NPR recently set out to explore an often over-looked segment of the American public — those who can vote, but choose not to. The story provided brief explanations from several non-voters across the country. The people NPR talked to had a variety of reasons for not participating: a sense that their vote doesn’t matter, a belief that money dictates policy more than votes — and the knowledge that registering increases your chances of being called for jury duty.
And then there were religious beliefs, the reasoning provided by a Louisvillian: Gregory Hillis, an assistant professor of theology at Bellarmine University.
Hillis told NPR:
“As a Christian pacifist I do not feel that I can conscientiously participate in the process of choosing a commander in chief of the armed forces. While a president brings to the office a list of domestic priorities with which I may or may not agree, a substantial portion of the job revolves around the president’s role as commander in chief. No matter how much I like a candidate’s platform, in the end I cannot turn a blind eye to the reality the president will necessarily participate in violence by virtue of the office.”
WFPL reached out to Hillis – a native of Canada who is now a U.S. citizen — to find out more about why he’s sitting out today’s vote.
Are presidential elections the only votes you skip?
This is the first election in which I will not be voting. In Canada I used to vote in both the Canadian and American elections, and I voted in 2008. My qualms about voting are primarily about presidential elections, though I do have problems more broadly with any understanding of voting in which groups try to use an election to gain power. In this I am looking at the act of voting theologically and from the perspective specifically of Christianity. I wrote a blog post about this particular concern I have. I wrote the following:
“I am deeply influenced by the assessment of John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, regarding Jesus’ understanding of the dangers of political power and the continued temptation faced by Christians to endeavour to transform society from the ‘top-down’, a process that necessarily involves Christians having to morph Jesus’ example and teachings. Yoder labelled the Christian temptation for political power as ‘Constantinianism’ (for obvious reasons), and argued that even after the separation of church and state, the church continues to fall prey to Constantinian tendencies. What this can mean practically is that Christians devote an inordinate amount of time to the political arena, understood by them to revolve around the halls of legislature, and don’t devote nearly enough effort to enacting and participating in communities of love that themselves provide a witness to the kind of society of love toward which we are called by Jesus. The focus gets placed, therefore, on transforming through power rather than through love, which was precisely the means rejected by Jesus and by the early Christians.
In my view, to vote is to succumb, however mildly, to the temptation to power, the temptation to Constantinianism. It is to participate in the halls of power where, if we follow the example of Christ, no Christian has any business being. I’ve listened to many Christians on both sides of the political spectrum talking about making their voice heard through voting, as if voting was the only political mechanism open to them to make their voice heard. To be ‘political’ isn’t to be relegated merely to voting. To be ‘political’ in a truly Christ-like manner is to manifest to the society around us that things don’t have to be the way they are, and we do this actually by being communities of radical love in imitation of the God who exists in an eternal community of selfless love. I’m not advocating quietism or sectarianism. Rather, I’m suggesting that the church needs to rethink the way it does politics.”
Does not voting mean you don’t have a preference — or will you be rooting for someone?
I do have a preference for who wins. It is clear to me that one particular candidate more closely embodies a vision of the role of government in the common good that is closest to Catholic social teaching. But I’d prefer not to state this preference.
What reaction do you get from people when you say that you won’t be voting for president?
People don’t tend to react very favorably when I talk about not voting. Christians from various traditions have tended to suggest that I misread Jesus’ teachings and example, and they tend particularly to think that my understanding of the relationship between power and voting is skewed.
Update: Hillis spoke to WFPL’s Jonathan Bastian on Tuesday. Here’s the interview.