One of my birthday presents this year is the opportunity to vote in the presidential primary here in Pennsylvania. What a birthday present! I can’t remember a year when I have been so frustrated with a political process that seems broken on so many levels: 1) the season is way too long (more than two years, thus creating a “lame-duck” president way before any rational meaning for that term); 2) the process costs an obscene amount of money, some of it from dubious sources (to say the least!); 3) honesty, truth, and basic decency have all been sacrificed; 4) candidates pander to the worst in people, especially their anger and fear; 5) it seems like it is becoming more difficult rather than easier and more convenient for some people, particularly minorities, to vote. And the list of my grievances and frustrations could go on and on.
I’ve even begun to wonder whether I should vote at all, given the level of my dissatisfaction. I come from a faith tradition that discouraged voting in political elections. My spiritual ancestors believed in being separated from the world, including politics (think the Amish as a contemporary example). Their reasons included the fact that their ancestors were persecuted by the state, which, according to Brethren in Christ historian E. Morris Sider writing in 1986, “confirmed that those who were responsible for the political life of the country were evil men; thus politics were evil, and thus the Christian must have nothing to do with such matters.” Another reason was that they were also “convinced that to engage in the electoral process was to hazard the right to conscientious objector privileges during times of war.” During the first century of the denomination, “the non-voting position was the accepted one…which suggests that the position was deeply embedded in Brethren in Christ tradition.” To vote was to be complicit in the system, and to perpetuate or reinforce the coercive nature of politics and the compromise of values inherent in the system.
Times have changed, and now the vast majority of Brethren in Christ people in the U. S. vote in national, state, and local elections. Our interpretation of what it means to be separated from the world is different than it was in the early days. I myself have voted in every election since 1972, which was the first presidential election after I was old enough to vote. I take the responsibility seriously, and believe it is important for me as a citizen of a participatory democracy to have a voice, to try to influence the system more in the direction of the values I consider important: the common good, justice, peace, compassion, care for people who are disadvantaged and marginalized both here and elsewhere in the world, care for the earth, careful stewardship of resources, respect for the essential dignity and worth of everyone, and so on.
Most of the time, especially in presidential or statewide elections, I have voted for the candidate who I believed best embodied those values and proposed policies that advanced them in ways I support, and I felt good about my vote. Sometimes, I will admit, I have voted for someone who, as the saying goes, was “the lesser of two evils.”
Perhaps “the lesser of two evils” is a bit strong. I don’t think I would usually put it that way, especially since I try to be careful about what I label as evil. But it is true that I have not always been particularly enthusiastic about my candidate of choice. I have even significantly disagreed with the candidate on certain issues, but I have voted for him or her because I was even less enthusiastic about and/or disagreed more strongly with the opponent(s). Knowing that no candidate will ever completely match my values, most of the time I have been able to make peace with a vote that was clearly a compromise choice.
Which brings me back to the non-voting stance of my ancestors, and why the election of 2016 feels like a watershed moment for me. I’ve heard people say this time around that they could never vote for certain candidates who have been running for president. Sometimes this is for no other reason than partisan politics, but sometimes it is because the candidates don’t embody enough of the values they consider important. There are conditions this year under which I would not be able to vote for anyone in good conscience.
I don’t think I’ve ever said before that I would abstain from voting for reasons of conscience. Realizing that has made me reflect again on the nature of compromise and settling for less than the best, or less than my ideal. We all like to say that we won’t compromise our values, but the reality is that we compromise all the time. We believe in and practice the art of compromise – the ability to negotiate solutions to everyday problems and disagreements in our homes and workplaces where everyone makes concessions and there is genuine give and take. Even when it comes to deeply-held values, our self-interest sometimes ends up taking precedence – for example, when we condemn sexist and racist behavior but like proposed economic policies that will be personally beneficial, or when we are worried about hawkish tendencies but like the commitment to racial justice and women’s rights. I suspect that no one can really claim to be a purist; we all make compromises and it’s not always a bad thing when we do.
But how much compromise is too much? At what point are we making compromises that our personal integrity and commitment to certain values and beliefs simply cannot tolerate? When I have trouble making up my mind which candidate to vote for from the party in which I’m registered and can’t imagine ever in any lifetime voting for the candidates on the other side, is that a sign that perhaps I shouldn’t vote at all? When I am genuinely worried about what would happen to the United States if certain individuals would be elected president, does that mean I have put way too much trust in politics and the choice of a president and need to disengage from the political process and focus on things with more eternal significance?
April 9 was the 71st anniversary anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who spoke out against the evils of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany. I mention Bonhoeffer’s resistance not to make any comparisons with Hitler in our current context (just as I am careful about what I label evil, I am also careful about making Hitler comparisons) but to point to something he said that feels very relevant in these difficult times: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
When I am tempted not to vote this year because of the mess that our political system is in, because I can’t decide between pragmatism or idealism, or because I simply don’t much like any of the candidates, I wonder whether that is a form of being silent in the face of great wrong. I don’t want to wake up the day after the election, not having voted, only to find that someone I think could do great harm to the country and the values for which it stands has been elected president. I want to know that at least I have made my voice heard through my vote. So I will probably vote, first by voting on my birthday in Pennsylvania’s presidential primary, and then in the general election in November, and I will be grateful for the freedom to vote for the candidate of my choice.
And in the meantime, I will work at overcoming my fear of speaking out and not be silent in the face of great wrong, and I will remind myself repeatedly that this election will not usher in either the end of the world or the kingdom of God!