2016 promises to be an exciting year. Beyond all the anticipation and trepidation that accompanies the arrival of every new year, this fall affords us the opportunity to once again lend our voice to the national dialogue and vote for those we wish to see lead our nation. Yet while the final word on these upcoming elections won’t be offered until later in the year, even now we see the build up to November 8th all around us. In the midst of all the ads, debates, opinions, and petty drama that seem to swirl around what should be a calm, deliberative process, it can be easy to become discouraged or frustrated to the point of disillusionment. However, it is crucially important for Christians to resist the spirit of disinterest or fatalism and chose to understand their civic opportunities within the framework of their broader worldview.
At the risk of sounding condescending, allow me to tell you something you probably already know: Christians should vote. Voting is a chance for citizens to directly impact the direction of their nation or locality by choosing representatives to speak for them and carry their ideas and concerns into the halls of power. It’s a privilege that hasn’t been enjoyed by most people throughout history, but beyond that Christians are commanded to take every thought captive for Christ, and to do all that we find to do for God’s glory. Abdicating or surrendering any opportunity to influence the lives of those around us for God should be unconscionable for anyone claiming the name of Christ. Though perhaps we might all be in agreement that Christians should take their opportunities to vote seriously, the next, much more difficult question becomes, “How then should I vote?”
The easy answer to this question would be that we are to vote as Christ would vote, but I don’t know of anywhere in Scripture that tells us how Jesus filled out His ballot when He went to the polls. It is also difficult to speak from a position of biblical authority on many issues our country currently faces. While topics like abortion or homosexual marriage do have clear biblical positions; the best way to address international terrorism, methods of taxation, or immigration law are all a bit more difficult. So rather than attempt to craft a perfect “Christian” candidate or position on all possible issues, it may be more helpful to take a fresh look at our participation in voting to assist us as we try to decide who to support.
Your vote is an incredibly powerful and valuable thing. That power and value comes from two different elements of what a vote is and how it functions in the election process. These elements can be described as the vote’s instrumental value and its inherent value.
The instrumental value of a vote is its power to break a tie. Imagine a scenario where a particular election is won by the margin of one vote only. In this situation every vote on the winning side was enormously important as the loss of even one of them would have left the election a tie, failing to secure victory for the winning side. In this scenario every voter could take satisfaction that their vote was absolutely necessary to ensure their candidate won. However, think about the losing side for a moment. Was a single individual’s vote necessary? No, even with all those piled together, that side still lost. Instrumentally, it is irrelevant that any votes were cast for the losing side because none of them were in a position to exercise their functional power and break the tie in their favor. Just as it doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, the reverse is also true.
Now consider a scenario that one side is victorious by any margin greater than one. In this circumstance every vote cast for the winning candidate beyond the necessary tie breaker was ultimately irrelevant as well because they weren’t needed for victory. In the end only one vote in any election actually exercises its instrumental value to break a tie and arrive at a decision.
Once again however, this instrumental function is only one source of your vote’s value and power. The inherent value of your vote rests in its role as your voice as a citizen into the public sphere. Americans most often find themselves voting for individuals to fill positions rather than directly addressing a particular issue the government is facing. These individuals vie for your vote by outlining what they believe and then attempt to either persuade you to their position, or convince you that yours and their ideas are at least similar enough to be compatible. Your vote for a particular candidate is not only an expression of confidence in their abilities, but also a voice into the broader conversation saying, “I identify with him and his ideas.” Few of us are afforded a platform to present in detailed, extensive fashion what we believe and why to a significant audience. Yet in spite of this every American citizen is given the opportunity with every election to let their voices be heard by identifying with a certain candidate or idea.
Looking at voting in this way would appear to emphasize the inherent value of your vote over its instrumental utility. Consider how few elections, especially on the national stage, are decided by a single vote. The harsh reality is that in all probability your vote will never be required to break an election tie and therefore never actually exercise its instrumental power. In spite of this, no statistical reality can ever rob you of your ability to use your vote to influence the narrative of an election. The only person who can do that is you.
It’s common for people to consider using their vote to secure the lesser of two evils, or in an effort to simply ensure that, “anyone but candidate X” gets elected. Hopefully you can now see the flaws in approaching an election in this way. Again, whatever candidate does win, if they win by more than one vote then no others were necessary or meaningful; and if you chose to use your vote to support any candidate other than the one that most closely identifies with what you believe you have surrendered your opportunity to share in the public conversation in exchange for essentially nothing.
So how should Christians vote then? I submit that Christians should reject the fatalistic approach of simply finding the least objectionable candidate with perceived chance at victory. Instead, examining the issues and individuals through the lens of Scripture, we should seek out those who most closely align with what we believe is right and cast our support and our voice behind them. Ultimately the choice for the Christian is less about winning and losing, and more about standing in the right place.