How Christians Should Think About Voting
This post is an abridged version of my remarks at an event hosted by my friends at Coracle (you can watch the event here). I post this here in response to the request I’ve received from so many of you for my thoughts on voting. There’s more to say, of course, but I hope this provides a helpful frame. -Michael
The question of voting—particularly as it relates to moral culpability—is one that is very tender and pressing for many. There is a moral burden many Christians feel when thinking about politics. Parker Palmer wrote that we have a “politics of the brokenhearted,” and I really do feel that is the case in so many ways. Politics is causing spiritual harm in this country
One of the ways it does this is by intentionally placing moral pressure, a moral burden, on citizens that fits the interests of political candidates, parties and activists, but does not fit the nature of politics.
I want to be very clear here, because while it should be self-evident given my background and work, sometimes people misunderstand me when I talk about this. The argument is not that politics is unimportant. The argument is not that we should not feel any moral pressure when we consider civic action. My argument is that nature of the moral burden we are so often made to feel, the shape of it, is ill-fitting. It is a burden shaped and cast down in a way that is manipulative. A way that is coercive.
Let me elaborate on this by talking about political parties and then by talking about political candidates.
Because our parties are so polarized, and party identity is so profound, we find that politicians and political parties have inordinate influence over the views of the citizenry. We have not invested such meaning into what a political party is and what it means to affiliate with one because of the nature of a political party, but because of what is in the interest of political parties and other political actors who benefit from them. That is to say: political parties demand our allegiance not because it is their right, but because it is in their interest.
We should be members of a political party because we believe things, we should not believe things because we are members of a political party.
Part of the reason our politics is in its current state is that we are in a vicious feedback loop of a citizenry that makes itself available for and incentivizes political tactics that degrade people and degrade our politics, which leads to a normalization or routinization—an embeddedness—of these kinds of political tactics and approaches.
In general, political campaigns operate by piecing together a coalition of voters, drawn in by a tailored political platform, outreach and forms of affinity, that will allow them to get to 50% of the vote +1. That is the political mandate of an electoral campaign.
These are the motives of parties and candidates. These are the tools at their disposal for pursuing their objectives. We should be aware of them. This is not to make us cynical, but instead to ensure we’re all talking the same language.
Political actors, in general, wish to convey that the choice you have as a voter is easy, and they try to raise the moral stakes of making that choice correctly—that is, in their favor. The more easily voters cede their conscience and values to the party or the candidate, the less strain that puts on the party or candidate…the easier their jobs will be. If parties and candidates are brands we identify with, rather than representative of shared deliberation, we can be directed far more easily. What political actors need is our will, and the more malleable our will, the better it is for them.
Here is the thing we must understand: we so often think about politics as a forum for self-expression and self-actualization, for the exertion of our personal will, but politics, especially voting, rarely even approaches that because political decisions come to us premediated and multivariable. When you vote in an election, with the exception of a write-in ballot, you are not voting for your dream candidate. Your vote is not an unmediated expression of your identity, your vote is a choice between options you did not choose yourself. If you view your vote as an unmediated, pure expression of your will, it can be debilitating. Whether you are Christian or not, simply as a matter of the fact that we have consciences and convictions, and to view political choices in such a way threatens the integrity of the human person. Moreover, for Christians, for whom faithfulness is both means and end, to view your vote as a totalizing statement of who you are, what you believe, inevitably leads to disintegration or quietism, which may be just one path to disintegration.
So that is how I’d lay out the improper moral burden many of us feel when voting, and the main thing I want to do today is just relieve you of that. We’re then left with the question of how should I actually vote? If voting is not some pure identity, unmediated identity statement, what is it? What does faithful Christian voting look like?
Here are some framing questions/concepts to consider when voting.
First, Jesus is not confused about how our politics works. When I talk to some Christians, I get the sense they kind of think that when they go into the voting booth, close the curtain and make their decision, they have to exit the booth and explain to Jesus what happened in there. He gets it. I promise you. Politics is not the one area of life that is cordoned off from God.
Second, Christians do not go to politics for self-interest alone, but it’s OK to consider your own interest, passions, experiences—what God has placed on your heart. We should be explicit about our self-interest, lest we merely play a shell game by conflating our own interest with that of others.
Third, we want to listen to others, particularly brothers and sisters in Christ, who disagree with us politically. This is part of “bearing another’s burdens” in politics, as I described in the Afterword to Reclaiming Hope:
When the apostle Paul was writing to the Galatians, he was addressing a community that was in deep disunity. Paul had helped form the Galatians through his teachings, but they were straying from their foundational commitments. Sin, false teachers, and parochial motives and interests were creating, well, polarization. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, then, represents an attempt to speak clarity into the conflict, and help the community reform around its foundations.
Into this polarized environment, Paul instructs them to do something radical, something completely contrary to everything polarization promotes: They ought to “carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2, CSB).
Paul’s command shows no favoritism. His call is not to one group only, to those with power or without it, or even solely to the strong or the weak. Everyone together is part of a community as children of the same God, and therefore they ought to “carry one another’s burdens.”
A nation is a different sort of community, but it is a community all the same. The call to carry another’s burden is an extraordinary one, but these are extraordinary times. In our increasingly polarized nation, when many elected officials and their strategists believe they need to listen only to those who already agree with them, we must carry our neighbors’ burdens into politics with our own. We must ensure those we disagree with are heard as well.
By consulting others—fellow Christians, experts in our local community, those who are attuned to where the deepest needs are—we seek to vote in a way that is attuned to the time and place in which we’re in, with particular attention to the poor, the vulnerable, the disinherited and those facing injustice. Our principles are timeless (unless they’re wrong! then we should change them!); how we apply them will be informed by history, the present moment and our sense of how God might be moving in the world and in our communities.
Our vote should be intended toward the greatest flourishing of our community. Our vote should be intended toward the good of our neighbors, as best as we can see it, in consultation with scripture, Christian tradition, fellow Christians and our neighbors themselves. We take our vote seriously, but we also recognize we are part of a body politic, and we recognize voting for what it is. And we understand that in all but the rarest of circumstances, and we should be hesitant to suggest what the exceptions are in an unequivocal manner, there is no single Christian way to vote. My principal concern is that Christians vote with faithfulness in mind, with prayer that intends to expose their heart to God and themselves rather than cover it up, and with a moral burden that is rightly-sized and rightly-situated.
Seek to be faithful with what you have, in the circumstances you have been given.
Hope this is helpful, friends.
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