Non-Voting as a form of Christian Political Witness

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.

  • Jasmine
  • Greg Hillis

    I very much agree with your argument. I present a similar, though with a slightly different emphases, argument here: http://myunquietheart.blogspot.com/2012/10/why-i-am-not-going-to-vote-theological.html

  • Patrick Harms

    I very much like the concept of being “politically crucified.” It puts into words what I have honestly felt through the circus that is the presidential election. Using that concept as a starting point for how one should operate within any political climate as a Christ follower is, I believe, the most honest way. Thank you for helping to flesh out an idea I had yet to ready work. And like everything it will most certainly open to other questions.
    PeaceGraceLove

  • Jeffsarata

    I think you’re missing an important caveat here. The only thing that gives you the ability to write this without persecution are your freedoms that are maintained through voting. The only thing necessary for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing. Even if you idolize the nation, I think it’s fair to say that there are very few that idolize the president, regardless of who holds the office. Participating in the American political process is not only a responsibility of each citizen, it’s a necessity of each Christian. Voting is one of the few non-violent means of maintaining a democratic state, one that allows free practice of religion. Voting allows the people to keep the government in check. It is not a paradox that you are shuned for not voting any more than it would be if you were shuned for not eating. It is merely recognized that this chore is vital for survival. If the people of this county abandon their rights and ignore their responsibilities, they could easily vanish. Take, for instance, Germany in the late 30’s and early 40’s. We all know the outcome, and while Hitler claimed to be a Christian, his legacy is not one of love and compassion. Resting in Arlington National Cemetery are more than just a few others who would agree that voting is important. I also want to remind you that I write this from Afghanistan, where every day I put my life on the line for your right to vote, and equally for your freedom to voice your opinions and to worship the God of your choice.

    • ericpaul

      Jeff, thank you for taking the time to respond. I just have one thing to add, not really a defense, but really more of a point of reference. I do not gauge my freedom by some inherent human right to anything- voting, free speech bearing arms, or remaining silent. To do so, I believe, would carry me to a position in which I am only free as I relate to something other than God, in this case the federal government. Within the Christian tradition, freedom is defined by its telos, or end. That is, humans are free as they grow into participation in the life of God. And, learning to participate in the life of God may teach us to not participate in systems or activities that point to different ends. My argument here is that voting has been elevated to such a place that it has actually enslaved us to the American political system, blinding us from imagining other forms of non-violent activity, and disengages the vast majority of people from action after election Tuesday. I believe that God is deeply invested in the health of the community and those that live within it, but this may very well mean redefining how we live our politics out toward different ends.