Around this time four years ago, I found myself having conversations with Christians of many different political and theological stripes about why they were planning to sit out the 2004 election. Several prominent Christian scholars published thoughtful essays arguing that, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it, “the way to vote against the system is not to vote.”
I was, to put it simply, gobsmacked. Not voting? When so much was at stake? This struck me as irresponsible and perfectionist. I felt my interlocutors were saying, in effect, “Because I disagree with both candidates on some core issues, I will excuse myself from the messy contradictions of our electoral politics—but I will still, daily, reap all the benefits of being a U.S. citizen.” At the same time, I understood my friends’ dilemma: If voting is one way to realize the Christian’s responsibility to witness, then voting for a candidate who holds views that sharply clash with yours and those of your church community is difficult. Refusing to vote, in fact, is taken to be a witness itself.
This election season finds many of us having the same conversations. Some of the more thoughtful and provocative contributions to that conversation may be found in the slim volume Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, edited by Ted Lewis. The nine essays included here—which are largely concerned with presidential elections and over which John Howard Yoder unsurprisingly casts a long shadow—raise a good question: When are the options so bad, and an electoral system so flawed, that Christians cannot in good conscience participate?
Several of the authors helpfully point out that we ought not to reduce our understanding of good citizenship to voting. In other words, people who choose not to vote may still be engaged citizens by involving themselves in a host of other civil and political actions, from volunteering in the public schools to marching against the death penalty to withholding taxes. Similarly, those of us who do vote should not rest on our laurels, thinking we are good citizens simply because we cast a ballot once every four years.
YET, OCCASIONALLY I felt the authors were pulling punches. For example, several write that many Americans are unwilling to consider faith-based reasons for not voting because they see voting as “sacred.” Obviously, Christians ought not to construe the vote as sacred. We are in trouble if we think Barack Obama or John McCain is the messiah, or that voting is going to single-handedly usher in the reign of God. But this means that our problem doesn’t lie in voting; our problem comes in what we expect when we vote. (Here let me gesture toward Yoder’s observation that it is not politics but political activism linked to a calculus of achievement that is idolatrous.)
Of the specific arguments put forward in this book, one was especially compelling—the pacifist argument, articulated most persuasively here by John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen College. How can a true-blue pacifist vote in an election for commander in chief? Put more broadly, if I know that in casting a vote, I am perforce voting for future practices that I cannot condone, how can I in good conscience vote?
But in that question lies the very reason we should vote: We should vote because we cannot say, with certainty, that the future practices of the president will be those we cannot condone. Our history, and certainly our present, is replete with examples of presidents doing things that conflict with the politics of Jesus (to borrow a phrase). But there are also examples in our history of elected officials using the power of government to love the least of these and to promote peace. Our system does not necessarily produce war, but an election boycotted by pacifists is more likely to produce war than an election in which pacifists vote.
The protest of opting not to vote is a democratic protest that functions in a democratic context. It is a protest that itself implicates the protester in the democratic polis. What, I wanted to ask the essayists, if we did not have the freedom not to vote? What if we were disenfranchised?
Of course, this is one of the flaws of our electoral system, as several contributors point out—our system, formally and informally, disenfranchises certain people. But is the best form of solidarity with the disenfranchised to sit the election out? Or is it to ask your nanny (who cannot vote, because she is not a citizen) and the janitor who empties your office trash can (who cannot vote because he was incarcerated) who they would vote for, and then cast a vote on their behalf?
I feel about this election as I did about 2004—we are voting not just for ourselves but, because of the foreign policy decisions of the Bush White House, we are voting in an election with consequences for the rest of the world. We should always be wary of American exceptionalism, but since most of the world can’t vote in this election, shouldn’t we?
The contributors to this volume see not voting as a compelling act of faithfulness, witness, and politics. But, especially in a world where love of neighbor is tied to citizenship, not voting may be equally seen as a kind of quietism—quietism that a Christian who must be active in the world cannot afford.
Lauren F. Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. Her books include Girl Meets God and Real Sex.