By Phil Wyman
The following is not meant to persuade anyone’s choice in the upcoming Presidential election. Rather, these are personal observations and feelings about this year’s Presidential election cycle. They represent my own thoughts, and a growing number of people I have been meeting along the way. There are some of us, who truly feel that we do not want to step away from our civic duties, but we also feel that choosing either option from our two-party system could end becoming a violation of our beliefs, our ethics, and our consciences. For many of us, this is happening for the first time in our lives. Consequently, we are trying to determine what it means to participate in a democracy when our vote no longer offers us a real option.
- Voting is your duty.
- By not voting, you give your vote away to the opposition.
- Sometimes, you simply have to choose between the lesser of two evils.
The above statements are the haunting echoes of my red-blooded American upbringing. They later became the quadrennial mantras of the Christianity I came to accept at the age of 21. It was the early 1980s, and the Moral Majority was in ascendancy in the Evangelical churches of America. Every voting season came with brochures giving churchgoers a list of the voting records of every candidate. Those voting records were compared to Biblical moral values, and Christians were encouraged to vote in God honoring ways. The haunting mantras of duty, overcoming ungodly opposition, and appropriately responding to our mandated choices were attached to the Republican platform.
Thirty-five years later, and the voting brochures are no longer found in the churches, and a growing number of Christians have moved, or are moving left. The progressive platform of the Democratic Party appears to encourage openness, acceptance and helping the downtrodden. These are the new values of a new generation of Christians. Social justice has taken the place of traditional morality as though the two were opposed to one another in a death match, and now for many Christians the haunting mantras of duty, overcoming opposition, and choosing properly between our mandated options are attached to the Democratic platform.
In typical American fashion, we have made war out of our politics, and year after year people from opposing parties are speaking to each other less often, and with more vitriol than in the past. In the heat exchange of our national political life, some of us have transferred one angry passion for another, while others have continued to frantically blow upon the dying embers of our old commitments.
And, both sides of this political struggle are calling God as their witness.
American politics has always been a boxing match. The inherent tendency of the two-party system places the party platforms in opposite corners: pro-this and pro-that, anti-this and anti-that. These are the options we are provided in every national election cycle. Each vote is simplified to a simple yes or no. To get my vote, someone must become my preferred option in the jabs of yes and no. As I try to navigate the yesses verses the no’s of a two-party system, I am led into the cycle of the mania and the depression of this bipolar tension. Is it any surprise that the world looks on, and wonders if US politics are mad?
I realize that not every Christian feels like I do about the 2016 Presidential election, but in my small circle of influence, some of us feel trapped in a broken system with no real options.
Enter stage right – and stage left
The Presidential primaries of 2015-2016, and the upcoming 2016 Presidential election have arrived with apocalyptic timing. The plethora of options in the primary cycle have been cut down to the last two standing, and like dueling prophets of hope and doom, they vie for our attention. The whole nation looks on in unbelief at this spectacle. We have been traumatized, and we have even played with dreams of brokered conventions or party splits.
To the right, the Donald has captured both the hope and the horror of the politics in a two-party system. As the outsider, who claims to pay for his own campaign, he is both the un-bought politician, and the one who has bought the politicians. He is simultaneously declared to be the voice of honesty, and the voice of hypocrisy. Repeating the campaign promises of the past, he echoes the Clintonian, “It’s the economy stupid,” and gives us a variation on a protectionist conservative American approach to a dangerous world. Like a Chinese Emperor, he promises to build a wall. Like a railroad tycoon, he promises to broker deals. He has exposed the weaknesses of the opposition, while simultaneously pretending his own weaknesses don’t exist. His weaknesses are supposedly the illusions of a lying press and lying politicians. Trump appears to be the Great White Hope to some, and a deep hypocrite to others, but for many of us, it simply feels like the politics of a used car salesman born with a silver spoon in his mouth. This is the perfect marriage of capitalism and politics, and it is a marriage of grotesque convenience.
To the left, the machine of the political system is working with smooth perfection. Hillary Clinton seldom enters into fisticuffs under the public eye, but one gets the sense that behind the scenes, strings are being pulled. Money and votes appear magically. Like rabbits from a hat, they seem to rise from deals made in the shady backrooms of voting chambers and expensive political campaign dinners. A history of her vacillating positions, with the denials of their existence would make a fabulous comedy routine if it weren’t for the frightening straight-faced delivery of a grandmother formally posed in the sitting room. Meanwhile, the renegade Nuevo-Democrat Bernie Sanders captures the heart of the young left with calls for a more honest system, but Hillary feints left and remains standing. This is the systemic condition of the politics of power. Those things for which the Republican Party is typically accused: dirty money and manipulative power, look like the strength of the left in this election cycle.
Like a sporting event, voters are cheering their favorite teams, but unlike previous election cycles, interest in the big game has lost its glamor. To the right, party regulars are threatening to leave the team if Donald Trump becomes the candidate. To the left, Sanders supporters are refusing to vote for Hillary. Christians are caught in this tension as much as anyone else, if not more so. On the right, the choice looks to be neither moral nor a majority, and on the left, social justice looks neither social nor just. With these options, there is the growing sense that no matter how we vote, we will end up with little change (politically or economically), despite the promises of better days. Some American Christian voters, like myself, are reconsidering how we should act toward the traditional calls to duty, overcoming ungodly opposition, and responding to our supposedly mandated choices.
What is My Duty?
Almost daily, I am reminded that I have a duty to vote. My freedom supposedly comes with a responsibility to limit my choice to one of two options. A third party choice, I am told, is a throwaway vote. Not voting is treated as an immoral option.
Could it be that we are trapped by the poor options in front of us? Could it be that they are no longer the responsibility of our freedom, but instead, voting has become a demand from the dishonest overlords of a severely broken political system? If freedom is truly a primary value of the American experiment, and yet, the political machine is rigged by corrupt powers to the left and to the right, then I am forced to consider that playing the current political game might actually be nothing more than a support of the ongoing loss of our deepest freedoms. If this is the case, then my real duty might look more like a peaceful rebellion against the rigged vote than an obedient acquiescence to the powers that be.
Within the context of the American experiment of government “of the people, by the people, for the people”, my duty is to hold the government accountable through my vote. When my vote has become nothing more than an exercise in futility, offering no viable options to hold the government honest, I am asked like my forefathers to stand up and be counted as a voice demanding change. This is the first time in my life that I feel as though a vote for either major party is a violation of my conscience, and is effectively no option – no vote at all. Living just north of Boston, I am looking for the barrels of tealeaves, and I am ready to throw them in the harbor.
As a Christian, my duty is to God first, and in my duty to God, I am called to the betterment and concern for the people around me. Yet, when the act of voting leads to equal but different kinds of corruption no matter which way I vote, that vote does not serve God, or the people around me. Does my duty then become something other than a continued participation in the cycles of ungodly power and greed?
Like John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness – outside the places of power, and called both the ruled and the rulers to repentance, perhaps it is my duty to call the current systems of power – the ruled and the rulers into repentance as well. Is it possible that we live in a season when “the ax is already laid at the root of the trees”? (Matthew 3:10 NASB) Could it be that our nation is like the children of Israel who cried out for a king, and that we are looking to the Sauls among us? If so, we need Samuels to warn us about our ill-advised choices.
What Does it Mean to Win?
I am told that if I refuse to choose between one of the two major party options I will be responsible for the worst outcome. If Trump becomes President, it will be my fault. If Hillary becomes President, this too will be my fault. For my fairly conservative political conscience, one option is not better than another. They are equally bad choices. This does not look like a win/lose option to me. Rather, it looks like a lose/lose situation. There is nothing but opposition to what I believe is right.
Yet, I find that even these concepts of winning and losing are challenges to my Christianity. When I am asked to choose between my fellow Americans or the downtrodden immigrant masses pouring out of war-torn nations, I choose both. When I am asked to decide between traditional moral culture of mid-America or the progressive libertine values of the coasts and the cities, I do not want to set one person against another. I have chosen to live in the uncomfortable space of the radical call to personal holiness, and the equally radical call to love and accept those who are very different from me. Like Jesus, Who walked the fine line of identification with the sinner and the drunkard, but personally lived in extreme holiness, I am called to this same dangerous space. Like Jesus, I find the concerns about who wins and who loses to be concerns disconnected from the heart of the Father. Drawing His line in the sand, Jesus challenged “him who without sin” to “cast the first stone.” I will draw my line in the sand with Him, if you ask me to choose between the two classes of struggling peoples.
The challenge Jesus presented, was to those in the position of power, because it was they who lived and won in the cruel win/lose game, and they left a trail of losers in their wake. The public servant is called like every Christian to take the low road of humility and serving others first. When this ceases to happen, we should refuse to the play the win/lose game with one person pitted against another. The Kingdom of God will eventually become a win/win world, where no one is left out, no one is forgotten, and no one is the winner of a selfish, dog eat dog, zero-sum game.
Politics have risen to a peak of cultural tension and selfish ambition. People are pitted against one another with empty promises and apocalyptic threats, and some of us want out of this game, because as it is now, it seems there are no real winners after the last vote is cast.
Choosing Between the Lesser of Two Evils?
Whether it was Jerry Garcia, or CS Lewis, or some other famous name who originated the quote, “The lesser of two evils is still evil,” this quote feels too real and too close to home for my comfort. I have followed this advice for most of my adult life, and have chosen between the lesser of two evils. I have asked myself, what it might look like when both evils are simply too evil to make that choice. For me, that time has come, and if public opinion is any indicator, I am not alone.
“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
“Juvenal simultaneously satirizes the common people and the ruling elite. The common folk were satisfied with food in the belly and grotesque entertainments. Consequently, they were numbed to the more noble passions for truth and civic duty. The ruling elite of Rome took advantage of need and sensuality based instincts to manipulate the masses to their will. It worked like an anesthetization against the pain of injustice and oppression in a poorly run government, and that anesthetization was a form of rebellion suppression. Keep the masses addicted to cheap food and wild entertainment and they will not have time or interest to rebel against a poorly run, self-serving government.”
I cannot lay my anger toward this evil at the feet of the candidates. That is exactly what the broken system wants me to do. The system wants me choose a side and join the circus of political frenzy. Darwinian Capitalism with its survival of the fittest, winner takes all approach, is at the heart of this problem. Big business bankrolls the parties who feed us the promises and the threats of doom through the media with empty seven-second sound bites. Hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted in buying votes through arguments without content. The problem is greater than having nothing but two poor election choices. Like ancient Rome, we are offered bread and circuses, but it is the cheap bread of intellectually bereft agendas, and expensive circuses of entertainment as politics. Like the early Christians, I choose not to be bought by these tactics. The bread and circuses behavior merely hides the fact that our governance is subpar, and those ruling are often only out for themselves. I can only hope that someday soon, enough people will likewise refuse to be purchased with cheap bread and circuses. Perhaps if our numbers grow large enough, it will break the back of the corrupt system.
So it is, that the evil is not simply skin deep. The system is rotten to the core, but this is to be expected, because it is the tendency of powerful groups. Those in power, often corrupt the power they wield for selfish purposes. In the politico-religious system in the time of Jesus, the leaders were called out for their pretensions. They were decried by Christ as, “whited sepulchers”, “which indeed appear beautiful outwardly but are within full of dead men’s bones….” (Matt.23:27)
Responding to the American Political Mantras
My growing sense of impotence in the current national political tensions has brought me to the conclusion that my vote is worse than useless. My vote for either major party merely feeds the beast, and perpetuates the system. I have a number of friends who feel exactly as I do, and I would imagine that the rifts now occurring in the two-party system are shadows of this same dissatisfaction. My choice to refuse to vote Republican or Democrat, should Trump and Hillary be the choices in this upcoming Presidential election, will not be in non-directed ambivalence. My non-vote will be noisy. It will be an activist’s actions, and it will be rebellious, with a cry for change.
I don’t expect many people to join me. The echoing mantras of our American/Christian political responsibilities: duty, overcoming perceived ungodly opposition, and appropriately responding to our mandated choices still ring loudly in our ears. But, I have fought with these expectations, and for myself, I have come to the conclusion that unless something drastically changes, I have no viable option from the main parties. A non-vote for President, or a vote for a dark horse third party: these are the only two options I have. My conscience and my God are calling me outside the walls of this election cycle.
Phil Wyman is the Pastor of The Gathering in Salem, MA; and the author of Burning Religion: navigating the impossible space between religion and secular society. You can find him online a BurningReligion.com