice, we can participate in what our government does.  However, it is a gift only in the broadest sense.  Here are two reasons why I think so.  First, the Bible, as well as most of Christian tradition, if preferential to any government, supports monarchy or communism.  Democracy doesn’t enter the picture in scripture.  Second, there are multiple inconsistencies in seeing voting as a gift in the second sense.  If not voting for president is a rejection of a gift, then so is not voting for coroner or third district treasurer.  Moreover, suppose not voting is a sin, and, as is likely to happen, suppose neither candidate is good for the job.  Suppose even that the entire system of elections is broken, so even if there was a good candidate, s/he would have to make shady deals to even have a fighting chance.  It would seem that not sinning would require sacrificing other, more important, principles.

Those who make the argument, though, use gift in the second sense.  Yet, what makes us think voting is a moral act?  My answer to this will hopefully also explain why Christians make a nonreligious argument for why Christians in particular should vote: the American church has taught us to see our government as being part of God’s plan; what is “for country” is also “for God.”  We bring together church and state when we put American flags in our churches, when we think Israel needs to be defended by American soldiers, and when we ask questions like “who would Jesus vote for?”  It is as though voting is an act of worship, as important as communion, and that by not voting, we are not worshiping.  We must be very committed, perhaps overly committed, to our government when we think its methods of self-preservation are “gifts from God” in the second sense.  America has other methods of self-preservation that few would see as “gifts.”  I cannot accept the arguments that say we have some moral responsibility to vote.

If not a moral responsibility to vote, what about a moral responsibility to others?  The most compelling arguments for why Christians should vote go something like this: voting allows us to make positive changes in our world.  Christians are called to make our world a better place.  Presidential candidates plan to make positive changes.  Therefore, Christians should vote for presidential candidates.  I’m going to drop what I hope is an acceptable ad hominem here – or, in the parlance of our time – a diss.  If we seriously hold the second premise of this argument, we are hypocrites.  If voting for a candidate we think will make some positive changes is our best idea for making the world a better place, we are moral failures.  We are failures because we are avoiding our calling as followers of Jesus.  Christians have historically understood the Church community – not the state – to be the driving force, if not the only force, for good in the world.  Governments become corrupted in their attempted self-preservation, philanthropists give in self-interest and accept glimmering awards, but Christians believe that the Church is the only community that, through self-denial, brings the world closer to God.  We are in the minority of believers if we think the government is the primary force for positive change.  Until the American church is willing to take the burden of welfare upon itself, to think deeply about its relationship to the poor, and to be advocates for issues of social justice, I don’t think we can seriously make good arguments for why voting satisfies our moral responsibility to one another.

Bill Cavanaugh
EerdWord / WordPress

Yet, the ad hominem response isn’t enough.  I’d like to respond also with an example.  Recently, at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, a panel of Catholic intellectuals met to answer questions about contemporary politics in America.  One of the panelists was William Cavanaugh, an ex-member of a Religious Right activist group.  Cavanaugh was thrilled when, at the height of the Religious Right’s power, America had a Republican president, Speaker of the House, Speaker of the Senate, a congressional majority of Republicans, and a majority of Republican Supreme Court justices.  Yet, Cavanaugh explains, even with a government packed with a party that identified itself as God’s elect, no significant policies were put in place to make America more Christian.  The party that ran on overturning Roe vs. Wade never followed through.  Jesus’ candidates were elected and yet their dreams of a Christian America were never fulfilled.  After this failure, Cavanaugh became disenchanted with the idea of a Christian America.  I think Cavanaugh’s experience should also demystify our notions that Christendom in America is possible, and that our votes have the least bit to do with establishing Christ’s reign on Earth.  After all, since when did we think it was our responsibility to establish God’s kingdom?

If I have succeeded in my arguments, the responses given above should be enough to allow Christians to freely consider the option of not voting.  I intentionally made few arguments in favor of not voting, since my focus was responding to those who disagree with me.  This article should allow us to approach the question “who would Jesus vote for?” without immediately thinking in terms of Republican/Democrat or even candidate X.  My hope is that we can expand our political imagination beyond what election culture and America offers as acceptable.

Wes Bergen
written by Wes Bergen

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  1. Wes, your article is rich with topics for debate, but I do want to highlight the following:
    1. As a Christian, I am bitterly disappointed with the GOP’s track record on abortion. Since 1973, Republican presidents have appointed 9 of the last 11 supreme court justices, yet Roe v Wade remains untouched. It makes me wonder if the GOP has cynically co-opted the evangelical vote. How much more vexing to hear Romney say that abortion legislation is NOT part of his agenda (desmoinesregister.com).
    2. I vigorously disagree with your view that Christians have no responsibility in establishing God’s kingdom (unless you were being rhetorical). We cooperate with God to help bring His kingdom about. He waits to act through his followers. But I entirely agree that Christians make a serious mistake who think that the United States is a Christian nation, as Greg Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Nation” makes very clear.


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