November 7, 2006
The sin of not voting
Since people still have some hours before the polls close, perhaps we should discuss the question of whether it's a sin not to vote. The statement has been made by a number of conservative leaders lately: Richard Land, James Dobson, and most recently Charles Colson. (Colson, by the way, was wrong in his Breakpoint broadcast to suggest that David Kuo's call for a "fast from politics" included a call not to vote. Kuo's book has many problems, but that was not one of them.)
Not to vote, says Colson, would be "to abandon the battle on behalf of the sick and the suffering, the prisoner and the unborn:" Which raises the question:
Would those who don't have time to vote today because they're working at a homeless shelter or some other ministry sinning?
What most struck me is that Colson's argument assumes that voting is a hostile act. To vote he says, is " to fight for our beliefs." It's a "battle." I always considered voting something more defined by unity (the nation comes together to choose its leaders and agrees to abide by the majority's decision ) than by division (we're choosing one candidate over another). I find it interesting that pacifist Anabaptists who refuse to vote generally don't similarly consider voting to be a battle, a fight, or a war. But they do have strong reasons for not voting. As John Roth wrote:
Voting, after all, is not just a "right." It is also a "rite" - a ritual of identity and loyalty binding the individual to the nation. Abstaining from presidential elections could signal to our children and to the global church that our first loyalty is to the worldwide fellowship of Christian believers, not to the nation-state.
The often-hawkish Land, Dobson, and Colson have repeatedly demonstrated that they disagree with Anabaptists on any number of issues. But are they really willing to say that Anabaptist Christians like Roth are sinning? A Christian journalist friend of mine refuses to vote because he wants to "avoid the appearance of evil" and wants to avoid "taking sides" with the candidates and political parties he covers. Seems to me that's an honorable effort, not a sinful one.
The "civic duty" argument seems to fall apart since the U.S. government has not in fact made voting a civic duty. If the state made it mandatory, as is the case in Australia, then it might be some kind of sin to avoid doing so (Rom. 13). But American laws granting the right to vote imply the right not to vote. Once you take away that argument, you're left with all kinds of messes. If it's a sin not to vote even when the state grants you the right not to, then is it also a sin not to vote when the state does not grant you the right to vote? Are 17 year olds sinning by not going to the polls today?