A third option for president: Abstention
Campaign 2016 | Christians are not morally obligated to vote in this year’s presidential election
by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Friday, November 4, 2016, at 2:11 pm
Back in March, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, attempted to help Christians navigate the difficulties we now face in choosing between “two morally problematic” presidential candidates. Moore raised excellent questions for Christians to consider when voting for “the lesser of two evils.” While his commentary is helpful, the truth is that believers are not bound to settle for just one of the two options on the ballot.
There is a third option: Christians do not have to vote at all.
In fact, the Bible doesn’t instruct God’s people that they have an obligation, moral duty, or compulsion to vote in any particular election in a secular democratic republic like the United States. It is unhelpful, and potentially misleading, to bind the consciences of Christians to make them feel that they have such obligations or duties to participate in government activities not commanded in the Bible.
When a person’s conscience is torn between two options, in American political thought and practice, voters have an opportunity to abstain. To abstain from choosing a presidential candidate in this year’s election is to fully participate in the process as one whose conscience is unsettled and conflicted. By contrast, it is profoundly unethical to use the power of the state—or the guilt manipulations of religious leaders—to compel anyone to participate in a political process against his or her will. Because Americans are not legally bound to vote in presidential elections, like North Koreans and Australians are, Christians, with a clear conscience, can make the willful choice to abstain.
Historically, Protestants have never compelled Christians to vote in democratic elections. In Chapter 23 of the Presbyterian tradition’s Westminster Confession of Faith, the Divines believed that Christians were obligated only to “pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake.” Article 37 of the 1801 edition of the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion urges Christians only to “pay respectful obedience to the Civil Authority.” Article 16 of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, teaches only that Christians have an obligation “to obey their own magistrates and laws save only when commanded to sin.” That is, unless Christians are commanded to vote for a president in the Bible or by law, those Christians whose consciences are torn between choosing either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are morally free to make the volitional, participatory decision to abstain from voting for a president at all.
Civic engagement does not mean that, as a Christian, I am compelled to vote in every election during my lifetime. Civic engagement means I am free to participate in making society better in ways I believe are most helpful. Voting, therefore, is not a moral ought, and we are sinning against people when we present it as if the Bible teaches this when it does not.
ADDENDUM (3:58 p.m.): Seeking the welfare of the city in the Jeremiah 29 sense suggests voting in local elections, and Christian are free and encouraged to participate in those ways to bring about effective change, although the Bible does not require it.
Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.