Some Thoughts on Christian Participation in Representative Democracy

February 5th, 2008 / 17 Comments

Today represents “Super Tuesday” and my guess is that the majority of Christians are struggling to identify the electoral candidate most deserving of their vote. My suspicion, however, is that many Christians are so caught up in the democratic frenzy that they have not yet answered the question of whether they should even be voting?

I think the main reason for the aforementioned indecision is that by nature election candidates do a poor job of representing what Christians believe (or at least what Christians ought to believe). As a result we end up either a) oversimplifying our beliefs down to one or two “key” positions, or b) opting for the candidate who appears to be the “lesser evil.” Either way, rather than giving voice to our Christian beliefs, this electoral process actually limits Christian expression to those views deemed appropriate for the candidates political strategy. The result is that by relying on the democratic system as our primary vehicle of change we reduce Christianity to a series of items which can be legislated.

More importantly, thanks to Dr. Hauerwas and posse, I no longer feel comfortable with the “individual” and “private” nature of America’s representative democracy. Instead I’ve learned that Christian witness, or perhaps more accurately, Christian politics, is a public activity articulated through a distinct community called church, where acts of generosity, hospitality, and forgiveness confess the Kingdom of God rather than a partisan agenda. From this perspective, the voting booth, as a private and individual activity, becomes a space where it is difficult to exercise Christian commitments.

While it would be irresponsible to conclude that Christianity necessarily prohibits voting in a representative democracy, I think it is time for Christians to realize that representative democracy is not a model for exercising Christian witness.

For other Christian reservations towards democratic participation see:
Evangelical Professor Mark Noll, “None of The Above: Why I’m Not Voting For President” (and responses)
or, Roman Catholic Michael Iafrate’s especially eloquent, “CatholicAnarchy.org’s backing NO ONE in the U.S. Presidential Election

UPDATE:
Also read Mark Van Steenwyk’s 10 Reasons Why I Won’t Be Voting.
and Alasdair MacIntyre’, “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.”

Comments (17)

  1. Aaron / February 5, 2008 / http://www.519music.com

    I think it’s important to note here. . . that Prof. Noll did vote. He just marked “none of the above” in the Presidential column. However, he voted the rest of his ballot for local initiatives and the like.

    To not participate is equally not a Christian option.

    Voting “the lesser of two evils” is not ideal either, but neither is politics. I could see myself doing what Prof. Noll did this year if a few certain candidates become the nominees. But, I feel there is a danger here of expecting too much to come out of politics.

    For the very reasons mentioned above (the church should be the change agent in the world,. . . we should not rely on politicians, etc. . . ) we should vote. We should vote for a president that would be more favorable to the church in accomplishing her mission. We should perhaps vote for a president that would send more money to the folks in the world who don’t live in Disneyland and could use some of our surplus.

    Let’s be careful here,. . . if we’re going to start pulling out of every process or organization that frustrates us or has elements of corruption, than I’m not going to the store tonight for milk.

    I think it’s also possible to clearly state what we believe and state the shorcomings of each candidate relative to our positions. . . .and yet still vote. There is a mature way to articulate clearly the nuances of our position and still make a general choice. We don’t have to take our toys and go home.

    Aaron

  2. Scott Lenger / February 5, 2008 / http://scottlenger.com

    Aaron,

    Who said anything about going home? As a Christian, my participation in the world is to confess the Kingdom of God. I believe that filtering this confession into a partisan funnel ends up distorting the confession (ie. family values vs. social justice).

    Or put another way, is it appropriate to support evil as long as it is “lesser?”

  3. Aaron / February 7, 2008 / http://www.519music.com

    Scott. . .

    I”m glad you don’t want to “go home” Not voting would be that for me. . .but as stated above, Prof. Noll did not stay home. He voted and just left absent the presidential box.

    I think we’re not digging deep enough here. . . Voting or being involved in any level of a democracy means that you are voting for and participating with sinners. There is not a cause that is not without a downside for some group. This is true economically, socially, morally, and logistically in politics.

    So, let’s get real here. If we’re worried about “distorting our confession” than let’s stay home from every election, and Sam’s and Applebees, by the way.

    We live in a fallen world, and we’re to be God’s ambassadors IN that world.

    Perhaps I’ve overstated the concern here. . I know we’re talking about abstaining from voting for president.

    I personally thing it’s more redemptive to vote for the 3rd party/niche candidate of your choice and explain why to folks who wonder. That seems to make a little more Kingdom sense than to not vote at all.

    Life is messy. . . . .
    That doesn’t mean we’re to stay away from the world and let them figure it out themselves, while we shout from the outside.

    Aaron
    ps. Scott, is it appropriate to support the non-murder of babies while we may have to cost some poorer folks their benifits? What gets prominence? These are decisions we should wrestle with, and not jump to answer “neither”.

    (a reminder. . . both parties were for the war, and both will continue it until we’re done. . so I’m not addressing it here)

  4. Aaron / February 7, 2008 / http://www.519music.com

    btw. . Scott. . I think we probably need to define “evil” in the context of this conversation.

    There is an “evil” every time we turn on our car and release CO2 into the air. But, we try for “lesser” evils in that department.

    I just want to know what we’re talking about there. Because, I think in politics you could find someone who has “evils” that aren’t necessarily biblical evils. . and vote for them.

  5. Tyler / February 9, 2008 / http://manofdepravity.com

    Some compelling thoughts Scott (found you via scot mcknight). I do agree that finding a perfect candidate is impossible, but the Christian vote varies as wide as just about any other demographic these days so what is perfect for one Christian won’t be for another. I think to say that God wants nothing to do with our political system isn’t fair though. I know you haven’t said that explicitly but by saying that we should play a role elsewhere, you are saying that. Jesus came and attacked a religious and government system, he was radical. I think we see from him that it is possible to remain grounded in relationship with God and also stand up for injustice through the government.

  6. Chadwick Walenga / February 9, 2008 / http://www.quietrhythms.net

    Hey Scott, I tracked you over from TonyJ. I am in agreement with your tone that Christians be sensitive about our loyalty to the flag over the empty tomb. I find the whole election this year very exciting at many different levels. I don’t think that the populous number of conservative voters paid attention early enough in the race to make an educated vote. All of the true conservatives are out of the race, and it seems now that many are waking up to that fact and are in a panic over what to do. Hannity and Combes actually cut James Dobson off tonight to go to a commercial. Now, many are threatening to stay home and not participate. Unfortunately many of these conservatives are evangelical, and it is almost embarrassing.

  7. Aaron / February 11, 2008

    Why Vote If You Are Disillusioned?

  8. Scott Lenger / February 11, 2008 / http://scottlenger.com

    Aaron and Tyler: My post is not about disillusionment over not having the perfect candidate, that is a given, and by itself is not a good reason to skip voting. I think you’re both missing the more critical section of the post, the section following “more importantly…”

    Chadwick: You were on to something with the idea of loyalty. How did you go from that to discussing the republican parties lack of true conservatives?

    Aaron: I’m not a big fan of Johnny Piper but I read the article anyway and a few things caught my attention.

    1. “There is no escape from responsibility by pointing out the imperfections of leaders.”
    Except that by voting for them it becomes more difficult to recognize these imperfections.

    2. His passages (Matthew 22 and Romans 13) exhibit egregious proof-texting. Romans 13 was used in the same manner to justify allegiance to Hitler and Matthew 22 is conversely about our relationship to God, over and above that of Caesar (see vs 37).

    3. “We are citizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God, our ultimate allegiance, and the kingdom of this world.”
    Being a Christian has destroyed my allegiance to the kingdom of this world. John 18, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

  9. Aaron / February 11, 2008 / http://www.519music.com

    Scott,

    I would just submit that you take Piper as saying “yes, we are ultimately members of the Kingdom of God which trumps our citizen ship in this world, but doesn’t do away with it”. (my paraphrase). Piper has many times called for protest of the US government on issues such as abortion.

    It trumps our citizenship here, but it doesn’t do away with it. And, we’re still to “seek the good of the city” that we’re in, biblically. He’s just arguing that the best way to do that is to vote. I’m fine if you disagree with that. Fair enough

    But, I don’t think you can accuse him of misrepresenting those texts.

    And, it doesn’t matter that someone else used Romans 13 to justify allegiance to Hitler. Piper didn’t. I think that’s a fine exegisis of that passage. You have to be a “good” (loaded word with many nuances) citizen of this world to be biblical, and thus a good citizen of the next world.

    Aaron

  10. chrissi wright / February 12, 2008 / http://www.kevinandchrissiwright.com

    The argument, it seems, is not whether to vote or not, but whether voting is a key (or even legitimate) expression of our Christian walk. If you feel passionately about expressing your faith, voting is a small, almost (not quite) insignificant way of doing so. For example, most “pro-life” christians mean, when they say that, that they vote pro-life when that option is available. What they ought to mean, I believe, is that they do foster care, adopt (or support financially people who are doing so), volunteer with Big Brother Big Sister or Boys and Girls Club or Young Lives. These are going to make a difference! Too often, people are content to make no difference, never reach out, and express all their so-called beliefs in the voting booth. Talk about ineffectivity!

  11. Aaron / February 13, 2008 / http://www.519music.com

    Amen Chrissi!

  12. Scott,
    Sorry I am late to the conversation, I have been so wrapped up in our intellectually stimulating emails about satellites being blown from space.

    You know how I feel, but I want to restate it, succinctly if I can. We are dual citizens, we are commanded to render to the government what belongs to them, and to God what is His. In a representative democracy, participation is not demanded, but it is expected of citizens and is necessary for the function of the government. Without participation, we abandon the principles and duties of this nation and this government. In a democracy, the people - in effect - are “Caesar”, and therefor it is our duty as “Caesars” to participate in the ruling of this country.
    In the Kingdom of God, the command is Love God, and Love thy Neighbor. Participation in representative government does not go against these two commands. However if you try to use some sort of Holy rubric for deciding who or what to vote for, every candidate and every ballot measure would fall short. As we know there are just too many different answers in Scriptures for use to apply some sort of uniform standard for deciding what is Godly and what is not when it comes to canidates and legislation. We think we may be able to agree on a few things, but when we drill down into the issues, we as Christians find less and less common ground. Abortion, for example, becomes a devisive issue when we start to argue whether it is justified in cases where the mother’s life is in mortal danger, or the survivability of a twin in the womb is dependent on whether the other twin is terminated or not (yes that does happen, I have a close friend whose recent situation falls into this category). The same problems arise when we talk about war. Many honest God fearing Christians believe that the War on Terror is a Just War, while many others (myself included) do not believe war is ever justified for Christians.

    My point is that we cannot use the Bible as a guide for who or what to vote for because there are not enough specificities in there to apply directly to voting that will satisfy any kind of consesus among Christians. So while we are commanded to vote (per my above justification) we also cannot directly link our religion to our politics. I think the difficulty is in keeping the two separate, but it is vital to the integrity of both that Christians maintain their own personal separation of Church and State.

    How is that for succinct?

  13. Carol Ann / February 20, 2008

    Isaac,

    I agree with the dual citizenship logic. I also relate it to the way I spend 10+ hours of my waking day, working for the government. I do not support all that the local government institution stands for (in my case it is the high school I am employed at to teach). My personal conviction was that I (and my children’s father(s)) are given complete authority and responsibility to raise our children. When I drop my children off at school to be taught by non-Christians I am relinquishing my authority and influence to someone else. Now, here I am later in my years and I am one of those people, other parents drop their children off to instruct (and influence) for the larger portion of their waking day.
    I believe that my work is a ministry…but it is not well defined for me in scripture as to where the boundaries lie in my work each day. If I put my conviction on others, I would be a hypocrite for availing myself to teach their kids. Who can help me in this dilemma? Oh, Thank God that is not my focus or my concern. I can love Him, and love these teenagers in front of me each day and forget about the undefined blurry areas in Scripture. I have been given an awesome privilege to influence others with my occupation AND to live in a society that I can influence change with the stroke of a pen when I vote.
    I am not as eloquent as you in my writing. You must of had a really good teacher :)

  14. Scott Lenger / February 20, 2008 / http://scottlenger.com

    Isaac, very succinct! Though I’m not exactly with you on the dual citizenship thing, we share some commonality with this statement:

    “My point is that we cannot use the Bible as a guide for who or what to vote for because there are not enough specificities in there to apply directly to voting that will satisfy any kind of consensus among Christians.”

  15. Nick W / February 22, 2008

    Scott I totally agree with you, and was wondering if I was the only one. Thank you for your post, I just found your blog and will now read it more faithfully.

  16. Scott Lenger / February 22, 2008 / http://scottlenger.com

    Thanks Nick, glad someone finally made an affirming comment regarding this post. I was beginning to wonder as well…

  17. M Tozer / January 5, 2010 / http://www.christian-attorney.net

    Christians ought to participate in the political process.

    If a Christian cannot, in good conscience, vote for the two major candidates, then he or she ought to consider voting for a third party candidate (even if such candidate will not win the election) so that, at least, his or her voice is heard.

    Furthermore, elected officials enact laws which affect our society. Officials votes are often affected by viewpoints expressed by constituents. Because lobbyists for powerful special interest groups (many of which oppose certain Christian values) greatly influence elected representatives, Christians ought also timely express views to their existing elected officials before they vote on key legislative bills. The link below provides an easy and effective way to do so.

    http://www.christian-attorney.net/contact_government_officials.html

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