Sunday, March 14, 2010

Is Voting Overrated?

Over at Psychology Today, Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, explains why he doesn't vote:

I refrain from voting in order to do my work better. I am a social scientist, specifically a social psychologist. I also want to understand the big picture, how all the specific facts we study and research fit together. Political allegiances make it harder to be open-minded in seeking the truth...

Voting, and everything that goes with it, requires you to want one side to be better. Wanting introduces bias. My goal is to see the truth without bias, and toward that end, it is best not to want. It is helpful not to take sides.

I want to know the truth more than I want to change the world. At bottom I am not out to change the world - I am just intensely curious. The way I look at it, life is too short for me to waste any time clinging to opinions once they are shown to be wrong.

Baumeister's observations about bias and truth-seeking are extremely helpful. As a social scientist, he is pointing out how important it is to strive for objectivity and neutrality and how tremendously difficult it is to actually achieve it. EasyYolk is challenged by these observations and humbly admit that we, too, are led astray by our passion to make the world a more just, compassionate and peaceful place to live, work, worship and play.

However, although his conclusion may be appropriate for his unique calling, EasyYolk is determined to represent a brand of spiritual-activism that is both truth-seeking and world-changing. We understand that this is a difficult tension to live in, but this tension is what Jesus of Nazareth lived and died for and it is the vocation he calls us to today. As we learn more about our world and wrestle with the implications, we campaign, advocate and vote for what brings more liberation, hope, peace, love and compassion to those at the margins of our society. Voting is a small, yet vital, aspect of faithful living. In the end, Baumeister's proposal smacks of a kind of unacknowledged privilege for him. He can stay on the political sidelines and do his work and earn his paycheck while injustice and economic exploitation are perpetuated by certain policies espoused by our political leaders. Baumeister's stance is political because he is quite content that nothing changes in our world. Those who pay heed to Baumeister's advice are voting for the status quo.

For very different reasons, Alasdair MacIntyre doesn't vote either. The Catholic Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Notre Dame wrote an essay 4 years ago advocating for Americans to protest the lack of ethical options between GOP and Democratic packages:

...a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote cast for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives. The way to vote against the system is not to vote.

MacIntyre reasoned that American Christians should embrace policies that are both pro-life (from conception onwards) and economically just. Since neither political party embraced both of these stances (as defined by MacIntyre) then we should boycott the whole enterprise. Perhaps conviction leads some of us Jesus-followers to do just that, but EasyYolk would counter that a "no-vote" inevitably leads to non-engagement with the whole political conversation. We agree with MacIntyre that we should press and prod to reframe the political dialogue, changing what are assumed to be the questions. However, we have observed that this kind of proposal leads to more of the political cynacism and apathy that is rampant in the US today.

We think a better proposal, a Third Way, comes from the late Mennonite Professor of Ethics at Notre Dame John Howard Yoder. Back in 1976, he suggested that Christians use our vote consistently and more creatively, yet less seriously, as we understand more and more how little power "we the people" actually have in a democratic-oligarchy like the United States. Since the 4th century, Christians have turned to "Constantinian" methods of managing the world for God. These methods have led, over and over as history attests, to unfaithfulness to the way of Jesus and limited the influence of the church. How did Christian recover control of the Holy Land? Kill the Muslims! How did Christians end World War II quicker? Bomb the Japs! How did Christians save the sanctity of marriage and unborn babies? Vote for Bush! We need to learn from these outcomes by thinking more holistically and humbly about what it means to be politically Christian. Yoder calls his alternative proposal "chastened relativism":

[Voting] is one way, one of the weaker and vaguer ways, to speak truth to power. We may do well to support this channel with our low-key participation, since a regime where it functions is a lesser evil (all other things being equal) than one where it does not, but our discharge of this civil duty will be more morally serious if we take it less seriously.

Yoder, as always, roots the real political engagement in local faith communities that are dedicated to the politics of Jesus. We can best change the world by "the ripple effect," living out the reign of God, alternatively, creatively, and patiently, waiting for God to change the rest of society. Yoder placed the main emphasis on what he called "non-electoral styles of witness:"

...pilot enterprises with alternative solutions,
...occasional nonviolent obstruction,
...prophetic pastoring of honest persons in high places,
...lobbying for the unrepresented "widow and orphan"
...the molding of consciousness through information.

What about voting on the "Christian issues?" Yoder says this should be rare:

We shall remain open to the possibility of single-issue vote where Christians
across the nation ought to unite with one voice, but we shall not expect this case to be frequent.

At any rate, voting remains one very small limited aspect of what it means for a Christian disciple to be "political." We need more unique voices and lifestyles like Baumeister, MacIntyre and Yoder who challenge us to shift our rather simplistic understandings about going to the polls on election day. Spiritual activism requires all sorts of imaginative thinking and activities that will not only transform the world, but ourselves in the process.

--Theological Autopilot


  1. Dave, thanks for the resources. You know I'm not afraid to use some of these in my classroom!

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