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*Contra Gentes*: Is Voting Such a Good Thing?

Posted on Monday, October 23, 2006 at 05:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments7 Comments

No sooner had the formal period of worship ended at our meeting yesterday morning, then several of the adults present were on their feet with election materials in hand, urging “good candidates” upon us.

I love these people dearly, and I know they meant well, but it felt like coming out of the Inner Temple and immediately encountering the shouts of the moneychangers in the Outer Court.

The meeting I belong to is a mix of liberal and conservative unprogrammed Friends, with a fair amount of Protestant and Catholic stuff sneaking in by way of acculturation. I suspect a fully conservative meeting would at least not have been so hasty in the after-worship electioneering. But I might be wrong.

In the meeting I formerly belonged to, a huge liberal unprogrammed meeting in a city west of here, my fellow members were always shocked whenever I expressed uncertainty about who to vote for. For most of them, the basic operating principle was, who hews closest to the ideals of Martin Luther King and Norman Thomas? And their answers were uniformly: Why, just about anyone who runs on the Democratic ticket!

For a while, the folks in that meeting had me mostly persuaded. But in recent years the persuasion’s been wearing thin.

I believe there are more basic questions here than, “Who hews closest to the ideals of King and Thomas?” And no, I don’t mean, “Who would Jesus vote for?” The question I’m raising is something far more basic: Would Jesus vote for candidates at all? And if he would not, why should we do so as his followers?

This has been an open question in the “historic peace churches” — the Friends, Brethren, Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites — from the very beginning. In Pennsylvania, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the general rule was —

  • some Quakers would run for office, while others would not because they could not square the compromises involved with their consciences;

  • the Brethren wouldn’t run for office, but would vote for Quakers if they could square it with their consciences; and

  • the Mennonites and Amish wouldn’t even vote.

But these were merely general rules, and many people in all four of these traditions declined to vote at all. Friends in particular were of several minds on the matter. Certainly there was no automatic assumption that voting for the liberal party was always a right thing to do.

Let’s leave Jesus out of it for a moment, and consider some lesser but still undoubted saints. Would Francis of Assisi have voted in a U.S. election? I don’t think so; the whole voting process would seemed very out of step with the meek nonresistance of Christianity to him, and in any case he was fully devoted to (and very effective in) working for the establishment of a far better Kingdom than the United States.

Would any of the Desert Fathers have voted? No, for similar reasons to those of Francis of Assisi. Would any of the Celtic saints? No again.

Would Rebbe Zusye, the great Hasid, have voted? No. Would Gautama Buddha? No. Would Guru Nanak? No. Would Chuang Chou, or any of his Taoist companions? No.

Let’s try some harder cases. Would Isaiah have voted, he who tried hard to influence his king, but went naked for a sign to show the futility of human political scheming? I don’t really know, but I very much doubt it.

Would Moses have voted, whose laws indicated that even choosing a king was a dangerous move, and that Israel might be better off being ruled directly by God? Again I don’t know, but I don’t think he would have.

How about John the Baptist, who turned his back on the world beyond his desert?

Doesn’t all this suggest that there might be something dubious about voting?

And then, what about Christ, who said “if my Kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight (to uphold it); but my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36), and who refused to judge between brothers in the matter of an unjustly divided inheritance (Luke 12:13-15)? In Thomas’s version of the latter story (Thomas 72), Christ declares that he will not re-divide the inheritance because he is not a divider. This is a pretty deep statement. Would Christ, then, have been willing to take any part at all in the divisive dynamics of an election process?

I think the partisan spirit (which Christ the uniter would have rejected) tends to blind people to the actual nature of the people they vote for. In 1992 and 1996 and 2000, most of the environmental community in the U.S. plunked for the Democratic presidential candidate (first Clinton and then Gore) with knee-jerk enthusiasm, ignoring the sorry prior histories of both men. Many of them remained remarkably subdued about the countless environmental sell-outs of the Clinton-Gore Administration — far more subdued than I think they would have been about similar sell-outs by a Republican alternative.

The Christian Right remained similarly subdued about Bush Regime sell-outs of Christian Right concerns, such as Federal support for “faith-based initiatives”. And frankly, I don’t think the Christian Right was any more honest with itself when it was deciding Bush was worth supporting to begin with, than the environmental community was in deciding that Clinton was worth supporting.

One of the most evil bills enacted into law by U.S. politicans in my own entire lifetime is the Military Commissions Act, which I wrote about here, briefly, three weeks ago — and which Bush signed into law last week. This appalling act gives the U.S. President the power to “disappear” people, in the manner of the late unlamented dictatorships in Chile and Argentina, with absolute impunity, and allows military personnel to torture the disappeared to their hearts’ content without fear of legal reprisal.

The Military Commissions Act passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin of 253 to 168, with 34 Democrats voting for it and 7 more Democrats not bothering to vote. It passed the Senate by the even more overwhelming margin of 65 to 34, with 12 Democrats voting for it.

(You can find out how your own representative and senators voted by going to our FCNL anti-torture web page.)

Why did three-fifths of the House, and two-thirds of the Senate, including a significant fraction of Democrats in both places, vote for a bill that annuls the protections of the Bill of Rights? Basically, I think the answer is: because their loyalty to the power they serve — the power of control over worldly events — trumps any loyalty they might ever have felt to the righteousness of God.

Christ said it exactly when he said, “A person cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and territoriality (mammon).” (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13)

Is not a vote for any politician, a vote for someone who has committed himself to serve the territoriality of the U.S., and who can thus be expected to betray the reign of God again and again, in order to keep his faith with territoriality?

Given that our time on earth is finite, and every minute of it precious, and given the observably corrosive effect of territoriality on every politician’s soul, why is working for the election of one party over another, a better choice for you and me than working for the reign of God in the hearts of all?

— No, Friends, I’m not just asking rhetorical questions. I am in some agony on this matter, and the questions I’m asking are sincere.

I’m not against government; please don’t get me wrong. I more-or-less agree with the Apostle Paul that good government is beneficial in ordering society and preventing much wrongdoing. And I also see the sort of lobbying that FCNL does — lobbying for good policies and good legislation — as a worthy use of our time. It’s voting for candidates, and the partisan struggles and judgmental delusions that accompany voting for candidates, that I am questioning here.

Moreover, I can see the wisdom of voting for candidates as a measure to stop some juggernaut of evil — but in that case, one must be sure that the candidates one is voting for will indeed slow a juggernaut and not just sell out to it or replace one juggernaut with another, as Clinton sold out to Reagan’s juggernaut of environmental destruction, or as Bush replaced the Clinton version of amorality with an alternate and worse version of his own. I am not at all convinced that most of the Democrats running to replace Republicans in Congress this year, can be trusted not to sell us all out.

I think one should remember that once a politician is elected to Washington, he has a tendency to get re-elected again and again, thanks to the innate advantages of incumbency; and the longer he is there, the more compromises he is cornered into making, until finally he loses all integrity. I’m not sure I’d wish such a fate on any candidate for office — especially on one that I liked!

Friends, I’d like to hear an honest defense of this idea that we should vote for candidates because it will solve things — a defense that genuinely answers the questions I am raising here. It would set my mind at ease.

But I fear that no such defense may be possible.

And if no such defense is possible, then I respectfully request that we stop treating our meetings for worship like recruitment halls for the Democratic Party.


…We are utterly out of all Hopes of this Party or the other party, of this Man or that Man, to bring Salvation unto this Nation, from all its Bonds and Oppressions; for we known, whatsoever men profess to do, yet they cannot perform any good Thing, nor Rule for God in our Nation, till that themselves be reformed and ruled by him, and have the Spirit of God poured upon them for such a Work: And this we declare, Till that a man, or men, be ruled of the Lord, they can never rightly rule for him, nor bring Deliverance and Freedom to an oppressed Nation….

And we are not for Names, nor Men, nor Titles of Government, nor are we for this Party, nor against the other, because of its Name and Pretence; but we are for Justice and Mercy, and Truth and Peace, and true Freedom, that these may be exalted in our Nation; and that Goodness, Righteousness, Meekness, Temperance, Peace and Unity with God, and one with another, that these things may abound, and be brought forth abundantly: such a Government are we seeking and waiting for, wherein Truth and Righteousness, Mercy and Justice, Unity and Love, and all the Fruits of Holiness may abound; and all the contrary be removed, cast out, and limitted….

   — Edward Burrough (early Quaker leader and evangelist), To the Present Distracted and Broken Nation, and to all her Inhabitants… (1659)

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Reader Comments (7)

I didn't understand the reference to Contra Gentes?
Oct 23, 2006 at 09:56PM | Unregistered CommenterRobin M.

Contra Gentes was the title of a classic early apology for Christianity, written by Athanasius, who was bishop of Alexandria, around 318 A.D. The title literally means "Against the Nations" or "Contrary to the Gentiles"; a truer if less literal translation would be, "A Contradiction of the Views of the Secular World".

Obviously, this present essay is likewise "a contradiction of the views of the secular world" -- specifically, the views that say voting in the upcoming election is unquestionably A Good Thing.

Oct 24, 2006 at 07:32AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey


Thank thee for this excellent question to be posed. It is one that I have been considering for some time now (as far as that goes in my rather brief lifespan!). The problem that I see, which you seem to grasp perfectly, is not so much the actual act of voting, but instead all of the psychic and actual energy that goes into these candidates every two, four and six years. Where should our focus be as Children of the Light? Politics seems to be one of the few spectator sports that still receives great esteem in Friends' circles.


Jan 12, 2007 at 05:43PM | Unregistered CommenterMicah Bales

Provocative as you always are at your best. But I can find nothing in this piece I can disagree with. And yet I do tend to vote. And I do tend to vote towards the left -- which seems in policy closer to the answer to how would Jesus vote. But in Canada we have a further left alternative than the Democrats. From a Canadian perspective your Democrats are soft conservatives and Republicans are hard conservatives.

Our NDP and Green parties have such small support in Canada that they have no real hopes of forming a government. A vote for them is a vote to send socially conscious folk to parliament to act as a kind of conscience to the process -- to keep alive issues that might get swept under the sofa in the politics as usual. I think the USA equivalent might be voting independent.

Canada also offers another option I have made use of twice in my life: to register a declined ballot. to go on record as not voting for any candidate -- rather than staying home.

Jan 14, 2007 at 06:57AM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

I don't know that I really grasp anything at all that touches on this matter "perfectly" -- but Micah, I thank you all the same for your kind words. It was a delight to see your comment here.

It was a delight to see your new blog, "The Lamb's War", too! I was going to post a comment there, but unfortunately it's configured so that it "does not allow anonymous comments", and it regards anyone who doesn't have a Blogger account as "anonymous". And I don't care to open an account with a nine-hundred-pound gorilla like Google/Blogger simply so I can post. So alas. But at least I can go on reading it!

I hope you'll consider posting to your new blog some of those very fine journal entries you sent me.

david, I'm always amused by comments that, from the Canadian point of view, both American parties are "conservative". After all, as Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, both the liberals and the conservatives are descended from the liberalism of the Enlightenment, so even the so-called conservatives are in truth liberals.

The values of liberalism, as MacIntyre also observes, have so become so thoroughly established all around us that there's no longer any easy way to see them in perspective; it's become a case of a woods hidden by its trees. I have been struggling to get some perspective on them here in my journals --! But really, I fear that Canadian liberalism, likeable though it is, would not further that endeavor at all.

Jan 15, 2007 at 06:40PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey


I went and edited the posting guidelines for my blog, so there shouldn't be such a problem in the future. Now anyone can post.


Jan 16, 2007 at 03:30PM | Unregistered CommenterMicah Bales

Thanks, Micah!

Jan 18, 2007 at 08:36AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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