Every week, from thousands of churches across the United States, requests for help are sent out. Food pantries are in need of workers and food. Women's shelters need volunteers. Children are in need of being fostered or adopted. Families are in need of financial assistance as they try to pay medical bills. And the list could go on. While the church does much good in the world, many requests go unanswered, and needs are left unfulfilled. And though I'm sure it's true that the church could do better, we also recognize that we will never be able to meet every need in such a fallen world. Decisions have to be made about how to use our time and resources in the way that best loves God and others.
Beyond food pantries, another way in which many American Christians seek to better their community is through politics. Although most Christians will never be directly involved in politics, our government provides us with the opportunity to be involved in the political process through voting. I have done a significant amount of thinking about politics and voting over the last few years. Last year I wrote an article about why Christians should consider abstention from voting. I received a lot of judgment for that piece. Simply discussing the possibility of withholding my vote was seen as complacent, irresponsible, unhelpful, unloving, unpatriotic, harmful, disrespectful, and even sinful. I continued to think about the action of abstention for over a year now, trying to put my finger on what really bothered me about the majority of responses I received. It's taken a year for me to be able to strip away the mindset that was hammered into me by my culture for my whole life and see the issue for what it truly is - political idolatry.
Before I dig in any deeper, I do want to clarify some things. I am not arguing here that abstention from voting is always the right answer. You can read my original post and see that. What I am arguing is that abstention is a moral option we have available to us which is actually the most moral or only moral option in some situations. This is particularly the case in situations where the only options we have available to us are evil options. I expound on this in my podcast on consequentialism, specifically in season 2/episode 3 where I discuss the issue with the Lesser of Two Evils ethic (a.k.a. the ends justify the means). As we move forward in the discussion, please keep that in mind and try to hear me out.
The heart of the dissonance I experienced over the last year clicked for me the other Sunday as I thought about altruism. Why, when the opportunity to feed others and be in close proximity to the needy in our community, was it fine for people to not jump at the opportunity to help? It was fine because there are a plethora of ways in which we are able to help our community, love God, and love others. Why would I judge someone for not helping in a particular way?
It seems to me that voting should be viewed in a similar manner. If I am informed about issues, candidates, foreign policy, and current events, I may be able to do some good through voting. I may be able to make an informed, moral decision which helps to advance a candidate who can legislate at a state or national level. If I am able and willing to help in that manner, then kudos to me. But if I'm not informed, if I don't desire to use my time and resources in this manner, if I believe that legislation and coercive force isn't the gospel way, if I think my time would be more effectively spent elsewhere, etc - then why should I be deemed irresponsible or immoral for refusing to vote? And if I am immoral or irresponsible for refusing to vote, how are Christians not immoral and irresponsible for every social gospel opportunity from which they abstain - food pantries and everything else?
There is an even greater irony in this to me. Voting seems far less beneficial than working at food pantries. When I voted in the 2016 election, I got one one hundred thirty-seven millionth of a vote and had no meaningful interaction with another human being in the actual voting process, because voting is an individual, discrete act - and an act which most perform only once every four years. But when someone works at a food pantry, they come into direct contact with tens or hundreds of people while meeting the needs of their immediate community and building potentially lasting relationships, often doing this with some sort of frequency. While voting for a president sounds like a lofty endeavor, the practicality of the Kingdom may often be better served by avoiding the legislative route and choosing more acts of service which build community and love others. I would rather have 10 million more food pantry workers than 10 million votes once every four years. If an election was close, 10 million more votes may help to better protect my freedoms and slightly reduce some moral ills in society (at least on the surface, though not in the heart). But 10 million more of Christ's representatives, his hands and feet, involved in the community throughout the year? That would transform some hearts and build up communities, spreading the gospel and fostering true morality through love, not legislation. Again, I am not saying here that voting is inherently bad, but rather that an inordinate amount of moral force is given to this act as opposed to acts like working at food pantries.
So why does voting get so much moral weight? I think it gets its force from the way we as a society (including Christians) have come to idolize politics. As John Howard Yoder says, it is the lever of society which we believe gives us power. If we can control and pull that lever, we are effective and can change things. Having your person in office certainly makes you feel more powerful than working in a food pantry. It feels like you're doing more. And maybe having your person in office is an objectively good thing. But it's not the only objectively good thing, nor is it necessarily the best thing. Your president may make laws, protect you, and make you feel like you have a voice, but he or she won't change hearts. That's done by the every day, tedious, Kingdom living of becoming servants and loving others. Unfortunately, just like the rest of America glories in fast food, weight loss pills, and any other service or product which gives us quick solutions, we've bought into the quick-fix that politics promises to be. It's easy to vote every four years and see this as our mandatory hope, while viewing the tedious, mundane service and relationship building as optional.goods.
I want to challenge Christians to take a fresh look at their political perspective. How does your treatment of politics betray your idolatry? How does it unmask where your true hopes and true allegiances lie? We all have to ask this question about every area of our lives, but as the political fervor heats up this year, I think it's the ideal time to search our hearts in regard to whether or not we're living as aliens in this world who only bow to another King, our only hope.