The moral vote

Principal author:
John L. Clark


If you only consider some of the issues at stake, then any institution that you empower with your vote can decide other issues toward arbitrary ends. But it all matters—a lot—because these ends—which you will have shunted in your concern for others—are often immoral and destructive. Thus, compromise is impossible, and instead we must lead through consistent moral unity even in the face of formal defeat.

We are continuously making moral decisions which weave together into the fabric of our society. There are, in truth, profound consequences that accrue from all of these decisions. As a significant example, our economic decisions form the basis for our (very large, and growing) society. All of our moral decisions matter, and our decisions rarely, if ever, lack a moral dimension. Choosing leaders is another form of moral decision; in certain communities that practice democracy (such as, as of this writing, my own) such decisions—that is, elections—are formalized, ritualized, and they are thus very visible and gather more attention, but leadership is always more difficult, and sometimes impossible, without the ongoing consent of the members of that community[1]. Elections, then, highlight important aspects of moral decision-making in general, but we also need to be reminded that all of our (other) moral decisions also need proper attention and care.

In democratic elections, what is at stake is formal power. This power, for example as expressed through political party mechanics, is continuously applied to a dizzying array of ends. If you only focus on one or a few of those ends—on only one issue or a few issues—and as a result compromise on the others, then reaching for that power also tacitly contributes to the destructiveness that results from empowering the compromise. As Christians, however, we are called to be united, and we recognize the foundational nature of moral decisions of all types. Every moral decision supports or tears down the others, based on its correctness. In this framework, compromise is impossible.

Further, Jesus teaches us that we are not to dominate others through the exercise of violence, but are rather to subordinate ourselves to others through service, overwhelming them by supporting them while remaining morally unified. Thus, we must support leadership with which we are morally united. Unsurprisingly, this requires significant community cohesion, but it is precisely in this cohesion that the fertile soil for a truly just community lies.

Rightly repelled by those who seek power for its own sake, rather than seeking to lead through service and sacrifice, some people advocate for not voting at all. This, however, fails to confront the system as it actually exists. Witnessing to the truth from the core of a false system is far more dangerous to its existence than abstaining from that system. In this case, a unified and uncompromised vote represents a radical refutation of the system even from within that system, as it remains joyfully unconcerned with the established terms of victory. A Christian majority could no more force its will on the remnant than a single Christian, for the call to both is to submit to service of that remnant.

Instead, participating in formal decisions such as democratic elections gives you an actual moral root that you can demonstrate and others can see. And when we are able to find unity with others in a complete and uncompromised choice, the strength of our evidence grows. A strong moral stance provides a powerful challenge to a compromised one, even as the latter fleetingly wields more power. Such compromised dominance leads to destruction, and it is to the reality of this violence, as well as to the existence of a glorious alternative, that we testify with each of our decisions. If forced into a position of moral compromise, you must decline to make that choice. Yet we must submit to the reality of the existence of power, and as long as that power provides an avenue for pointing to the good—the kingdom of God—we must witness to that reality using all the just tools at our disposal, both within and without of the existing systems.

You will find that the dominant culture cannot easily tolerate decisions made outside of its framework. Raise your voice in criticism of even seemingly small aspects of that culture, and you will rapidly run into resistance, including potentially violent resistance. This itself is a testament to the existential importance of even seemingly innocuous consent to an established system, and thus to the power of standing as a witness to truth, actively disdaining the pursuit of power as the world provides it. By submitting to the service of others, we embrace the kingdom of God in our own lives, and thus we also become servants of justice. As we grow in unity with others, we then spread that kingdom through the world, but through our communion rather than at the point of a sword or the end of a gun.


This is true even in non-democratic communities, which implies that giving or withholding consent is a powerful decision even there, although obviously it is a less formal one. Further, even in democratic communities, consent is continuously given or withheld beyond the point of the formal vote, making ongoing political pressure an important moral decision in such democratic communities as well.

This page was first published on 2012-09-07 12:47:00-04:00.

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