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.