(36) S2E13 Abstention from Political Idolatry

This episode looks at how our political idolatry has caused us to remove a vital moral option from our repertoire - abstention in voting. We explore how abstention compares to the biblical call of justice in our lives, as well as looking at how abstention can actually shape the social and political landscape.

As Christians in the U.S. start thinking about voting for a commander in chief this fall, I thought I'd throw out an unpopular option for everyone to chew on. I've done a significant amount of reflection on politics, voting, and Kingdom living over the past few years, and I have concluded that the option of abstention is something that needs to be on the table for Christians. It may not be something you do in this election, or any future election, but it needs to be a tool you have available to you and one you can respect others using. In this podcast episode I lay out that case for this option, but if you want the summary and don't want to listen to a ninety minute episode, I'll summarize below. 


1. Many Christians view what James calls true religion as optional (helping orphans, widows, etc), as few Christians judge others for not doing these things. Only people who are "called" to those things are required to do them. Few people in our churches adopt, volunteer at the food pantry, etc. We view those things as optional, and understand if congregants don't have the time to participate. However, many view voting as morally necessary and the responsible thing to do.  This mismatch of moral obligations seems to me to be political idolatry. How is it that orphans and widows are optional, while voting is obligatory?  The state has replaced the church as the Christian ethic in American Evangelical society, which is why a vote every four years is lauded more vocally than doing the hard work of consistent community interaction and love. 

2. When all candidates and/or platforms require our own moral compromises or implicit support of evil, the testimony of Christ should be prioritized and our salt/light to the world maintained over any action which promises perceived effectiveness.  When all options are evil (a threshold we may disagree on), a holy example is only maintained through our abstention from evil and subsequent faith in God to accomplish his means through the church. As Daniel resigned himself to prayer, Moses's mother resigned her son to a basket, and Jesus resigned himself to a cross - God may bring us to a moment where following him means throwing off seeming effectiveness and simply resting in God's promise to sovereignly control history not through our subversion of his means, but through our clinging to him and his holy will over human wisdom, methodology, and power..

God's express and implied will for our lives is holiness and a growing conformity to Christ. If all political parties and/or candidates require moral compromise, abstention is important to maintain moral holiness in our avoidance of evil. It is only through holy distinction (being salt and light) that incarnation is possible and meaningful. Had Jesus met us where we were, but not maintained his holy distinction from us, his incarnation would have been meaningless because he would have condescended without providing us a hope for our ascension. Christ may have met the prostitutes and tax collectors where they were (literally at their place of work or in their homes), but his maintained holiness and distinctiveness was what gave them hope that they were and could be more. Likewise, the church is to be distinct in our incarnation - being in the world, but not being of it and compromising for it. Without that holy distinction, we are not depicting Christ and have no hope of which to tell the world. Without a two-fold incarnation (condescension and holy distinctiveness), the message of the gospel is unintelligible, disingenuous, and worthless. 

  3. Even if all candidates and parties are morally acceptable, abstention can be important to avoid personal political idolatry. There are many actions which can be good which are made morally wrong or unwise for someone with certain struggles/proclivities. Those who struggle with pride in regard to their musical ability may refuse to join the praise team at church.While praising God and serving the church are good, good things can be corrupting influences or temptations for some individuals. Even if any particular election has a viable candidate for Christians, it may be personally necessary for an individual to abstain from voting in order to abstain from personal idolatry. 

4. Abstention may not only be the best approach for personal and communal moral distinction and holiness, but it may be the best option for long term positive results, as group adherence to such an action could best ensure future candidates and policies will be brought up to standards rather than the voting base be brought down into moral compromise, and a slippery slope of morality ensue both in parties/candidates and the voting base. For example, had the conservative Christian community abstained in the last presidential election, while a Democrat would likely have won, it may be that the Republican party would have seen the need to put forward a morally fit candidate and platform this term who represents Christian values (in policy and example) far better than the current or even previous presidents. Likewise, we may not have such a backlash in response to our current president, and may not have made more far left candidates (like Sanders) viable options for the Left. Rather than a lowering of the bar all-around, abstention could have potentially halted and reversed the degradation of political polarization, immorality, and childishness.

5. We recognize abstention in other realms (e.g. the financial) as being not only meaningful (symbolically and actually), but morally necessary in some cases. Most conservative Christian women likely avoid supporting Planned Parenthood even for general procedures not related to abortions. We also see abstention advocated by the most big vocal conservative Christians in the recent outrage against the Superbowl half-time show. They are arguing that Christians boycott (a.k.a. abstain from watching) the Superbowl or the half-time show next year unless changes are made to the program. Christians understand abstention to be a valuable tool in other areas - areas where we can conveniently find alternatives (boycott a clothing manufacturer and you still have plenty of brands to choose from, boycott Planned Parenthood and you can still go to another healthcare provider, or boycott the Superbowl and you can still find other forms of entertainment or watch highlights the next day). However, political power is an idol for us and we think we need it to control the world, so we can't loose our grip on that. Therefore, abstention is condemned in the political sphere while deemed valuable in just about every other area of life. 

ADDENDUM of ANECDOTE: Having contact with a lot of international people and missionaries, I always love polling that community on political ideas. I find that among missionaries, many break the mold in political thinking from what is stereotypical of their denomination. Here are just a few insights related to voting from the conversations I've had with some expats. 

 1. Many missionaries I've talked to don't view voting as that big of a deal, and a number don't bother doing absentee voting. They just don't view politics as where lives and hearts are changed. Kingdom work seems to have very little to do with political power. As you experience ministry (especially cross-culturally), the church seems to be the true power of Christ, not politics. 
2. Some missionaries and individuals who have ministries and friendships overseas, or who live in diverse communities - in locations like Mexico, Central/South America, and the Middle East, find that voting along American Evangelical lines hinders their testimony. How do you chant "build that wall!" and then preach to your Mexican congregation that we are aliens in this world and there is neither Jew nor Greek... Mexican nor American? Many missionaries find it all too convenient for those living Stateside to have neat parameters for voting "Christianly," but that neat package tends to ostracize and ignore the other 95% of the world who compose the Kingdom from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Abstention not only seems like a possible option for individuals in some cultures, but sometimes the most Christian option which allows expats to love non-Americans and maintain their testimony to those they serve.

 3. In many countries, Christians have no option to control the government and they don't really care to change that. They recognize that government isn't how Christianity asserts its power in the world. If Christianity asserted its power through politics, then most of the world, for most of history and through today (and including Jesus) were ineffective Christians. Was Christ's goal really for Christians to grasp at political power to wield their wills over the opposition? I was speaking with a missionary from one country where Christianity isn't persecuted, but  neither is it even close to being in power. This person said that the church doesn't care about politics at all. They view it as, "why would I want to be or have part with Caesar?" The grasp at political power is viewed as almost antithetical to Christianity or Christian interests in some cultures. 

 4. Conservative Evangelical Christians in some cultures are flabbergasted by the political frenzy of American conservatives. While this particular point comes from listening to an international podcast rather than direct conversation (Justin Brierly from "Unbelievable"), I think the point still stands. Conservative Christians overseas just don't understand the compromises American conservatives are willing to make. Brierly said that U.K. conservatives thought the only difference they had with American Christians prior to 2016 was a little bit of language difference, but after 2016 they recognized that our Christianity looked significantly different in regard to its view on politics. It's important to recognize that conservatives from other cultures can provide us with some insights and balances we ought to consider, as it's easy to be blind to your own idols. 

5. Finally, the nationalism of the U.S. stands out to so many missionaries returning from overseas. Going to a church and seeing the U.S. flag flown with the Christian flag (with the U.S. flag always in prominence, above and/or to the right), having patriotic services in church where always stoic congregants turn into passionate ones, having missions conferences where the world flags are flown - but with a special entrance for the U.S. flag that is raised above all the others and sung to - it just feels weird. It's weird to be so Kingdom minded only to return and have one kingdom raised above the others, including above THE Kingdom. We call it patriotism here, but a lot of missionaries I've talked to feel it's strange and goes beyond that for Christians.It seems a lot more like nationalism (worship of country) when you step away and return.  While this last point isn't directly tied to voting, it does say a lot about how we elevate our nation and government, and therefore how we likely view an act like voting, which is integral to our government's elevation and the narrative of what we're lead to believe about our nation and our responsibility to it. 

In conclusion, American Evangelicals need to consider moral consistency, faithful action, and holy integrity as more important than becoming drunk on perceived power, security, and control. Holy sacrifice and conformity to Christ is what allowed impoverished peasants to transform pagan, pluralistic Rome, not compromise with the powers that be. Abstaining from evil and trusting in God, while simultaneously putting our money where our mouths are and exemplifying true religion (helping the least at cost to ourselves) is how we change the world, because that's what Christ taught us and showed us. Therefore, abstention in voting is an important tool to consider.

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(36) S2E13 Abstention from Political Idolatry
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