Polls Apart: Why Believers Might Conscientiously Abstain from Voting

from the conference "God, Democracy and US Power" held at Eastern Mennonite University, September 23-25, 2004

John D. Roth
Professor of History, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana
Editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review
Author of Choosing Against War: A Christian View


Some 6 or 8 weeks ago, I was visiting a Mennonite congregation in the Midwest where I had been asked to give several presentations. It so happened that the Democratic National Convention had just concluded the week before: disputes about the nature of Kerry’s military service were swirling in the electronic and print media, and the general nastiness of the campaign was becoming increasingly evident in op-ed columns, TV ads and e-mail spam. As I walked toward the church I noticed a small circle of men had gathered in the parking lot around two cars, clearly engaged in a heated discussion. On the bumper of one of the cars a sticker was posted that read “George Bush IS the weapon of mass destruction.” The other car had a somewhat smaller sticker that read “W in 2004” against the background of an American flag. The 5 or 6 people participating in the debate did not look as if they were going to suddenly start hitting each other – but there was no mistaking the intensity of the exchange. I won’t pretend that I transcribed the conversation as I walked slowly past the group, but the fragments I did hear would not surprise you: “Bush-bashing,” “I can’t believe you actually think …!” “a stupid war,” “At least he doesn’t support baby-killers!”

The conversation I overheard in the parking lot of a Mennonite congregation that Sunday morning was unusual only in the sense that it occurred in such a public place and so early in the morning. All over the country these days, Americans find themselves deeply divided in the midst of a nasty and divisive presidential campaign. To be sure, sloganeering, half-truths and simplified versions of reality have always been a part of the electoral process. Yet most analysts are agreed that the 2004 campaign has reached a new low—at least in modern memory—in terms of the personal vilification, mudslinging, negative campaigning, and outright fabrications on both sides of the race.

The caricatures are deeply entrenched. Kerry supporters attack Bush as an ignorant, belligerent cowboy—a religious zealot who can only think about the world in terms of good and evil; us and them; patriots and terrorists. Bush supporters have branded Kerry as an elitist snob, who waffles on key issues and is fundamentally unpatriotic. Add to this the familiar antagonism around such issues as Iraq, taxes, gay rights, abortion, or gun control, and the split between the uncompromising extremes begins to look like Grand Canyon. It seems sometimes as if we are living in two parallel universes with each side determined to reinforce its position by associating with like-minded people.

Not surprisingly, the chasm dividing our country—along with the simmering tensions evident in an offhand comment, billboard or bumper sticker or the strain of trying to avoid the subject of politics altogether—have all become increasingly visible in our congregations as well. Over the past two years I have traveled widely in the Mennonite church, visiting dozens congregations, staying in homes, talking with young people and engaging conversations with all kinds of people on topics related to “the gospel of peace.” My impressions are admittedly anecdotal; but in most of the congregations, I have found people keenly aware of national politics and deeply interested in making a link between their Christian convictions and the outcome of the elections.

At the same time, I have to acknowledge that the nature of the conversation in most Mennonite churches seems to reflect the tone and substance of the political discourse that is dividing the nation as a whole. Now the fact of diversity within the Anabaptist family of churches regarding political engagement is not a new thing. The sixteenth-century Anabaptists were far from unified in regards to their understanding of the sword or how Christians should relate to government; and those in the Believers Church tradition have held a wide variety of positions on voting, political activism and office holding. I don’t assume that there is a Believers’ Church “orthodoxy” on these questions, or that my argument for conscientious abstention from voting is a measure of Christian integrity or faithfulness to Anabaptist principles. Although our general commitment to pacifism and the voluntary church have always raised questions about the limits of our allegiance to the state, our traditions have also been characterized by a spectrum of political attitudes, ranging from vigorous engagement to a strict separatism.

What seems new to me is not so much the mere fact of diverse political attitudes, but the growing fundamentalism evident among both the Christian Left and the Christian Right within our congregations, along with the sense that political involvement has now become a Christian imperative. I think we would all agree that the issues facing our country—of poverty and health care, housing, care for children and unborn, security, relations with other countries—are all moral issues about which Christians might have something distinctive to say. But as I travel in various congregations, I am increasingly concerned that the nature of the conversation about “values” and “moral choices” has been almost complete co-opted by the polarized rhetoric of the media: radio talkshow hosts, direct mail campaigns, polemical ads and web-site bloggers. In short, our congregations do not seem to be ready or able to engage the substantive questions of this presidential election in a framework other than that of the Red/Blue divide in our national culture.

Although my invitation to “conscientiously abstain” from voting goes deeper than the divisive climate of the 2004 presidential campaign, I invite you to hold this troubling context in the back of your mind as you consider my arguments against the civic ritual of voting.

In the brief time that we have, I would like to offer 5 arguments as to why Christians might conscientiously abstain from voting. I hope that the case I make is clear and compelling. At the same time, I want to be clear from the outset that I am not on a bandwagon regarding this position—it is not an issue about which I think the church should be divided or a point that I want to hold up as the litmus test for Believers Church orthodoxy. If nothing else, I want to encourage us to think more deliberately about our political assumptions as U.S. citizens and as committed Christians in the Believers church tradition.

1. Not voting in the presidential election might be understood as a practical expression of our pacifist convictions. Those in the believer’s church tradition are agreed that the decision to become a Christian involves a choice, one with genuine consequences for our most basic understanding of reality. The heart of that choice is an affirmation of Jesus Christ as the One who saves us from our bondage to self-centered (or nation-centered) pride, and who offers in His life and teachings a model of the true nature of power—a power, as Paul writes, “made perfect in weakness.” Becoming a follower of Christ implies more than just a “quantitative” change in our actions (where we become a little more moral, decent or honest than everyone else); rather, it assumes that we will engage the world in a “qualitatively” different way. Indeed, every aspect of our lives should point to Christ’s new understanding of power, expressed most dramatically in love for our enemies.

As Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, the president is explicitly charged with the duty of maintaining the military, defending our borders and preserving national interests through the use of violence if necessary or expedient. If I, as a follower of Christ, could not conscientiously serve in that role, then how can I in good conscience cast my support for someone else to do that in my stead?

2. From the perspective of an Anabaptist Christian, differences among the presidential candidates are illusory. George Bush frequently appeals to the notion of compassion (a good thing, in my mind) but is also a staunch defender of capital punishment (something I think pacifists cannot support). John Kerry seems to care about the environment (so do I), but his party clearly defends abortion (again, something I think pacifists cannot support). Adding to the confusion, both candidates supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, both are committed to a “war on terrorism” that includes a very large role for the U.S. military, both have assured the American public that they are committed to some version of an “America First” perspective on the world. So which candidate is the obvious choice for pacifist Christians? We might recall that it was Jimmy Carter—the last overtly evangelical Christian in the Oval Office—who reinstated registration for the draft as a gesture of our military preparedness in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In recent years, Mennonites and Brethren have voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Republican candidacies of Reagan and Bush. Yet I wonder whether these administrations—or that of Bill Clinton—really represent the deepest values of our faith. Rather than making a dubious calculation about the “lesser of two evils” in this regard, perhaps we should consider refraining from supporting either option.

3. The “Constantianian Logic” of voting our faith. Nearly every Christian I have talked with about the subject of voting—whether they be inclined toward the Moral Majority on the right or the Sojourner alternative on the left—has insisted that there is (or should be!) a connection between one’s faith as a Christian and outcome of your vote. How we vote is an extension of our religious convictions. And we vote on the basis of these convictions because we are convinced that society would be better if people who shared our religiously-infused convictions were running the show. Although we might feel a bit uncomfortable about stating it so bluntly, what we really mean is that people who believe as we do—Christians of our ilk—should be the ones holding power and making decisions on behalf of the rest of society. The Moral Majority model of “reclaiming America for God, block by block, precinct by precinct, city by city” may strike many of you as distasteful in its swagger, but the basic logic is actually one shared by Christians on the left as well – just with a very different political content.

Yet Christians in the Believers Church tradition should be very cautious about the “Constantinian logic” embedded in these assumptions. Having frequently been on the receiving end of theocratic governments throughout our history, it would seem odd for us to be thinking now in terms of wielding the machinery of political power to advance our particular religiously-informed causes, no matter how benign, enlightened or morally “correct” our cause may be (something that Christians on both sides of the aisle assume is the case for their position).

Our tradition has served the body politic best not as magistrates, but in a prophetic role—questioning, challenging, discomfiting and tweaking those holding power, reminding them that they are ultimately accountable to God for their actions. Last year, Mennonites in the city of Goshen gained control of the city council. Four of the 7 council seats are now held by Mennonites, while the mayor (a Goshen College graduate), is a member of the Brethren church. Presumably, if the Mennonite city council members “vote their faith”—as Christian voters should do—their majority voice will soon be aligning our fair city more closely with the Kingdom of God. Yet this prospect, not surprisingly, has evoked a great deal of grumbling and consternation in a city where Mennonites compose only about 20% of the population.

“No, no!” Mennonites in the area have assured their worried neighbors. “Just because one is a Mennonite doesn’t imply that we think alike on the issues.” In fact, one council member echoed the argument offered by John F. Kennedy in the controversial presidential election of 1960 by saying [something to the effect of]: “I’m a Mennonite on Sunday, but during the week I’m a citizen of Goshen. In other words, my faith is a personal and private matter. You don’t need to worry that I will be dragging it into our city council debates or that it will determine the outcome of my vote.”

[A more consistent Anabaptist position might have been for Mennonites in the area to consciously decide not to seek out the fourth seat on the council so as to remain in a minority role.]

The insistence that local residents don’t need to worry about a Mennonite theocracy—that faith convictions somehow turn personal or universal once the candidate is in office—brings me to a fourth argument for your consideration:

4. The individualism and privacy of voting is in sharp tension with our communal understanding of faith. If we actually do believe that we should “vote our conscience”—if responsible voting entails a process of moral discernment that is rooted in Christian convictions—then Mennonites and those in the Believers Church tradition should “be of one mind” about the matter and agree to cast our vote collectively.

I know that most of us would react allergically to the notion of congregations deciding together who their members should vote for. Dragging politics into the church is unseemly; and, in fact, you could even lose your tax exempt status with the IRS if you did so! But if our faith is to have a bearing on the outcome of our choice, then shouldn’t we agree on the candidate who best embodies our understanding of God’s transformative work in the world, and cast our votes together?

On the other hand, if we are going to defend the privacy of the voting chamber and the inviolability of individual choice, then we seem to imply that the choice really of no great significance—more a matter of personal inclination or taste (“some people like white bread; some like brown bread”) than a profound expression of our faith. If voting is so important, then why shouldn’t the church’s voice in this important moral decision be more foundational to our choice than the political demagogues who currently dominate the radio and TV airwaves?

5. I would suggest that there is a symbolic and pedagogical value in not voting in national elections. In the past, members of the Believers Church tradition have paid a very high price for their “upside down” view of power—loss of property, forced emigration, imprisonment, and even martyrdom have all been a part of our collective story. Now living in the lap of the material abundance and prosperity, North American Mennonites could choose not to vote as a kind of “spiritual discipline”—a tangible reminder that our ultimate identity is not contingent upon the political process or dependent on the powers-that-be. Combined with a clear commitment to care for the sick, to feed the hungry, and to bind up the wounds of the hurting, conscientious abstention from the presidential elections could be a powerful symbol of our conviction that true power—the primary locus of God’s hand in history—resides ultimately in the gathered church, not among the policy makers in Washington DC.

Voting, after all, is not just a “right.” It is also a “rite”—a ritual of identity and loyalty binding the individual to the nation. Abstaining from presidential elections could signal to our children and to the global church that our first loyalty is to the worldwide fellowship of Christian believers, not to the nation-state.

Finally, there is a very personal dimension to my own decision not to abstain from voting—an argument that will likely not be equally compelling to everyone. I happen to be passionately interested in politics: I read the papers regularly, follow the debates, and closely track the progress of each presidential campaign. As a 12 year old in 1972, I supported George McGovern’s campaign against Richard Nixon with a deep passion; and I was crushed by Nixon’s landslide victory that year when it seemed so obvious to me that he was misguided about Vietnam, callous toward the poor, and outright unethical in his campaign practices. I recognize in myself a strong temptation to become deeply enmeshed in the world of politics – to the point where I could easily believe that the most important force for change in the world really does reside in Washington or Ottawa or Tokyo or London … rather than in the gathered church where “Jesus is Lord.” So for me, not voting is a kind of spiritual discipline; a conscious restraint on my natural impulse to give electoral politics more attention than it truly deserves.

Before I close, let me consider—and very quickly respond to—at least one counter-argument that probably have some of you at the edge of your seats already (I know that this is not a very popular position to take!)

Some of you will think this to be an ethically naďve, if not arrogant, position. Abstaining from voting does not make you any less culpable or responsible for political decisions of those in power. In fact, if anything, it makes you more accountable for these decisions because you did not speak out in support or opposition to those who are acting on behalf of the general society. All of us—voters and non-voters alike—are implicated in a thousand different ways in the political structures of our country. To pretend that you can somehow “disengage” or claim some high ground of moral purity by not voting is disingenuous at best, and outright irresponsible at worst.

For the record, let me simply say that I agree that there is no place of moral purity for the pacifist Christian—yes, we are indeed implicated in the shadow sides of power and affluence; we are woven into the fabric of our communities. Because of this, I believe with every fiber of my being, that the gospel of peace calls us into the world – not to flee from it. My case against voting is not an argument for turning our back on the world’s brokenness. Far from it. I think Christians—and especially Christians in the Believers Church tradition—should devote their lives to the healing work of reconciliation: in their families and congregations, in their communities and countries, and in the world.

God loves this world – and we should be actively, creatively, passionately going about the work of extending God’s compassion to our neighbors and around the world. Christians care about the polis. But should not allow narrow definitions of “political involvement” to set the terms for how Christians should express their care for the polis.

Being “political” as a Christian can take many, many forms beyond that of active participation in a presidential campaign that culminates in a vote. The scope of these activities is extremely broad: you might choose to get involved, for example, in your local neighborhood association; or encourage your congregation to support homeless families through the Interfaith Hospitality Network; or volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. Consider giving a portion of your life in service to BVS or MCC; becoming a foster parent; adopting a child; becoming a surrogate grandparent to a child in a dysfunctional family; testifying before a legislative committee out of your MCC experience on the ground in Sudan; or speaking to your congressperson about what you have seen in your mission trip to Central America or your CPT experience in Hebron. But do all this not as a Democrat or a Republican, but as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, do this as a conscious ambassador of your congregation—which is part of Christ’s incarnate body in this broken world—do this as follower of the Prince of Peace who rules “not by might, nor by power but by the spirit of the living God.”

In the end, I do not wish to imply that my brothers and sisters in the church who go to the polling booths this November are being unfaithful Christians or are somehow turning their backs on the whole weight of the Anabaptist tradition. And I readily acknowledge that my convictions against voting are much stronger for presidential campaigns than local elections regarding county commissioners, school boards, or tax levies.

But as the airways continue to grow foggy with appeals to our pocketbooks and our allegiance—as passions mount, and partisan appeals become increasingly reckless and extreme—I urge us to enter cautiously into the arena of national politics; to withhold absolute judgment about God’s will in regards to any particular candidate; and to give at least some passing consideration to an older tradition of conscientious abstention from this national ritual.