Electing Not to Vote (1): John D. Roth
The Blog of Nathan D. Smith

This is the first in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting.

John D. Roth opens the work with his essay "Polls Apart: Why Believers Might Conscientiously Abstain From Voting." Roth opens his discussion with a remembrance of the 2004 US Presidential Election (as many of the other authors do in this collection). I will quote one of his insights, as it will serve as a nexus for his essay and my developing ideas on politics:

As the election wound to a close, it sometimes seemed as though we were living in two parallel universes with each side determined to reinforce its position by associating only with like-minded people. (2)

Likewise, Roth makes the crucial observation that most Christians desire that their vote be in some way informed by their faith. When this is combined with an increasing sense of voting as a spiritual imperative, the difference in voting preferences among Christians is both perplexing and troubling to the unity of the body. Five basic points are laid out by Roth as reasons why a Christian might abstain. Each is elaborated, but only in the most brief way, so the reader is left hungry for more discussion. The five points are also helpful because they provide a definite structure which make the article so portable to other discussions. I will list each and provide some comment.

​1. Not voting in the presidential election might be understood as a practical expression of our pacifist convictions.

This an excellent point for pacifists. If you were a vegetarian who thought it immoral to kill animals for food, certainly you would not vote for butcher. As Roth notes, it is unethical to commission someone else to do a job I myself would not do. The principle could be applied by non-interventionist and even just war Christians as well, but it would be a matter of certain candidates or seasons instead of a general proscription. That is, if one subscribed to the just war theory, one could hardly vote for a candidate who has vowed to continue in (or launch anew) an unjust war. Unfortunately, candidates rarely announce their intentions ahead of time. Roth's point might also be expanded to include more than just presidential votes. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is not solely responsible for the military. A quick reading of Article 1 of the Constitution reveals that the legislature is responsible for declaring war, raising and financing the armed forces, and regulating their operation. So, according to Roth's rubric, Christian pacifist should also abstain from voting for federal Representatives and Senators. Moreover, all states have a national guard militia whose commander is the governor (when not federalized), and which is funded by the state legislature. Therefore a Christian pacifist may be restricted to voting for county commissioners and school board members. Overall I agree with Roth's point, but its application is broader than he mentions in his essay.

​2. From the perspective of an Anabaptist Christian, differences among the presidential candidates are illusory.

I certainly agree that both in the specific case of 2008 and in general the top two candidates both espouse unacceptable positions. So if one were to choose, one would have to parse the various constituent moral concerns to come up with a lesser of two evils. This is undesirable and problematic. One also must decide if a mere political opinion is sufficient for disqualification, or if the person who possesses the opinion must be able to act on it. For example, a county commissioner may be against legalized abortion, but he would have no actual bearing on the issue, so that opinion ought not to be a merit for electing him to the position. Likewise, it must be decided if a pro-choice position ought to be considered a demerit in that case. Unlikely as it may seem, this may have a direct application to the Presidential race. The conventional wisdom is that the President is responsible for abortion because he or she appoints the justices which could overturn Roe v. Wade. But is that the case? The practical truth is that seven of nine current justices were appointed by pro-life Republicans, yet Roe still stands. Should a political opinion on abortion be counted? It is a complex legal and moral consideration. The same in true of other issues. Here Roth makes clear that he is assuming an either/or two-party election. If the blue and the red are both bad, I cannot vote. But what about green, orange, and brown? This is a deficiency, in my opinion. If morally odious views are found in both the top two candidates, the search should not end there. It very well may be that all candidates could be disqualified for some reason. Still, a vote for a third party might have a more profound effect than a principled non-vote. Why? Because the result would be recorded and publicly visible. If a large faith community coordinated their votes for a third-party candidate, the unusual result would definitely send a message - a witness that Christians do not endorse the status quo. And it could be, depending on one's views on pacifism and participation in government, that a member of said faith community could be the ultimate conscientious candidate.

​3. The "Constantinian logic" of voting our faith.

This happens to be, in my opinion, the weakest of Roth's five points. By "Constantinian logic," he means that by voting based on religious convictions, Christians are seeking to dominate government, and thereby "[wield] the machinery of political power in order to advance our particular religiously informed causes." (5) Roth's point is informed by Anabaptist history, where members often suffered at the hands of religious leadership. It seems that Roth here is implying a "do unto others" ethic in civil government: it is better to be secular and avoid persecuting anyone. Instead of the theocratic model, Roth advocates the church standing in a prophetic vocation - witnessing to the truth from outside the political establishment. I can definitely see the church filling the prophetic role, but I am not sure if the body must do so to the exclusion of its members. That is, I think individual Christians can serve civil government in good conscience while still participating in a prophetic witness.

​4. The individualism and privacy of voting is in sharp tension with our communal understanding of faith.

This has been perhaps the most thought-provoking point raised in the entire collection. I personally know of an instance where two families, one Democratic, the other Republican, have sat in church and worshiped together for over 30 years. Moreover, their children married, and each of them maintains their own familial party affiliation. And they never, ever vote the same. The confess the same faith, yet vote differently. In what sense, then, could voting be based on faith convictions? Either faith is truly individualistic (which is incredibly problematic from the standpoint of ecclesiology), or faith cannot definitively inform voting. Roth notes that perhaps churches should "be of one mind" and work together to select how the corporate body votes. Of course, this would end their tax-exempt status, but that may actually be a good thing. That this concept is so offensive to most American Christians is a testimony to our individualism and our sacred view of voting. Nevertheless, I am inclined to agree with Roth that an individualistic vote cannot really be informed by faith exclusively. Now, this does not mean that faith convictions do not play a role. But it is still a matter of preference: for the Republican, the opposition to abortion might trump everything else. For the Democrat, the opposition to the war in Iraq might trump everything else. Both are honest, faith-informed, Christian positions, yet they result in a different outcome. Therefore I feel it best to reckon voting as a matter of personal preference.

​5. Not voting in national elections may have a symbolic and pedagogical value.

Finally, we come to not voting as theopolitical witness. Here Roth allows a variety of reasons for not voting, from the personal to the communal. For instance, Roth notes how he was becoming consumed by a concern for politics. So he chose to abstain from voting as a spiritual discipline; a reflection on "Jesus is Lord." Communities can do so as well to express their status as sojourners and a people who owe their ultimate authority to God, not the state. It is a subjective matter, but that does not make it any less powerful. About all that would not be allowed would be abstaining because of cynicism. Ultimately Roth leaves voting as a matter of personal conviction, not normative practice. Yet he urges caution, especially in the context of the emotionally charged presidential races:

I urge you to enter cautiously into the arena of national politics, to withhold absolute judgement about God's will in regard to any particular candidate, and to give at least some passing consideration to an older tradition of conscientious abstention from this national ritual. (9)

This concept of dispassionate voting is emerging as an important piece of the puzzle of my understanding of voting in the Christian life.

Date: 2008-09-06 10:25