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Is it a sin not to vote? Or a virtue?

A number of Catholics and evangelicals across the political spectrum who have become disillusioned with their usual candidate or with the entire political system are opting out of voting -- despite the longstanding tradition of most churches that voting is a serious duty for Christians. (Voting is a civic sacrament, as Father Hesburgh once said.)My latest piece for Religion News Service rounds up some of the arguments for abstaining, or at least threatening not to vote, or voting for a third party:

Julia Smucker, a contributor to the Vox Nova blog who identifies as a Mennonite Catholic, wrote in July that Obama had disappointed her so much she may not vote for anyone. Meanwhile her colleague Kyle Cupp said he found both campaigns so vacuous that he has almost reached the point of not caring.Similarly, Jana Bennett, a professor of theological ethics at the University of Dayton in battleground Ohio, wrote a column at the Catholic Moral Theology blog saying she is considering voting for a third-party candidate or not at all because neither party adequately represents her beliefs.Something has tipped for me this election and its the way I think Im being asked to rip myself in half, figuratively speaking, by one party or the other, or both, Bennett wrote in early October, lamenting the stupidity of the apparent choice with which I am faced in the election.The stark disparity between the two partys platforms indicates to me that regardless of who wins in November, the net result will be that nothing will continue to get done," she said. "In a two party system, we seem to have only one choice, even if that choice splits us down the middle.Bennetts colleague at the University of Dayton, Kelly Johnson, also advocated not voting, though she framed the decision as a fast in which believers should abstain from some good for the sake of orienting our desires toward a higher good.Abstaining from voting for now would recognize that in this setting and for us, elections can be an occasion of sin and a site for scandal, Johnson wrote last spring. Paul abstained from meat sacrificed to idols for the sake of other Christians; Catholics could abstain from U.S. party politics, for the sake of all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics, who are misled by such efforts.

I can understand the frustration but I have an instinctive reaction against abstaining from voting. You wind up working to elect someone anyway, in a negative way. And personally, I'd rather be guilty for what I do than for what I don't do. Thoughts?

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Bishop McElroy in SF, who has a doctorate in political science, seems to make sense:http://www.catholic-sf.org/ns.php?newsid=22&id=60569

Contrary to what some believe, said the bishop, the church does not teach that Catholics must cast their votes based solely on a candidates stand on abortion. While that issue should be considered pre-eminent, the other issues can also be taken into consideration.This is really the hard call for us as Christians, Bishop McElroy told the group.Catholics should also consider if a candidate can or will do what they promise, he said.

Unless one is concerned about giving an aura of legitimacy to a totalitarian farce, not voting seems to be giving into despair.

@Mark Proska (10/26, 9:18 am) Actually, as you've most likely noticed, the Obama campaign has gone from its 2008 slogans of "Change We Can Believe In" (primaries) and "Change We Need" (general election) to "Forward.", the slogan it has used for the past several months.It may be less inspiring, but it (most likely) more accurately reflects this moment in time---the president's administration has spent the past four years dealing with the worst economic crisis in 80 years and with trying to end the two wars it inherited. After making significant progress on both those fronts, and on some of candidate Obama's top priorities (e.g., passing Obamacare), the challenge now (if you're a supporter of the president) is to keep moving forward, and not go back to the kinds of policies that got us into trouble in the first place (policies embraced by Romney and Ryan).

Related, but only tangentially:In the latest issue of Commonweal, Paul Griffiths has published "Fellow Travellers? Four Atheists Who Don't Hate Religion." Most of this piece is both interesting and informative, but the concluding section makes me wonder what he is saying. Each of the four authors he discusses longs for some version of what Griffiths calls political theology. Griffiths concludes by saying that unlike their "churches without Christ," the "Church WITH Christ acts upon its acolytes because he is there....The Church without Christ is better than no church at all, but it is a poor substitute for the church of Christ." Is Griffiths implying that a Christian, precisely by being a Christian, is better equipped to make a positive contribution to his or her spciety's political life than nonbelievers are? Is the sincere Christian one who recognizes the truth of Simon Critchley's view that "all theology is directly or indirectly political....[T]here's no theology without politics, and no politics without politics."Without much work, I could gun up an interpretation of this claim that is perhaps true but utterly devoid of practical import. I could equally easily gin up an interpretation that would make this claim patently false. I take it that a bright person like Griffiths has something more substantial in mind. Can Grant or Matthew or Mollie or anyone else help me make sense of what Griffiths means here?

Bernard --As I read Griffiths he is saying that a political body needs its citizens to be motivated to die for each other , but without religion there is no such guarantee. Without religious belief we can end up like Ayn Rand -- in it for ourselves and ourselves only. A populace motivated by self only cannot sustain a community. It's the old "individualism" v. "collectivism" or "community".By the way, I think that the GOP spinners current use of the word "collectivism" in place of "community" and even in places where "the common good" would be appropriate is the most cynical bit of political spinning so far. What they're doing is a great example of semantic manipulation. The Democrats need to take lessons from them.

Masochistic as it sounds, I think it would be a good thing if we had more presidential campaigns like Bush v. Gore, where the winner of the popular vote fails to gain 270 electoral votes. Maybe then, at long last, the American people will be so fed up with the Electoral College that they'll demand it be abolished.

"Several of our WWII generals did not vote in presidential elections..."The tradition goes back further to the beginning of representative democracy. However, of the era you refer to, most worthy of note is Gen. Marshall, who really couldn't exist in post-Vietnam America. Perhaps someone like Sen. Webb of Virginia who is mildly disliked by both sides but not really hated is the best we can do although the way one of his signature policy themes was politically polarized during the last Presidential debates makes me think perhaps not. Another interesting case is Gen. Petraeus. I recall from reading a defense industry rag a while back that when OIF began to become politically polarized he stopped voting to try to satiate concerns of his enemies that he was becoming too popular. He seems to have survived that period although I reckon after the election Mr. Axelrod will use the events of 11 Sep 12 to ensure his career in public service is cut short.

Thanks, Ann, for your comment. My concern is with the apparent claim that without religious belief there is insufficient motivation for citizens to die for the common good. I think that this is a poor reading of history. On the other hand, it's not clear to me that religious belief, precisely as religious belief can be counted on to provide this kind of need, especially for a pluralistic society. Archbishop Chaput is supposed to have said recently that we are Catholics first and only thereafter Americans. I recognize that there is something right about what he is reported to have said, though I hardly think that it suggests that we Catholics are more likely to die for our fellow citizens than our non-believing fellow citizens. So far as I can see, history would hardly bear out such a claim.

Luke--With respect to "Forward", do you think the President has been honest, forthright and transparent with you on Lybia? If you can't reply with an immediate and resounding "yes" to that question, how can you think we've moved forward?As an aside, am I the only commenter who's noticed the dearth of threads on the Lybian debacle on this blog?

"As an aside, am I the only commenter whos noticed the dearth of threads on the Lybian debacle on this blog?"Maybe it's because I don't watch FOX News.

Bernard --Your criticsm of Griffiths theory is well taken, but I think he's right that religious people are more likely to feel obliged to die for others in some circumstances and selfish ones are not so-inclined. It't the reason that some people like deBotton, an atheist, are starting to see the value of religion for the society as a whole. deBotton himself is an example of a generous atheist -- he's terribly rich and has started a foundation in England to help non-believers deal with their lack of religious values.

Religious faith may help some people to be more selfless than they would otherwise be, but self-sacrifice even unto death is far older than anything we would consider to be religion, even older than anything we would consider to be human. It exists among social insects, troops of baboons, hunting packs, schools of fish, flocks of birds, and more or less among any population of animals that cannot survive as individuals. We have rationalized and sanctified it, or tried to, but its roots are deep in our animal past.

TANGENT --What will happen if the electricity goes out in the Northeast for two or three weeks and the election there is impossible? Is there any legal precedent for such circumstances?(Coastal folks and those inland, you are in our prayers.)

What will happen if the electricity goes out in the Northeast for two or three weeks and the election there is impossible?Some of the ballots of the early voters are already in. As to the others, if they are unable to vote, then clearly it is something that God intended to happen. As Ryan would say.

A sign of the times. With an unprecedented natural disaster arriving here in about 18 hours, the longest line in town by far is not for bread, milk, toilet paper, and batteries but at the village early-voting center.

Jack B. --Has anybody said what will happen if the electricity is out on election day? And what about people who are ordered to evacuate and can't get back? Now the weather bureau is saying there will be an 11 foot surge in the NYC area:-(Let us pray.

I wonder whether the undeniable fact that a second megastorm is hitting the U. S. just seven years after Katrina will impress the people who insist that global warming is just a myth concocted by the liberal academics. (It's against the old odds that megastorms would hit so frequently.) If so, I wonder if the storm will influence how they vote.

This is the masterpiece of voter suppressionjust look at all that blue in the Northeast on the electoral mapand clear proof that some folks have the Almighty's ear. I guess I should be more than normally worried, living practically on the San Andreas Fault.

Ann O. -- Today's very busy early-voting center becomes a county shelter at noon tomorrow. (Bring meds, sleeping bags, etc.) Widespread power outage will occur, much caused by trees and flooding, not just branches. Repair crews cannot even begin until after 2-3 storm days. Significant outages through Nov 6 won't surprise me at all. Helpful county communications deal with higher, more immediate priorities at present, but I'm sure someone is agonizing over the election questions you bring up. Tens of millions of voters in a swath about 800 miles wide are exposed to the storm effects. (Note especially East Coast Blue.)

The worst systems failures in Katrina were the levees, of course, followed by the various communications systems (city, state, military). They couldn't talk easily to each other. After the storm a great deal of work was done on the communications systems, and many, many municipalities have taken advantage of our experiences and improved their own systems. But it hasn't ended yet. My nephew, a program designer, works for a company that is doing a huge program for the Navy. It will keep track of where in nearby states all sorts of needed equipment like ambulances, trucks, food supplies, etc., are at any given time so they can be made available quickly. (I wonder if Mitt is going to cut that program.) Don't you all forget to get your meds refilled. You can't do that easily if you're out of town for days. (After Katrina, I couldn't come back for 6 weeks, and that was early.)God bless you all.

John Prior: we should compare ZIP codes. I probably live as close (maybe closer) to the Hayward fault as you do to the San Andreas fault. Ed Gleason is right in their in "fault" country, too.But it sure beats dealing with hurricanes and floods. I was raised in tornado country and will take 'quakeville anytime.

John Prior -- Keep an eye on the fault. That Magnitude 7.7 off Vancouver last night looked like either a near miss or a practice stroke. The Holy Spirit may be advising on David G.'s electoral sin/virtue issue with particular attention to coastal Blues. I am trying to figure out whether local cancellation of early voting tomorrow reassures those who choose to abstain from voting or deprives them of an opportunity to make their point.

A big drop-off in voting in the Northeast is unlikely to change the electoral vote count, but it increases the chance of a "split" decision: Obama winning the Electoral College and the Presidency, and Romney winning the popular vote, which would give his opponents one more argument that Obama is not a legitimate president. Of course, if it's not that, it will be something else.This is not, I swear and affirm and aver, a hope or prayer for a counterbalancing election-eve meteor strike on any red state, bless them all.

The NY Times had an article on how our political parties are losing control of the political dialogue thanks to the big money donors. http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/billionaires-going-rogue/

"What will happen if the electricity goes out in the Northeast for two or three weeks and the election there is impossible?"As a practical, tactical sort of thing: I'd hope that they have a disaster plan that includes low-tech voting. Punch cards or paper and pen are all that is really needed to vote, if the logistics of getting low-tech ballots and voting booths out to the precincts can be accomplished. If it takes weeks rather than minutes to tally the results - then it does.I am praying for Commonweal and its staff, and the many contributors, commenters, subscribers and readers at dotCom who are on the East Coast and even inland.

"A big drop-off in voting in the Northeast is unlikely to change the electoral vote count, but it increases the chance of a split decision: Obama winning the Electoral College and the Presidency, and Romney winning the popular vote, which would give his opponents one more argument that Obama is not a legitimate president. Of course, if its not that, it will be something else."I've been thinking a bit about the chances of a Constitutional crisis emerging from this election. I think we denizens of dotCom should take a unity pledge that we will not fan the flames of such a crisis, regardless of which way the election comes out.

Here's some madness from Romney. He said in one of the debates that FEMA should be cut and the powers given to the individual states. "During a CNN debate at the height of the GOP primary, Mitt Romney was asked, in the context of the Joplin disaster and FEMA's cash crunch, whether the agency should be shuttered so that states can individually take over responsibility for disaster response."Absolutely," he said. "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?""Can you see the state militias trying to coordinate their actions now? And the local foodbanks in 15 states? I've finally concluded that the man is literally mad -- he has what the French call a "manie", an obsession, and it's the federal government, as if the feds were Satan himself.. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/28/mitt-romney-fema_n_2036198.html...

Two pieces from Salon: the progressive case for and against Obama:http://www.salon.com/2012/10/29/the_progressive_case_for_obama/http://ww...

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About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.