21 October 2004

How to vote responsibly

As the US presidential election nears, Christians in that country are receiving guidance from a number of quarters as to how they should cast their votes and on what basis. Zenit reports that the American bishops are urging Catholics to take into account the church's stance on life issues:
There is no element of the common good that could justify voting for a candidate who also endorses, without restriction or limitation, the deliberate killing of the innocent, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, human cloning or same-sex marriage.

Two documents have been written to aid the faithful in exercising their chief political responsibility.

On the Orthodox side, Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse argues that the Democratic Party has so aligned itself with the cultural left, which is definitely antichristian, that Christians are virtually forced to side with the Republicans.

Until the captivity to the cultural left is broken, the only place for a faithful Christian in the Democratic Party is as the outsider. It requires moral courage and clarity of mind to avoid the wrong compromises -- and supporting candidates who champion the moral precepts of the cultural left is a wrong compromise.

On the confessional protestant side, historian Mark Noll writes in The Christian Century, "None of the above: Why I won't be voting for president." Writes Noll:

Seven issues seem to me to be paramount at the national level: race, the value of life, taxes, trade, medicine, religious freedom and the international rule of law. In my mind, each of these issues has a strong moral dimension. My position on each is related to how I understand the traditional Christian faith that grounds my existence. Yet neither of the major parties is making a serious effort to consider this particular combination of concerns or even anything remotely resembling it.

Charles Colson does not like this one bit. Why?

[Noll's] position is dead wrong and damaging to democracy. It’s the utopian notion which assumes divine perfection in fallen humans. His assumption that we can support only candidates who have perfect scores according to our reading of the Bible makes me wonder how he votes at all. And if that’s the standard, all of us should stop voting.

Ever since Nancy Pearcey departed Colson's Wilberforce Forum -- apparently over who would receive primary credit for their collaborative authorial efforts for which she was almost wholly responsible -- Colson has turned his Breakpoint commentaries into an overtly partisan voice for George W. Bush and the Republican Party.

Finally, there's Jim Wallis's Sojourners which has spearheaded a petition averring that God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat. In contrast to Jacobse and Colson, Wallis argues:

there are two issues in this election year that most tug at my heart, worry my Christian conscience, and compel me to faithful citizenship and discipleship. The first is poverty, the second is war. And in both the issue is our confession of Christ.

So for whom does the believing American Christian vote? I wish I could summon up the certainty of Fr. Jacobse and Colson. In my youth I was much closer to Wallis's approach than I am now. Yet he seems unable to recognize how "strengthening marriage and family" is related to the amelioration of poverty. (See my own "Neocalvinism and social justice" for an attempt to account for this relationship.) In my heart of hearts, I am probably closer to Noll's frustrated musings. If there were a christian democratic party that incorporated the concerns expressed in Skillen's recent book, In Pursuit of Justice, I myself would gladly vote for it. But alas there is not in either the US or Canada. This is not a matter of wishing for utopia, as Colson sees it. It's a question of desiring to vote for a party that does not in some fashion offend my sensibilities as a Christian and prick my conscience for having supported it.

In the real world, however, Christians and their unbelieving fellow citizens alike tend to vote strategically. Given the reality of the first-past-the-post electoral system, in which most votes are wasted, citizens find themselves voting against candidates rather than for them. Unfortunately, I fear this is often the best that can be done under the circumstances. Americans who cast their vote for Kerry will do so, not necessarily because they approve his stance on life issues, but because they believe Bush has badly botched their country's foreign and defence policies. Those opting for Bush will do so, not because they are enthusiasts for his policies, but because they distrust Kerry to do a better job. Remarkably, few offering advice to Christians make mention of strategic voting. Perhaps we need some advice as to how this second-best approach to voting can be done responsibly. Short of this, many Christians will ignore advice better suited to those living under another type of electoral system.

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