This morning, Ben Witherington posted what he called “A Voter’s Guide for Thinking Evangelicals.” It clearly wasn’t meant for me, as I’m not sure I quite qualify as a “thinking evangelical.” I hope “thinking” applies, but I’m ambivalent about “evangelical.” Whatever the case, I didn’t find Witherington’s reflections particularly thoughtful in the end, but as I’m being bombarded by breathless pleas to vote at all costs by the media and by family and now by religious leaders I respect, I cannot help but respond.
Admittedly, I am paying close attention to the mid-terms, and I am deeply invested (emotionally at least) in their outcome. But the same could be said about the college football season. I have players (and increasingly a team) that I’m a fan of, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to become a booster and it definitely doesn’t mean I’m going to run out on the field to play a few downs.
But that is precisely what Witherington wants me and other thinking folk to do. It’s crucial, now more than ever, because “in some ways, this is the most important election in the 21rst century for Americans, as it is likely to determine the direction of our country for years to come.” That softener is subtle, but I didn’t miss it. We have to say “in some ways,” because we all know the last election was the most important of our life time until then. And the one before that was the last most important one. And next time will be the new most important. Ad infinitum. Inasmuch as each shapes the future of this (“our”?) country, they all matter for the rest of forever. Forgive me if I’d be a bit cynical–even if I were a voter–about this election changing the legislative course of American history in a system that very rarely accomplishes anything anymore. But you’re certainly going to struggle to convince me that everyone stands as a breaking point in American history. I’m too much of a historian to buy that logic.
Having issued the call, though, Witherington has four more pieces of advice (“VOTE!” being the first) for the thinking Christian that I think deserve to be considered on their merits.
1. Don’t vote based on party affiliation. Vote based on the morality of the candidate (as revealed by stances on the important issues).
Witherington lets you know what those important issues are, and they mostly revolve around a Christian use of money. No tax relief for the wealthy. No genuflecting before corporate donors and interests. Christians need to vote for candidates who behave like Christ if they want this to be a virtuous (Christian?) nation.
That sort of a-moral approach to dealing with things is what has been getting us in trouble for a long time and making us the laughing stock of the world. We pretend to be a virtuous country but end up electing the immoral.
The nationalism embedded in that argument is hard for me to square with Christian principles. Does Jesus really care if the US is a laughingstock? If not, should we? The bigger issue is the misguided notion that we can take a “moral” approach to politics and have “virtuous” country as a result. But, as David Lipscomb has pointed out and as I have quoted here incessantly, “there is not and never has been any principle of involving the moral or material good of the people in politics.”
In any case, the Christian obligation has never been to seek the redemption of governments or countries. Governments, the “virtuous” and the “immoral” alike, have the same eschatological fate. Destruction. They’re unlike people in this way, and for precisely this reason Christ tasked us to seek and save lost people and not to seek and save lost states. I want Ted Cruz to be a better person not so that he can be a better legislator but so that he can be a better person. Ironically, that involves him no longer being a legislator, thus killing two birds with one first-cast stone.
2. Don’t vote in such a way that rewards racial animus–on both sides.
On both sides? I should start by acknowledging my own hypocrisy here, as I have in the past expressed (and stand by) my agreement with Vernard Eller’s critique of identity politics. Perhaps that’s all Witherington was going for here. But it is hard to imagine a less appropriate time for Christians to be making an “all lives matter” style argument than when they are (unfortunately) turning up at the polls in this election. Here the philosophical wisdom of Eller (and my basic agreement with Witherington) must be balanced against the wisdom of Elie Wiesel: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
What Witherington offers is both true and not the message of the moment for Christians. Jesus ate with sinners and told them to sin no more, but it is safe to say that one of those facts resonated more loudly with the world than the other. All racism is bad, but there is a particular racism of the moment that should be attacked with special spiritual violence by the followers of Christ.
3. Christians must be consistently pro-life (before and after birth).
To which I say, amen. And what? I love that Witherington is advocating on behalf of a consistent pro-life stance; life and the proper valuation of it are key features of the Christian ethos. But being pro-life is the basis for being anti-politics. Politics is violence. Max Weber famously, and oh-so-correctly, defined the state as the “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” To be a government is to have an exclusive prevue over legitimate violence. Tolstoy, reasoning equally soundly from this to an anti-political position, put it this way:
Laws are rules made by people who govern by means of organized violence.
And this way:
Everywhere and always the laws are enforced by the only means that has compelled…some people to obey the will of others–that is by blows, by deprivations of liberty, or by murder.
Democrats and Republicans and fiery Vermont Independents are all invested in this system of violence. To vote for any of them is to invest yourself in that system as well. Our government maintains power through war, policing, and capital punishment–not by accident and not because it is less moral than it should be but because that is the essence of government. You can’t be politically pro-life, not in the consistent way that Witherington advocates. You can only be pro-life if you are anti-state. Because, and again I invoke Tolstoy, “the misdeeds of our rulers become our own if we, knowing that they are misdeeds, assist in carrying them out.”
4. The most important thing when we vote is not money but our moral integrity.
I couldn’t agree more, but then this is precisely the reason not to vote. Witherington concludes that our moral integrity is reflected in “how we vote.” I suggest, in contrast, that our moral integrity is reflected in whether we vote. To vote is already a moral capitulation to evil, and even Witherington himself cannot avoid this. He describes voting as a process of choosing “the lesser of several evils” to keep from “permitting the greater evils.” But that’s not the way evil or moral culpability works.
The idea of a gradation of evil, in which lesser evils are permissible in the face of greater evils, is a problematic concept, one without a solid biblical or theological grounding. Evil is an absolute reality; you cannot reject God just a little bit. Our choice to participate in evil (i.e. sin) is equally absolute, and it is that willful capitulation to that which is not God that constitutes the sinfulness of acts and of the people who commit them. That is why Paul doesn’t follow his declaration that “no one is righteous, not even one” with “but at least Beto isn’t as bad as the other guy.” In fact, he’s precisely trying to argue against that logic, that somehow the Jews are less evil than the Gentiles. By the law, all are sinners–not a variety of lesser or greater sinners but sinners alike. By faith, we are redeemed from that sin, again not in degrees but absolutely.
In every instance to choose evil is to reject God, and our life is a series of those absolute choices. Our culpability lies in whether we decide in each moment to turn toward God or away from God. Nothing compels us to vote, to choose (in Witherington’s own words) to do a little bit of evil in the hope of averting a bigger evil. Turning again to Romans, Paul specifically enjoins Christians not to fight evil with evil but to overcome evil with good.
Sure, it would be easier to achieve greater economic equality at the ballot box–easier for me because I have to do less and easier in the sense of being more expedient. But evil is often a more efficient means of action, whether or not it springs from good intentions. As a Christian my obligation is to confront these evils not with “lesser” evils of my own but with good. There is no reconciling the imperative to love and the election of a representative to conduct lesser acts of violence as my proxy.
In the end, I return to the analogy about college football. Yes, I’m paying attention. Yes, it matters to me. But I want certain candidates to lose the way I want Alabama to lose, because their evilness consists primarily in doing what they’re supposed to do more effectively than their opponents. Politics and civil government are predicated on the preservation of power through violence, regardless of person or party. There is truth to the argument that some politicians do evil more often than others, but the system itself does not allow for the possibility of a net good. Everyone who embeds in a system like that, everyone who actively participates, comes away an accomplice and does so to the great detriment of their moral wellbeing.
Now where’s my sticker?