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Is Not Voting in an Election Nihilistic?

January 14th, 2016 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

One of the more common complaints about yesterday’s feature by Matt is that refusing to vote for a candidate in an election is nihilistic in a way that goes well beyond whatever nihilism one might see in Dod Crump. (This is henceforth how I will be referring to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz—feel free to join me if you are as sick of them as I am.)

The obvious problem with this argument is that it epitomizes the sort of prioritizing of the presidency above all else that was one of Matt’s main targets yesterday. One of Matt’s chief concerns in yesterday’s piece—and it’s been a concern of his (and mine) for some time—is that a church which subordinates the life of the church to the goal of political power is a church that will be incapable of using political power effectively. You cannot win a culture war without a culture and right now the most pressing problem facing orthodox Christians is the lack of a true Christian culture in many parts of our nation.

To go on arguing that we must continue supporting men who don’t seem to have any actual principles but will vaguely gesture in our direction to win our support because #religiousliberty is to make the very sort of argument Matt has been attempting to rebut for years. Indeed, it shows more clearly than anything else how evangelicals will subordinate the values most necessary to the life of a Christian culture in order to achieve political power.

Incidentally, I’m not sure why we should be confident that a Crump presidency would actually be better for religious conservatives long-term anyway. True, we’d get better SCOTUS appointees, but then Anthony Kennedy and John Roberts were both appointed by Republican presidents and have been the pivotal figures in every major SCOTUS decision that has gone against social conservatives in recent years. Having five Republican appointees on the bench has done nothing to head off the abuses of religious liberty built into the ACA or to protect natural marriage.

Beyond that, it’s also worth noting that the United States is moving leftward more generally on social issues so any triumph of conservatism is likely to be a short-term victory rather than the beginning of some sort of broader conservative resurgence. As the silent generation and boomers pass off the scene, this shift is going to become more pronounced and our country will become more hostile to religious conservatives—and the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will have very little power to change that.

Indeed, the best case scenario for social conservatives is likely to get a pro-business libertarian type in the White House who will have some respect for religious liberty. But, then again, it wasn’t the government that destroyed the Indiana and Arkansas religious freedom bills—it was big business. And lest we forget, the response of America’s big brands to Obergefell was hardly the sort that should give social conservatives confidence about their standing with the business community:

It is not within the presidency’s capabilities to turn back the rushing tide of support for socially liberal positions. Besides, that tide first began to crest some time ago in an America that looked very different but embraced underlying principles that made the current regime inevitable. So even if we grant the idea that one should simply support bad Republican candidates in presidential elections, that argument quickly falls apart under any level of serious scrutiny.

That said, what is interesting about this conversation is less the naĂŻvetĂ© of Crump supporters and more the underlying assumption that Christians have some sort of obligation to vote for someone in national elections and that the failure to do so is nihilistic or an abdication of our responsibility as citizens. More than anything else, this tells us a great deal about the malnourished imaginations of social conservatives in the United States. To elevate voting in presidential elections to the defining act of social responsibility—and to imply that we have an obligation to vote for Falstaffs in said elections—is to actually adopt the sort of centralizing, technocratic mentality that is in fact responsible for many of the problems we are currently facing.

This is not to say we must adopt some sort of Anabaptist quietism and largely withdraw from civil society. Rather, it is to say that we must define civic responsibility in terms that are recognizably Christian rather than Belburian. We must once again recognize that the beginning of a Christian citizen’s responsibility is not to participate in the increasingly farcical process of selecting the head of the executive branch of our national government but is rather the Christian home. As long as we continue to see a third of all evangelical children leaving the faith when they become adults (and even more appalling numbers for Catholics) then we will continue to see these problems, no matter who is in the White House. If we are to actually see meaningful reform in our nation it will not come through sending one of our own guys down to Mordor to change the wall decorations of Barad Dur, but rather through reenchanting our homes and making them places of laughter and joy where the love of God is made manifest and the life of faith is made more plausible.

Beyond that, there are many other far more immediate arenas of responsibility for the Christian citizen—their local church congregation, neighborhood, schools, and city government all come to mind. If you want to make the case that voting is a Christian responsibility, there may be a persuasive one to be made, but if that is the case then that responsibility is far more apparent with local elections than it is for national.

Certainly, national elections can have an impact on the life of local communities. We have seen many demonstrations of that in the fallout from the Affordable Care Act and are likely to see even more in the fallout from the Obergefell decision. Yet the assumption that electing Dod Crump would solve this problem is beyond laughable. The great and horrible thing about a democracy is that you always get the government you deserve. America’s problem cannot be reduced down to who holds a single office. It is much broader and more pervasive than that. And far from resolving the problem, the evangelical willingness to elect men as power-hungry and shameless as Crump only highlights how pervasive the problem really is.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).