Stanley Hauerwas once compared voting in the current atmosphere to the Roman Circus: "entertainment to keep the populace consumed by distraction in a way that they're not really in any way ready to engage in the kind of work necessary to really do something about the world in which we find ourselves." Here are a few thoughts on the relative value of voting.
1. Voting is only one example of a civic duty, and it's not the only (or even main) feature of democratic republic.
Some people see voting as either essential or, even worse in my mind, the totality of one's civic duty. This is a mistake. We shouldn't assume that voting once every two or four years is the tell-tale mark of whether someone is participating in civic life. The fact that we've reduced civic life to nothing more than voting is part of the problem in our country.
2. The emphasis placed on the major elections (especially the presidential election) can actually distract us from active civic engagement.
Voting is primarily passive: I read, I listen, I take in what people are saying, and I go check a box. If that's where your community involvement begins and ends, you should not count yourself a very active citizen. It's like showing up for your church's annual business meeting, voting, and then coming to church once every few weeks to listen to the sermon and drive home. Is that what we would call an engaged or active Christian? I would say not.
3. The choice is not between "voting" or "doing nothing."
This is a false dilemma, and it's simply illogical to say, "because you're not voting for President (or some other office or issue), you're not an active citizen."
4. We overemphasize voting because we overemphasize the importance of the state as solution to all ills.
The political structures can only go so far, providing legislation and process, but not providing real solutions the social and public problems that plague us. As James Davison Hunter notes, "There are no political solutions to the problems most people care about." (To Change the World, 171). For Hunter, the problem is one of expectations. Most people, including most Christians, have inflated expectations of the state. The state can't cultivate family values, can't help us respect human diversity, and can't help us value our local communities and cities.
5. Voting can become a way of avoiding responsibility.
Again, I can't say it better than Hunter: "In our day, given the size of the state and the expectations that people place on it to solve so many problems, politics can be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed parent, and to rally for racial harmony than get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility." (Hunter, To Change the World, 172-173)
6. Voting can shape us to think about people and issues in ways that are counter to Scripture.
In the current cultural context, where many Christians still embrace the notion of a "culture war," we forget that we are not called to see non-Christians (or other Christians) as political enemies to be defeated but as people who need to hear the good news of the Gospel. Does our political voice actively deter people from hearing the Gospel? It can. For example, we might ask: does speaking out strongly in the political arena against gay marriage deter the ability of non-Christian LGBT folks to hear the good news of the Gospel? If so, perhaps we should let the state define marriage however it wants, and think more carefully about how Christians should define and live out marriage within the context of the Christian community. When the "conservative" or "liberal" label becomes more foundational to our identity than the label "Christian," we're missing something.
7. The presidential election in particular takes on messianic overtones.
The presidential election in particular has become the opiate of the masses, a political drug that lulls us into civic inactivity (except for getting our guy elected). We constantly overestimate what one man or one office can actually do. Candidates talk about what they'll do while in office, all the while ignoring the fact that their best laid plans will be affected and determined by (a) the legislative and judicial branches of government, (b) circumstances of history over which they have no control, (c) the real limits of presidential power, (d) the structures and institutions already in play, and (e) the pragmatic considerations (as opposed to their ideological ideals) that they face once they've taken office. Why do we focus so heavily upon the Presidential election? In part, I think, because we so desperately want a Savior. So the messianic "hope" of the Obama campaign of four years ago is matched by Romney's equally messianic call to "believe in America" as the "hope of the earth." So Romney supporters call for a quasi-redemptive moment in American history where we "take our country back." The messianic hopes of both Romney and Obama supporters can be gauged in part through the apparent dread should the "anti-messiah (Christ)" of the other party actually happen to win the election. Don't let me stop you from voting in the presidential election, but if you do, be sure that you are voting for a president, not a messiah.
8. Voting is not inherently evil or morally wrong, but is a matter of Christian liberty. This also implies that it can become an idol.
Is voting inherently morally evil? No. Can voting become morally evil if it is given an idolatrous place? Yes. The trouble with idolatry is that we usually don't see it, even when we're doing it. This doesn't simply apply to civil religion in America, it applies to consumerism, workaholism, unabated pleasure-seeking, etc. Humans constantly turn good things into idols. This means that, logically, we can't exclude the possibility that voting/civil religion can and does become an idol for some. If my friend is an alcoholic, should I drink in front of him and encourage him to go to the bar? If my friend has bought into an idolatrous civil religion, should I tell him that going to the polls to vote for a president is his God-given duty? If so, have I just used God's name and authority to encourage idolatry?