The Common Good

Voting is Never Uncritical, Unqualified, nor Unconditional

I've been blogging lately about faith, politics, and voting. In a recent post, I reflected that this election season will require us to have thousands of conversations, millions even -- around dinner tables, sitting at the beach, during hikes and boat rides, online, in church fellowship halls, and parking lots -- about truly important issues for us as Americans and as Christians. We'll need to talk about race, war, poverty, sustainable prosperity, the environment, energy, national unity and fragmentation, torture, what it means to be a moral leader in the family of nations, and even the meaning of voting itself. I then expressed my prayerful hope that through these conversations:

... our nation will become a little wiser, a little less racist, a little more humble, a little more good-hearted and unified and respectful, one conversation at a time, one person at a time.

That prayerful hope came back to me the other day when I read a post by a good friend. He suggested we should advise everybody and endorse nobody. I'm quite certain that my friend meant, by the word endorse, "blindly, uncritically, and without reservation express support for." And, of course, with that I would fully agree.

Looking back over religious-political discourse in recent decades, many of our religious leaders implied, "If a candidate is right on issue A and issue B, support him without reservation," which carried the tacit message, "These issues are so important -- don't worry what he says about issue C and issue D." The result of this kind of endorsement was that millions of Christians supported President Bush on two issues, and then were strangely silent and uncritical about other issues -- like the failure of the Iraq war to stand the test of just war theory (not to mention the spiritual call to Christ-like peacemaking, etc.).

Millions of voters may do the same in 2008, uncritically endorsing the candidate who wins them by taking a for-against position on one or two issues -- whether or not he will actually make a positive difference in regard to those issues, and without critically assessing other issues that are also profoundly important. (For me, one such issue would be how itchy a candidate's trigger-finger is regarding war with Iran.)

On the one hand, then, if we tacitly define endorse as many have in recent years, I fully agree with my friend. But on the other hand, I worry that some people may unwisely extend my friend's comment to voting itself, or to talking openly about who we plan to vote for and why, for each decision is a kind of endorsement. In fact, voting and engaging in intelligent dialogue about voting are the kinds of endorsements that every one of us is expected to make as a responsible member of a democracy.

Again, even in voting, we must realize that we do so without giving uncritical, unqualified support to our political system. Our whole system is, as nearly all of us agree, a broken system, corrupted by big money at one level, distracted by superficial media on another level, subverted by unscrupulous political operatives on still another level, influenced by injudicious religious leaders on another, and weakened by voter apathy/ignorance on yet another level. Some may choose to protest the imperfection of the candidates or the imperfection of the system by not voting, or perhaps by writing in "Jesus" on their ballot. But doing so, we should remember, doesn't provide a pious shortcut to responsibility, any more than voting based on litmus-test wedge issues does. In fact, it could be seen as aiding and abetting the least scrupulous parties and candidates and subverting the more honorable ones by treating them as if there were no difference between them.

Anyway, these are the kinds of respectful conversations I hope we can have over the next two or three months. Speaking personally, I will vote in this election. I will continue to share with anyone who asks whom I plan to vote for and why. In that sense, I will endorse a candidate as a private citizen of this nation.

But whoever I vote for in this or any election, my vote will not imply uncritical, unqualified, unconditional, and unreserved endorsement. I know I'm choosing between the better of two good-but-imperfect candidates, or the less dangerous of two dangerously flawed ones. I know that I'm voting for a flawed human president in a flawed human system, not a Savior. But the Savior, after all, doesn't need or even ask for my vote in 2008. The Savior asks for much more: my life every day and every moment, expressed in the kind of daily voting that I've written about elsewhere.

If my preferred candidate is elected, I owe him something much more fitting than uncritical, unqualified, unthinking, unconditional support. But that's a subject for another time.

Brian McLaren is an author and speaker and serves as Sojourners' board chair. You can learn about his books, music, and other resources at brianmclaren.net.

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