On Tuesday, citizens across America will commit one of the most egregious of civic sins: they won’t vote. If their transgression becomes known they may suffer scorn and derision. They will be chastised for having let down their country and for failing to perform their civic duty.
Regrettably, much of this disrespect will come from Christians. In America, Christianity and civic religion frequently mixes into a peculiar syncretism where allegiance to God-and-Country becomes intertwined in ways that are harmful to our faith.
A prime example is the issue of voting.
Few Christians will state directly that choosing not to vote is an actual sin against God. But all too many are willing to imply that we have a moral obligation to vote that is rooted in Scripture.
The right to vote is an enormous privilege that should not be taken for granted. But while the Bible includes several moral obligations for us as citizens, Christians are under no moral obligation to vote—especially if doing so requires us to violate our conscience. Voting can also be a positive moral good that we can nonetheless refrain from exercising for certain legitimate reasons.
Rights vs. Duties vs. Responsibilities
Understanding my argument requires that we clarify whether voting is a civic right, a civic duty, or a civic responsibility. The term “civics” is a Latin word meaning “relating to a citizen,” so a civic duty, right, or responsibility would therefore be a right, duty, or responsibility related to being a citizen. Unfortunately, there is no clear agreement on what these terms mean or what they include. For the sake of clarity, I propose the following definitions:
- A civic duty is the legal requirement to perform certain actions because of one’s citizenship in a community.
- A civic right is the legal permission to perform actions deemed necessary to carry out one’s citizen role. (This is different from civil rights, to which all members in the community have the right.)
- A civic responsibility is a generally agreed-upon obligation of a citizen that is not legally required of all citizens.
The reason we must make such distinctions is because not all citizens have the same rights, duties, or responsibilities. For example, while a 17-year-old worker has a civic duty to pay taxes, they do not have the civic right to vote. Such distinctions are necessary for understanding where and how Christians possess biblically mandated obligations as citizens.
The reason we must make such distinctions is because not all citizens have the same rights, duties, or responsibilities.
Christians are obligated to fulfill civic duties because they are backed by force of law. Paul said those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God (Rom. 13:2). If voting in the United States were legally mandated (as it is in such countries as Argentina and Luxembourg), then American Christians would have a biblically mandated obligation to vote. But voting is not legally required, so we have no biblically mandated civic duty.
Many of us nonetheless do have a civic right to vote, but there is no biblical mandate that this right must be used. Paul had rights based on God’s law of which he deliberately “made no use” (1 Cor. 9:15). If we are not required to use our God-given rights, we are not morally obligated to use our state-given rights simply because they are rights.
Now, do we have a biblically mandated civic responsibility to vote? Answering this question in a consistent manner is more difficult than you might imagine. If civic responsibilities are as binding on Christians as are civic duties, then we have an obligation to fulfill all civic responsibilities. But few Christians would insist that civic responsibilities are moral obligations.
If We’re Obligated to Vote, We’re Obligated to Enlist
Consider, for example, the responsibility to defend the nation. “For most of U.S. history,” say Lt. Gen. David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “serving in the military during times of war has been seen as a fundamental obligation of citizenship.” Those who become citizens by the process of naturalization are even required to take an oath to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; or perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; or perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law.”
Most Americans, though, are under no such obligation. Since the end of military conscription in 1973, the country’s military defense has been carried out by volunteers, men and women who choose to serve but who were under no legal obligation to do so. Military service, at least in times of peace, is considered a civic responsibility rather than a civic duty. But if civic responsibilities are biblically mandated, then all able-bodied Christians would have a moral obligation to serve in the military. Even Christians who believe military service should be mandatory do not follow the logic of their argument to that conclusion.
Why, then, do some of those same people say Christians are required to vote but aren’t required to serve in the military? The reasons given are usually based more on pragmatic criteria than on biblical rationale. For instance, they might say that voting requires much less commitment than serving in the military. That is certainly true, but not relevant to the point. Are we only obligated by Scripture to carry out civic responsibilities that don’t require much of us?
Commands and Conscience
The motivation to view voting as a biblical obligation is rooted in a noble, but misguided, attempt to apply biblical commands. For example, the Bible does tell us we are to do what is just and right (Jer. 22:3) and to act justly and to love mercy (Mic. 6:8). Those are all commands we must obey. But Christians can disagree on the best way to fulfill those commands. Those commands require us, for example, to oppose abortion. Does that mean every Christian is morally obligated to participate in sidewalk protests or volunteer at crisis-pregnancy centers? No. Most believers would agree that while opposing abortion puts requirements on us, what those requirements entail may differ for each Christian.
Also, when it comes to this issue, we should not confuse God-given commands with “opinions” or “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1, ESV and NIV respectively). Since, as we’ve seen, voting is not commanded in America, it’s a disputable matter to be decided by the individual. It’s similar to Paul’s instruction in Romans 14:5: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” If we shouldn’t divide over observing religious rituals, we should be even less focused on enforcing our view of civic rituals.
If we are convinced that voting is an important way to love our neighbor, there are many options we can take. We can persuade people to vote. We can explain why it is a useful practice. We can even encourage them to vote for a specific party or person. But what we should not do is lay burdens on the consciences of fellow Christians that go beyond what Scripture allows.