A couple of friends who are Presbyterian ministers had a conversation about whether or not we should vote as citizens of the kingdom of God. They wrote out their conversation and asked if I would post it on my blog. I was happy to do so. To be clear, I’m not taking sides on this one, but both Ben and Jeff make compelling arguments about where our responsibilities lie as both citizens and believers. I’m sure they’ll be following the comments so please chime in.
By Ben Beres and Jeffrey A. Schooley
Introductory Note: Ben and Jeff are friends who agree on so much: the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the relative mastery of Urban Meyer and the Ohio State University Buckeyes in college football, the supremacy of the Cleveland baseball, how amazing spicy garlic chicken wings are, and why Kent State University (where they met) is holy ground. Yet, as much as they agree and are brothers, they disagree deeply about what Christian engagement in politics looks like. What follows is a loving disagreement in conversation form. Our hope is that this conversation extends into a greater conversation amongst many brothers and sisters in Christ.
JAS: Ben, I’m not going to vote in this November’s election and I don’t think you should either. And to be very clear, it’s not because of the candidates, but because I’m not convinced that voting is a particularly Christian thing to do. But I know that you’re planning to vote and have even been preaching a sermon series at your church about this sort of topic, so wrestle me to your position on this matter.
BB: Gladly, sir! Fair warning: I did pin a guy in high school in less time than it took to read this sentence. Gravity and brute strength will likely be less help here though. Why don’t you kick us off? Why isn’t voting an exercise of Christian faith?
JAS: What I meant by “not a particularly Christian thing to do” is that there is no law, rule, mandate, or paradigm in scripture that in anyway encourages a social practice called voting. It does not seem – in any way – to be connected to Jesus’ Lordship or the Kingdom of God. And, of course, historically there have been millions upon millions upon millions of Christians who exercised their discipleship without democracy. So, yeah, I don’t think voting is all that important.
BB: See, I disagree already. Theologically, I see the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28 at play in so much of lives, pushing us beyond what has been given into diverse means of utilizing and shepherding all things. There weren’t beer or cheeseburgers in the Garden, yet both can be done well, even to the glory of God. From the start, we’ve been given the authority to be stewards over the created order, done faithfully and best when we check our will by his Sovereign will. Also, 1 Samuel 8 recounts the Lord honoring the people’s choice to have a human king over the sovereign one they had. Though it was (obviously) a grievous error, there’s at least precedent for the will of the people to be used in leadership and policy selection. For a more faithful example, Acts records the casting of (bal)lots to select Judas’ replacement. The Apostles trusted the Spirit to work through their choices then too. Could modern democratic process be a redeemed aspect of that same honoring of human agency? I think so. Is it essential to a faithful expression of Christian faith? No, of course not. As you say, millions and millions of Christians today and saints in the Church Triumphant have never pulled a lever or picked off a hanging chad and still find full and satisfying discipleships. But as a particular gift given to the peoples of republics, Christians among them, we have a chance to exercise our creational stewardship over policy and politics by casting ballots. As an exercise of a gift we’ve been particularly given, sure, it’s not critical to our faith, but it’s by no means out of bounds for the people of God.
JAS: You’re right, I only explained why voting isn’t mandatory; I didn’t explain why you shouldn’t vote. I’m troubled that democracy is not morally neutral. I know that our American version of it does not presume to legislate religion and has a strict separation between church and state, but I think there’s decent enough evidence that politics is a type of pagan religion. Anecdotally, it certainly elicits a comparable sort of fervor amongst its most strident practitioners. In fact, I fully expect to be yelled at – actually yelled at – by someone just because I challenged the golden calf of voting. Beyond that, though, the offices that we elect men and women to are bigger than these people. The offices force conformation.
BB: Give me an example of that last part about conformation, because I’m not sure I see it.
JAS: Tim Kaine, the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, said during the VP debate that even though he doesn’t personally agree with capital punishment and even though his Catholic faith tradition doesn’t condone capital punishment, when he was governor of Virginia, he discharged the duties of his office, which included overseeing the execution of inmates by the state. And what he said is just keeping in line with a line of political reasoning that has been in place since John F. Kennedy – as a candidate in 1960 – assured the American public that his own Catholic faith would not interfere with his being president. Ben, I think you’d agree with me that – as pastors – our greatest hope is that our people’s Christian faith regularly interfere with their lives. But it has now become a political virtue to boast about how one’s personal faith (and by “personal,” I suspect they always mean “private”) won’t impact their work. If this is really true – and I have no reason to doubt that it is – then I’m not entirely sure why it’s important to even try to get to know the character of any candidate include his/her religious identity. All of that character and religion isn’t big enough to overcome the weight of the office they are pursuing. As such, I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear someone tell me with great fervor that we must have a Christian in the Oval Office. Putting a Christian in Hell doesn’t magically transform that place to Heaven.
BB: No doubt. And yet, we still see politicians, again here in America, scrambling to prove their Christian bonafides because they know that nationally a majority still self-identify as Christian. We know that claiming faith isn’t the same as having it, and that many who would say that don’t darken the doors of churches each week or actively attempt the live their discipleship in the day-to-day, but that’s a different conversation. Personally, I think it’s a question of integrity; what holds primacy in my thoughts, speech, and action. I agree that there’s a serious disconnect when someone says (or just lives) that their faith is compartmentalized as a mere facet of their life. But my main objection to your statement is that anything is morally neutral. If I’m given a knife, it has no moral standing. If I use it chop vegetables for a salad, I’ve used it well. If I use it to stab someone, I’ve used it poorly. Certainly systems have more moving parts than a kitchen knife, and granted, positions come with expectations, but I think that one, committed to honoring God and loving neighbor through his or her work could find means of challenging and changing those expectations, to make their work a holy vocation, instead of a faith vacation.
JAS: Maybe the heart of my concern is – in the words of Stanley Hauerwas in A Community of Character – that “Christian enthusiasm for the political involvement offered by our secular polity has made us forget the church’s more profound political task. In the interest of securing more equitable forms of justice possible in our society, Christians have failed to challenge the moral presuppositions of our polity and society.” And this “presupposition” is “the liberal assumption that a just polity is possible without the people being just.” He then goes on to talk about what it takes to develop virtuous people and finds politics completely wanting in this task. I think the best example of politics’ failure to make people more virtuous can be seen precisely in how little democracy asks of us. Even if you research every issue, every candidate, and vote in every election, you can generally be disconnected from politics except for a once a year or so. I think the best way to judge the quality of any ideology/organization is to investigate the habits, practices, and disciplines it requires of you. By this standard, the Boys Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous are pretty good ideology/organization because they are pretty all-consuming. The Church is greater still because it consumes every bit of you – sins and all – and seeks Christ’s transformation in our lives. The Church moves us ever forward to completing the greatest ethical demand on our lives, which is to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Politics, by comparison, asks you to be entertained by the circus and then push a few buttons. In exchange, you get a sticker. It’s rather pathetic when viewed as such and I think Christians have greater ambitions for the lives of our neighbors than to see them become mere button-pushing, sticker-wearing, democratic followers.
BB: I absolutely agree! I’d say that this is because the average Christian has just as much responsibility to be an engaged and informed citizen as they would if they were a Boy Scout or AA participant. Does it require work? Sure. Active participation? Absolutely! I do think you’re onto something with the sticker. I want to believe that it began as a means of encouraging participation, a form of healthy social accountability, but you can’t thinkingly watch a political ad and notice how engineered their language is to say what soundbite they want you to take-away and what they’re not saying. Advertising so misleading belies the infantilization of the process that people in power want to encourage. Both major parties would be glad to either have you sipping their Kool-Aid or become so angry at the actions of their opponents that you vote for one to spite the other. A recent Fox News poll reported that only 39% of respondents had actual enthusiasm for their candidate. 57% said they planned to vote out of “fear the other candidate wins.” 57%! We Christians have the good news to share, the powerful message of the God whose perfect love casts out fear. I have no hope for legislating justice, but I have an abundance of hope for the transformative word that we don’t have to be afraid. This political season provides us with not only a chance to rightly steward our rule in the Image of God through voting, but to be salt and light in the lives of our fearful friends and neighbors (our given mission field) and model for them hope that isn’t pinned to a fallen person in a fallen office, but a resolute assurance that our God can and does use all things for his glory and purposes. Even voting.
Have I convinced you yet?
JAS: You could convince me, except that politics have winners and losers. At the end of the day, I agree wholeheartedly with your call for Christians to be salt and light. I just still cannot see how voting achieves that goal. Our liberal friends and neighbors are terrified of most conservative rule; our conservative friends and neighbors loath the prospects of further liberal polity. At the end of the day, about 47-percent of people are going to be deeply disappointed. If Christians have encouraged their friends and neighbors to participate in this process as a good, holy act of stewardship – per your Genesis 1 reference – then Christians are responsible for the losing 47-percent. We have to explain that, “well, your hope was never really in your candidate winning; it was always in Jesus.” At that point, they would have every right to look at us and ask why we encouraged them to vote in the first place.
One other aspect of voting bothers me and that is the assumption within democracy that each person votes for their own self-interest. I have no idea how a Christian can simultaneously hold that God is first in their life and their neighbor a very close second, leaving themselves as necessarily third… and then turn around and participate in an activity founded upon the presumption of self-interest. When you and I work with the children in our church, we actively teach them to share, think of others first, be kind, and the like. Democratic polity takes all of that work and turns it on its head. Now, I think you’re going to make the case that Christians can vote without buying into self-interest, so go ahead and make that case (‘cause you know I’ve got a rebuttal just slow cooking on the back burner!)
BB: Well, of course there are winners and losers. This isn’t consensus-building; it’s voting. We’re asking people to choose the option they prefer with a majority choosing (ideally) what’s in the best interest of the nation. And I’m not saying that voting itself will make us salt and light; voting is an opportunity for us to be the salt and light we are graciously being made. Voting is just the vehicle for our witness in this way. Standing in my garage doesn’t make me a mechanic. Going to church doesn’t make me a Christian. Casting a ballot doesn’t make me a participant in a pagan ritual. Paul didn’t walk amongst the shrines of Athens because he thought he might find holy and faithful worship already happening there; he went to show them a better way, to be a signpost, directing people to the one worthy of their worship. I wouldn’t use this apologetic to convince my non-Christian neighbors. That would be a different conversation. But I think it’s central to how and why we as Christ followers do.
That leads straight to your other concern: self-interest. I would certainly agree that the game is set up so that players choose what’s in their own interest. But I don’t think we have to play by the rules of the game. Certainly we follow the process and obey polling place laws, but when that little curtain closes behind me, every choice marked on the paper or punched into the computer is an exercise of my own stewardship, which as you note, doesn’t hold me or my desires as the most important consideration. Romans 12:2 tells us to not be conformed to world, but to transformed by the renewing of our mind. I think that’s so important, a lynchpin to this whole notion of faithful Christian voting. We can’t discern the will of God without being transformed. That requires humility on our part, and an acknowledgement that we don’t always know best. How can I discern what’s best to vote for? How to choose what is “good, acceptable, [even] perfect” in his sight for my community? You don’t start with a political affiliation. You start with your community, seeing clearly what it is and what it isn’t. You consider the issues. You don’t ask “Do I want a methadone clinic in my neighborhood?” but “Do my neighbors need a methadone clinic?” If they do and you won’t vote for it, you better have solid reasoning, ideas of how you better serve your neighbors without it. It could be that another clinic isn’t needed, but a support group for addicts and their families is. Fine; do that. But what we can’t do, as Christians, is ignore the needs of the hurting, the broken, the lonely, the depressed, because they make us uncomfortable or lower our property values. If we have concern for the Lord and our neighbors over ourselves, that takes the sting out of “winning and losing,” because we’ve truly ceased playing around. That’s how we vote in the system, but not of it.
JAS: I’m glad you ended with systems language because this is at the heart of my concern. Systems – we are learning more and more – are not so easily dismantled, especially when we use the practices and disciplines of the system. If over 100 years of women’s suffrage, over 50 years of African-American civil rights, and over 30 years of LGBT advocacy has taught us anything it’s that sexism, racism, and heteronormativity cannot be legislated away. Systems are insidious. They work best when they make us think we’re making gains, taking meaningful strides, and moving to a more just society, and all the while the social ills are just getting more and more deeply entrenched. Your use of the methadone example is quite pertinent. That a methadone clinic is needed is a result of addiction. But addiction, itself, is a result of genetic predisposition, mental health, the erosion of community, pharmaceutical companies, legal drug classifications, and police enforcement. An addict’s life is caught up in the swirling eddy of all these systems of power, but the local referendum is on whether or not there is a clinic in a neighborhood. See how little and meaningless it all is? It doesn’t do anything about the over-prescribing of opioid narcotics, the legal classification of drugs, the mandatory sentencing of drug offenders, and the corporations that financially benefit from prisons full of people and who lobby legislators for stricter enforcement so as to fill their private prisons. Those who still love and trust the system will now pipe up and say, “Of course, we’re working on that too,” without realizing that their tail-chasing is just another aspect of how the system stays in power. So long as the system can get you to play its game, the system is winning. It’s goal isn’t to actually win the game, but to keep you playing long enough that you lose focus on everything else. It wants your hope, your trust, your love. And when wars come, it will demand your sacrifice too.
I realize at this point in the conversation that people quit reading (but why? You’ve come this far; you’re so close to the end!) because they think I’m advocating revolution. I’m not. What I’ve learned about systems is that systems which are forged in injustice can only ever produce injustice. You can no sooner squeeze justice out of injustice as you can get apple juice out of a cow patty. Worse yet, all systems are forged in injustice. So revolution, which will inevitably abound with a cornucopia of injustices, is not my plan. My plan is for the church to stand back and practice a Christian discipleship that is always and forever a contrasting model to whatever systems are in place. Justice is still a real thing, but any justice that can’t find its origins in the cross of Jesus Christ is probably just a mirage of justice fed to us by a liberal democratic system bent on keeping us spinning in circles by promising us the world and delivering on nothing.
In the end, Jesus has given us what we need. It comes as gift, as grace. He’s in control of history, so we can take our hands off the (voting booth) levers. Injustice truly abounds when we ignore the gift and try to take control of history. Its why what you call “stewardship” above looks more like a need for control. Ironically, it is the very moment we try to take control away from Jesus that we come under the control of all those insidious systems. So, no, I still can’t advocate voting because the world doesn’t need my vote – or any Christian’s vote. What the world needs is to have itself broken systems revealed to it by the contrasting model of the Church. Being the Church is the most loving thing Christians can do for the world. It’s not an abandonment of the world, but an embracing of the world on God’s terms.
BB: I can understand and appreciate that response. It’s not a new one for the Church and has deep faithful roots in the monastic tradition. It’s easy to point at Christian hermits, or even groups like the modern Amish, and think they’ve lost it because they choose to disengage rather than compromise, but I respect that they choose to stand apart in prayer and witness to the world. It’s commendable.
That said, I have a hard time squaring that with how Jesus lived. No part of his public ministry reads as disengaged. In fact, the opposite it true. He engaged beyond social norms and mores. He called out tax collectors, even while he paid taxes. He touched the untouchables. He gave words of forgiveness to the powerless, trapped in cycles of shame. He shouldered a political system’s most gruesome punishment and emerged from a hole a new man. Nothing about that models standing apart for us.
Cynicism about systems can be tempting. They are forged with injustice because much of the work of forging is entrusting to men and women, too many of whom look to hold to their own power and levy the system their way, whether it’s a local chieftain who gets to sleep with each new bride, a king who levies “tributes,” or a new system “of the people, by the people, and for the people” that only gives voting rights to property owners and allows people to be property. But I think it’s a mistake to confuse change that is slower than we like for evidence of no growth. Systems are forged with injustice deep in their bones. The Church isn’t exempt from that either; she has a sordid past all her own. But there is also something redeemable about systems because they bear the mark, the fingerprints, of people who were created in the image of God. I read the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds as a lesson in world history. A Garden planted with everything good. Injustice, hate, envy, and pride are scattered liberally within, but rather than tear up the lot, or pretend that some can grow unaffected, the Master says to let it all grow; it can be separated at harvest. As good wheat, the Church and people in her will struggle for resources, struggle to bear fruit, even get frustrated with our weedy neighbors who are clearly spoiling our land. Yet our call is to keep growing, to thrive as best we can, and bear witness to the work of Him who planted us. I see voting as metaphorically spreading out our roots, retaking – inch by dirty inch – the life and place that was given to us so that the weeds are stymied and our neighbors have more access to water, nutrition, soil, and, well maybe I’ve stretched the image far enough. My point, Jeff, is that we live in a fallen world, a reality of which we are too painfully aware. But Jesus promises to make all things new, and since “nations” are explicitly mention in Revelation as making offerings to the Lord, and leaves of the Tree of Life bringing them healing, I’m inclined to think that his redemption extends to even governments and broken systems. If that is the case, then voting is not just one means of our participation in the redemption of even them, but part of our ministry to a world in need. If I can throw a little Hauerwas back at you: “Hope is the greatest virtue of pilgrims, patience is the second.” Let us be people of hope!
I do think, my brother, we’ve prattled on extensively. I’m interested to hear what you, gentle reader, think. Have either of us made a solid case? Are you more or less inclined to go vote? If so or not, will you share why?