Subverting the Voting Rite

My friend Michael DeFazio and I have been having a discussion on the significance of voting here in the U.S. This is a big issue for Christian pacifists, usually influenced by strands of Yoderian and/or Hauerwasian thinking, despite the fact that neither Yoder nor Hauerwas ever said Christian pacifists shouldn’t vote. (Yoder was a registered democrat right up until the day he died back in 1997, and Hauerwas voted for Obama last Tuesday.) But many Christian pacifist radicals of an anarchist sort of bent have been arguing against Christian participation in the vote, for various reasons. Even one of our own is among their number.

The five most common reasons put forward by anti-voting Christians are as follows:1

(1) All states are illegitimate from a theological standpoint. To vote is to participate in and thereby legitimize that which is illegitimate.

This actually appears to be a bigger issue than it is. While the question of the (theological) legitimacy of states can be argued right up till the rapture, it is the second part of the claim that is important for our purposes. The claim is that participation in illegitimate states legitimizes them. But this just isn’t the case. Assuming for the moment that the more radical Hebrew prophets were all good Ellulians (none of them were, as it happens), one finds it striking that they never called for the renunciation of pagan (or even of Israelite/Judean) power. Rather, the prophets called the powers to exercise their power to defend justice. Is this not legitimizing pagan power? Well, no. It’s not. The prophets weren’t purists. They were realists. Regardless of how they got there, states are there, and there’s not much we can do about that now. What we can do is to work to make states more nearly just (to kidnap a Hauerwasian turn of phrase). That’s what the prophets (some more than others) tried to do. By the logic of the claim in question, the prophets would have been legitimizing states by calling upon states to exercise their power for any purpose, justice included. In this last election, more U.S. citizens than ever before in U.S. history voted for Barack Obama because they were calling upon the powers that be to be more nearly just.

For a number of reasons I believe that the U.S. is an illegitimate state. Most of these reasons are historical in nature. If justice had been done in history, as opposed to the other thing, the U.S. could not have come to be–not, at any rate, in any way resembling what it came to be.2

Moreover, what we have in the U.S. is not (in theory) an autocracy (which is the biblical writers’ experience of government) but (in theory) a democracy. Certainly, in practice we have something resembling more of an oligarchy, but that need not be the case. There is enough of a democratic impulse here that the oligarchy is always under threat, and enough democratic resources at our disposal that a genuine democracy is more or less achievable. We should bear in mind that evidence that a democracy is not functioning properly is not evidence that the democracy is merely an illusion. A democratic society will always be under attack by tyrants from within. The degree to which a generation is able to overcome such tyrannies is up to each generation. Apocalyptic longing won’t solve our problems for us.

But the question of the legitimacy of states is largely irrelevant. While there will always be powerbrokers who exercise power illegitimately, the question is how hard we are willing to work to create a more just society. Militant revolutions notwithstanding, our goal can only be and must always be to achieve limited goods to create that more just society in terms of degrees. I call this hope, while certain brands of apocalyptic hope I call despair.

(2) Voting is a sacred rite (not just “right”) in the American civic religion. For Christians, therefore, voting is an idolatrous act.

This is probably the argument I hear the most frequently. John Howard Yoder, in a petite Sojourners article called “The National Ritual,” argued that the vote in the U.S. functions in fact as some sort of sacral rite. This is certainly true. There are many parallels between election season and Lent, say, or whatever. The whole nation slows its normal course and as a union focuses on its leaders. We are told that if we don’t vote we “have no right to complain.” Apparently, stepping into the booth and squiggling on a piece of paper somehow magically makes one qualified to critique foreign and domestic policy. Also, somehow not squiggling on that piece of paper magically nullifies one’s qualifications. So it is a magic rite. It is something we do with pride. It is something that defines us as individuals. Billions of people in the world do not have the right to perform the rite. In that sense, it is exclusive like the Eucharist. A creative person could go on all day making anecdotal parallels between the vote and a religious rite. I have no stake in denying these important parallels. I agree with Yoder.

But the anti-voters take this basic observation in a direction John Howard Yoder did not take it. In a Sojourners review of a recent book, Electing Not To Vote, Lauren Winners argued that the sacral nature of the vote is only subjective. It is only sacral if the voter treats it as such. Halden Doerge (here and here) attacked her for not taking seriously the argument made in Electing Not To Vote that the sacral character of the vote enjoys some sort of ontological property, that it’s sacral in character no matter what the individual voter thinks of it. I haven’t read the book, but this is an interesting claim, considering that most theologies of the sacraments teach that the sacraments are only sacramental when faith is involved. I suppose if one is a Lutheran the argument makes sense. But certainly not from an Anabaptist perspective, which is the perspective most anti-voters hail from, in one way or another.

The interesting thing is that Yoder, after establishing the sacral function of the vote in the American polity, goes on basically to say precisely what Lauren Winner said. Christians don’t need to take the religious quality of the elections seriously. What Yoder advocates is a vote without illusions. He certainly trivializes the vote, but that’s exactly the point. Those who see the vote as some sort of idolatry are accepting the terms set by the American civic religion. In the end, rejecting the vote as idolatrous makes the same mistake the willing religious participants make–they take it too seriously. The question is not whether or not it’s permissible for Christians to vote. The question is how Christians think about the vote, and how they are willing to use it. Yoder suggests several possibilities, some humorous (voting for Nixon in order to bring the nation to shame), some more straightforward (being pragmatic about limited goods).

In the end, according to Yoder, Lauren Winner is right: the sacral character of the vote, or lack thereof, is in the eye of the beholder. For Winner, of course, the “eye of the beholder” is the subjective individual’s eye, while for Yoder, it is the eye of the people of God.

(3) The Christian urge to vote is a symptom of a larger Constantinian disease. It is an attempt to sieze control when in fact the way of the cross requires that Christians live “out of control.”

The Constantinian card is an important card but it’s too often overplayed. The problem with Constantinianism is not that Christians are seeking to have influence in society but that Christians are willing to let the state influence the nature of the Church. The desire to control society is certainly a form of Constantinianism, but a later form, and it is not the same thing as seeking to influence and shape society. Democracy offers ordinary citizens nonviolent means of shaping the structure of society. It is not coercive in any violent sense.

This year Hauerwas spoke out about why he was voting for Obama, and he made the claim that a democracy is just the tyranny of the majority over the minority. This is simply false. The system we have here in America is actually designed to try to safeguard the minority elite from the tyranny of the majority populace. But, that important reality aside, Hauerwas simply misunderstands the logic of a democratic society. The majority does not coerce the minority to conform to their vision; rather, the minority consents to the majority. But even then, structures are in place to allow the minority’s voice(s) to be heard, and to be allowed to persuade the majority to see things from their perspective(s).

Certainly democratic structures can be misused and abused, but the problem there is not that democratic participation is Constantinian but rather that democratic participation is threatened. The fight to reclaim the right to participate, the right to be heard, and the right to be influential, is not a Constantinian fight but a struggle for a more just society. And often, as noted above, it is not the minority that has to fight for a democratic society, but the majority, against the unbalanced influence of the minority. In this election last Tuesday, we saw the majority fight hard to curb the influence of the minority, and win. The tactics of the minority is often to convince the majority that they don’t think the way they do. It’s what Chomsky calls “consent without consent,” and it is the primary way the elite are able to maintain dominion in a democratic society. Obviously, in such a society, the dominion of the minority over the majority only lasts as long as they are able to trick the majority into believing they don’t actually believe what they believe. When that illusion breaks down, genuine democracy can spring up. The fact that all this is able to happen nonviolently here shows that we don’t have reason to despair just yet.

(4) When one votes for an official, one shares moral responsibility for that official’s every policy, and therefore one is morally culpable whenever an official’s policies are unjust.

In her review of Electing Not To Vote, Lauren Winner argued that we’re not morally culpable for every bad deed done by our representatives, because there is no way we can know in advance everything our representatives are going to do. We can only vote based on the best information we have about their values, and hope their values aren’t different from what we thought, or that their values won’t change. Halden jumped on this argument, calling it “insanely stupid.” Halden retorted rhetorically, “We should just go ahead and haphazardly vote because, after all, we really don’t know for sure?” Of course, Halden here is disingenuously caricaturing her argument. Winner never advocated a “haphazard” vote, amounting to something like the luck of the draw. All she said was that we can’t be held accountable if a politician breaks his or her word. Now Halden later argues that history should inform us that politicians always break their word. Halden may think that’s realism, but it’s despair. Politicians don’t always break their word. And sometimes they just change their mind. Bush II got elected in 2000 on a non-interventionist platform. I don’t think he was lying. I think he was ignorant, and that he changed his mind after September 11th, due in large part to the influence of Cheney and the whispers of neoliberal think-tanks. I know several people who voted for Bush because of his non-interventionist platform, and felt betrayed when he turned out to be one of the most notorious interventionist presidents in U.S. history. They’re not morally culpable for the Iraq war just because they voted to elect Bush. One would be morally culpable for the Iraq war if they voted for Bush in 2004 precisely because they wanted the Iraq war to continue.

But let’s be realistic here. I voted for Obama. It’s the first time I’ve ever voted. I voted for Obama knowing full well that many of his policies are bad ones. I’m in sharp, moral disagreement with many of Obama’s policies. (Mind you, I’m not in sharp disagreement with his policies on abortion, even though I’m in principled opposition to abortion in most cases.) His position on Israel is better than McCain’s, but still morally untenable. His position on the war on terror is better than McCain’s, but still morally untenable. His position on capitalism is much better than McCain’s, but still morally untenable. But I didn’t vote for Obama because I don’t think these issues are important. I voted for him because I know that he is going to achieve limited goods, goods that I value, that McCain would not have achieved. I will continue to oppose Obama’s war on terror, his capitalist, corporate-socialist policies, and several other things. But I am not morally culpable for those things just because I voted for Obama. This way of construing the matter is again an instance of taking the vote too seriously. It makes the same error as the pundits who say “Vote or Die!” because it assumes (by its logic) that the vote is the only political resource at my disposal. In reality, I can use the vote to achieve a limited good or goods, and use other resources to combat those things I don’t like about my representative’s policies. I am morally culpable if I leave my political engagement in the voting booth, but even then, not in anywhere near the same sense as the actual policymakers themselves. I’ll grant with Halden that we’re all complicit with societal evils on many levels, but the paradigm I see in the scriptures is one that exploits the loopholes in unjust systems in order to bring about a greater degree of justice. If exploiting those loopholes somehow makes me ritually unclean, that’s fine. Jesus spent most of his time with ritually unclean people anyhow.

(5) National elections create the illusion of democracy and thus function to effectively curb authentic democratic participation.

This is true. But that doesn’t mean there’s absolutely zero democratic value in an election. It just puts limits on how democratic we can be. But the elections themselves don’t create these limits. What creates these limits is the illusion that voting is sufficient to make one politically responsible.

But the anti-voter argument, when it takes up this line, is simply incoherent. Let’s take the Lauren Winner/Halden Doerge controversy again as our example. Winner suggests that one motivation for voting is to vote on behalf of those who don’t have the right to vote. Winner asks whether “the best form of solidarity with the disenfranchised [is] to sit the election out,” or whether it is “to ask your nanny (who cannot vote, because she is not a citizen) and the janitor who empties your office trash can (who cannot vote because he was incarcerated) who they would vote for, and then cast a vote on their behalf.” Halden’s tendentious response is worth quoting at length:

Now here is a rather odd argument as well. Ultimately, it seems, for Winner, that our reason for voting should be out of pity for those outside the system; we should vote on the behalf of those from the lower sectors of society. We, the privileged, franchised few, should make sure to exercise our rights because, after all, not everyone has them. We must nobly, and honorably discharge our duties because the rights we have are not shared by all. How wonderfully paternalistic! The aristocrat should only more strongly embrace his position in the aristocracy, because after all, not everyone is as well off as he, and ostensibly by embracing his position within the aristocracy he could ‘do some good’ for the huddled, unwashed masses. Winner turns out, oddly enough to be quite patriarchal at the end of the day. We should embrace our middle class privilege in order to be benevolent benefactors to the underclass. That’s a bit too Victorian for my taste. . . . The notion that we should make sure to assert our rights because they are not shared by all seems quite counter-intuitive. How could we, in good conscience, practice rights and privileges that are systematically denied to others? . . . Rather than voting “for” the illegal immigrant or the convict, what would happen if we followed the works of mercy that are handed down to us in the Christian tradition? What if we visited those in prison, gave clothing to the naked, and food to the hungry? What if we took them into our homes rather than satiated our consciences by casting a vote for the candidate we think will do the most relative good? Winner’s claim that we should get “messy” by voting is problematic, not in that it is too messy, but in that it is too clean and easy. What would truly be messy, complicated, difficult, and substantive would be a theopolitical vision which called upon us to move from aloof advocacy to proximate solidarity. The problem with voting isn’t simply that it is somehow tainted and we must avoid it to be “pure.” The problem is that is far too easy, too deceptive, too simple.

When I called Halden’s counter-argument tendentious, I meant exactly that. In addition to being tendentious, it’s also mean-spirited, cynical, and flat incoherent.

First, Halden claims that this motivation is, according to Winner, “ultimately” what Winner’s position boils down to. In fact, this is only one reason out of several she offered for Christian participation in the elections, all of which stand side-by-side.

Second, Halden construes this motivation as condescending, patriarchal, and “Victorian.” I’m starting to wonder whether Halden has just lost the plot, but I’m not jumping to any conclusion there. At any rate, this is a patently unfair characterization of Winner’s suggestion. It seems that for Halden the only way to take the system seriously is to ignore it, which is intriguing since he chastises Winner for not taking Electing Not To Vote seriously by ignoring it (an accusation I’m sure is false). There’s no room in Halden’s world for trying to achieve limited goods within an imperfect system, in order to incrementally fashion a better world. It seems that for Halden a system is either bad or good, and if it’s bad, it’s to be abandoned, unless it’s the church. (Then we’re supposed to be faithful to it no matter what.)

But Winner’s suggestion is in reality far from elitist. This is a highly cynical reading, and I’m at pains to figure out what aspect of Halden’s biblically formed theology warrants such cynicism. In reality, Winner’s suggestion is quite profound. She’s suggesting that we ought to listen to the “least of these,” and vote on their behalf, as their representatives. Are we to believe that any time anybody exploits an unfair system to the advantage of the disenfranchised, that person is being patriarchal? This claim is absurd. Is a lawyer being “patriarchal” when she advocates for the human rights of those without constitutional rights? Are all the advocates of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay elitists?

Let’s think about this. Say one candidate’s policy on illegal immigration is to deport illegal immigrants, while another candidate’s policy is to help them obtain citizen status, which will grant them the right, among other things, to vote. How can an offer to vote on this person’s behalf be construed as the reinforcement of the very system that shuts them out? Or say that this non-citizen, the nanny for instance, has children or relatives who are citizens. Now one candidate’s health care policy offers her children or impoverished relatives nothing substantial at all, while the other candidate promises free health care to her children or relatives. Now Lauren Winner votes for the candidate whose policy will most benefit her nanny’s children or relatives. This is elitist? This is patriarchy? Give me a break! Winner’s suggestion is actually a challenge to Christians to exploit their rights in a way that is profoundly unselfserving. But Halden’s account is an either/or. Either the church pays the nanny’s family’s hospital bill (despite the fact that the nanny is, say, a Muslim), or you’re a patriarchalist. Whatever.

But the third and most egregious error in Halden’s reasoning (and in this reasoning he is not alone among the anti-voters) is in the claim that voting on behalf of the disenfranchised is just a cover up for the fact that we don’t want to actually do the hard work of taking care of the disenfranchised ourselves. This is utter nonsense. As if Winner is suggesting that voting on behalf of the disenfranchised absolves us of our responsibility to participate in ministries of compassion! This is where the argument is flatly incoherent. It presents an egregiously false dichotomy. As if we’re only allowed to do one of two things: either vote or care.

No doubt many citizens (Christian and non) treat the vote that way, but that’s not because the logic of the vote requires it. It’s simply because they are deficient human beings. The anti-voters simply want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. As my friend Solomon says, they’re just swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. Why can’t we vote and work tirelessly to care for those who can’t care for themselves? Why can’t we exploit every last nonviolent resource at our disposal? Why does it have to be either/or? I can’t think of one good reason.

A Few Remaining Thoughts

Now my position is not that Christians are unfaithful if they don’t vote. I have a friend who worked on both the Dean and Kerry campaigns and didn’t vote, just because he didn’t get around to it. Obviously he’s not a deficient citizen for that reason. My position is simply that all of the arguments I’ve encountered for why it’s unfaithful for Christians to vote simply fail to pass (theo)logical muster.

My friend Stephen is not against voting in principle, but thinks Christians should take a hiatus from voting until they’re doing it for the right reasons and the right reasons only. But even then, that’s just not necessary. You’re going to have a hell of time convincing these Christians not to vote, but you can have a great deal more success convincing them that some of the reasons motivating their votes are unchristian and undemocratic. Then they can vote without illusions, and perhaps heed the challenge to engage in more substantial political action on a more regular basis than once every four years. But the stipulation that they ought not to vote until they’ve been fully enlightened (when will that be?) is not only superfluous, it’s a logical non sequitur.

My friend Michael DeFazio asked me why, if my position is that anti-voters are taking the vote too seriously, I have been so strong in my endorsement of Obama. Is such a strong endorsement not taking the vote too seriously? My answer is that I never said we shouldn’t take the vote seriously. I said that we ought not to take it too seriously, which means we ought not to reject voting on the grounds that it constitutes idolatry. That’s just capitulating (from the flipside of the coin) to those thoroughbred Americans who treat the elections as some sort of religious carnival. Rejecting the vote on those grounds isn’t subversive. It upholds the same logic. To be really subversive, what we have to do is just to demote the vote, to take it down off the pedestal some put it on, not by treating it as an enemy but by exploiting it as one resource among many, and by spreading the word that the vote is being used to curb the democratic impulse to the benefit of the powerbrokers. The real subversion is to advocate a vote without illusions. The powerbrokers are happy to have a bunch of nonvoters out there. What they don’t want is for people to realize that the vote, in and of itself, doesn’t make a democracy democratic. When people realize that, their votes will actually become more effective, because they’ll realize they have to work to make their votes count.

  1. There are other reasons, but in my view these are the main ones. If anyone can think of another significant reason, please comment with it, and I will address it. I have not addressed the idea that voting in U.S. elections is a waste of time because it does not offers us any real choice, not because this isn’t a significant issue, but because it isn’t really a theological objection. [BACK]
  2. In terms of contemporary issues, international law makes a distinction between a state and a regime; therefore I would not say that the state is illegitimate as a result of Bush’s administration, but simply that Bush’s regime is illegitimate. [BACK]

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