Liberal column: How far does faith’s reach in the public square extend?



Josh MerloVoting. For some, it’s a civic duty; for others, it’s a burden that follows from a tiresome slog of campaign ad after campaign ad; for others, it’s a meaningless exercise because of how their particular district historically leans ideologically; and for some others, it is a part of living their religious beliefs faithfully and seriously.

While normally the question of what voting is stands as academic, election years, most especially presidential election years, tend to throw voting into a far sharper contrast than normal. The before object of curiosity becomes a moral object; and, as often occurs with moral objects, a religious significance is attached. Not to vote is not just a matter of being a poor citizen, it is also a matter of being a negligent believer. Now, to generalize, this phenomenon is more often than not seen among Christians. Conservatives Christians fear not voting is an omissive act that allows for further cultural and social degradation. Progressive Christians decry not voting as a supporting of oppressive established structures. For both, then, voting is something of great consequence. Should it be? Does one’s Christian faith demand “witness” in the public square through voting?

At this point, a step back must be taken. Why does voting exist? What purpose does it serve? Quite simply, ballot casting is the process by which a state’s population elects the officials who will control and manage their government. Voting, then, first and foremost, is a representative task that affects government. While political governance may be influential in terms of societal shaping or cultural formation, it is not identical. Voting is miscast, then, as primarily social or cultural in nature. The religious obligation so often credited to voting ignores this reality – elected officials are political agents, directly efficacious in political matters.

To be clear, political agents do not directly affect societal and cultural mores. While law does have some effect on cultural norms, it is these same norms that dictate whom the public elects to make laws. The clear causative relationship between politics and social change has never been established. This being so, why is such an emphasis placed on voting as a mechanism of societal change?

To return to a more practical element of the question of religion and voting, we might ask if voters of faith have any duty come Election Day. While a ballot might not alter the moral makeup and values of an entire country, should not convicted believers at least try to make an effort to bring like-minded people into positions of power? While they may not be able to change things for the better, should not the faithful at least make sure things do not get worse? To reference “Render unto Caesar” by Archbishop Charles Chaput, “Committed Catholics can make very different but equally valid choices: to vote for the major candidate … to vote for an acceptable third-party candidate who is unlikely to win, or to not vote at all. All of these choices are legitimate. This is a matter for personal decision, not church policy.” Expanding his words to all Christians, his position can be reflected on in regard to the question at hand: does voting carry with it religious obligation? As Chaput says, no; if, in good conscience, a Christian finds reason to abstain from voting, he or she is not violating some religious law. The Christian’s encounter with the political arena is one based on broad moral precepts and personal conscionable choices. If what is to be done does not conflict directly with a moral teaching, the Christian then must act according to his informed conscience.

What does this mean as primaries approach and the actual election looms closer and closer? Can Christians legitimately decide not to vote? It seems that they can. As has been argued, voting is not efficacious for the ends Christians hold most dear, and it is not something that is mandated by moral law. Conscience is the watchword. If the demands of conscience result in a Christian feeling unable to participate in this year’s election – presuming that this Christian has taken the prudent steps to inform his conscience – then there would seem to be no fault in not voting. To close with a passage from de Tocqueville’s seminal work, “Democracy in America”: “… all attributed the peaceful dominion that religion exercises in their country principally to the complete separation of church and state.” The work of religion is not, and never will be, political in nature. Those who entwine too closely religion and politics would do well to remember this: Perhaps the problem is not that religion has been too far removed from the public square, but that it has been too deeply implanted in the political sphere and has so made itself a kingdom of this world not the next.