Also remember this in 2020, you can’t keep your hands clean
Dialogue keeps us together
I’ve been blogging for years, really ever since high school when I first had a Xanga account, and it is rare when a blog I write generates as much dialogue as the one I wrote last week! If I could summarize my argument, it might be: voting is a matter of practicality, not morality, and as Christians our loyalty is to God and not the state, and so we shouldn’t be compelled to vote if our conscience won’t allow it. My example of lack of conscientiousness was Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, who on the evening of my blog being published got shellacked on the debate floor by Elizabeth Warren, and the rest of the Democratic Presidential nominees.
Most of my detractors agreed with me that another billionaire oligarch would create a significant problem in the U.S. electoral system (though some did prefer him, but I'll let that lie for now). They argued it was premature to say such a thing when Bloomberg hasn’t won a single delegate. Furthermore, some worried that I might empower so-called anarchists who revel in not participating in the system at all. My more practical friends think resolutely that not participating is something that comes from a place of privilege, and not conviction. To add insult to injury, many people fought for their right to vote, and it seems entitled to simply discard that right because of personal discomfort.
Some people thought I was quelling the anxiety of people who don’t hate Trump but don’t love Democrats either—and so I was giving them permission not to participate since they were anxious, for example, about voting for a pro-choice nominee but couldn’t bear to vote for someone as heinous as Trump. My insistence on not vowing to the gods of civil religion could be easily seen as a self-centered call to ease the anxiety of people who would be better served making a prophetic statement among power. With such evil in power, it’s not the time to worry about “not getting one’s hands dirty.”
I appreciated all the dialogue that my friends and readers created after I wrote my post. And I’m deeply sympathetic to their line of reason and argument. And I am happy to live in a community where people are free to dialogue and “talk back.” You probably know this, but even on Sundays when the pastors offer their messages, there is an opportunity to respond. Our community is dialogical, and I love extending the table of that dialogue. So I’m glad people felt able to speak up and I want to keep fostering that environment of dialogue.
The self-serving purity on the side of the nonparticipants
I have to say that my decry against civil religion, one that makes us beholden to vote and shames us into voting, is still a strong conviction of mine. And yes, there is legitimate idolatry when it comes to how we participate in democracy, especially when we describe it as a duty or an obligation, and when we overstate the salvific qualities of what a new administration might do to save us.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other expressions of idolatry that emerge from hardline nonvoters. For one thing, if it is merely a matter of your personal preference and comfort, the decision to vote or not to vote becomes simply a self-centered choice, but I think God calls us to extend beyond our comfort zone for the sake of the least of these. And that might mean voting for a candidate that isn’t perfect, or one that feels like a compromise to you. But I think coalition-building, “agreeing to agree,” not letting our word be the final one, is the kind of humility that Christian community should foster (and yes, that means voting for a socialist, too). If you don’t get your way, taking your ball and going home is less-than-becoming. The truth is many conservative people compromised their conviction against pro-choice candidates when they decided that Trump was a greater evil. I appreciate that commitment to stand against evil, even if it means that your values are compromised.
Because after all, there are consequences to our actions, and not participating at all is not free of consequence even if it feels free of anxiety. A friend reminded me that Pontius Pilate, the governor that oversaw the execution of the Lord, simply let the mob decide the fate of Jesus, and washed his hands of the consequences. I think he was still complicit in his inaction, and of course, we can be too. One friend glibly put it, “there’s a reason Pilate’s in hell.”
Principalizing salvation is idolatry whether you vote or don’t
An implicit point in my previous post was that turning an action like voting into a moral principles misses the mark for Christians, not just because participating in the state is dubious, but also because we aren’t saved by our principles any more than we are saved by voting. My intent was to reject social coercion and shame in voting; but it was not to socially shame and coerce people into not voting either. We can just as easily fall into the same trap of ideological purity when we insist on someone voting or not voting. Both paths lead to idolatry and not to Jesus. We aren’t saved by our principles, we are saved by grace through faith.
I fear that I did not make that point clear enough, and so in an effort to critique statist adherents to the civil religion, I empowered another sort of statist adherent, but one committed to an anarchic state, one who sees lack of hierarchy as a new hierarchy and king. But nevertheless, one who doesn’t see Christ as King.
To be generous, though, both sides aren’t wrong, and as Christians they are trying to do the best with what they’ve got. And so grace should abound.
A vote is just a vote, at the end of the day
I think I may have overcorrected the power of the vote itself; in an effort to depress the divine power offered to the ballot box, I may have overstated what a vote actually does. It’s just one of a number of things we can do to deter evil and to promote change. I said this in my previous post, but a vote is worth about the time that it takes to do it, and in most cases, it’s worth the effort. But there is so much more work to be done.
If we don’t want to be complicit in the state and think that not voting gets us there, while we participate in every other way, I think we’re probably missing the mark in someway. Not voting doesn’t really keep your hands clean because the voter is not responsible for the actions of their leader anymore than a nonparticipant is responsible for the actions of the leader’s they inadvertently empower. That sort of “purity calculus” where you are trying to avoid getting your hands dirty just doesn’t work. And it’s not really Christian. Jesus knows that we’re bound to get dirty, which is why Jesus saves us, because we can’t save ourselves without getting our hands dirty. And that pardon extends to our less-than-pure actions in our less-than-pure war. The more we realize that sin is a condition the world is in that Jesus is saving it from, the less need we have for right actions, which can lead to this binary of requiring someone to vote, or requiring them not to vote. It’s just not an either/or.
But, I don’t think you’ll catch me voting for any opponent of Trump just simply because I hate Trump. Trump is a symptom of a problem, not the problem. And the damage that Trump does is very hard to overcome, lest you think it’ll happen in a single cycle. My greater point, though, is that if billionaires are allowed to buy elections, like Bloomberg is trying to do, and like Trump did, than we are dealing with a different fabric altogether. Today I’m remembering Hosni Mubarak, the brutal Egyptian dictator, who died at 91. Mubarak was not a friend of the poor and continued Egypt down a path of authoritarianism and further depletion of civil rights (despite international pressure to make Egypt freer). He served for thirty years and hosted a bunch of fraudulent elections. Eventually he was overthrown in the Arab Spring, replaced by the Muslim Brother Mohammad Morsi. Morsi was removed through a coup, and the military class is currently running Egypt further into authoritarianism led by known friend-of-Trump Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Now, I don’t bring this up because I think that the U.S. is barreling toward authoritarianism, but don’t take the relative democracy we live in (I know, it’s a representational republic, civics nerds) for granted. It can easily be bought and sold, and if billionaire oligarchs vie for power without our protest, the fabric of the nation is at stake. I think that we will all agree on. For my part, I don’t want to participate in a fraudulent election, and it’s looking like I don’t have to, anyway.
Does that then obligate you not to vote or to vote? I wouldn’t say so. You might have voted in an election to unseat Mubarak if you had the chance, on the off-chance it would do something good. But I would still say that we should understand the limits of voting and not put all of our hope in it. Similarly, we shouldn’t do that with not voting.
I think we need to treat each other with care, but one way or the other we have to live in the world we are forming. Care for one another before and after the results of 2020 because the world doesn’t seem to be getting better, no matter who is in power. And we need each other to get through the worst of it. The road ahead of us is long, and ideological purity and the right principals won’t save us. Thanks for the dialogue.