Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why Vote? Towards Civic Faithfulness

Jesse Covington


None of the above?

Since 1975, voters in the state of Nevada have had the option of selecting “none of these candidates” on their ballots. In fact, in 2012 this option won with 30% of the vote in Nevada’s Democratic primary election for governor. To some citizens contemplating the 2016 presidential election, a “none of the above” choice may look appealing. This year, friends and acquaintances on both the left and the right have approached me to express dissatisfaction with the available candidates for president. It has become almost like a liturgy at meals, gatherings, and after church: “So, the election…. I’m at a loss. What do you think?” Among a range of questions, these conversations raise the possibility of non-voting. Some cast this as a matter of protest, others as a matter of conscience.

What should Christians do if they find both major-party candidates unacceptable? Many wonder: should I even vote?

Another factor shaping voters’ thinking is more mathematical than ethical. Pollsters and pundits regularly project odds onto the presidential election. at one point had the presidential election evenly matched (in late July), but more recently gave Secretary Clinton a 73.2 percent probability of winning. Regardless of which candidate one prefers, one might rationally wonder whether voting matters. If we already know how the election is likely to turn out, should we even bother casting a ballot? Would “sitting this one out” even matter?

Honesty about the math can indeed be sobering. As rational choice theorists are sometimes fond of observing in the so-called “paradox of voting,” the probability that one person will cast the deciding vote in a large-scale election is infinitesimally small. Indeed, it is so small that the numerical representation of a consequence-based argument for voting (the pB term in the equation R = pB – C — namely, the probability of casting the deciding vote multiplied by the benefits one will receive if and only if one’s preferred candidate wins) is statistically indistinguishable from zero.[i]

So why vote?

Citizenship as Office

How we think about government and citizenship can frame our thinking here. Roots of a biblical account of citizenship can be found in creational theology, where God gives humans responsibility and authority for exercising dominion and care over the earth. Sometimes referred to as the “creation mandate” or the “cultural mandate,” this describes God’s indirect governance of the world, mediated through human responsibility and guided by creational norms.[ii] As Al Wolters has put it, “From now on, the development of the created earth will be societal and cultural in nature. In a single word, the task ahead is civilization.”[iii] Thus described, developing human civilization—including politics—is a divine calling that is central to what it means to be human. It is what we are for. This must not be reduced to political involvement alone, but neither can it exclude the political.

For further focus, we may look to the doctrine of “office,” which singles out political responsibility from the broader range of creation-mandate responsibilities and also helps account for the effects of the Fall. This is the idea that political office is uniquely ordained by God to exercise authority (including coercive force) to do justice for the public good. This follows Romans 12-13 in drawing a distinction between private individuals who must “never avenge yourselves,” and those who hold governing authority, which is “instituted by God,” “for your good,” and who do “not bear the sword in vain.”[iv]

Following this and other scriptures, Christians have long distinguished the exercise of political office from private activity, assigning public office unique privileges and responsibilities. Martin Luther extolled political office as “indispensable for the whole world.”[v] John Calvin described it as “the most sacred and by far the most honorable callings in the whole life of mortal men.”[vi] Likewise, Abraham Kuyper puts it this way: “we have gratefully to receive, from the hand of God, the institution of the State with its magistrates.”[vii]

So what does all this have to do with voting? Aristotle’s description of a citizen is instructive for understanding “office” in a democratic context: a citizen’s “special characteristic is that he shares in the administration of justice, and in offices”—but not all the time.[viii] The citizen is one who both rules and is ruled. A good citizen is able to both command and obey. Most of the time, citizens obey. But in voting, citizens are called to act in their ruling capacity. That is, elections call citizens to exercise governing authority. When citizens enter the voting booth (or the jury box), they put on the mantle of a public office with its privileges and responsibilities.

This can help guide us to address the “why vote?” question. Considering citizenship as public office, the question is not best expressed as “Will I use my political authority?”, but rather “How will I use the authority that I already have?” Put differently, whether or not to have political authority is not in question; for citizens in a democratic republic, their authority has already been established.

In how they use this authority, Christian citizens must then give attention to scriptural exhortations pertaining to those who hold political office. Normatively, Scripture helps us then answer the “why vote?” question with the same guidelines it gives to those who serve in political authority on a full-time basis: doing justice for the public good. The citizen, acting in his or her civic capacity, is “God’s servant to do… good [and] to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).

Of course, this does not solve all problems for those facing difficult electoral choices. But it does suggest that the responsibility to act according to scriptural guidelines for the public good is not optional. Not liking our options does not free us from discharging the duties of our office. We have political authority. The question is: how will we spend it?

Civic Faithfulness

But what about the math? Insofar as it is virtually impossible for one person to cast the deciding vote, we might still logically reach a position of moral license—“I can do as I please”—when it comes to voting. This view suggests that we may indiscriminately vote, not vote, or write in a non-viable candidate as a protest vote (animated Disney characters have a long history in this last category). But the “license” view suffers from important defects, suggesting that a vote retains moral import—even if not in a narrow sense of determining election outcomes.

While one vote is almost never instrumental to selecting a candidate to hold office, elections (as a whole) nevertheless do select candidates. The “license” argument, grounded on the claim that one vote does not determine an election, requires all other things to remain equal—for others to behave as we expect them to. Thus, the logic of the “license” view requires that others not do likewise. My freedom to dispose of my vote according to whim depends on others behaving as I expect them to—namely, voting seriously. Put slightly differently, claims about the discharge of moral responsibilities should be generalizable to others, and the math-based license view fails this test. Since no individual voter can ensure that all other things remain equal (cast others’ votes for them or require that they cast them in particular ways), individual voters can only behave in a manner that spends their own political authority responsibly. But is this illogical?

It is only illogical if we retain a rigidly causal outlook toward the future. But the biblical concept of faithfulness casts a different view. Proverbs 16:9 states: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” (NIV). While the supremacy of God’s providence is in view here, so is human agency in relation to God. It suggests that humans are responsible for being faithful with inputs, while God is responsible for outcomes. Much of the time, faithfulness may require voting as if we are casting the deciding vote, even when we find this highly improbable. Of course, this isn’t the only possibility. It is even possible that certain contingent circumstances could justify non-voting (or expressive voting for non-viable candidates) in particular cases, provided that this could be justified in terms of the voters’ responsibility for doing justice.

Consequences do matter. Elections do select leaders. But moral responsibility matters too, in more than narrowly consequentialist terms. Discharge of civic responsibility accounts for the outcomes of elections but cannot be restricted to an instrumental construction of voting.

So What?

To be sure, highlighting problems with the “license” view and pointing to the responsibilities of citizenship-as-political-office does not automatically guide us as to what to do in any particular election. But it does suggest several implications.

First, in rejecting the license view and embracing the responsibilities of citizenship as the exercise of public office, we are called to take our eyes off of ourselves and look instead to the justice of the public order. What use of my voting power lends itself to greater public justice? How can I exercise political authority faithfully?

Second, but closely related to the above, this should make us cautious about arguments focused on maintaining one’s moral purity as a voter.[ix] A healthy realism about the effects of the Fall and a resistance to realized eschatology should prevent us from looking for perfect candidates. Since every electoral choice is made between flawed candidates, voters always choose between the “lesser of two evils.” Even among those deeply dissatisfied with their options, many will focus on the fact that someone must win the presidency. Since “none of the above” will not win, doing justice requires damage control; they will vote for a deeply flawed candidate for the sake of the public order, rather than withholding their vote for fear of guilt by association.

Third, these realities should make us slow to condemn those who reach conclusions that differ from our own. In assessing imperfect candidates, some will focus on symbolic issues, others on policy; some will focus on short-term implications, whereas others will forecast longer-term possibilities. The result in each of these (and other!) assessments is that serious Christian voters will disagree. Where we disagree, we should work to civilly persuade each other, sharpening our assessments for the sake of a more just order.

Civic faithfulness means not making our distaste, our frustration, our sense of powerlessness, or our confusion the controlling factors in what each of us does with our vote. Rather, civic faithfulness requires turning our eyes to God and our neighbor, seeking justice and the common good to the glory of God, and trusting God for the outcome.

-- Jesse Covington is Associate Professor of Political Science at Westmont College. He is an alumnus of the Civitas Program and a current Trustee for the Center for Public Justice.

Extending Justice Questions:

  1. In your conversations with friends and neighbors, what have been the most common responses to the prospects of voting in this election? Will you be voting? If not, how does this article challenge or change your resolve not to vote?
  2. How would you describe the idea of citizenship as public office to someone else? Does the article’s argument in support of voting based on this framework lead you and others to the conclusion that voting is necessary no matter what? Why or why not?
  3. What can you do in the coming weeks to encourage others who would rather sit out this election to exercise their public office as citizens and use their political authority faithfully? 

[i] Several paragraphs of this article are revised from a 2014 post on Civitas Peregrina, though my thinking has evolved somewhat since I wrote that post.

[ii] Albert Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 16, 41-8.

[iii] Ibid., 42.

[iv] Romans 13:1, 4 (ESV). See also Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Theological Foundations for an Evangelical Political Philosophy," in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, ed. Ronald J. Sider and Diane Knippers (Grand Rapids, MI: 2005).

[v] Martin Luther, "On Secular Authority " in Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority, ed. Harro Höpfl (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[vi] Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), IV: XX, 4 (p. 1490).

[vii] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 8th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 81.

[viii] Aristotle, The Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Book III.

[ix] Matt Franck argues “…my conscience is more important to me than the outcome of this presidential election.” I have real respect for Prof. Franck and have some sympathy for his position, but I nevertheless worry that it fails to take adequate responsibility for the public order. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”