Non-Voting as a form of Christian Political Witness

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October 31, 2012

As a Christian, I am increasingly aware of the all things that aren’t God but that we tend to worship nonetheless.  On the top of this list of idolatry is the place of the nation-state.  We know with our hearts and minds that the United States is not God, but I don’t think we’ve learned it with our bodies.  Our hearts profess Jesus as Lord but our faith lies in the mechanism of the state.  When the financial crises occurred in 2008, it was the intervention of the government (first under Bush and carried by Obama) that took credit for saving us.  Very few of us began to question what it means to rely on the abundance of God’s provision.  When the terror and fear of Sept. 11 grabbed us, it was to our military strength we turned.  When we talk of justice, it is synonymous with killing, rather than by restoration through forgiveness (even if it isn’t effective, i.e. gets us crucified).  More often than not, our government acts as Savior in our lives, and we tend to be perfectly content to allow it to happen.  It is within this context, the context that William Cavanaugh says is the “transfer of care for the holy from church to state,”[1] that I question the elevation of voting in our society to idolatrous proportions.

 

A few things ought to be cleared up.  I’m not making a utilitarian argument here.  For my purposes, I’m not resting my decision not to vote based on physical location (my vote matters little in my current state of TN).  Neither am I resting my decision based on particular outcomes of who I might think steer this nation best.  I certainly agree with particular candidates more than others.  But as John Stoner put it, “We are told that we must choose the lesser of two evil candidates in order to avoid the greater of two bad consequences to the citizenry of our country and the world.”[2]  Nor is my decision not to vote based on indifference.  I care deeply about the health of our communities, the people within them, and the earth that supports them.  Contrary to popular belief, not voting is not synonymous with not having a voice.  It seems to me an odd paradox for the social narrative of this country to place a high priority on individual freedom but then shun those from exercising that freedom by choosing not to vote.  Nor am I advocating that Christian non-voting is a universal ethic placed over all Christians in all times and places.  This should rather act as a questioning of the status quo of our current political existence in the United States in 2012.

 

But as a Christian, as one who constantly tries (and often fails) to live into the pattern of the cross set before us through Jesus of Nazareth, I can’t help but question the ways our emphasis on voting shapes us into the practice of nation-state ethics.  I can’t help but wonder if voting parallels the ancient practice of burning incense to Caesar.  It becomes a tangible way in which we allow the nation to guide our stories rather than the cross of Christ.  We vote one way and we declare that we most align with the ideology of one party over others.  We allow that party’s narrative to drive our relationships with others.  But on a deeper level, we give ourselves over to the base ideology of American bodily existence.  In a way, voting acts as a social mechanism to pacify the masses.  Voting gives the appearance of a democratic process.  It gives us an illusion of freedom, an illusion of choice, all the while entrenching our communities into idolatrous notions of peace and prosperity.  I think it’s possible to conceive of voting as an act that actually does the opposite of what it proposes, in that it actually strips us of being politically engaged in any meaningful way as a body of Christ.

 

Voting allows a neat separation between politics and religion.  Our religious selves may inform our political persuasion, but the two realms remain separate.  The religious self becomes all too content to be subordinated physically to the whims of the nation-state.  Cavanaugh critiques, “The separation of religion from politics helps to promote the separation of one’s loyalty to the church from one’s loyalty to the nation-state, and thus the ‘migration of the holy.’”  As he later remarks, the Christian ought to be politically homeless (or as a friend of mine said, politically crucified), and in so doing “to complexify political space: to create forms of local and translocal community that disperse and resist the powers invested in the state and corporation.”[3]  I think it’s entirely reasonable to assume that a Christian’s political witness can translate in terms of refusing to vote.  What say you?


[1] William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011).

[2] John Stoner, “Getting Beyond Presidential Politics,” found at http://www.jesusradicals.com/getting-beyond-presidential-politics/, Sept. 20, 2012.

[3] William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), 4-5.