[Editors’ note: This is the fourth article in an occasional series on how Christians should think about voting and the electoral process. For the first entry, click here. For the second entry, see here, and the third here.]
In preparation for answering the question of whether Christians have a civic obligation to vote, we took a look at the strange and complicated way that we choose both presidential nominees and presidents. We started there because voting is not an abstract concept. In our constitutional republic voting is an act that occurs within a system designed not only to produce an outcome (i.e., the selection of a representative) but also to affect the means of achieving that end. More specifically, in the context of American presidential elections the system is designed to limit the influence of the individual voter and to maximize the influence of factions.
Because many Americans—even many who take a special interest in politics—do not understand this point they are easily exploited by politicians and political parties. Voters may even act in a way that is directly contrary to their intentions because they do not understand that when they cast a vote they are not merely choosing a representative they are voting as a part of a faction in order to further factional interests.
Before we examine this system, though, let’s finally address the question at hand: Must a Christian vote? The position I will argue in this article and the rest of the series is that Christians are under no moral obligation to vote if doing so requires them to violate their conscience. Indeed, choosing not to violate our conscience when voting may be the best or only way we can both maintain our integrity and fulfill our civic obligation to love our neighbor. (See also: What is Conscience?)
My hope is that this claim will appear obvious, or at least less controversial, when we properly understand what voting for candidates at the presidential level entails. (In a future article I will address the “lesser evils” argument, the most common objection to my position.)
Role of Factions
So what exactly are factions? A political faction is a group of individuals united for a common political purpose. When we vote for a President we are voting, albeit indirectly, for specific individual factions (e.g., the anti-abortion faction), a “faction of factions” (i.e., a political party), and a factional representative (i.e., a political party’s nominee for President).
Let’s consider how this focus on factions might affect our decision about how decide to vote—or whether we choose not to vote at all. Here are three important factional considerations at the presidential level:
Geographical factions — When we vote on candidates at the federal level we do so by geographical factions. If you live in Athens, Texas, you vote for a congressional representative in the 5th District and U.S. senators from Texas. You are forced to vote with others in the East Texas region even if you’d prefer to vote for a candidate in Nebraska. When you vote for a presidential candidate, the process is similar in that you cast a vote for a political party delegate who will represent Texas in the Electoral College.
Our electoral system is set up in a way that recognizes geographical interests comprise their own unique faction. This is also true for the President, who represents a faction that includes all citizens of the United States.
This broad faction of 319 million citizens is unified on a narrow range of issues. At the top of this list is the generally recognized agreement that, “We should not be murdered by enemies of the United States.” This factional interest is the reason the President is given the role of commander in chief of the Armed Forces and tasked with the overseeing the general security of our nation.
Unfortunately, many Christians tend to focus on economic and social issues to the exclusion of national security concerns. But if we are to seek the welfare of our home (Jeremiah 29:7) we must give careful consideration to this choice of national protector.
The commander in chief is also able to commit American troops to an armed conflict for up to 90 days without a congressional authorization or a declaration of war. Handing the reins of the most powerful military in history to a single individual is not a decision that should be taken lightly, since it affects our neighbors both in America and across the globe.
If a candidate has failed in the past to protect national security or does not possesses the character traits necessary for prudent use of military forces, then we may choose not to support him or her for reasons of conscience.
Party-specific factions — When you cast a vote for a presidential candidate you are selecting and endorsing an individual to be the leader of a “faction of factions,” i.e., their political party.
Many voters mistakenly consider the President’s role as the leader of a political party to be mostly symbolic. But, in fact, the situation is just the opposite. As head of the party, the President is responsible for uniting various intra-party factions and determining which interests are given weight and priority. One way he or she does this is by overseeing and implementing the party’s legislative, executive, and judicial agenda as codified in the party platform.
The party platform for the Democrats and Republicans is developed each election year at their respective conventions. This document outlines the overall agenda of the party, highlighting the main issues of importance (called “planks”) to the party’s most influential factions.
A prime example is the abortion plank in the Democratic Party Platform of 2012:
The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right. Abortion is an intensely personal decision between a woman, her family, her doctor, and her clergy; there is no place for politicians or government to get in the way.
Not every voter will agree with every plank in a party’s platform. But when you vote for a leader of a party, you are voting for him or her to enact the party’s platform and all the various planks. The voter may be neutral or not supportive of any particular planks, but when they cast their vote they are tacitly agreeing that they have no moral objections to anything in the party platform. For instance, if you are a pro-lifer and vote for the Democratic candidate, you are endorsing both abortion on demand and the federal funding of abortions.
Whether the individual voter intends to endorse a party platform or any particular plank by voting for a candidate doesn’t matter in the least. The individual is aligning with the political party’s agenda and is providing the party and the candidate with a mandate to carry out each and every plank in the platform. The political parties recognize this fact even if the voters do not.
(In some case, individual delegates or candidates may “infiltrate” a party in order to change or influence an established faction. But after a certain point, if they are unable to modify the planks of the party platform they are morally responsible for their continued support and endorsement of the party’s positions.)
When you hear that a President has been “given a mandate” to carry out a particular agenda, this is partially what is meant. In casting a vote for a party’s candidate you are functionally aligning with a particular set of factions (or a “factions of faction”) and commissioning the party’s leader to carry out every aspect of the party platform.
It is not enough to plead ignorance of the process or to claim this is not your intention. If you have a strong moral objection to any particular item in a party platform you have sufficient reason, if not a moral obligation, to not vote for that party’s candidate.
Factional interests of specific candidates — Just as political parties have factional agendas, individual candidates have specific factional interests they intend to promote after they are in office. While these may be less clearly outlined than in a party’s platform, they can raise moral concerns and can give us sufficient reason not to vote for that candidate.
In voting for a President we are selecting a leader to represent various factional interests. But a human carries out that task, and thus questions of character and ability must be taken into consideration. In the next article in this series we’ll look at the issue of character and how it should influence our voting decisions.