Friday, November 2, 2012

Red, Blue, or Purple? Voting the Christian Conscience: A Case of Moral Perplexity

This week, a friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest in Scranton, Pennsylvania, reported on his Facebook page that a group known as the Pennsylvania Pastors Network has recently been making automated phone calls to voters all over the state, urging them to “vote biblically” in the upcoming Presidential election. The implied message of this request was that true Christian discernment would ultimately lead to a conservative vote for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Putting aside the fact that democracy and voting (as we know it) exists nowhere in the Bible, as well as the irony of conservative Christians pleading with voters to elect a Mormon, I am puzzled by what the PPN could actually mean by their appeal. As a Christian myself, my personal ethics are based upon the teachings of Jesus and the religious and social tradition offered by the Hebrew Bible. I am particularly concerned by how our nation treats the poor, as well as the manner in which we carry out social, economic, and punitive justice. The question, “How would Jesus vote?” has become worthy of serious consideration in this election. I am unsure of which Bible the PPN may be referring to, but the Bible I read offers little help when it comes to choosing the President of the United States, in part because the ethical demands of scripture go far beyond that which any political candidate may be willing or able to fulfill as a holder of public office. When seriously weighing the ethical options of my role in the democratic process, I appear to be faced with four major options of how to use (or not use) my vote in the upcoming election. I will attempt to list each of these options below, briefly offering the benefits and drawbacks of each option (when applicable) to better elucidate why I consider participating in the upcoming election to be a particularly difficult moral decision.

1) Vote for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.
            This is my least likely option. So many of my conservative friends who are voting for Romney in this election are doing so almost explicitly because Romney is not Obama
. I do not feel that this is a viable way of ethical decision-making, nor is it a wise method for voting potential leaders into office. Additionally, I have tremendous misgivings about the federal budget plan proposed by Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan. I share nothing in common with Ryan’s Randian political philosophy, as I believe in the ethical teachings of Jesus which find their power within philosophical and theological understandings of altruism—that is, against Ayn Rand’s objectivism, I find serious concern for one’s neighbor to be the ultimate deciding factor in how I make moral choices, whether this involves grocery shopping for myself or cooking meals for the homeless. The Romney/Ryan budget would cut SNAPS (“food stamps”) benefits by $133 billion, making it more difficult for struggling families to attain basic necessities. Also under the proposed Romney/Ryan budget, Pell Grant subsidies would be drastically cut, which means that many students from lower-income families would be unable to pursue higher education. I see no semblance of divine justice (in the Jesus sense of the word) in this option.

2) Vote for the incumbent Democratic President, Barack Obama.
            The sitting President has instituted programs that have increased job growth and contributed greatly to social spending programs that have raised the quality of life for many low-income Americans. Additionally, Obama has passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which has extended health care benefits to millions of Americans (including myself) who would have otherwise been unable to afford even the most basic healthcare for themselves.
Yet under Barack Obama, our national debt has grown by more than $5.3 trillion dollars, our violent political conflicts have expanded to include at least three other countries in which we have yet to officially declare war, gun rights have been extended to allow concealed weapons in public places such as national parks, nothing has been done to lower the gluttonous defense budget (which currently accounts for roughly 60% of all federal discretionary spending, and has doubled since 2001), and counter-terrorism drone strikes—what the Department of Defense refers to as “pre-emptive defense,” if such a thing exists—have quadrupled under Obama since the Bush administration, possibly killing hundreds of civilians in the process. My conviction as a Christian will not allow me to vote for a national leader who allows such violent attacks to persist. Furthermore, while I am tempted to vote for Obama because he appears to me to be the “lesser of two evils” in this election, it should be pointed out that if it is irresponsible to vote for Romney because Romney is not Obama, then it is equally irresponsible to vote for Obama merely because Obama is not Romney. Voting for the lesser of two evils is—in my estimation—still a vote for an evil.

3) Vote for a third-party candidate.
            A few days ago I took an online poll that paired my political beliefs with those of 2012 Presidential candidates, including lesser-known third-party candidates, based upon statements made by each of the contenders for this year’s election. I was surprised to find that I held most of my views in common with Green Party candidate Jill Stein, followed closely by Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. Anderson’s appearance was no surprise—I have been following the development of the Justice Party for some time now, and have found that my personal ethics and political values line up with this group quite nicely.
            Voting for a third-party candidate would allow me to vote for the person whom I feel is best suited to lead our country according to my personal value system—that is, voting for Stein or Anderson (who is only a write-in candidate in my state) would give me the opportunity to “vote my conscience.” However, there is no possible chance of a third-party candidate actually winning a U.S. election. Voting my conscience, while taking a personal stand, would be a merely symbolic action, since choosing to cast my ballot for neither the Democratic nor Republican candidate would be largely ineffective for the actual election. In essence, a third-party candidate vote is a vote for the ultimate winner of the election—for better or worse. 

4) Do not vote.
            Emma Goldman supposedly once famously said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Most U.S citizens, however, would reject this position. Yet Christians have a powerful history of non-participation in the democratic voting process for moral purposes. Dorothy Day is perhaps the greatest American witness to non-voting as a matter of Christian conscience; though she once participated in a hunger strike and picketed the White House in support of women’s suffrage, Day herself never voted. With Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker Movement, she became a catalyst for change without ever casting a ballot, proving that positive moral influence can indeed come from Christian non-participation in the political system.
The argument might be made that regardless of who wins this election, either of the two principal candidates will make use of drone warfare, that both have spent a criminally disproportionate amount of money relative to the average citizen’s paycheck on their campaigns while many in our nation starve, and that voting for a third-party candidate would essentially be casting a vote for the ultimate winner of the election. The logical final choice, therefore, would be nonparticipation. After all, when the Israelites petitioned Samuel and Yahweh for a king so that they could be “like other nations” (1 Samuel 8), the response from God is that God wants to be our authority. And Peter, when cornered by the High Priest of Israel in Acts 5:29 for his participation in teaching the crowds the good news about Jesus, responds, “We must obey God rather than human authority.” Perhaps the most viable political option for Christians is the non-political one. Rather than participation in the system that has alienated and disenfranchised so many of our poorest citizens, perhaps Christians should instead be instigators, following in the footsteps of Jesus by using our political imaginations to circumvent authority and continue the subversive work of Christ.
Yet even this stance is unsatisfactory. If casting a ballot for a third-party candidate is “wasting” the vote, is nonparticipation not just as equally wasteful? While I do not necessarily agree with those who would assert that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain, I still cannot bring myself to disregard the fact that the right to vote (especially for minorities and women) is a hard-won privilege, and that while many are indeed crushed by the gears and cogs of the political machine, many more still have benefited from much-needed aid dispensed by that very machine. 

            Is the lesser of two evils, as Joseph Fletcher once suggested, ultimately the good? I don’t think so. Being forced to choose between two candidates, neither of whose policies appears to me to be ethically compatible with the teachings of Jesus, does not seem like a decision that offers freedom. If I cast a vote for one of the primary candidates, they win and proceed to further engage the United States in violent military conflict with other nations or irresponsibly manage our federal budget, I will feel responsible for that action. Yet if I do not vote, or cast my vote for a third-party candidate, I am denying myself the opportunity to have my vote make a difference. Am I giving too much weight to one vote, overestimating the power of a single citizen’s opinions and convictions? Perhaps. But it remains a difficult ethical decision for me, and the election is coming up soon. One way or another, I will be making a choice of utmost moral concern.

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