A recent issue of Sojourners Magazine features a book review by Lauren Winner (of Real Sex fame) on Electing Not to Vote, one of the latest releases from Cascade Books. This book consists of nine essays by Christians from a wide spectrum of confessional backgrounds, all of whom offer theological and biblical arguments for refraining from voting as an act of theopolitical witness. The articles are quite diverse, some taking their cue from John Howard Yoder, some from Karl Barth, while others reflect on the resources of their ecclesial traditions, be they Catholic or Pentecostal.
All of this can be ascertained by perusing the contents page of the book. And it seems Winner has done little more than this to inform her “review.” What passes for book reviews in Sojourners these days is quite pathetic if Winner’s attempt at engaging this book is typical of their publishing quality. It engages with none of the book’s essays with any sort of concreteness, opting instead to broadly characterize the perspectives therein and then move on to pontificate about why she thinks the book is wrong. What we have here is not, in fact, a book review at all. It is a truncated, rather belabored protest against what Lauren Winner thought the book was about. As such it represents the epitome of unethical book reviewing. Regardless of what one thinks about the theopolitics inherent in a call to Christians not to vote, certainly it is not too much to ask that our arguments and counter-arguments be grounded in an actual engagement between competing claims and perspectives. Winner’s review offers a few tired platitudes and engages in some clumsy sloganeering, but in the process does little more than prove that she simply didn’t read the book. I mean, come on. The only specific chapter in the book that she even mentions at all is the first chapter!
Virtually all the objections to the idea of not voting that Winner raises are dealt with thoroughly in Nekeisha Alexis-Baker’s chapter, “Freedom of Voice”, to say nothing of all the other chapters. If she had bothered to read the book, she could have at least crafted some legitimate arguments against it rather than simply spouted off a few classic slogans about why Christians should do their voting duty.
First, Winner objects to the book’s claim that voting is something of a sacred rite in the American imperium; the problem is really just “what we expect when we vote.” The sacral character of voting, she claims is simply a matter of our subjective feelings about what we are doing when we vote. However, this is to simply ignore the material claim of many chapters in the book which is precisely that the sacral character of voting is inscribed in the very act itself. Perhaps this really just indicates a difference in sacramental theology between Winner and the contributors to the book. For her, the reality of one’s acts in the political realm really lies in the numinous realm of one’s subjective intentions, whereas for the contributors to the book it is the acts themselves that matter; our action inevitably participates in some sort of sacral economy, the question is which one we are willing to devote ourselves to.
Secondly, Winner objects to the notion that we should abstain from voting because the future actions of a president are immoral. Rather, she makes the bizarre argument, that since we don’t know for sure what people will do, we should just go ahead and vote. “We should vote because we cannot say, with certainty, that the future practices of the president will be those we cannot condone.” This is, perhaps, one of the most insanely stupid arguments that I have ever heard. We should just go ahead and haphazardly vote because, after all, we really don’t know for sure? When John McCain makes clear that he will keep us bogged down in the Iraq war for years to come and Barack Obama makes clear that he is a voracious supporter of abortion on demand, how can we really say that our act of casting in our lot with one of them does not morally implicate us in these actions? And if it does, how can we participate in it, regardless of whatever good things might come from their presidency?
Thirdly, Winner asserts that we should vote on the basis of the fact that countless residents of the United States are disenfranchised from the voting process. She asks, “is the best form of solidarity with the disenfranchised to sit the election out? Or is it to ask your nanny (who cannot vote, because she is not a citizen) and the janitor who empties your office trash can (who cannot vote because he was incarcerated) who they would vote for, and then cast a vote on their behalf?” Now here is a rather odd argument as well. Ultimately, it seems, for Winner, that our reason for voting should be out of pity for those outside the system; we should vote on the behalf of those from the lower sectors of society. We, the privileged, franchised few, should make sure to exercise our rights because, after all, not everyone has them. We must nobly, and honorably discharge our duties because the rights we have are not shared by all. How wonderfully paternalistic! The aristocrat should only more strongly embrace his position in the aristocracy, because after all, not everyone is as well off as he, and ostensibly by embracing his position within the aristocracy he could ‘do some good’ for the huddled, unwashed masses. Winner turns out, oddly enough to be quite patriarchal at the end of the day. We should embrace our middle class privilege in order to be benevolent benefactors to the underclass. That’s a bit too Victorian for my taste.
Winner closes her “review” with the claim that, “especially in a world where love of neighbor is tied to citizenship, not voting may be equally seen as a kind of quietism—quietism that a Christian who must be active in the world cannot afford.” If anything this sentence only further shows the lackadaisicalness of Winner’s attempt to critique a book she has not read. Packed into this statement are so many of the notions that the book critiques. Is is the case that Christian duty of love of neighbor is somehow mediated by the apparatus of the nation-state? Winner, wittingly or not, is here committing the worst of theopolitical errors: falling into the belief that ultimately Christian political action and witness must derive its intelligibility from the nation-state. This is precisely the sort of thinking that the book calls into question throughout its pages. But, I suppose for Winner to have known that, or objected to it in a convincing way she would have had to read the book. . . .
Edited to add: The reader should note that I am employed by Wipf and Stock Publishers, and that the opinions I express are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect that of anyone else affiliated with Wipf and Stock.