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Are Christian Voters Soldiers Entangled in Civilian Affairs?
Posted By Thabiti Anyabwile On October 23, 2012 @ 10:44 am In Christianity and politics | 63 Comments
So the debates are over (praise God), but the debating continues (come Lord Jesus!). During the campaign season, chances are you’ve been the target of some billion dollars in campaign advertising. We’re the imagined voter in some focus group meeting. We’ve become the critical pawn to be moved in some campaign strategy session. We’re the intended audience of the largest and most sophisticated media communications effort ever in the history of the world. Never before has there been so much spent on trying to say what we want to hear without actually saying what we want to hear. Never has there been a more studied effort at performance, appearance, suggestion, posturing, and styling while “pivoting,” “spinning,” “ducking,” and “redirecting” away from substance.
Now we’re in the sprint to the polling booth–most of us. And we’re shuffling into that makeshift stall, if we’re Christians, with some mixture of hope and unbelief. We hope our vote matters, if for no other reason than to slow the tide of corruption. But many quietly doubt it will.
Last night following the debates I asked a couple sincere questions on my twitter account:
When you check your ballot, will you really be voting ur confidence in the candidate’s positions, or just hoping he might not make it worse?
Serious question: Which candidate has really represented your values/ideals in these high-profile debates? Which values? Which has failed u?
I didn’t receive many responses. That’s okay. I think I know the answer for a great many people. Most will be hoping things don’t get “worse” and few feel either candidate really made a bold, flat-footed, barrel-chested stand for their values and ideals. I observed social conservatives disappointed in Mitt’s whiff of the abortion issue in debate two. I read tweets from political liberals disenchanted with Obama’s use of drones in foreign conflict. I could go on. But you get the picture. Most voters are settling.
And most of us will rationalize our settling by saying a few things to ourselves. These are the only two choices we have. Or, Voting for the lesser of two evils is an effort to stem the tide. Or, There’s one candidate that’s clearly better on the social issue(s) I care about. You’ll know that this is a rationalization for you if you say these things with the nagging suspicion that there’s gotta be more mixed with a pang of uncertainty in your conscience. My hope for us all is that even if one or more of those reasons tip us into the voting booth, we might have a deeper resolution to fight for something positively better next election, not just something a little less bad.
Some others will vote in a couple weeks because they’ve heard and perhaps believe that not voting is not an option. It’s fine if people feel that way, too. If you feel a moral ought when it comes to voting, do what you believe to be right. Even write and speak to convince others that voting is right, morally good, even morally necessary.
But I don’t hold that view. Nor do I believe that speaking against the system while not voting is less effective than speaking against the system then voting. I think that position, while I respect it, fails on two counts. First, it seems to me to assume that the fundamental freedom and action that most necessarily needs to be exercised is the vote itself. It seems to suggest that speaking alone is empty or at least incomplete. But the right of free speech comes prior to and is fundamental to voting, which is simply another form of speaking. The most necessary thing is that we speak, not that we vote. The more effective thing in a democratic society that prizes the free exchange of ideas isn’t the private, quiet, sometimes symbolic act of voting. The more effective thing is shouting from the rooftops, banging the drums or pots, repeatedly delivering the message, enacting a little civil disobedience that challenges the powers of complacency and complicity. The most effective weapon in the campaign of ideals are words, not ballots. Ballots have their place but only if they reflect what people are speaking.
Moreover, it seems to me that if we really believe the system is broken but we vote anyway, we simply nullify our contention that the system is broken. Now, we may not believe it’s “that broken,” and so we vote. Praise God. I support you if you feel that way. But if you think the farce of national democratic elections has reached an almost irretrievable state of disrepair, corrupted by big money on both sides and fundamentally manipulative and insincere in its presentation of candidates, then to vote could only end in one outcome no matter who is elected–the further entrenchment of the brokenness we decry. The vote becomes a veto. In that case, the ballot is empty and the voice is empty. You can’t decry a thing sincerely and then comply with the thing secretly. We can’t hope to bring change or reform by continuing practices and patterns that are themselves part of the problem. Broken systems call for genuine fixes.
It seems to me there are two routes forward for this Christian: either a new kind of party or a new kind of candidate. The old parties and the old candidates are the problems. I fully realize that transformational figures only come along every so often. And I realize that in our instant, frenzied, critical media age even the most transformational persons and moments are fleeting. But that’s what we need, even if fleeting, and even if only to remind us of higher possibilities, possibilities that keep us from being dulled and lulled into the low level of discourse and life now taken for granted in our political discourse.
And by “we,” I mean the country generally and Christians specifically. It’s been a study in worldliness to read a great many tweets, posts, and comments from Christian leaders. Some of us have forgotten that apostolic admonition: “No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs–he wants to please his commanding officer” (2 Tim. 2:4). I don’t for a minute believe Paul there advocates a withdrawal from society or civic rights. Not for a minute. But I do maintain that this admonition and so many others provide us a clear warning against entanglement with the world, entanglement with affairs outside the soldier’s concern, entanglements that distract us from the true warfare and our Captain’s orders. When the pastor or church leader’s tweets are all retweets not of a biblical perspective or of another Christian leader’s insights and analysis but of the one-liners and zingers and character assassinations of the world’s pundits and the world’s wisdom, we are “involved in civilian affairs” the way civilians are and we are entangled with the world. When the pastor or leader writes in such a way that they are easily mistaken as party loyalists rather than discerning voters, then they are involved in civilian affairs and potentially seduced by the world’s siren song. When the Christian leader’s comments reflect the vitriol and venom, the poison beneath the lips of asps and vipers, then we’re taken by the world in a most deadly way. The “Christian” commentary has left the world with the impression, once again, that to be a Christian is to be a Republican. It’s fostered the impression that to be a Democrat is to be an anti-Christ. And it’s gone further: It’s sometimes suggested that there’s nothing supernatural about being a Christian–all our concerns are just the world’s concerns thinly veneered with religious language but seeping with the same hatreds, anger, and violence. We not only need better candidates to represent our concerns, but some of us need to better represent Christ before we start evaluating the candidates.
Meanwhile, the Mormon presidential candidate on the Republican ticket walks off with the evangelical Christian’s vote tucked deeply in pocket with barely a hat tip to their concerns and issues–even when asked to speak to it directly, freely, and personally. Perhaps he simply feels you’re the “base” of his support and so you’d understand if he’s a little quieter about the things you care about in order to “get the swing voters” or “win a battleground state.” I’d simply suggest that being “the base” can mean your issues are debased. So far, I don’t see evangelical Christians being very shrewd about the political world, shrewd enough to protect their own interests with a candidate who can’t win without them. And that’s the reality. Romney can’t win without you; it’s not that you can’t win without Romney. May we never forget the order of things! And may we never stop thinking carefully about what “winning” is. Winning isn’t the election of a Republican. Winning is the advancement of the gospel, the sewing of a biblical vision of the ‘good life’ in American life and culture, the strengthening and spread of the cause of Christ through His Church, a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. That’s a far loftier goal than either electing Romney or defeating Obama, and it doesn’t depend on who “wins” the election when neither candidate really represents you. And though the country rightly has no religious litmus tests for candidates, and though the election of a Mormon president signals a kind of plurality that many believe to be healthy and welcome, I struggle to believe that the election of a Mormon president and thereby the normalization of a cult can be good for the kingdom. And, we shouldn’t single out the BGEA here. If we stop for a moment to count, we’ll see that many Christian leaders removed Mormonism from their cult list as soon as Romney appeared to be the likely candidate. They removed it by no longer talking about it as a cult and by encouraging others to ignore it.
On the other side of the aisle, other Christians are taken hostage, too. It’s been interesting to note the many reports of African Americans quietly disgruntled with Obama. But like White evangelicals who’ve largely attached their fortunes to Gov. Romney while ignoring Mormonism, almost all African Americans have hitched their wagon to the Obama train while ignoring the massive-scale destruction of black life through abortion and the equally problematic theology of the President. Some of those who’ve complained have faced significant backlash, and others have perhaps complained about the wrong things–“He hasn’t done enough for the Black community.” Still other Black church leaders have led the charge in fighting for a view of “rights” and a view of life that’s completely anathema to our Lord’s word. And when zero percent of the African American community polls for Romney (when Bush received 8 percent and 11 percent, and even Reagan received 3 percent in ’84), the jury is in on to what extent “race” and ethnicity are at play in this election.
Idols abound on both sides and across ethnic groups. Most necessary of all is a Christian voting public free of idols and blind, voluntary political enslavement.
So, what of all this? In short, it means I don’t have a political home and I need to fight to create one. It won’t likely be in either of the two major parties. It won’t be created by checking so much of who I am at the polling curtain and ticking a few blanks out of a vague sense of duty or an even vaguer hope that “this might work.” Home won’t be found as an independent, unhitched to anyone or anything besides my own ramblings. Thus begins a new political sojourn for me. I’m looking for a home with others who’ll leverage their voices and eventually their votes into something that looks, smells, walks, and talks like a Christian view of the good life. I am an idealist and an optimist. Shame on us all if we believe on Christ and we’re not all idealists and optimists.
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