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?