The morality of not voting

October 27th, 2016

With Election Day fast approaching, get out the vote efforts are in full swing, many of which are aimed at or made by Christians. Insofar as these make the standard claims about voting, (e.g. voting is a privilege, people died so that you could vote, you should make your voice heard, every vote counts, etc.) they are unremarkable. However, in this most unusual of election years, I have seen an increase in attempts to induce voting on theological grounds, which purport it to be nothing short of a divinely willed moral obligation for Christians to choose sides between Trump and Clinton. Some Christians see voting for a third-party or write-in candidate as a viable alternative, even as they admit the futility of this choice, but all agree that all good Christians must vote.

In general, I get nervous when Christian ideals are too simply equated with American ideals. I especially get nervous when people, no matter how well intentioned, use theological claims as leverage to control secular behaviors. These suspicions aside, though, more needs to be said about the morality of voting. The 11th Commandment is not “Thou shalt always vote.” Indeed, there are times when good Christians have good cause not to vote.

Christianity’s relationship with secular society has always been complicated, and it has rarely ever been appropriate to unqualifiedly state, “Christians must always do x.” Throughout the Christian Tradition, even within Scripture, there exists a clear dialectic between participating in and protesting against social systems. Three examples will suffice: one political, one economic, and one judicial. First, in the New Testament, there is a tension between submitting to government, as Paul instructs Roman Christians, (Romans 13:1-7) and subverting government, as John does when he depicts Rome as the great harlot (Revelation 17:1-6). Second, there is a tension between participating in economic systems, by rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26), and protesting economic systems, by cleansing the temple (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-26). Finally, there is a tension between engaging in the judicial system, as Paul did when he was arrested (Acts 22:1-29; Acts 24:10-21; Acts 26:1-23) and abstaining from the judicial system, as Christ did when he remained silent before Pilate (Matthew 27:12-14; Mark 15:3-5; Luke 23:9; John 19:9). Thus, the appropriate actions for Christians to take in their relationship with, to borrow a term from St. Augustine, the Human City vary widely and depend entirely on individual circumstances.

The final event among these examples, Christ before Pilate, is particularly applicable to the issue of voting in the current presidential election. Accused, arrested, and beaten, Christ found himself facing absurdity. He was offered a choice between falsely confessing guilt and mocking justice by defending himself to those whose judgment was passed and who cared nothing about the truth. Christ’s solution was silence. He recognized that when offered an impossible choice the only reasonable response was to refuse to choose. He decided that reticence could more loudly speak than could the exercise of his right to use his voice, a right that was hard-fought and a privilege.

To be clear, I am not saying that Christians should not vote. I am only saying that Christians should never feel impelled to vote by social forces, manufactured guilt, vain invocations of God’s will, American ideology, or American idolatry thinly veiled behind pretensions of patriotism. Whether the current presidential election is such a farcical situation that Christians could better express their values through refusing the offered options, or whether some choice is possible between the lesser of two evils, should be a matter of individual conscience and prudence. A non-choice should always remain a possibility, however, because at some point, the obligation to protest overtakes the obligation to participate. At some point, a vote can be a capitulation to an unjust system and a refusal to vote can expose the system’s absurdity. At some point, a vote can be a sacrifice to Caesar and abstention can be a witness to the Truth.

This article originally appeared on The Christian Post. Reprinted with permission.

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