With the Pennsylvania deadline for voter registration approaching next week on October 9, the November 6 mid-term elections not far behind, and my extreme frustration with the current political state of affairs, the issue of voting is looming large in my mind.(Public service announcement before I go on! If you live in Pennsylvania and are not registered to vote, please consider doing so by the deadline of October 9. You can register here. More information about voting across the United States is available on the Rock the Vote website.)
The 2016 presidential election was decided by less than 78,000 votes in three states. The electoral college votes in those three states (including Pennsylvania) decided the election in Donald Trump’s favor despite the fact that he lost the national popular vote by 2.8 million votes. My point is not that the result was not legitimate – it was according to the system we have in place – but rather to emphasize the razor-thin margin and the importance of individual votes. Less than 78,000 out of 13,243,376 votes in three states (and 136,669,237 total votes across the country) put a man into the White House who I wish had never have been elected. Voting matters a lot!
In his victory speech on election night in 2016, Donald Trump said, “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division, to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans.” Even though very little of what he had done or said during the campaign was particularly reassuring to me, I hoped that he would rise to the occasion as president and live up to these unifying words. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, as far as I’ve been able to observe, and it feels like democracy itself is under assault under this president and the deep divisions continue.
More than two years ago, ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, I wrote about my dilemmas related to voting. I referred to my faith tradition’s past reluctance to vote: “To vote was to be complicit in the [political] system, and to perpetuate or reinforce the coercive nature of politics and the compromise of values inherent in the system,” but I also noted that I have always voted because I believe that it’s one way of not being silent but speaking up for what I believe as well as one of the particular privileges of living in a participatory democracy.
I continue to wonder whether emphasizing the importance of voting suggests that I am putting more hope in the outcome of an election than I should. Perhaps I should focus instead on the hope inherent in my faith in a God who cares about us now and always even when things around us, including our politics, look dismal and tempt us to despair. I wonder whether I should simply (oh, if only it were simple!) live out in my daily life the values that are important to me, regardless of who’s in the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the governor’s mansion, and so on down the line.However, I don’t think it’s either-or (not much in life is): that is, either we vote and become involved politically, or we don’t because our hope is in something bigger and more eternal. I appreciate what Tim Keller said in his recent op-ed in the New York Times: “Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply ‘preach the Gospel.’ Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political. . . . Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors, whether they believe as we do or not. To work for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation requires political engagement. Christians have done these things in the past and should continue to do so.”
Do I think that certain voting outcomes will be the cure for all that ails us as Americans? A thousand times NO! We should recognize that most political systems and individuals are subject to corruption, unethical compromises, and self-interest. They will not bring in the kingdom of God. But voting is one way to act positively, to take a stand, knowing that if enough other people act, we can make a difference. Voting can either affirm the status quo or issue a strong repudiation and desire to chart a different course. Voting cuts through the noise of competing rhetoric and ideologies and simply expresses our best judgment of who we think will serve our public and civic interests and advance our values. For me, those values include (in no order of importance): the common good, generosity, compassion, desire for reconciliation, justice, truth, care for the marginalized and vulnerable regardless of who they are or where they’re from or where in the world they live, respect for each person’s dignity and humanity, civility, kindness, and so on.
I will vote on November 6 because I care about these values, believe they are often in short supply in our current environment, and want more people in government who reflect them. At the same time, I will continue to try to live them out in my everyday life, knowing that I can do so regardless of who is elected and what policies are enacted.