Why I’m not voting

As a Christian, there are good reasons for me not to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Let me be clear up front that I am not claiming that it is inherently morally wrong to vote (although it may be in some situations). I am claiming that it is morally permissible for a Christian not to vote. This claim needs to be made in our current context because voting is often seen as a civic, if not sacred, duty. Nevertheless, I offer a couple of basic reasons why I won’t vote.

First, I will not vote because the nature of the political system, especially surrounding presidential politics, is grounded on a different set of values than Scripture. Jesus commands truth-telling, but the candidates must be committed to distorting the truth in the interest of power. Jesus calls for humility and service, but candidates (at least those from the Republican and Democratic parties) must have the hubris to believe that their being president is worth the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in order to elect them. Jesus calls for loving our enemies, but the candidates are committed to policies that fly in the face not only of Christian pacifism but of Christian Just War theory.

I am not trying to be cynical here. I am trying to tell the truth about what is happening. To be a truly informed voter means you realize, as a recent Time magazine cover story and www.factcheck.org make clear, that lying is not the exception, but the rule for both candidates.

Second, I will not vote as a symbolic gesture regarding the relative importance of the political system. As Ross Douthat and James K. A. Smith argue, the heresy of nationalism or civil religion is not a fringe position, but a standard creed of American Christians, whether Democrats or Republicans, mainline or evangelical. American civil religion is dangerous precisely because it perpetually invokes Biblical language to give legitimacy to non-Biblical actions or policies. Nationalism in this sense is not simply an individual’s misguided view of the nation, but a structural feature of American political life. Thus, even well-intentioned individuals can end up participating in this problematic worldview.

If you have a strong reaction to my unwillingness to vote, then, it may be because you have legitimate political convictions on the relevant issues. But it also may be that you have unwittingly swallowed an idolatrous form of nationalism that ascribes ultimate importance to the state. Moreover, if passion, energy, loyalty and use of money are indications of one’s ultimate commitments, then it is clear that some Christians give precedence to the American kingdom over the kingdom of God. Not all Christians do this, but Paul recognized that if some Christians are taken in by something potentially good but turned idolatrous, then it is wise to refrain from that activity.

Christians are not forced to vote for a “lesser evil.” We are called to recognize that earthly kings have always played their game of thrones and that the Christian calling is to follow a king who was enthroned on a cross, raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of the Father as confirmation of His kingship. We should bear witness to the kingdom-political order that was established in Christ rather than over-emphasizing how important it is to maintain the political order of “the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.” Paradoxically, when we set our hopes on the city God has prepared for us, we become better citizens (measured Biblically) of whatever earthly city we happen to be in. 

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Great article, and I agree with many points.  But voting is still a right and a privilege worldwide.  So I’ll exercise that right and privilege - even if I have to write in the name of the guy who I think is most qualified to run this nation and get us back on the right track.

I find this really an irresponsible position, despite all the fine-sounding words. You are a citizen of this country and have the God-given privilege to participate in it by voting. By not voting you surrender your positive potential influence to someone else who probably is less representative of God’s values. I believe you have “unwittingly swallowed” an idolatrous drop-out attitude. I do not lift politics above the Kingdom. My priority is to be missional-minded and make disciples. I don’t participate in campaigns or give money to them. But it also is my duty to do what I can to protect life and freedom so that the Gospel may run freely in this country and to defend the poor and needy and do what I can to help create an environment supportive of them. Therefore I’m voting for Romney, because taxation does not equal charity, in fact it works against it. Of course, it’s all about lesser evils. Which human is perfect? But we have to use our intellect and rely on our foundational values and make the best choice we can.

While I applaud your defiance of dogma that equates voting with spiritual obligation (agree wholeheartedly there), I can’t help but find your choice not to vote inconsistent with what Jesus instructed us to do: render unto Caesar what it Caesar’s.

Part of Christianity’s problem with political engagement is that we’re all over things on the hot button issues (abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, etc) and unbelievably silent on broader issues such as health care, education, taxation, and others.

I also question your assertion that Jesus left us with a kingdom-political mandate. Nowhere do we have marching orders in scripture to gain and hold control over government. What we have is direction to be Christ’s living body on earth, the embodiment of God’s love and priorities as they are in heaven, under whatever government exists.

I don’t think you’re failing God by voting or not voting, although there are certainly elements of Christianity that would make it seem like a vote for anything other than the GOP is a one way ticket to hell. To me the real discussion about Not voting means leaving critical issues in the hands of others, and these issues are ones we all have a stake in. I don’t see how throwing away your vote represents good stewardship of the influence you have, even if that influence seems very small. Small isn’t something to be scoffed at in the kingdom- mustard, seeds, five loaves and two fish- God has the power to make little more than enough to address a need.

Thanks for your thoughts on this- appreciate the post and opportunity to dialogue.

Why not use your vote for another candidate that is not on one of the major tickets? Surely someone else can offer you something that will satisfy your faith. I hear that Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are still in the race in independent parties. Then there’s the Tea Party. I don’t know enough about these to speak intelligently, I just know that they are there.

I am grateful for the thoughtful comments and feedback. Here are a few further thoughts in response.

Should we render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s? Certainly. But that phrase itself is telling: Jesus assumes that a Christian calling under a Caesar (what we’d call a dictator) is not to seek political liberty, the right to vote, violent revolution, etc., but to pay taxes, honor the king, and seek to further the kingdom of God. Caesar is going to do his thing; Jesus is calling his disciples to a different “game” than the game of thrones. So saying “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” is a way of affirming that his disciples are called neither to violent revolution nor to a type of political activism that plays the political game by Caesar’s rules. Instead, he calls them to embody the kingdom, which is a way of confronting Caesar’s kingdom (Jesus ends up crucified, a death reserved for political insurrectionists) but refusing to play by Caesar’s rules (Jesus embodies suffering love rather than violence).

Does not voting leave the critical issues in the hands of others? This assumes an assumption I don’t buy; namely, that all critical issues are addressed via the state. James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World” convincingly argues that most Americans, including most Christians, believe that the state and politics is the realm where important issues get decided. The result is a politicization of everything. Sex, gender, family, work, age, race, health, transportation, energy—all of these matters become ideological and politicized as Americans increasingly attempt to settle differences about these things via politics. But this ignores the basic sociological and political fact that there are real limits to what the state can and does do. The state can set regulations, but it can’t actually provide real and long-term solutions to these issues, which can only be done on the level of community public (but not political) involvement. In this light, Hunter argues that “political participation can and often does amount to the avoidance of responsibility” (173). Why? Because political structures set process but don’t actually solve problems. In my view, Christians need to be less concerned about who’s in power and more concerned about being a creative minority that seeks real, non-politicized solutions to issues like health care, abortion, poverty, etc. If you want to express your convictions at the ballot box, do so, by all means. But be sure that you are actively seeking practical ways to solve the issues that you care about within your community. I see Christians doing this all over the place. But I also see Christians who think of political involvement as listening to talking heads, posting on Facebook, and then going out on Election Day to vote. With Hunter, I would say that’s avoidance of real civic responsibility. It is that approach (not mine) that “leaves critical issues in the hands of others” by assuming that checking off a name on a ballot box is the definition of responsibility.

Thanks again for the interaction and dialogue on these issues.

Thanks for the post Dr. Parler. I appreciated you’re brief summary of the heresy of Nationalism. I find that many Christians I engage with daily have this warped view of the nation and how they are to function with in it.
The fact of the matter is that earthly kingdoms will fall. Yes, even America will fall, but the Kingdom of Heaven remains.
I’ve heard many Christians say “If Obama gets re-elected, America is on its way to Hell.” And even similar things about Romney (can you believe it?). Sometimes I think I should gently remind my brothers and sisters of the fact that salvation belongs to God, it does not rest on the values of a particular political party.

We must place our hope in the Kingdom of Heaven, we must make our goal to proclaim Christ’s Sovereignty here on earth (even when it comes to politics), and sometimes, when the Kingdoms values can not be seen clearly in an individual running for office, it is appropriate to remove yourself from the political process and trust solely in Christ’s sovereignty over all things. The fact of the matter is that in the end, God will have His way regardless of who gets elected. We must place our hope in that fact rather than in the temporary leader of a temporary nation.

This being said, I feel that my ability to vote is a means through which I can proclaim Christ’s sovereignty and advocate for one of the Kingdom’s values: justice. The biggest injustice that I see in our culture is abortion, therefor I’m voting solely on that issue.

I’d point out that the kingdom-political order established in Christ was not a mandate to take over and control the government. Neither was Dr. Parler’s reference to this asserting the idea that Christians are mandated by Christ to control government. Rather the kingdom-political order referred to here is speaking on Christ calling us to participate in the advancing and proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven (at least that’s how I understood it).

Also, I’d be interested the specific “elements of Christianity that would make it seem like a vote for anything other than the GOP is a one way ticket to hell.” I’m not sure where in the Bible it says “Thou Shalt Vote GOP, if thou dost refuse thou wilst face eternal damnation.”

Branson Parler,

          The conclusions in your article regarding the responsibility to vote are completely counter to our system of government and our obligation as Christians. Since we live in a Representative Republic, the people we send to govern speak for us. “The State” you refer to can only exist if we abdicate this responsibility. 

Not to vote, is to vote.

          In the parable of the talents, Jesus teaches to whom much is given much is expected. As Christians we are expected to vote for candidates who base their decisions on Biblical principals and support the State of Israel. 

Thanks, Branson.  I especially appreciate your distinction “that it is morally permissible for a Christian not to vote.” You’re not saying that all Christians should not vote, only that is an option. Strange how for many American Christians, voting takes on almost-sacramental overtones. 
I was a non-voter for a long time, until moving to Iowa where the caucuses are just too fun and tempting not to participate.  If I caucus, it seems I should later vote.  Made my peace with Niebuhrian moral calculus. 
I would add that non-voting is not an attempt to remain “pure” or “above the fray” as it sometimes is portrayed. As Christians, we’re never pure or above the fray. I’d put non-voting more on par with the earliest Christians where a sort of benign neglect eventually changed the empire.

This seems to be something of a half-way position: can one opt in (and opt out) of participation in civic affairs? Considered as a matter of personal ethics or consumer choice, of course, however that raises the question whether such a choice is properly Christian.

The difficulty is that the option of occasional opt-out presumes something like adequate information, that one may properly determine when voting is possible or even more, Christian. And here’s the difficulty: that is a position that inevitably thrusts us back into a private or self-oriented mode.

For that reason, I don’t see an individual opt-out as being particularly useful. If one is to make the symbolic gesture, then it seems that is a stance that requires a more comprehensive position, i.e. opting out, period. This becomes a principle then of conscience and witness, and so rather useful.

The position taken of the individual opt-out, however, raises the question of justice. If voting is a matter of adiaphora, your choice, as it were, then measures to restrict voting would likewise also be in the same category. So the Christian becomes indifferent as to whether the franchise is protected or extended. After all, they all lie. As pointed out earlier, the Christian opt-out is an implicit sanctioning of the status quo and so also reflects the social standing (and security) of the one proposing the opting out.

Again, there’s a place to accept the status quo for the sake of witness but this requires something more fully embodied. In short, be the Anabaptist. It’s ok.

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