How do we think theologically about general elections?
KEVIN HARGADEN :: How do we think theologically about General Elections?
From a conservative position, we can find proof texts in the Scriptures that create an impression that we simply have to vote (for example: Romans 13:1 », Titus 3:1 », or 1 Peter 2:13 »). From a liberal position, we can find arguments about the costliness of securing the vote, either through the suffrage movements, the sacrifices of revolutionaries, or some other form of “respect authority” which can press voting as an obligation.
My inclination is always to seek out the positions that approach a question from a peculiar angle, and when you want to think about how to engage with a general election from a Christian perspective, there are few positions that are more peculiar than the one advocated by the Radical Reformation tradition. Anabaptists like the Mennonites, the Amish, or the Bruderhof would tend to avoid casting a vote at all. This might seem like an irresponsible position at first glance, but like most interesting things, it opens up in fascinating ways once we stop to consider the position. Grounded in an uncompromising ambition to live out the Sermon on the Mount, these Christian traditions refuse to participate in any function of the State that involves swearing oaths or exercising coercion.
They are not just applying a brutal literalism to the text in their rebellion. Rather, considering the injustices systemically built in to liberal democracy, they worry that to vote is to perpetuate a system that is fundamentally broken. If there is no way to vote that doesn’t deepen the harm done to the environment, intensify the inequality in our society, and expose some humans to the risk of death, then why even signal your support?
This position is not, therefore, a retreat from a responsibility to love and care for our neighbours. Rather, it is a position that argues that the best way to engage with systems of violence is to disengage.
The Anabaptist position is much more sceptical about electoral politics than is common within Irish Christianity. The Bishop of Elphin released a thorough pre-election letter to his diocese » last week which is much more positive. In it, he appeals “to everyone in our local Church communities to take seriously the social responsibility to exercise the right to vote”. How do we explain these two viewpoints that are so diametrically opposed existing within the same religion? The Anabaptist interpretation of church history tends to see the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire as a moment of great tragedy. When Constantine converted, the earthly realm did not become heavenly; the influence went the other way. By standing apart in a very visible way, these Christians intend to communicate to the world that the followers of Jesus “do not put their trust in princes” », governments, or technocrats.
Of course, the richest Catholic position does not dispute any of these points in principle. Few would dispute that Irish society would have been historically well-served had there been a more vocal minority in our churches that maintained a distance between ecclesial and temporal power. The Anabaptist position comes at us slant, but it casts light on what exactly we are doing if we do decide to vote. The Anabaptist witness reminds us that faith and politics are inextricably connected, but Christian politics is not reduced to putting some numbers in boxes every five years. The love of the our neighbour is the beginning and the end of our political life. If the decision to avoid voting is grounded in the dedication to help the poorest, most vulnerable, and most marginal in our society by protesting the business-as-usual status-quo, then we can see its clear merits.
Still, even hearing the counterpoints, most people will elect to participate in the election. The Catholic Social Tradition holds that this is a responsibility that should not be practiced lightly. The language that is used is often very Ignatian in nature; discernment features prominently. In an age of fake-news, the tradition is clear that we must seek accurate information for our discernment process, that we should consider the poorest people in our society first, and that we recognise that every decision about our shared life is a moral one – there is no way to avoid the ethical demand in voting (§569 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church »).
With that advice in mind, we at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice have produced short briefing documents » in each of the areas where we have developed expertise: the economy, the environment, prison reform, and the housing and homelessness crisis. These documents do not tell people how to vote. Rather, they seek to inform the discernment process by providing reliable information framed by the needs of those who are most vulnerable in our society. In each sector we offer three things that voters need to know, three questions voters need to ask themselves, three questions they might want to ask candidates, and crucially, three bog-standard answers they can expect in response. Our hope is that this will help Christians to think through how they can square their own values and vision for society with electoral options that might be conflicting. We want to help people cut through the spin and figure out where they want to use their vote to serve the common good and the needs of justice.
I am not an Anabaptist, but I am grateful for their principled witness. I will be voting on Saturday February 8th and I will not be leaving my faith outside the booth. After almost three years working at the intersection between theology and policy, I am more modest in my expectations about elections. My vote won’t transform the world. But I will use my voice because without it, other voices will only be louder and with it, I can raise the volume on the issues that afflict those who are most marginalised. We hope these election resources might be helpful in your democratic discernment.