Over the last few years, I’ve been traveling an interesting road regarding my personal perspective on government, power, social change, and how I participate in our society.
To give you a little tour of my story, in high school, I was intrigued by my government and history classes, but mostly as a carbon copy of the political beliefs of my parents. I still remember several epic conversations I had with other students where we spouted our parents’ beliefs in funny ways.
Matt Whitten, me: “Ronald Reagan should be rotting in jail now for the Iran/Contra scandal.”
Jon Roller, Abe Halterman, et al, “Ronald Reagan was Moses escorting the hostages out of bondage to freedom!”
Very few of us had the ability at the time to gain thoughtful distance from our parents’ perspectives. I recall senior year observing my classmate Matt Wade shifting from uncritically conservative to something different as he asked himself bigger questions and was willing to deal with the discomfort of his thoughts. However, Matt was more the exception than the rule. So those of us with parents who were involved in political thought and action found ourselves participating, if only regurgitating what we heard around the dinner table.
I shifted, then, to college where, in spite of my basic selfishness and hedonism the first several years, I was drawn to the political process. I for a time considered pursuing a track that could prepare me to work for the State Department. I chose to major in International Affairs, which blended political science with economics, geography, foreign language, and history. I voted in that time period, even going out on a disgustingly dreary, rainy day in 2000 to canvass registered Democrats to get out and vote, with the colors from my raincoat leaching onto my pants and making a general mess. College also represented my rejection of the specifics of Christianity in favor of what I believed to be practical need. I remember telling my grandfather that Jesus wasn’t practical and that I believed Saddam Hussein needed to be taken out. The spring of 2002 I publicly debated Susan Lowe on the subject of pre-emptive war in Iraq, and argued the affirmative.
The death of my close friend Alex Naden April 29, 2003 proved to be a transformational moment for me. It provided the motivation for me to recognize the destruction of my self-focus and the devastating answer to the question “Who am I?” (my answer: “I have no idea because I’ve tried so hard to be something others would like and accept). This rekindled a commitment to Jesus in me and launched a journey of great pain and great joy since. I’ve learned to cherish God first, to observe and follow Jesus centrally, and to orient my desire toward those goals. Many of those goals; the needs of the poor, the rights of unborn children, the responsibility of peacemaking, a society of greater equality across the board, etc have deeply impacted my outlook on the American political process. I’ve become a bit of a black sheep since that time period, not fitting into the liberal or conservative camps, and struggling deeply with that. I have observed the political activism of the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority and maintained a visceral disgust at their methods and their goals. I have observed the political activism of the Human Rights Campaign, the National Organization of Women, and Planned Parenthood and gained a visceral sense of disgust with their methods and goals.
I became cynical, but never gave up. In 2004, I appreciated the humility and struggle of John Kerry (who quoted Lincoln, “We trust, sir, that God is on our side. It is more important to know that we are on God’s side.”) over the religious certainty of George Bush (“I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did). So, even as I faced uncertainty over how my convictions made me uneasy with both candidates, I continued to believe it to be my responsibility to pay attention and to make my voice heard in the ballot box.
Over the last couple of years, I have realized my responsibility far beyond casting my vote. I have begun to write elected representatives, joined with others through groups like Cincinnati Faith and Justice to advocate together for a more just society, and began to practice more consistently with my church family toward our local answers to injustice. Along the way, I have had my eyes opened to see how government plays a vital role in encouraging or destroying life in our communities. I do believe that the “government is best that governs closest,” but I don’t believe in the extremely limited government some of my more conservative friends do. I think many of my friends don’t account for the deep selfishness of our society when they call for charity instead of taxation. I do not believe the church can provide for our society’s needs at the scale that government initiative can provide. And yet I believe the church is to be the focus and answer on the human relationship scale for poverty in the world.
I just had a conversation with a friend from our community over voting. He and many others I know take the same tack in choosing not to vote that I just do not understand. I want to take several of his main points and address them, not to pick on him, but because I hear them all so often. I’ll quote him in full, then address each thought individually. He said,
“I have a couple reasons for not voting. First, there isn’t a candidate that fully stands for what i believe. So its basically choosing the lesser of two evils. Second, lobbyists. Money talks and unfortunately i don’t have enough to influence anyone in power. Third, why are we asking the world to do what the church isn’t willing?”
First, there isn’t a candidate that fully stands for what I believe,
so it’s basically choosing the lesser of two evils.
On first glance, this seems to be a common sense statement. If I don’t feel fully comfortable with any political candidate, why vote? But I have some follow-up questions after that. Do we choose friendships on this basis? Do we choose (and stay) in workplaces on this basis? Do we date and marry persons on this basis? I would suggest not. And if we do, I would wonder if we will ever stop withholding ourselves from relationship based on that question, so that when we find we don’t have persons who “fully stand for what we believe,” we hop to the next, and the next, and the next. This is a lifetime of shallow relationships and false security. I just don’t find that to be a healthy approach to any issue in society. Part of the responsibility of adulthood and wise citizenship is caring enough to walk into the complexity of problems and invest energy, time, and resources into making sound decisions along the way. To abstain from making decisions based on the marker of “fully” agreeing is a recipe for relational disaster, as I see it.
Second, lobbyists. Money talks and unfortunately I don’t have enough to influence anyone in power.
Yes, it is true that money talks, and yes, it is true that I don’t have enough to influence anyone in power. Again, these statements ring true on face value. But that statement is based on individual wealth and influence. Even the most powerful corporations (while defined under the law as an individual) aren’t based on the power of one, but of collective action to achieve a purpose. One of the great saving influences in America has been when individuals have gotten sick of the corruption that results from the powerful stomping on them and have left the cynical distance of individualism to band together to create change. One great practical reminder of what these citizens can accomplish is the passing of the Fair Hiring policy here in Cincinnati on August 4th of this year. Another long-term example of this choice is the career of Ralph Nader, who by force of will and evangelizing the call to citizen action, has had a huge impact on American society. In neither example have the involved parties had a ton of money, but chose a path of sustained commitment with one another to work for change.
So, yes, by ourselves as a collection of isolated individuals, we are virtually powerless. But together we become a force for change in our society that ripples out through society in ways we don’t understand. And it starts with caring enough to think about the problems of our society and participate in the political process. Our vote is an integral part of that commitment.
Third, why are we asking the world to do what the church isn’t willing?
As I’ve already hinted at above in my personal story, the church should have a complex relationship with society. In one sense, we are called to withdraw from our societies so we can gain perspective and pay attention to our unique call in the world. The Apostle Peter said it most directly, teaching, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” The church is a nation unto itself called to obey a different ruler, with different priorities, and a different distinctive lifestyle. We are citizens of God’s kingdom first.
But simply because we must prioritize in this way does not make our societies unimportant. The decisions of governmental leaders deeply impact our society, and we are also called into the midst of our societies with the desire to bring hope, healing, and social transformation. So the complex decisions we make in participating in the political process, while no longer the most important thing, are still vital and necessary. Or, as Lauren Winner put it,
(Some) see not voting as a compelling act of faithfulness, witness, and politics. But, especially in a world where love of neighbor is tied to citizenship, not voting may be equally seen as a kind of quietism—quietism that a Christian who must be active in the world cannot afford.
My generation is a generation of cynical beliefs about politics and our society. We carry a “live and let live” attitude with others. We believe we are powerless. And in this system where our personal comfort and security is most important, we are right. But we are called out of cynicism into thoughtful, collaborative action for the common good. We are called to love our neighbor enough to wade into the complexity and pain of the American political process to bring about reforms that benefit everyone.
Please join me in voting tomorrow as a simple statement that we aren’t willing to quit on one another.