Electing Not to Vote (4): G. Scott Becker
The Blog of Nathan D. Smith

This is the fourth in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. G. Scott Becker provides an essay entitled “Serving by Abstaining: Karl Barth on Political Engagement and Disengagement.”

Ironically, this essay did more to convince me that Christian participation in the state is positive (and consequently that voting might be a good idea) than any other. Becker did so by explaining Karl Barth's "christological concept of the state." In particular, this formulation played out in Barth's support for resistance to the Nazi movement.

Barth argued in Church and State that the state, functioning properly, would not only act as a check against evil, but would also act as a means for preserving the freedom necessary for the proclamation of the Gospel. Therefore the church is "not to resent or endure the political order as a necessary evil" (40), but to pray for its righteous fulfillment of its divine role.

Here Barth and I agree in my basic problem with the concept of Christian non-participation in government. If God has ordained the government as his avenger (Romans 13), and if we are commanded to pray for our leaders, how could Christians possibly justify non-participation? Arguments against Christian participation in the state strain credulity in my opinion because of the clear biblical witness.

After the first part of the essay, I was wondering how Becker would come around to recommend non-voting in light of Barth's views. Thus far he done a fine exposition of what might be an argument for voting. However, while Barth was vocal in opposition to Nazism, he did not take sides in the Cold War. Becker understands Barth's non-commitment to a communism or capitalism as a form of protest against the political situation. There were important differences between World War 2 and the Cold War in Barth's thinking. For example, as opposed to Hitler marching into Poland and France, in the Cold War "war was not inevitable, and the church had a duty to say so." (47) It was a confrontation of ideologies. Moreover, there was no clearly righteous side, as judged by Barth's rubric of Gospel-freedom. By picking a side in the Cold War, he would be supporting the hubris of either side instead of supporting the divine mandate of the state.

History has vindicated Barth's position. War was indeed not necessary, and Europe has remained at peace (though tragically the big ideas were played out in wars in Asia). Next Becker translates this situation to the current political situation in the US. Partisan bickering is self-serving and not an expression of the divine mandate. Therefore, not voting "is a testimony to a better way of doing politics and a rebuke against a system that has abandoned its high calling." (49) Since it would be witness against the state, a non-vote must be both corporate and public. The essay ends on this point.

Becker's essay is especially helpful for those who do not necessarily come from an Anabaptist tradition (as opposed to most of the other essays in this collection). It is rooted with the Reformed understanding of the divine mandate of the state, yet it allows for non-voting as a legitimate expression in a democratic regime. He does not rule out voting altogether, but notes that disciplined abstention for a season may be the best way for the Church to bear witness against a malfunctioning state. I also agree with Becker that the American partisan politics is self-serving and not in line with the state's role as the executor of divine wrath. Therefore I agree with him that a principled Christian non-vote might be a good choice this year (and perhaps in the future).

Date: 2008-09-30 21:54