Does Voting Matter?
By john pattison
January 10, 2012
I cried myself to sleep the night Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. I was 14—too young to vote but old enough to know America had, at the ballot, formally turned its back on God. I implored God not to turn His back on America. When I woke in the morning, I was surprised how bright it was, even a little offended the sun had risen at all, as if it didn’t know the world was ending.
I pulled the lever for Dole in ’96, hoping to rescue what Rush Limbaugh called “America Held Hostage.” I stayed up all night watching Round One of the Bush/Gore election on a big-screen TV in the church where I was serving as youth pastor. In 2003, bombs rained on Baghdad, and I raised a glass to toast the military might of the United States. In 2007, I was arrested in front of the White House as part of the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I voted for John Kerry, a decision a few of my Christian friends and family interpreted not as the sum of a complicated political equation but as spiritual rebellion.
Clearly, I tend to get too wrapped up in presidential elections.
I get carried away by the 24-hour news coverage, the pundits, blogs, campaign ads, speeches, scandals and gaffes; my spirit rises and falls with every new poll. And yet I feel surprisingly ambivalent heading into the 2012 election cycle. Like a lot of people, I was hopeful the 2008 election was going to have the cultural effect of throwing open a window to get the air moving, infusing our national discourse with some optimism and energy and possibility. The parties’ differences of opinion were real, but I believed in the politics of goodwill.
I wasn’t the only one to get caught up in the excitement. Stirred by hope and promises of change, young people turned out in droves, voting for Barack Obama by a margin of 2-to-1, the largest margin of victory for any age group since 1972. But the poetry of that epic election didn’t translate easily into the prose of governing, and for a lot of people, the last four years have been short on change and hope. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, the same young people who helped sweep Obama into office are “disappointed” and paying less attention to politics than they did in 2007.
So perhaps ambivalence might be a proper attitude for Christians to take toward electoral politics. This is true whether you plan to vote this year for President Obama, his Republican challenger or someone else altogether. Like the apostle Paul—who was a Jew, a citizen of Rome, a citizen of Tarsus and a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20)—American Christians hold multiple citizenships. Roman citizenship came with certain privileges, and Paul seems to have been comfortable playing the citizenship card. For example, Romans couldn’t be beaten or imprisoned without trial (Acts 16) and had the right to appeal a guilty verdict to Caesar (Acts 25).
Similarly, voting is one of the privileges of U.S. citizenship. Voting has its problems—it is individualistic, it can abstract us from real people and it can sometimes be used as a shortcut around long and faithful engagement with real issues—but it is a tangible way we can try to make the world a little better. While there are compelling reasons to abstain (on this point, I recommend the book Electing Not to Vote), my own conscience obliges me to participate. The challenge is to drink, so to speak, without getting drunk.
My friend Matt told me recently about a trip he took to Israel. Walking through bazaars in Jerusalem, he noticed dozens of vendors selling coins. Examining the baskets of Roman coins that had been unearthed over centuries of archaeological exploration, Matt remembered a story from the Gospel of Mark. The Pharisees and Herodians brought Jesus a denarius (a tribute coin), which probably bore the image and inscription of Caesar. They were trying to trick Jesus with a question about taxes, and Jesus told them to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
This Scripture passage often comes up in discussions about Christians and taxes. But 2,000 years of hindsight—and Matt’s trip to the Old City bazaar—brings up another layer of meaning. Maybe buried in the subtext is Jesus’ understanding that long after Caesar was dead, long after the fall of the Roman Empire, long after the denarius in His hand had fallen to the ground, been rediscovered and sold as a curio for a buck in an Israeli market—God will still be El-Olam, God Everlasting.
The United States will probably pass away. Perhaps one day our own coins will be collected as mementoes of a lost age. Presidential elections, while important, are cross-stitches in the wide fabric of eternity. Our hope will ultimately never rest in a particular political candidate, party, process or system. Our hope is in El-Olam, no matter what the sticker says on the back of my car.
John Pattison is the co-author of Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture and co-author of the forthcoming book Slow Church (both IVP). He blogs at SlowChurch.com. This article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of RELEVANT magazine.