Electing Not to Vote (2): Andy Alexis-Baker
The Blog of Nathan D. Smith

This is the second in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Andy Alexis-Baker provides an essay entitled "When There Is Nothing to Vote For: Liberalism, John Howard Yoder, and the Church."

Alexis-Baker opens with a rather cynical deconstruction of the mythology of democracy and "state-as-savior." He notes that the nation state is more precisely a means of war rather than a means of peace, and that voting is, in a sense, a capitulation to the rebellious masses to decentralize their power. This is well illustrated by the fact that in response to the civil disobedience of America's youth in the Vietnam era (which in general was quite politically effective), congress lowered the voting age to 18, thereby channeling the youths' political energies through more "productive" channels. According to Yoder, the elite are still in control, yet the people feel as though they have the power. I am not so well qualified to evaluate these arguments, though they seem intuitive to me. The progression of Bush-Clinton-Bush-almostClinton definitely gave the feeling of an oligarchy in America. At any rate, Alexis-Baker seeks to demythologize American politics so as to undermine the rite of voting. He compares voters to "consumers in an electoral shopping mall where the same homogeneous goods are packaged under different logos . . ." (16). The Christian who is overly anxious about voting exhibits symptoms of Constantinianism according to Alexis-Baker. This is problematic in a number of ways. So Yoder's five practices are introduced to see how the church demands loyalty over against the nation-state. The first mentioned and only discussed, "the rule of Paul," deals with the church being in one accord with respect to an issue (this connects with Roth's #4 point about communal faith). According to Yoder, a vote does not resolve a disagreement within the body of Christ, it only hides it. As with the Jerusalem Council, Christians ought to come to an agreement over an issue, not simply state opposing viewpoints and vote. Alexis-Baker explains:

Precisely because each person participates in the decision-making procedures, it is by definition impossible for the individual's convictions to conflict with the group's unity . . . . The rule of Paul includes differences rather than denying them. The state's recourse to violence is ultimately the state's failure to be democratic. (20)

Here the concept of democracy is recapitulated not as voting, but as a process by which individuals can come to a communal understanding and agreement. This strikes a powerful chord with me. Alexis-Baker places two criteria upon acceptable Christian voting situations:

  1. The candidates must provide Christians with a tolerable option.
  2. The Christians must actually have something to say about an issue.

The first point can be summed by the fact that most candidates, especially at the federal level, hold positions which are problematic from the standpoint of Christian ethics. The second is an area which I think deserves a lot more consideration in our current political discourse within the Church. How do we, as the Church, decide which issues have a decidedly Christian element, and which are a matter of taste? For example, some Christians count communism/socialism as morally unacceptable, and others count gun ownership as morally unacceptable. Are these the sort of political issues for which we can truly make a scriptural case, one way or the other? Or, are they merely a matter of personal preference? If it is the former, we have a rather difficult exegetical task ahead of us. If it is the latter, then it would be a scandalous case, since Christians would be seeking to lord it over others for "sentimental or selfish reasons." Ultimately Alexis-Baker concludes that it may be acceptable for Christians to vote in some cases, but it would be the exception rather than the rule. He concludes by noting that hope in elections is deceptive, because elections themselves are deceptive: they "deceive us into thinking that we control the world." (21) Meaningful political engagement at the national level is nearly impossible, therefore it is best for the church to continue in its mission without reliance on the political schemes of the state. Overall this is a powerfully thought-provoking essay. It is at times a bit dense for reading, but it does a good job explaining a major problem with Christian involvement in democratic politics.

Date: 2008-09-08 21:13