This presidential election serves as an invitation for Christians to reconsider the grounds of our political participation. At no other time in memory have both major party candidates been so unfavorable. As surveys indicate, many voters will go to the polls, not to vote for a candidate, but to vote against a candidate. As one commentator put it, “Forget ‘which candidate would you rather have a beer with.’ This year, many voters are going to base their pick on who ‘they’d like to throw a beer at.’”
For Christians, the historic negativity of this election is compounded by the stark reality that neither major party candidate exhibits the beliefs and practices of the evangelical community, a notable change from the commonplace appeals to evangelicals in the elections of the past several decades. The sense of alienation that results may cause Christians to go to the polls out of anger, voting against a candidate or in protest of both. Or, in their despondency, Christian voters may not show up to the polls at all.
Yet, if we feel disempowered as individual voters, we should not be discouraged. The individual vote has never been particularly consequential. The vast majority of electoral races are foregone conclusions: Only 90 of the 435 congressional districts up for election in 2014 were considered “competitive,” and even these were decided by a vote margin up to 5 percent. For those fortunate enough to live in a competitive electoral context such as a swing state, the sheer size of the electorate renders the possibility of one voter being the deciding factor statistically infinitesimal. Acting as if a single vote were consequential is equivalent to playing the lottery.
Firmer and more positive grounds for political participation are needed. What is needed is a change in perspective, one that places participation on a foundation that is truly distinct to Christianity, one that takes seriously the limitations of the individual voter and the decreasing political influence of Christianity, and one that affirms the Sovereign ordination of the democratic regime under which we live.
Applying Virtues to Voting
A stronger and more positive perspective for thinking about civic obligation can be found in virtue ethics. Instead of approaching ethical questions in terms of specifiable rules or in terms of the consequences of one’s actions, virtue ethics asks which virtues one ought to possess. Virtues are understood as durable dispositions of character that reliably inform how we act. In short, virtue ethics does not ask what we ought to do, but asks what we ought to be.
This perspective is thoroughly consistent with Christianity, and for many centuries was the dominant thinking of the church. When Jesus summarizes the law in Matthew 22, he effectively recasts the law as a list of actions that would occur, given a particular kind of character. This is what makes Christ’s sacrifice so consequential; without it, our disposition to sin, based in our rejection of God, would remain without hope of change.
The same perspective ought to be applied when putting Paul’s call in Romans 13:1–6 into practice.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
Paul enumerates how Christ’s followers would act if they fully accepted that God is the creator of political communities. If you accept that governments are involved in God’s sovereign plan, you naturally seek to develop dispositions of character to reflect this fact. This is the virtue of civic engagement. While God calls us to develop this character of civic engagement no matter the time and place, our specific actions depend upon the regime under which we live. To be civically engaged in Nero’s Roman Empire looks somewhat different than being civically engaged in our American democracy.
At its core, a democracy—even one such as our own that contains a complex scheme of representation and division—places authority in its people. Voting is the activity that defines democracy; citizens are called to reflectively consider what is best for the community and to express this judgment in a vote. As such, while voting would not be the only thing an engaged citizen would do, it is the very least that would be done.
If Christians accept that God has ordained our democracy, we then desire to possess a character of civic engagement that reflects this fact, driving us to learn about our society and to consider in prayer the best course for our nation. Not only should we feel compelled to vote, we should desire to vote, joyfully accepting the civic task involved in living in a democracy.
Engaging Wholeheartedly: Votes of Affirmation
What would a vote look like were it cast by someone who is joyful and wholehearted in their participation? We call this a vote of affirmation, a positive declaration that there is a candidate who is better. While no candidate is without flaws, we advocate for Christians to holistically weigh and rank candidates based upon the complete set of policy positions and character traits that relate to elected office. If your vote reflects this comparative judgment, your vote is not an affirmation of the individual candidate; it is an affirmation of the idea that this candidate is preferable to all others. By understanding the task of voting as a comparative judgment, the affirming voter never thinks of disengagement as an option, and with this attitude manifests the virtue of civic engagement.
From this perspective, there is no meaningful difference between your dream candidate and the candidate you reluctantly vote for. Both the dreamy and the deplorable are categorically the same: imperfect candidates that you deem better than the rest. This is not a radical suggestion; no matter how great the candidate, no vote can ever represent more than a sign of preference, for in a sinful world, there has never been and never will be a perfect candidate. It is a mistake therefore to critique from afar and disengage from earthly activities and relationships while we await the ideal individual. To abstain and wait for the “perfect” candidate is not only naive, it represents a heart that is in some measure set against the regime ordained by God.
A vote of affirmation reflects our desire to be engaged, whether our vote is actually consequential or not. The affirming voter acts as if hers is the only vote being cast. Christians are therefore free from the strategic pressures of voting, and should not vote for a less preferred candidate who simply has a greater likelihood of winning an election. This form of voting is not affirming, and it wrongly focuses upon the consequential impact of a single vote. Even when just two parties dominate an election, all candidates are in principle permissible for consideration.
The affirming voter also does not place exclusive focus upon any one issue. Many voters rightfully assign greater weight to some issues when ranking their preferred candidate. But such an approach often leads to disengagement, as the voter ceases to engage in reflective deliberation on the other issues involved. Christianity offers a comprehensive redemptive vision. Our vote choice ought to reflect this fact.
Finally, the affirming voter does not use the vote as a form of protest. Protesting is a valuable form of political engagement, and is an essential tool to raise awareness for those who are disempowered. But protest is inconsistent with voting. Voting is the act of choosing those individuals you think ought to rule; to protest against the available options is to not vote at all. More importantly, by protesting against the available options, one refuses to seriously engage in the central civic task God has placed in front of us.
Making the Vote Meaningful
We recognize that the act of engagement described here is no easy task, especially in this election. How can I pursue justice in my vote when I feel all the candidates repeatedly oppose justice? How can I be affirming when it seems there is very little to positively affirm? How can I engage in politics if the political system repeatedly harms my community?
These are reasonable concerns. But disengaging from this essential civic task will not make our pursuit of justice any easier or more effective. Even if we think that refusing to engage in our imperfect politics is a meaningful stand, we must remember that our civic engagement has profound meaning.
Because votes of affirmation reflect our desire to accept God’s sovereignty in politics, the act of voting is truly consequential. No longer should we understand the importance of our vote to be limited to Election Day or made worthless every time we “lose.” The vote is important beyond Election Day, for it is a meaningful manifestation of our inward character. By understanding that one is powerless over ultimate consequences, our civic engagement becomes an act of worship to a providential God who is sovereign over all things, politics included.
Following from this, Christians ought to be principal leaders in civility regardless of electoral context. First, only God can perfectly judge whether a given vote is affirming and truly shows an engaged character that reflects on what ought to be. Second, because an election cannot frustrate God’s plan, there is nothing to gain from hostile argument and broken relationships over differences in political opinion.
We ought to critically engage our neighbors and use these discussions to inform our affirming vote choice, but only in a constructive manner that seeks out truth, not cheap political points. Because of God’s sovereignty, we are free to affirm one candidate while building community with our neighbor who voted for another candidate.
We are blessed with a uniquely Christian motivation to fully live out our democratic citizenship. Shouldn’t our civic life be a sign of distinction, a proclamation of the transformative power of Christ? In this election, do not vote in anger or apathy. Instead, take heart and be joyful as you vote in affirmation.
Joel E. Landis is a doctoral candidate in political theory and American politics at the University of California–Davis. Timothy W. Taylor is an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College.