Voting and Salvation: Thanks, but no thanks

Voting and Salvation: Thanks, but no thanks November 16, 2007

As a Catholic whose ongoing study and reflection on discipleship has led him to political anarchism (of a particular type, mind you, though there is no space to get into the details here), the question of voting has been one that I have wrestled with for some time now. My own personal position does not feel particularly settled, nor do I think it is bound to be, as I think context is crucial to the question of how much a Christian should cooperate with the state and its practices. Thus, my own decision about whether or not to vote in a given election is bound to look differently in various circumstances.

But nevertheless I am convinced that most U.S. Catholics and most Christians have it all wrong when it comes to voting, and sometimes that includes our own U.S. bishops. Most of these Catholics get it all wrong because they buy into the American myth that one must vote in order to be a “good citizen,” and the one who opts not to vote is demonized for this or that reason: for being irresponsible, for being ungrateful to those who gave their lives so that Americans can enjoy the “right” to vote, or some such variation on these themes.

The U.S. bishops have traditionally bought into this myth as well, insisting in their periodic document Faithful Citizenship that U.S. Catholics have a “duty” to vote and, further, that this duty is linked with their faith. Over the years I have become more and more uncomfortable with this sort of claim as I have grown to see much value in the (anti-)practice of principled non-voting, especially when the principles involved are theological ones.

Over the last year or so, as the build-up to yet another election year has grown, and memories of the last media circus and election year battles are still fresh in our minds, I had been hoping that the bishops’ statement on “faithful citizenship” would quietly omit references to the “Catholic’s duty to vote.” Surely the bishops would have learned from the Church’s election year battles — battles which, frankly, have torn the Church apart — and would not even think to suggest that Catholics have a “duty” to participate in such divisive, hateful behavior. Maybe they would even come to express the virtue of “sitting this one out” as a valid and praiseworthy expression of one’s “faithful citizenship.”

My hopes were not exactly fulfilled. In some ways they were, but in others, quite the opposite.

Much of the bishops’ new document (PDF) on voting is quite good and provides very clear criteria for those who plan on taking part in this aspect of the political process. The bishops even mention the possibility of choosing not to vote, which they say is a legitimate option when all candidates support intrinsic evil in one way or another:

36. When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

But after saying this, the bishops make a startling statement that takes the notion of a Catholic’s “duty” to vote and steps it up a notch by insisting that the very casting of an electoral vote “also may affect the individual’s salvation”:

38. It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation. Similarly, the kinds of laws and policies supported by public officials affect their spiritual well-being. Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent reflection on the Eucharist as “the sacrament of charity,” challenged all of us to adopt what he calls “a Eucharistic form of life.” This means that the redeeming love we encounter in the Eucharist should shape our thoughts, our words, and our decisions, including those that pertain to the social order.

This kind of statement, in the middle of what is essentially a list of criteria on “how to vote,” is unfortunate and potentially misleading. Of course politics and salvation have everything to do with one another. After a long history of the popular Catholic mentality of separating the political from the spiritual, liberation theologians (and others) reminded the Church that salvation cannot be divorced from politics. This insight made its way into modern Catholic social teaching, including papal documents of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, under the concept of “integral liberation,” i.e. the notion that salvation, in its complete sense, involves the fullness of liberation, including its spiritual aspects (liberation from sin) and its socio-political aspects (liberation from all that threatens human life and well-being).

With this Catholic principle in mind, that our political orientation, stances, decisions, and involvements do have everything to do with our salvation, we must be careful not to reduce politics to voting, as the bishops seem to do here by placing this statement about “salvation” in the middle of a voting guide. Voting is but one part of our entire political lives, and it could be argued that voting is in fact one of the least important aspects of our political lives. Indeed, this is so because we cannot divide our lives into different compartments, separating the religious aspects of our lives, for example, from everything else. In much the same way, the whole of our lives involves the political, not in the sense of political campaigns and projects, but the way we envision human life and society to be ordered. Therefore, our chosen state in life, the things we buy, the values we hold, our choice of career… everything about our lives is political. Voting is but one very minor part of the political nature of all human life and activity.

The problem with equating the act of voting with politics as such can be seen clearly in the fact that, for Catholics, the options that present themselves come election time are limiting. The U.S. bishops have rightly pointed out in the past that when it comes to partisan politics, Catholics should feel “politically homeless.” During the last presidential election, I chose to vote for pragmatic reasons. I felt awful doing so. It occurred to me much later that no Catholic should have been comfortable voting four years ago, and truly no Catholic should have felt good or proud of the particular candidate he or she chose if he or she was truly approaching the voting booth as a Catholic who was making a sincere effort to bring the fullness of Catholicism to bear on that decision.

If it is the case that Catholics in the United States are truly “politically homeless” as the bishops have said, and if I am right that Catholics can never be satisfied or proud of who they do vote for, I find it strange that the bishops would reduce the Catholic understanding of political involvement to this simple action that is, ultimately, so restrictive and by which we should never feel satisfied. And if salvation and politics have everything to do with one another (and they do), the fact that bishops seem to suggest that voting is the way toward this salvation, or can even really affect our salvation in any profound sense, is utterly baffling.

To argue that it does seems elevate voting’s importance both politically and theologically. The political reasons seem, to me at least, to be quite obvious. Theologically, the matter was described well by the New Testament scholar and Episcopal priest A.K.M. Adam a couple years back at the annual gathering of the Ekklesia Project in a lecture entitled “The Strong Right Arm That Holds for Peace: Godliness as an Alternative to Empire” (available here and also as a PDF or mp3). In that lecture, Adam argued that imperial America (the term “imperial America” is, of course, less controversial now than it was ten or twenty years ago) has its own set of myths and practices in which its citizens live, move, and have their being and which take on an unspoken sacred quality.

In the name of realism, in the name of deference to honoring those who bear the effects of war (effects that our everyday language reveals that we regard as a sacrifice), strident voices demand that Christians profess their loyalty to a national ensign, and observe the festivals that the government establishes as though they were feasts of holy martyrs. The combined interests and sensitivities – often innocent, often commendable – of state power, of patriotic citizens, of injured families, and of corporate advantage converge in an ambiance I will call Sacramerica. In Sacramerica, the national pride of the United States blossoms into a displaced messianic hope that subordinates the God of the Decalogue to the sentimental consolations and pragmatic policy interests of a vast congregation of baseball fans, apple-pie eaters, and fireworks admirers.

Included in this culture of “Sacramerica” are a set of what Adam calls signifing practices, “ways that people express important claims about themselves and the world not only by talking or writing, but by the ways they behave, by the ways they interact with others.” Some of these practices can be quite conscious, he says, but

[m]ore often, though, we participate in signification less self-consciously, more by elective affiliation, with much less formal expectations and obligations; in so doing, we float along with the significations made available by mass culture and socially-dominant institutions.

Adam goes on to insist that Christians should learn to recognize the signifying practices of “Sacramerica” which include the state’s insistence that

one must vote, that liberal democracy constitutes a political order unexceptionably superior to other alternatives, that the way to resolve all conflicts is to hold a vote of some sort, hence that being right in the world should be correlative to winning….

And finally, Christians should not only recognize the myths and practices of Sacramerica but should actively resist their “misplaced Messianic hopes” through another set of signifying practices rooted in imaginative discipleship:

In order resist the signifying system of Sacramerica, I propose that we need to begin the work, the practice, of imagining our discipleship as an antithetical signifying practice, a practice of living in a way that throws Sacramerica off-step, out of balance.

Adam suggests not voting as one way to resist the practices of Sacramerica. The state and its mythos tell us that our salvation is bound up in democracy and the electoral process. Our Church leaders seem to be telling us the same thing. At a time in history when the candidates and the process that produces them seem to be devolving into a parody of itself, in an election that will undoubtedly give us nothing but options in which choosing one or the other will involve backing persons and programs that openly and loudly defend the willful, demonic defacing of human life — the very image of God — through abortion, war, and torture, shouldn’t we give up on even suggesting that our salvation “might” depend upon this laughable electoral ritual, that anything about it might salvific?

Yes, our salvation as Christians and as human beings is undeniably a political reality. And do not misunderstand me: voting can play a role in the way we practice our discipleship politically. The way we vote, if we vote, does have significance. But perhaps our salvation — our integral liberation — is bound up in the possibility of the counter-cultural option not to vote rather than playing the empire’s game — yet again, like clockwork — by throwing up our hands and throwing in our lot with inevitably sub-par candidates and telling our fellow members of the Body of Christ that “their salvation depends” on voting for the “right” person.

Thanks, bishops, for the permission. If my salvation depends on it, I’ll sit this one out.

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36 responses to “Voting and Salvation: Thanks, but no thanks”

  1. Michael – I’m with you on the confusing aspect of voting and how it could be a valid decision to not vote. However, I’m having trouble with the justfication of your critique of the Bishops’ documents, especially after one of your replies in a previous discussion nailed me for doing the same. Wouldn’t the documents you reference in your thourough discussion be more than the mere opinion of one or two bishops and carry the weight you referenced in our other discussion?

  2. Interesting post. I’ve made related if not exactly similar points in the past. My usual recommended practice is to spend an hour before the Blessed Sacrament instead of voting, since I see voting in modern omnibus elections as a training ground for moral imbecility.

    Another related aspect of this is that in point of fact any particular person’s act of voting has essentially no effect at all on the rest of the world. Any profound or deep effects it may have are on the person who votes himself. Yet the act of voting “displaces” the person’s responsibility for the common good: once we’ve voted we feel we’ve “given at the office”, that our duty to the common good is discharged, and that no further effort is required. This is particularly ironic given that to the extent any of us have influence on the common good it is among the people we know personally, not in our quantitative addition of an infinitesimally small quantity to a tally in an omnibus bundle of problemmatic policy positions. At the end of the day, refusing to vote is a protest which probably has more of an effect – though still essentially negligible, to be sure – than actually pulling the lever.

  3. Michael, I wouldn’t go to the mat for what I’m about to write, but it seems to me you have interpreted the document wrong — or I’m reading you wrong or the document wrong or both. It seems to me the point wasn’t to say, “vote or burn!!!”, but rather to say that since Catholicism affects all of our lives, how we conduct ourselves in the realm of politics “may” affect our salvation. I think the target here is people who vote for pro-abortion or pro-torture politicians (see how I’ve impugned both left and right? aren’t I clever?) and do so because they’re pro-abortion or -torture. Basically, enthusiastic support for crimes against humanity “may” have a deleterious effect on the process of one’s salvation. Such reveals and also promotes disordered loves and a conscience lacking Christian integrity.

    Again, if I’ve just missed, please dismiss this.

    As far as AKM Adam, I know him really well. He’s a great guy, and I think he is spot on with this God-and-Country bilge, and it’s good to see you appropriating him. If we could only do some about his severe heretical tendencies in other areas…

  4. All I have to say is that if anybody wonders whether he or she should vote, look at Venezuela and how sad the situation is with Chavez. It was brought about by apathy of millions who were either hopeless of the system or did not think of anyone but themselves (my family included in the latter group), so only the few who did not know any better voted for this man. Now students are being killed when they are just protesting calmly. It’s not rare now to hear of friends and their family members committing suicide because of the situation and the desperation they have fallen to. You don’t hear about that in the media, of course.

    This is the only thing that I just couldn’t agree with Dorothy Day about. She has influenced me in every way possible, but on this, I simply can’t agree. After all, she was an American–influenced by the American culture and her decision not to vote may have “made sense” in her time and in this country, but is not beneficial across the board or a logical consequence of our Christian faith. Perhaps if Americans don’t vote, the consequences will not be as devastating as to elevate someone like Chavez to power. Either way though, we all have a responsibility for all and we exercise that through our vote, but that is not the only way possible to express our responsibility toward one another and there is where I agree with Day. I just don’t see what we win by abstaining. If we truly want to make a change we do it locally, in our own communities and ironically that is what she did and she has influenced millions by her work.

  5. Its not what we win by abstaining. We acknowledge to ourselves the filthy rotten system for what it is.

    By not voting, like not enjoining in violence, refraining from violence, even when faced with the act or threats of violence, is part of joing with the dispossed. The acknowledgement that the voting for super-millionaire leaders is really a vote for the welathy and their privlege. Not for the poor, the Christ-in-the-poor we know through Good Friday.

    Dorothy Day knew violence, too. No one lives in a Catholic Worker for any amount of time and does not confront violence and have to take a humbling non-violent stand that places them in physical danger. But this is a way to embrace the Cross and the Gospel, embracing the powerlessness that the poor and the bottom of society are very familiar with.

    Not voting is one of Dorothy Day’s easy stands. The non-violence in the face of physical threats-that’s hard.

  6. Tim – I didn’t “nail you” for critiquing the Chilean bishops. I nailed you for saying that their 1980 excommunication of those who participate in torture was “just their opinion” and that it didn’t matter since the judgment didn’t come from Rome.

    Irenaeus – I think we’re in agreement. I too don’t think the bishops are saying “vote or burn.” I hope your interpretation is what they meant – that our political orientation and action as a whole is involved in our salvation, rather than simply how one votes.

    Basically, enthusiastic support for crimes against humanity “may” have a deleterious effect on the process of one’s salvation.

    I would say “enthusiastic support for crimes against humanity” WILL have a negative effect on one’s salvation, without doubt.

    Not sure what you mean about A.K.M.A.’s “heretical tendencies.” That’s an awfully strong charge. Why don’t we leave it at that.

    Katerina, those sorts of concerns are why I wouldn’t make the decision not to vote absolute. Depends on the context. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that generally Christians should not vote, unless there is some compelling evidence that doing so could have a real effect in favor of protecting human life, like potentially stopping a war.

  7. I have no trouble (in theory) with non-voting as a form of political witness–it amounts to voting with one’s feet. Unfortunately, it is an ambiguous witness. How do you distinguish the conscientious non-voter from the merely apathetic? It would make more sense to register a protest vote that could be counted.

  8. I agree that not-voting is an ambiguous witness, though I would point out that so is voting. And from my perspective, again, the key issue isn’t the effect one’s vote has on the world, which is as negligible as the effect that one swatting a mosquito has on the world. The entire pertinence of the question of voting is what effect it has on you.

  9. One can also ask, how do you distinguish between one who gives full support to a candidate and one who is apathetic and doesn’t know who to vote for and just pulls the party lever? All anonymous voting is vague and why one can’t judge another voter just by who they vote for or if they don’t vote; why the true issue is what the voter is voting to support and not who they voted for.

  10. the key issue isn’t the effect one’s vote has on the world, which is as negligible as the effect that one swatting a mosquito has on the world.

    Unless, of course, you lived in Florida in 2000 or in Ohio in 2004!

    I really think you may be reading too much into the Bishop’s statements. If you look at the context of what was being voted on (, you can see that the intention of the statement was to say that voting for politicians who support intrinsic evils can potentially be a mortal sin. Perhaps the statement could also be construed in such a way that non-voting could become sinful in certain circumstances, but I don’t think (and I see from reading the comments, that you agree with me) that the bishops were saying vote or burn.
    In fact, I’m baffled by the relative unimportance you seem to be placing in voting. I’ll give you, on my more cynical days I’ve wondered what affect my vote actually has. But, really, the ability to have some choice in my government is an amazing step forward. I’ll grant you that it’s not a direct democracy. I’ll grant you that even the best government still leaves much to be desired. But it’s an improvement.

  11. My last comment was accidentally submitted early…

    Suffice it to say, that I don’t think that the bishops are buying into some kind of American myth or state-religion by emphasizing the importance of voting. They look at several initial factors 1)voting has an affect on government, 2)government affects the common good and deduce that voting also has an affect on the common good, and thus can be an occasion either of sin or virtue. The fact that Church-religion and State-religion both are saying that voting is important, while it may give us cause to check our motivation in performing that action, doesn’t mean that Church-religion is wrong in what it says. For example, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, both Christ and the Devil tell us to “count the cost” when it comes to salvation. Does the fact that the Devil says this mean that Christ is now precluded from saying it. Of course, the context of the Devil’s statement, “count the cost”, is different from the context of Christ’s statement, just as the context of State-religion’s statement is different from the context of Church-religion’s statement. But, in both cases, it’s the surrounding context that is wrong, and statement or assertion itself.

  12. Unless, of course, you lived in Florida in 2000 or in Ohio in 2004!

    Actually no. If I had lived in either place at either time, no personal vote that I might have cast would have made any difference in the outcome whatsoever, as a matter of fact.

  13. Sure, Zippy, it wasn’t a one vote election, if that’s what you mean. But each election was decided by only a few thousand votes in states where millions of people lived. Clearly, if Joe Non-voter walked up and decided to vote at that time, his vote would have had an impact. Sure, it alone wouldn’t have tipped the scales, but it certainly would have had some weight.

  14. I guess I’m trying to understand why it’s OK to say the U.S. bishops have it all wrong or have bought into a myth when it comes to voting within the context of the document they put out as a consensus of Catholic Bishops representing the Roman Catholic Church.

  15. Clearly, if Joe Non-voter walked up and decided to vote at that time, his vote would have had an impact. Sure, it alone wouldn’t have tipped the scales, but it certainly would have had some weight.

    It seems to me that you are contradicting yourself. In point of fact, his individual vote would have made no difference whatsoever. This is inherent to the winner-takes-all truncated nature of voting (which itself is merely the last in a long chain of truncations leading up to the ballot content and the election). Almost everything has already been settled before you go to vote. Then you vote, and your vote does not ever change the outcome of a national election; but it does change you.

    People think that their votes matter, and that they’ve discharged their duty to the common good when they have voted. But their individual votes don’t in fact matter, and in fact they have not discharged their duty to the common good by voting.

    I guess I’m trying to understand why it’s OK to say the U.S. bishops have it all wrong or have bought into a myth when it comes to voting within the context of the document they put out as a consensus of Catholic Bishops representing the Roman Catholic Church.

    It is fairly interesting to me what the document doesn’t say. As far as I can tell it doesn’t say anything at all against principled non-voting, and indeed at least implies that principled non-voting is at times the right answer.

  16. Matthew, I’ll repeat my comment to Irenaeus: I don’t think the bishops are saying “vote or burn.” But I think they have traditionally held the assumption that it is the Catholic’s “duty” to vote. This is stated clearly in countless documents. This one represents the first to suggest that a Catholic might consider not voting.

    Also, as I stated at the end of the post, I think voting can have a role in certain contexts. Maybe in certain contexts one does have the “duty” to vote, I dunno. I’m simply not comfortable with a blanket statement about “duties” apart from context. It is fair to say that the importance of voting is certainly inflated every four years and we — Catholics included — make too big a deal of it. And as I said, it has been tearing the Church apart. I think that’s precisely what those in power want.

    Tim – Clearly, I don’t think the bishops have it all wrong. I noted the strengths of the document. I said they make one faulty assumption and critique one line of the entire document for expressing this assumption. I admire the bishops for the way in which they are critiquing Republicatholic voting patterns more than they have in the past. This is encouraging.

  17. I used your wording regarding having it all wrong. What I’m getting at is if this document is meant as a guide for Catholics and it is put out by them as a group of Bishops representing the Catholic Church aren’t we obligated by it? Where does the room for picking and choosing what teachings they give us are faulty and what aren’t? I’m especially interested because this topic came so soon after our other discussion along similar lines.

  18. Tim – Yes, we are obligated to take this document seriously. But it is not above critique, especially when it comes to points made in the document that are not particularly central to the overall purpose of the document. I have no issues with the overall statement that they have made, only with their assumption (so it seems) that Catholics are obligated to vote.

    The difference between this and our other conversation is simple: in the other conversation we were discussing the decision made by the Chilean bishops to excommunicate practitioners of torture and you dismissed that pronouncement as mere opinion because it did not come from Rome. The issues are completely different.

    I’ll post on the 1980 excommunications tonight or over the weekend.

  19. I’m still interested in reading the details and do appreciate your time if dig them up.

    Back on this topic – If the Bishops say we’re obligated to vote, doesn’t that mean we should follow their teaching and vote just as we should not do X, Y, and Z because the Bishops say we shouldn’t?

  20. I think we as Catholic citizen have an obligation to minimize evil. If you look over two candidates, and they are exactly equal in potential for evil, staying home is an option. Sometimes though, you have a choice between Satan and Baal, and you have to pick the lesser of the two to minimize the evil that might be caused.

    I believe in the case where you choose not to vote when you have an opportunity to minimize evil is a sin of omission, much like those who walked past the beaten man who was then helped by the Samaritan.

  21. ‘–How do you distinguish the conscientious non-voter from the merely apathetic?
    –The difference seems pretty cut-and-dry to me.’

    Not if you are merely counting the non-votes!

    ‘One can also ask, how do you distinguish between one who gives full support to a candidate and one who is apathetic and doesn’t know who to vote for and just pulls the party lever?’

    True. This is why I think that a more effective protest vote is one registered for a third party candidate with unequivocal statements on the issues.

    BTW, I sometimes regret that we USAmericans do not have a proportional, multi-party system of representation in government. If we did, I could vote with a reasonably clear conscience for a Christian Democratic party (like Finland’s), and leave the coalition politics to the elected politicians. I know that this form of government has many drawbacks, but it does allow a number of viewpoints to be clearly expressed at the ballot box.

  22. I believe in the case where you choose not to vote when you have an opportunity to minimize evil …

    I think there may be something wrong with your premeses.

  23. As a person who has voted in every election I have been eligible to participate in since I became old enough to exercise the franchise, I would like to thank those who do not vote for allowing me and the other voters to pick your leaders for you.

  24. Zippy,

    While it’s undeniably true that in any given election, no one given voter will be “the deciding vote”, since the leader is picked through the election you cannot say that voting doesn’t matter, since the sum of the votes does determine the outcome.

    So while it’s true that no one vote determines the election, every vote does contribute to the outcome. One cannot say that the votes don’t matter.

  25. Getting back to the original post, I have to agree with those who wrote that you have misinterpreted the document. No where does the document say that you have a duty to vote. I don’t even think that is implied.

    The bishops pay particular attention to voting for two reasons. First, for most Catholics — good or bad — that is their most direct experience with the political process. Second, voting, because it distills complicated issues into a single “yes or no” action, poses unique moral challenges not existent in other forms of political participation.

    Perhaps the bishops might have done better to say that all types of political participation may affect one’s salvation, rather than just putting in the voting discussion. I don’t think, however, the absence of such a general statement gives undue emphasis on voting.

  26. Donald, I didn’t know you worked for Diebold!

    ctd, this document does not say outright that Catholics have a duty to vote, but past versions have always insisted on this, and I read the document in light of that traditionally asserted assumption. Perhaps the bishops are moving away from that idea, but I think the assumption still lurks in the background and pokes through in statements about how voting ‘may’ affect one’s salvation.

  27. One cannot say that the votes don’t matter.

    That is the reason why I don’t say it. What I say is that a person’s individual vote doesn’t matter, in the sense where “matter” refers to having any effect whatsoever on the outcome of the election. It does of course matter in terms of what it does to the person voting.

  28. Zippy, I thoroughly support your right never to cast another vote. Exercise your right not to vote every chance you get.

  29. It can be. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with voting, but then ighting incense -qua- lighting incense can be morally licit too.

  30. Voting can indeed be a form of worshiping democracy, and therefore to a certain extent onesself and one’s own equal “relevance”, as an idol; those are constitutive of “Caesar” in modern polities.

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