Culture, Current Events, Faith — September 7, 2012 11:46 am

Why I Vote. (Do You Vote?)

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I recently engaged in a conversation with a friend about voting. To my surprise, I was bothered to learn she doesn’t vote. I was not particularly surprised she doesn’t vote (she very much relishes in doing her own thing). Rather, I was surprised at how much it bothered me.

I have been through multiple political phases, a sort of political multi-personality disorder. Or maybe it’s just called growing up. I was raised super conservative, in the evangelical Christian world (to my horror, I must admit to you that I prayed ardently that George W. Bush would be reelected in 2004. I was not old enough to vote in that election, but I was sure old enough to pray). In college, I became the political black sheep of my family and used my first chance to vote to proudly vote for Change We Could Believe In in 2008. Then, from 2010 until recently, I was fairly apathetic and indifferent to politics. In some ways, I was drinking the kool-aid mixed up by John Howard Yoder and made popular by Shane Claiborne in his teaching that the way to be most Christian is to not participate in our damned and doomed government. But rather true Christians dread their hair, make their own clothes out of coffee bags, turn TVs into plant holders and carry no money. To wear clothes you bought at the store, watch your TV, to have a savings account or to vote for anyone but Jesus for President is to have blood on your hands.

Claiborne’s admonition to withdraw, coupled with my own apathetic tendencies, was perfect, just enough to make me indifferent. It allowed me to be so adsorbed in my own world that I didn’t have to care about the world outside of myself. Jesus was not American and therefore neither am I. And then grad school ended, the insular bubble of seminary burst and I had free time again. And student loans. I picked up my old habits of reading the news and listening to NPR and heard that they’ve been talking about things I care about, things like student loans. And I realized that all the kumbaya kool-aid in the world couldn’t keep me from caring about what I hear about on the news. I care a lot more about public policy than I had let myself believe, or had let myself feel was “right”. And I realized that while Jesus was certainly not an American, I certainly am and I have a responsibility to be a decent one (whether this responsibility has Christian roots can be discussed by someone else–it doesn’t quite matter to me).

I also began to feel strongly convicted that if we care about certain things (for me: agricultural policy, immigration law, gender equality, a woman’s right to make her own choices about her health, how our government spends our money, militarism), then we must use the democratic voice we’ve been given to voice those concerns. After years of shirking the idea of patriotism (once again, at the suggestion of Shane Claiborne), I started reading Wendell Berry, who has quite a beautiful understanding of patriotism, one that is very much connected to the land and to the people and to certain values that seem lost on many modern Americans (ideas like “care” and “decency”). Being kind, caring, decent, concerned with your community—this is patriotism, says Berry. And it’s patriotism I can get behind.

I’ve also come to feel strongly that the Christian church often confuses the role of our government with the role of the Christian church (this happens on both sides. Conservative folks like to think the government should be the upholder of America’s “original” “morality” while more liberal folks think the government should be metaphorical care-giving deacons providing for all of America’s metaphorical widows). We’d do well to attempt to work through this confusion and try to rightly understand the role of our government. The government is the government, not the church. Perhaps if we understand this statement for what it means (hint: it can be read two ways), we would lose some of our extremism and finally be able to correctly aim some of our hope, responsibility and impossibly high expectations at the correct target—ourselves–rather than at Uncle Sam.

Shane Claiborne and his purple-lipped kinfolk have a beautiful social imagination. But so do Wendell Berry, and my other favorite brother—Cornel West. And I if I can be as blunt as possible, I believe Cornel West and Wendell Berry have managed to maintain a more viable voice in our world because they participate, stay engaged. I am all for idealism. But let’s not confuse idealism with naivety. To think a life of withdrawal will make anything better is naive. Similarly, idealism without participation is pointless. (I’m not advocating you leave your convictions behind for the sake of participation. I respect that Berry doesn’t own a computer. It’s the result of his locally-minded convictions. However, he manages to remain pertinent to conversations about things like the global economy and federal legislature, making him an invaluable resource to the rest of us, proving successfully that you can be idealistic but you don’t have to live in a hole. In other words, Berry proves that you can have your convictions, and make them matter, too.

Since that conversation with my friend, I’ve been attempting to assess why it is that I feel so strongly about voting (it still kind of surprises me). It’s been most helpful to attempt to narrow down the reasons I vote. Here are a few I’ve come up with so far.

1) I feel strongly that if you don’t vote (i.e. don’t participate in an attempt to reform things), you cannot complain about things. I like to complain, thus I vote.

2) I understand that large scale policy affects small scale living. I am a big believer in localism–living a small, considerate lifestyle. But I am also aware that large scale (federal and state level) policies affect localism. If you don’t believe me, just read up on anything about the Department of Agriculture and the ways legislature affects our farmers and our food.

3) The ability to vote is unique and valuable. While there are many things about politics in the United States and our interpretation of democracy that I do not agree with fully, wish were less extreme or just plain do not understand (e.g. the Electoral College), I remain aware that my ability to vote is unique in the world, especially as a woman. Though I would prefer a different voting system, as well as a more diverse pool of political parties to choose from in the United States, my ability to vote was hard-won. Whether my single vote will change the entire world is not the point, and should not dissuade me from casting it. But the fact that I even have a vote shows that it is possible for a few people, together, to change the world. And that’s a pretty incredible point.

4) I aim to be an intelligent participant in this world. And a large part of accomplishing that is remaining engaged in current issues, knowledgeable on the United States’ dealings in the world (for they are legion) and active in any bit of reform in which I get to participate. You know how an “RT does not mean endorsement”? Well, maybe voting in the US Presidential election doesn’t mean full endorsement of the US’ political system. But it does mean you are interested, invested, paying attention. And I think the world needs more people like that.

What do you think? Do you vote? If so, what are your reasons? If you don’t vote, why not? We’d love to hear from you. To be clear, I’m not asking you who you are voting for. Simply, do you vote? And why?

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  • Janna,

    Please excuse the following disjointed airport terminal rant…
    Thanks for writing this. I think the balance of Christianity and politics is one that is worthy of exposition. Christians must determine how their faith will direct their politics. Do we view government as the tool of Christ-like care for others? Do we view the call of Christ as an individual and church-wide duty? Do we disengage citing an ‘in the world but not of the world’ line of thinking? My fear is that our answers to these questions are often informed by our politics more than our understanding of scripture. Regardless of politics, however, civic engagement is a critical component of life in modern society, especially if ‘localism’, as you put it, is to be pursued. No matter the conclusions we arrive at, something we can all agree on is we are made for community and nothing kills community quicker than apathy and disengagement.

    • Ian, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. A few thoughts…

      The trouble with informing our politics on “our understanding of Scripture” is that it’s very difficult to come a singular reading of Scripture. This comment is not an attempt to reduce the significance (some call it “authority”) of Scripture, but rather to acknowledge the overwhelming difficult task of considering all that needs to be considered when attempting to interpret Scripture (or maybe to even just arrive at some unified conclusion about what that old anthology of books is saying in general, i.e. look at 2000+ years of theological chatter).

      Further, I’m not sure it’s helpful to only build a framework for civic engagement on Scripture. This is not to say that Scripture should have no place–but I fear we isolate ourselves when we cover ourselves in a shield of “This is right because Scripture says so” and thus hamper the ability for our civic engagement to be something others can join in on, collaborate with, relate to, be inspired by. I guess what I’m trying to say is that to the rest of the world that doesn’t approach Scripture the way you or I might (all very fine people), you or I saying, “I am concerned about this and think that legislation should say thus because [enter sound argument here]” carries more weight than “I am concerned and legislation should say such and such because Scripture affirms it”.

      I always come back to thought that maybe what the Bible says is true because what it says true. Rather than what the Bible says is true because the Bible says it. Does that make sense? Thoughts? It’s a bit like when you are a child, you do what your mother says because your mother said it. As you get older you realize what your mother was saying was *right*, so then you do what she said because she was right.

      Thanks for engaging!

  • Democracies are awesome because the people get to choose who governs them. But, “The next time they give you all that civic bullshit about voting, keep in mind that Hitler was elected in a full, free democratic election”, says George Carlin. That’s the risk. Just like in Egypt: a democratic government was set up, and The Muslim Brotherhood (TMB) was elected to power.

    The risk of democracy is that government reflects the majority, and sometimes the majority desire theocracy or tyranny. Democracy seems like a Western sentiment; but that’s not to say Eastern people can’t have Western sentiments (I’m using the words ‘East’ and ‘West’ to denote vast swathes of political sentiments that can be shared by a variety of cultures: that’s why I wouldn’t restrict the nomenclature demographically, but perhaps psychologically, for lack of a better word). There were people in Egypt who didn’t want TMB in power. Thus, even though Churchhill said: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”, he also said that, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

    Plato would disagree: “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.”, which is probably why Karl Marx wrote, “Democracy is the road to socialism.”

    America isn’t exempt. There’s always that risk factor. But the cool thing about America is that we have a Democratic Republic with more checks/balances than do pure democracies: hence, the brainchild of the Founding Fathers – the Electoral College. But a lot of what I’ve been saying more obviously applies to democracies in their infancy. More mature democracies such as ourselves have a more secure bedrock on which democratic sentiments can rest. C.S. Lewis has Screwtape write to Wormwood about the most effective ways to lead ‘The Patient’ to Hell: “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Perhaps we can extend this tactic to what Marx said about the gradual percolation of socialist sentiments that dot here and there in a democratic atmosphere. I’m not commenting here on socialism in itself, just the phenomenon of the ‘gentle slope’ over which kinds of governments can imperceptibly morph into other kinds.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Matt. I bow to the master of democratic historical understanding :) I always appreciate your comments and find it a compliment that you’re engaging my thoughts.

      Your comments left me feeling a little less bipolar for loving/hating democracy. At least I know I’m not alone. This “gentle slope” idea is interesting too. This morning I was reading about Fieinstein’s statement that, given the opportunity in Congress again, she will work for stricter assault weapons legislation, with hopes of banning “weapons of war” from our streets. The comments on the article were, I suppose, to be expected—people expressing disgust for the maybe not-so-gentle slope Feinstein (and others like her) are taking us on.

      But things like this start to get confusing for me. Where can we allow reform, more government interjection? And where are we beginning to walk on a “gentle slope” toward something that, in a generation or two may have morphed into something that looks very little like democracy? This question is bigger than just gun control issues. It can be applied to any “issue” that I can see both sides of. I’m all for assault weapons to be more difficult to get a hold of. But I also understand the cries of folks claiming our right to defend ourselves. How do you walk the line between some Bradbury story of government control and isolation and yet entertaining the very real fact that reforming some of our laws for changing times is necessary and beneficial?


      Also there are some thoughts about Congress and our high incumbency rates and the “gentle slope”, but I’m not sure how exactly to make those thoughts connect. :)

      Here’s the Feinstein article:

  • Janna,

    Thanks for your response. I feel the need to clarify that my comments are regarding our political alignments and motivations not the formation of legislation. While I don’t give credence to the vapid decrying of ‘legislating morality’ (as we all know there is no separating morals from laws), I do not believe there is an argument to be made that the Bible can be applied to all men of a society as a prescriptive regardless of belief.

    To your comments on the veracity of the Bible being proved over time, I believe that God’s grace is sufficient and He demonstrates His wisdom to confirm our faith and His sovereignty. But that does not undo or invalidate the importance of a child-like faith. This is a hard truth. I would rather His wisdom and revelation be a treasure to be won by intellectual vigor and dogged pursuit. I could then hang my hat on my work. But if grace be grace, and of the amazing variety we are told, I can not earn it or attain it by any route other than full reliance on His finished work and the lopsided deal that gains me sonship. Because of this strange economy I am often shamed by the grasp of the Kingdom that my 3 year old son exhibits unencumbered by worldly reason or experience. I say all this to make the point that the Bible being the fount of all truth is not made more so for the adult who can point to hard evidence than it is for the child who knows Jesus from the Good Book, songs and little else.

  • “I would rather His wisdom and revelation be a treasure to be won by intellectual vigor and dogged pursuit.” …
    With this statement you stand in stark contrast to the much of wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible. Wisdom was very much something you gained by “dogged pursuit”.

    I’m not sure I understand the reason for your introduction of “grace” into the conversation, as the conversation has been about civic responsibility and the role of Christianity as a catalyst (or not) for such engagement. But I will engage your mention of grace if for nothing else than to say that I am cautious to ever pit “childlike faith”, “grace” or other, similar over-spiritualized claims that we “simply need to believe!” against things like knowledge and education.

    I come from a Pentecostal tradition and while I respect my Pentecostal brothers and sisters, I have seen plenty of harm and embarrassment caused by individuals shirking the pursuit of understanding and education in deference to maintaining “childlike faith”. Children are inspiring, sure. But there is also a something to Paul’s statement about “when I became a man…”. People grow for a reason. Faith should never be pitted against knowledge. (The cry of “I believe, help my unbelief” has been immensely helpful for me in my attempts to understand the way faith and knowledge can relate.)

    Christians claiming their beliefs by faith and faith alone often make themselves unable to offer a sound argument for why they believe what they believe. In particular, Christians engaging the government would do the church a solid favor by knowing why they think what they think–and, I would argue, knowing why they believe it OUTSIDE of the Bible. It would be immensely beneficial for all involved. We may even get something done!

    Thanks for engaging, Ian!

  • Ha. Thanks! But sorry to disappoint. Not an expert on this . . . at all. So the more you teach me, the more I’m grateful. All I have are opinions, and I wish they were more educated. Churchhill was probably talking about me as an argument against democracy, lol.

    As for Feinstein’s legislation, it may look like a gentle slope, but consider what happens when you turn around and look back at a gentle slope you’ve been descending for an hour: you see a steep incline, right? lol. Again, not educated on the details of the slope at all, nor the factors that might make it a socialistic decline, but gun control legislation in general makes me uneasy. The downside to even considering the details of the ‘descending decline’ is that to even bring them up always sounds like paranoid, panic-button pounding, ha. There are two reasons in my mind that make gun-control legislation a bad idea, even if it is to keep out of the citizen the Gatling gun that the Terminator used in the sequel, lol:

    1. Precedent – It seems like whenever something is outlawed, a black market pops up that delivers the goods anyway. Outlaw alcohol, and you have bootlegging, and the Al Capone’s that go along with that. We have a ‘War on Drugs’, and we have Tony Montana’s (Scarface) that pop up. Not to reduce it to a slogan (and I only use a slogan as a premise in an argument if the slogan is reasonable, which I think it is), but to outlaw anything X, means X will only be possessed by the outlaws, which makes sense. If X happens to be a prized commodity, the possibility for money-making becomes a live option, thus propping up on a mini-scale all the economic motivations that drive other supply/demand X’s on a legal level. To undercut the economic motivations, the legal prohibitions need to be severed. It seems to all go back to the allegory of the fishing lake: a man once owned a lake in his backyard where no one fished; but once the owner put a ‘no-fishing’ sign outside the lake, the fishers came out of the woodwork. Now I take one of Kant’s maxims for a philosophy of moral law (an extension of which is legal law, for legal law tell you what is right or wrong relative to a government): universalizability. In other words, imagine a world in which Feinstein’s gun control policies came to pass. A law-abiding citizen, therefore, could not legally buy a gun. But a law-breaking citizen could purchase a gun on a black market just as easy as it is for a drug addict to buy drugs from drug dealer off the streets, or just as easy as it was in the 1920′s for someone to buy alcohol from a bootlegger. What would such a society look like?

    1. Law-abiding citizens would have no guns.
    2. Law-breaking citizens would probably have guns.
    3. Government would have guns.

    The next question I ask myself is a utilitarian one: how many lives are saved because law-abiding citizens have guns for self-defense/hunting/collecting? Also, how many law-breaking citizens with guns have thought twice about using their gun for harm because of the possibility that a law-abiding citizen might have a gun for protection? And, since government (excepting an Orwellian 1984-looking state) can’t keep a look out on all areas of law-breaking as well as all the eyes of a law-abiding citizenry, from a utilitarian point of view (from a cost/benefit vantage point: the cost being ‘lives lost’, the benefit being ‘lives saved’), would ‘universalizing’ a gun-control policy really make law-abiding society safer?

    Even if we reduce Feinstein’s rationale to sort of a ‘soft stance’: gun-control is limited to reasonable ownership of firearms, ‘reasonable’ meaning ‘not guns like a Gatling gun’, but things like pistols for home/self defense – the above slogan still applies. The outlaws will be the ones with the more sophisticated guns. A citizen with a pistol has less of a chance against an outlaw with an Uzi. I’m getting long-winded, so I’ll stop. Perhaps you see the point I’m making?

    2. The might sound even more kooky, but I truly believe (and I’m open to objections that point out my paranoia) that guns in the hands of a law-abiding citizenry is a good thing against the possible injustice of not just outlaws on the level of a citizenry, but on the level of a government. I’ve often found it very telling that one of the first steps toward a government striving to be something that’s borderline totalitarian is to take away from the governed the means of defending itself. Hitler, a real flesh and blood man who existed in 1930′s Germany (I have to say it this way because the name ‘Hitler’ is swished together with so much stigma and other associations that it’s almost useless to even mention his name without being accused of borderline sophism and dishonest rhetoric, lol), instituted gun-control laws similar to Feinstein’s prior to the Nazi party gaining full legislative power in Germany as Chancellor. Says Hitler in an interesting quote:

    “The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is a sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty. So let’s not have any native militia or native police. German troops alone will bear the sole responsibility for the maintenance of law and order throughout the occupied Russian territories, and a system of military strong-points must be evolved to cover the entire occupied country.” –Adolf Hitler, dinner talk on April 11, 1942, quoted in Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-44: His Private Conversations, Second Edition (1973), Pg. 425-426. Translated by Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens. Introduced and with a new preface by H. R. Trevor-Roper. The original German papers were known as Bormann-Vermerke.

    Read up on the Nazi Weapons Act of 1938 to learn more. And please keep me in the loop if I’m overlooking something, or if my analogy with the Nazis is grossly inaccurate. I’m open to correction on such a complex issue as this.

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