Now that the 2002 midterm elections are safely behind us and the new Congress has settled down to work, this might be a useful moment to reflect, from a Christian perspective, on one of the signal activities of American democracy—voting. There is a question that neither theory nor practice has ever adequately answered: Why exactly should anybody vote?

The question may seem a strange one in a nation where pundits so often lament our low voter turnouts, but it raises issues more difficult than we may think. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stigler of the University of Chicago quite famously declined to exercise his franchise because the likelihood that his vote would make the difference in any election for public office was nil.

By and large, our responses to this argument are weak. First, we tend to say something like this: "What if everybody felt that way?" But this is no answer at all, because not everybody does.

Another answer, offered by the late Judith Shklar in her marvelous book on the marks of citizenship, is that we vote in order to prove that we are Americans. The practice thus becomes a tool for distinguishing those of us who are citizens of this great nation (and therefore can vote) from those who are not (and therefore cannot). But this argument can explain at best why so many people do vote, not why any particular individual should.

Over the years, many evangelicals have declined to use their votes. As recently as the middle of the 20th century, many preachers took the position that electoral politics was a part of the sinful world, from which believers needed to be protected. Therefore it was better for Christians not to participate. The state would keep order, they reasoned, and the church of God would ...

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Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
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