Some of my friends are saying that they will not cast a vote for president this November. I understand the factors that influence their decision. I am not happy with the choices presented to us, either. But I do plan to vote for one of the candidates.
Since I came of voting age, there has been only one occasion on which I refused to cast a vote for president. In 1968, as someone actively engaged in anti-war protests, I was a Gene McCarthy enthusiast during the primaries. When election day came, I could not bring myself to vote for either Richard Nixon or Hubert Humphrey. I felt very good about that decision until I mentioned it to an African-American friend—himself, I should add, a registered Republican. His response: “We black folks don’t have the leisure for that kind of choice. We have gone through too much to earn the right to vote!”
That brought me up short. I had attended prayer services for people working in voter-registration campaigns in segregated regions of the country, and I had mourned the loss of some who had been murdered in that cause. My friend’s comment also led me to thinking about my own grandparents—the children of Dutch immigrant families—who would have been shocked, having gained the status of American citizens, to learn that their grandson had decided not to cast a vote in a national election as a matter of principle. Some of my students these days have told me of “undocumented” members of their churches who long for the day when they can have the privilege of exercising the rights of citizens in the voting booth.
So when I vote for one of the major party candidates for president this year, it will in good part be as an act of solidarity with people for whom talk of the “privilege” of voting is more than rhetoric.
Can I imagine situations in which I would once again decide not to vote in a presidential election? Of course. As much as I dislike the present options, however, I do not see our context as anywhere near approximating those imagined scenarios. For one thing, I cannot think of any past election year when I saw myself as casting a “clean” vote on the national level. Like many First Things readers, I find it difficult to navigate “left” and “right” on matters of public policy.
I began my academic career as one of the “young evangelical” activists who had been much influenced by the various protests of the 1960s—a personal history that still shapes some of my political perspective. But even then, I was not perfectly comfortable with the company I was keeping. When a group of us issued the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns, for which I was one of the drafters and signatories, a journalist described me as one of an emerging generation of “evangelical political liberals.” I was deeply offended, and I let the writer know about my distress. Since that time, I have consistently advocated many positions associated with the Religious Right, while also making my dissent clear to my fellow evangelicals when I have been unable to support all that is associated with the conservative side of the political spectrum.
I have two additional reasons, though, for being committed to voting, even when the options are quite unsatisfactory. One has to do with the character of democratic systems. A democracy allows for review, protest, public expressions of dissent, and a variety of opportunities to explain the political decisions that we make. Voting is only one “moment”— an important one, to be sure—in a broader a pattern of political participation. Reinhold Niebuhr once explained that while he was going to vote for a Liberal Party candidate, if that candidate won the election Niebuhr would immediately begin to criticize him publicly.
For me, this anecdote clarifies an important dimension of citizenship. I have, on occasion, voted for a candidate with whom I disagree strongly on abortion and same-sex marriage policies. Those issues are important to me as an evangelical, but so are a number of other issues that have been at stake in a particular election. When I end up voting for a candidate with whom I disagree on a significant topic, I feel an obligation to find other ways to oppose that candidate’s stance.
An even larger concern is the struggle to fulfill my obligations as a Christian citizen. How we vote as persons of faith should occasion much prayerful deliberation. Then we cast our votes, while asking the Lord to forgive us if we choose the wrong names on the ballot. This November I will be praying fervently as I go to my polling place!
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.