Here’s a question I didn’t expect to hear so much when I moved to China: “Which do you prefer: McCain or Obama?”
It was the summer of 2008, and the Chinese were following the U.S. presidential election as closely as my husband and I were. I could barely keep their country’s leaders straight—given that they were all older, diminutive, bespectacled men who never smiled—but they were paying attention to ours. When the global economic downturn hit a few months later, the question became even more urgent. “Who will be better for China?” they wanted to know.
When I completed my overseas ballot and used the office fax machine to send it back to the U.S., my Chinese colleagues pounced. They wanted to know whom I had voted for and why. It was an uncomfortable moment for me, trying to so publicly explain what we often see as a private decision. But I was also impressed. Our Chinese friends did not have the same democratic process, but they certainly understood it.
On Election Day, I watched the returns in China while my husband was on a business trip to India. When the results were officially announced, he sent me a message over Skype. “Everyone here is crying,” he wrote. “They’re so happy Obama won.” In India, caste and skin color continue to be principal factors in determining an individual’s lifelong educational and economic opportunities (or lack thereof). Americans’ willingness to elect a black president 44 years after the end of segregation had given hope and joy to people half a world away.
During the years I spent living abroad, I saw this truth played out over and over again: the world watches how Americans vote. They know something that we rarely acknowledge and may not even be aware of. How we vote directly affects their lives, even if the nearest bit of American soil is more than 8,000 miles away.
This is no longer the world of our grandparents, when the boundaries between nations, cultures, and economic systems were more discretely defined. Today the American banks and investment firms that fail will bankrupt households in Europe and Asia. Today the illegal drugs that Americans crave have led to the rise of criminal gangs in Central America, whose terrifying violence has caused a refugee crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Today an individual man, unaware of a virus in his bloodstream, can board a plane in Liberia and bring the Ebola crisis to the U.S. 24 hours later.
While this global interconnectedness may be something we are still trying to grapple with, people living in other countries already see how deeply linked we are. In the most remote villages in Sub-Saharan Africa, bottles of Coke and Pepsi are for sale. In movie theaters across the world, Hollywood blockbusters—sometimes subtitled, sometimes not—are playing. If you talk to individuals anywhere, they will likely have strong opinions about U.S. foreign policy and foreign aid, as well as the U.S. economy, our environmental impact, and the pervasiveness of our popular culture. How our country operates and the decisions our leaders make have significant ramifications, for better or worse, for the rest of the world. But the decisions that our leaders make always begin with the decisions that we as voters make at the ballot box.
My vote, then, is about far more than me, or my family, or my community even. Such is the privilege, responsibility, and power that we as Americans have. Our votes can affect how other people an ocean away live.
For those of us who follow Jesus, we have another big reason to take our voting responsibility seriously. The U.S. is still perceived as a Christian nation around the world. Within the church we may lament the secularization of our communities, but the reality is that 78 percent of Americans still profess to be Christian. Our political leaders invoke the name of God and no other. They very publicly attend church and court the religious vote.
How Americans vote, then, tells the rest of the world how Christians vote. It communicates what our values are. Will we vote out of fear or in favor of our wallets, as those who propagate negative political ads presume? Or will we vote for something greater, something bigger, something more Christ-like? Will we vote in a way that loves our neighbor as ourselves, that recognizes that the well-being of all of us who occupy this little planet are inextricably linked?
Like many Christians, I don’t always know how to live out my faith such that others will take notice. But the good news is that the simple act of voting in support of biblical values like compassion, justice, integrity, and generosity is in and of itself a powerful witness. It’s a witness that billions of people will see—and then experience through the policies and actions our government enacts. And it’s a witness that requires no more work than taking some time to read, think, pray, and fill in a few bubbles.
Though we aren’t electing a president this year, we are still electing more than one-third of our Senators and all of our Representatives. We’re electing 36 governors. There is no question that these individuals will influence policies that will ripple out around the globe. Your vote counts—for the sake of your neighbor, your brothers and sisters around the world, and the Kingdom.
Let’s vote like the world is watching.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor who has found healing and hope through words. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the U.S. and Asia. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. You can find her online at www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter @dorcas_ct.