What Am I Doing When I Vote?
I’m glad that TGC is coordinating a series of blogs about some “first principles” to consider when thinking about politics (e.g., Baker, Smethurst, Forster). While I fully agree (and have often said from the pulpit) that the kingdom of God does not depend on elections and will not be ushered in by politicians, I believe Christian involvement in politics, or at least some understanding of the parties, the candidates, and the issues, is absolutely critical. Because we have all seen unthinking allegiance to a certain candidate or party, we can be overly reticent to talk about politics at all, let alone put forward a reasoned view on the political process. But political abdication and utter silence is not the right corrective to political idolatry, nor does it further the common good when Christians disengage for fear of being labeled with this wing or that.
My topic in this series is to think through a philosophy of voting. As with all these posts, my aim is not to tell you whom to vote for or even how to think about every issue, but rather to put in place some foundational ideas that will help us approach politics intelligently and wisely.
The Case for a Functional View of Voting
It’s important at the outset to remember what we are voting for. In our American system we will go to the polls in November and vote for many things: a president, a representative (at the state and federal level), possibly a senator or governor, maybe a mayor or drain commissioner. We’ll probably vote on a number of proposals, referenda, and tax increases. But we won’t be voting for our next pastor or who will we have dinner with next Friday. We won’t be voting on a confession of faith or a statement of Christology. We’ll be voting for politicians and for political proposals.
This is not to suggest that we must sequester politics from “spiritual things” and have no business bringing our faith into the voting booth. My point is simply that we must remember what we are doing (and not doing) on the first Tuesday in November. We aren’t making a vow or binding our conscience to any person or position. We are not making a declaration that we love this candidate and agree with him (or her) from top to bottom. Rather, we are casting a vote for the common good. As strangers and aliens in this world, we approach every Election Day as an opportunity seeking the welfare of our earthly city (Jer. 29:7). So when we draw those straight lines or punch through those hanging chads we ought to have this question in mind: “How can I, with my vote, best advance what I believe to be the proper role and goals of government?”
Some Christians may object here and say, “You’ve got it all wrong. Our aim should be to honor Christ and glorify God.” And that’s certainly true—in voting as in all of life. But part of honoring Christ means instituting and advancing a form of government which pleases him. Obviously, this pushes us back to even firster first principles and this post is not primarily about the role and goals of government. But let’s suppose that your idea of government is largely in tune with the Founding Fathers and you believe that government should “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” (Preamble to the Constitution). If you want government to protect the rights granted by God, protect us from enemies foreign and domestic, and protect the rule of law, then you ought to vote in the way that best advances that agenda.
In other words, I’m arguing for a functional view of voting. My vote is one tiny way that my views on government and the good life (which hopefully have some correspondence with God’s views) can be advanced. What matters most is not my voting experience or what I fear it might say in some abstract way. What matters is what my vote actually does. That’s why I’ve been using the word “advance.” It’s possible to vote for a person or party that most closely aligns with my values and not actually do anything to advance what I value.
Compromise may be deadly in theology, but it’s part and parcel of politics. As we ponder the perfect president and imagine the wonderful policies we would put in place, we have to plant our feet firmly on the ground and determine how to best accomplish what we want with our one vote. Prudence is no enemy of principle and incrementalism does not mean death to our ideals. There is no reason our consciences should be stricken by voting for imperfect parties and imperfect candidates. We aren’t voting on a new clause to the Nicene Creed. We are–as a municipality, state, or nation–determining who will make our laws, defend them, and carry them out.
This choice will almost always require Christians to weigh bad against better and do without what is best. The cynics may snort their incredulity and the apathetic may disbelieve in the ability of politics to accomplish anything worthwhile, but, as Clarke Forsythe argues in Politics for the Greatest Good, “there is no moral compromise when we make the aim of politics not the perfect good but the greatest good possible” (11-12). Small victories plus realistic strategy plus perseverance can make a tremendous difference over time. Hope is not delusional and change can come, but we have to work within the limits of what is possible. What honors God more, working hard and using our brains to put man into flight, or jumping off a cliff and hoping to fly because you believe God is capable of giving you wings? You may think John Piper would make the best president, but writing in “John Piper” every four years does absolutely nothing to advance all the virtues and ideas you like about John Piper. You end up feeling good without doing good, which is not a particularly helpful way to approach voting in a fallen world.
A Further Explanation
This may sound like nothing more than the “lesser of two evils” philosophy. And in a way it is, but with a few important qualifications.
First, we should be careful with the cliché itself. Even if, to use the most obvious example, Romney and Obama seem like lame choices to you, is it really the case that both are positive “evils”? I strongly disagree with each of them on certain matters of policy and theology, but before we describe every choice with this well-worn aphorism, we should consider what words we have left for the Stalins and Hitlers of the world if two decent family men can be reduced to nothing but “two evils.”
Second, we should realize that if we vote at all we are voting for less than our ideal candidate. As long as Jesus isn’t on the ballot every Christian is voting for someone less than our perfect candidate. And, no, this does not mean we should literally vote for Jesus as President. It’s a stunt that accomplishes nothing except for impressing people who are too easily impressed.
Third, a functional approach to voting does not mean we can ignore matters of character and morality in favor of candidates who promise to “git ‘er done.” If a candidate is corrupt or untrustworthy, if his moral compass is always spinning and his grasp of right and wrong is slippery, we should have little confidence in his ability to govern wisely or seek the common good.
Fourth, a functional view of voting does not mean we should only and always vote for one of the two major party candidates. I think it means, at least at present, that in most races the wisest course of action is almost always to vote Republican or Democrat. Whether we like it or not, it’s the Republicans and Democrats—not the Green Party or the Constitution Party—who will advance (or destroy) your vision for government and the common good. Having said that, there may be occasions where you conclude that your vision can best be advanced in the long run by not voting for one of the two major parties. For example, suppose you vote Republican your whole life and then the Republicans nominate a pro-choice candidate for president. You might conclude that even if you always vote Republican, you won’t this year, so that the GOP candidate will lose badly and the party won’t nominate a pro-choice candidate the next time around. Or maybe you vote for an obscure third-party candidate, knowing he won’t win, but sensing that enough people are behind him that a good showing at the polls could help a third party break into our political system. This is especially tempting when the political race in question is already in the bag for one of the two major parties. That is to say, a liberal in New York who wants to advance a liberal agenda might be excused for voting for the Green Party candidate where a liberal in Ohio would be less wise to do so.
Here’s the bottom line: when we vote as Christians we should do so with a healthy dose of some eschatological “not yet.” This doesn’t mean we always vote for the “lesser of two evils.” But it does mean we should consider the function of our vote, not only the ethical motivation behind it. Paradoxically, it’s only when we embrace the realities of our political system and swallow hard on the flaws of our candidates that we can begin to honor our noble and lofty ideals. A vote counts for what it does, not for what we want it to mean or how it makes us feel.