To Vote or Not to Vote

“So…did you vote? ” Normally, my response to that question would be a quick, “Yes, of course.” Voting is a civic privilege and responsibility that I never take for granted. But since the question arose while I was sharing dessert with a particular group of ethically savvy individuals, I replied more slowly and carefully. It was last November, and I was out to dinner during the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I knew that for the Catholic, Mennonite, Anglican, and Reformed theologians and ethicists gathered around the table there would be more than one thoughtful answer to the question.

As it turns out, only one or two of our group did not vote in the presidential election. They had not voted quite purposefully, not because they were lazy or had somehow forgot. Who could have forgotten given the dramatic lead-up to the Obama vs. McCain showdown on November 4? They and a surprising number of other Christians, abstained because they thought to not vote was the proper Christian thing to do.

It may come as quite a shock that some committed Christians from respected, historic groups intentionally do not vote. But Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:20 should cause us to think deeply about voting. For Christians, whose “citizenship is in heaven,” our relationships and commitments to the non-heavenly governments of the non-heavenly nations of which we are part should be constantly reassessed. Often for Christians in America, these relationships have been understood not in terms of the non-negotiable priority of our citizenship within the people of God, but rather that God gets our “spiritual life,” while America gets our civic allegiance. There is a growing realization among Christians that cleanly dividing the pie this way may not be as biblically defensible (or practically possible) as previously thought. The resurgence of voting-abstention among mainline and evangelical Christians is not surprising.

In the recent book, Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, edited by Ted Lewis (Cascade, 2008), various authors give many thoughtful reasons for Christians not to vote. Three in particular catch my attention. First, there is the “Constantinian logic” argument. Voting and other ways of being politically active in America often subtly pull Christians toward privatizing, individualizing, and spiritualizing our Christian commitments, so that publicly and politically we become Americans from first to last. The second argument flows from this. Once Christians forget our true political citizenship, we become easy prey for the idols of nationalism, guaranteed security, materialism and political power that our fair country is prone to follow. And third, once many politically-passionate Christians fulfill their civic duty at the polls, we have a tendency to cede responsibility to the government and the people we vote for to do the practical work that witnesses to God’s Kingdom, rather than understanding that the Church that is to be the light of the world. In all these ways, voting might be hazardous to our Christian faith.

I will continue to vote. At this point I see it as one small way of being a responsible Christian rather than the contemporary equivalent of “burning incense to Caesar.” Still I am thankful for these cautionary conversations with friends who remind me of my true citizenship, of who my true Savior is (Jesus, not Obama!), and that the work of the kingdom requires much more than pulling a lever.

David Stubbs teaches Christian ethics and theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.