(Update: a follow-up post can be found here: A clarification and a correction on voting)
This may at first sound fatalistic or even nihilistic, but I’m here to argue the point anyway: For the Bible-believing Christian in America in 2020, your vote (probably) doesn’t matter very much.
I’m not just saying this because of the lack of difference it is likely to make in the final tally of our upcoming national elections (though it’s part of the picture, as I’ll touch on again shortly). But I’m saying it because I’m eager to see voting and politics put in their proper place within the Christian life.
Now, of course, there are really good reasons for wanting to vote (some of which Chris detailed in his post last week). It is perfectly fitting and good to desire to see the good of one’s own society. When we see things that concern us in one direction or another, it is very reasonable to want to do something about them. It is good to care about the flourishing of our neighbors in their day-to-day lives and consider how to take measures to protect and promote that. It is good to want the law to be upheld; to want the government to play by the same rules as everyone else; and for no one to be taken advantage of by people in power. It is good to want those who are helpless to be protected and those who do wrong to be punished.
When we have such concerns, we naturally want to do something about them. Voting, being the direct way of putting people into authority to tend to such matters, seems like a natural response.
It’s also true that elections themselves can absolutely be consequential. Major shifts in policy and governance can occur by one party or person being elected to power over another. It’s not wrong to recognize that these shifts can have real-world effects upon hundreds of millions of people in our own country and, often, billions around the world.
But rather than tempering our expectations for how effective our vote will be in bringing about the outcome we want, or carefully measuring how much concern we need to give to elections despite their consequences, we often put a disproportionate emphasis on these things in our own personal interest and activity. I want to consider why that’s the case and how to correct it.
Why is this the case? Why do we give voting and politics such a disproportionate position in the Christian life?
One major reason is that there are many loud voices with an interest in getting you to vote. Rather than simply speaking about it as one small thing out of many in your life, these voices want you to think that it is the most important thing you can do. News sites that want you to come back over and over again to click on their articles about every possible facet of the election. Political candidates and parties who want your money and your vote because, after all, this is “the most important election in [some period of time].” And, of course, there is Facebook, who doesn’t seem to realize that I didn’t sign up for that platform in order to be pestered with a random string of numbers and a reminder to register and vote – a practice I’ve already been doing for 20 years.
Another reason voting gets so much attention among Christians (and others) is that political interest is generally easier than the hard work of personal spiritual transformation. In politics, you are the external, sometimes-dispassionate arbiter of who is the best candidate – maybe even the “right” or the “wrong” candidate. You can support and criticize, rejoice and blame – but none of it ever intrinsically requires you to give up a single false belief or ungodly attitude. So of course it’s easier to read about the latest thing that this or that candidate said or didn’t say, rather than to read God’s word or a Bible-based book about how to be gracious in your speech or how to serve your church more consistently. Politics demands essentially nothing more of your effort than your willingness to put your hope in it, and to turn out at the ballot box every two-to-four years.
In fact, there’s just enough morality and impact upon others involved in the governmental system that we can give this kind of attention to it while still justifying it as primarily a matter of ethical interest: We care about politics because we care about our country! This may be partly true. But is it really that simple?
In reality, for many, political interest may actually be little more than entertainment and self-righteousness masquerading as societal concern. We need to examine our own hearts and our reasons for why we pay attention, and see if they measure up to God’s standard.
Thirdly, voting and politics also draw our attention because focusing on and complaining about your circumstances is a lot easier than taking ownership about how you respond to these circumstances. We are a culture that likes to blame others for our problems. Everyone is a victim of what someone else has done to them. If something needs to change, it’s the other people; as Calvin (the comic strip character, not the theologian) once said concerning New Year’s resolutions: “Why should I change? In fact, I think it’s high time the world started changing to suit me! I don’t see why I should do all the changing around here!” A focus on changing our circumstances through government can easily outweigh a concern to do what’s right in the face of whatever circumstances you find yourselves in. Christians should not have this priority, however, and should instead recognize that our personal responsibility to respond in a godly way to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.
Finally, it’s easier for politics to take a disproportionate place in our life because even the good things we desire – such as wanting government to operate a certain way or wanting good leaders to be elected – can easily tempt us to get out of balance and too focused on certain things over against others.
In response to our temptation to overvalue politics and voting, we should consider several biblical reasons why our individual votes are a lot less important than we might think:
- Nowhere in the Bible is voting commanded.
On the one hand, that’s because of the form of government of the day when the Bible was written. On the other hand… it still isn’t commanded. And unless it’s commanded, it’s difficult to make the case that it is as important as the things God has actually, directly commanded.
For Americans, voting is a civic privilege, not a civic duty or obligation.
It is not a law in the United States (or the State of Tennessee, where I live) that you must vote. As such, it’s not a matter of disobeying or disobeying the government to choose whether or not to vote in governmental elections.
In fact, there are many other things that you could do according to the law of our land, but you don’t do.You have the right to speak freely, but you don’t always speak at every chance you get. You have the right to peaceably assemble, but you may not do this every time you have the opportunity. You have the right to bear arms, but you might not always have a gun on you (Okay, though… some of you might!).
You should not feel compelled by God or by legal statute to go cast a vote, or, even more, to agonize and spend countless hours researching and worrying about your vote as if you have to do it.
- No national election in our country has ever been decided by the vote of a single individual voter.
This is a pragmatic reason, but it’s still true.
I was there in 2000 when George W. Bush won the presidential election by defeating Al Gore in Florida by the razor-thin margin of… 537 votes. Quite a number more than one!
The chances of a single vote being the difference-maker in a national election are non-zero, to be sure; and yet they are infinitesimal. But “What if…?“, you ask? It’s true, perhaps your vote may be the deciding one. It’s not technically impossible. But making a decision based on such an astronomical “What if” scenario is almost always an unwise decision. What other things with this small of a chance of happening do you take such care for? Do you stay home every day because there’s some chance you’ll die in a car crash (a greater chance, no doubt, than being the single deciding vote in a presidential race)?
How much time and attention are you going to give to something with an infinitesimal chance of making any functional difference in the outcome? Good stewardship of our time demands that we ask these questions.
Perhaps, then, if our vote is unlikely to directly affect the final outcome, we still need to feel compelled to vote the right way out of principle, right? Not necessarily, because…
- The Bible doesn’t tell us what a vote implies
People vote for different candidates for many, many different reasons.
Some look at the character of a candidate and assess what is most trustworthy or competent. Some look at the candidate’s platform and decide how that person will influence legislation and policy. Some look at how likely it is that such a candidate will help appoint other people (i.e. judges) that this voter prefers. Some consider how likely a candidate is to actually keep campaign promises.
Others want someone who follows the voter’s religion. Still others weigh more heavily the potential damage that would be caused by a potential officeholder who has a distorted or hypocritical version of that same religion.
There are still others who think of their vote as a protest against the “establishment”; as an effort to break up the two-party system; or as a long-term play if they think they’ll get 8 years out of a better future candidate from their preferred party rather than 4 years of a bad candidate from their party who causes backlash in the next election cycle.
We must beware of oversimplifications on this point. It is essential that Christians understand that a vote for a particular person is not necessarily an endorsement of that person’s character, insight, policy positions, or any other specific thing about them. Electoral calculus is complicated, and each person approaches voting decisions differently, which is within the range of our liberty as an activity that is neither commanded nor forbidden by God.
Therefore, while there is wisdom to be used in every decision that goes beyond the black and white pages of Scripture, and we can definitely have bad motives for voting one way or another, a vote doesn’t necessarily mean anything one way or another about your faithfulness to God.
So if all of these things mean that voting has less significance than we might otherwise ascribe to it, what is more important for us to consider? What does God actually care about more than our vote, and what should we give more concern to?
- Following the direct commands in Scripture about how to respond to government, including:
- Praying for the salvation of government leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
- Praying for the government to let us freely practice Christianity (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
- (Note that nowhere are we instructed to vote for this, although it is surely permitted; but we are instructed to pray for it. Are you spending more time praying for this, or worrying about bringing it about through your hopes and vote?)
- Paying taxes (Romans 13:6-7)
- Obeying the law (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Titus 3:1)
- Speaking honorably of government leaders (Titus 3:1-2)
- On the basis of Exodus 22:28, Paul himself affirmed that he would not have spoken as he did toward Ananias – an evil man who had just instructed Paul to be struck for no legitimate reason – if he knew that he was a government leader (Acts 23:1-5).
It is all too easy for Christians to neglect these direct commands about government while claiming a moral imperative to vote according to their conscience or according to “biblical principles”.
- Spending our time doing what the Bible commands and prioritizes
If we are in government, then by all means we should prioritize that role as a task that we have to do for that time period in our lives. But, more generally speaking, we have a kingdom that is not of this world, which is far greater than anything that we could establish here (Hebrews 13:14)
- Fulfilling our biblical roles and responsibilities – the ones that are explicitly commanded:
Are you a spouse? Are you a parent? Are you an employee? Are you a neighbor?
Total up the amount of time you spent trying to be informed about what was happening in this election cycle. (And while you’re at it, be realistic as to how likely it was that you were ever going to vote any way other than what you ended up doing! Did you really, honestly need more information?)
Now think what you might be like as in one of those roles if you had spent the same amount of time reading, thinking, praying, and talking about your attitudes and your conduct as in that role.
What is your real sphere of influence? And what in those areas are you neglecting out of a disproportionate amount of attention being given to politics? Consider where political interest has caused you to neglect faithfulness to your God-given roles and responsibilities, and repent where you need to.
- Trusting God with outcomes
We often invest our concern into elections, even once we have voted, like a sports fan really hoping that his team wins – although, in this case, the real-world stakes are higher. In all this focus upon what the results will be, it is easy to cultivate a neglect of trusting God with what we can more or less do nothing about, and instead to be anxious (Philippians 4:6-9).
While it’s okay to care about things, and having concern for something, or even taking action, doesn’t always conflict with trusting God, we should be careful to ensure that we are doing what God has told us with respect to trusting him no matter what (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
Now, so that you don’t think that I’m telling you not to vote, I should say that I actually plan to go to early voting and to cast my ballot in the next few days. I’m thankful to have the privilege, and I look forward to participating in our election system!
But I have a lot of other things I’m planning to do between now and then that should matter to me a lot more than my vote. And I hope you’ll consider that, for you, the same thing is almost certainly true as well.