Voting and Calvinist Prayer

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A lot of people think it's irrational to vote if your vote isn't going to have an effect on the outcome. I live in an extremely blue district of a slightly red county in a very blue state. In local and statewide elections, my vote has so little an effect that it's not worth voting if the only point of voting is for my one vote to have an effect on the outcome. New York is overwhelmingly going to continue to support Senators Schumer and Clinton, and they tend to vote Democratic in governor elections except when there's a very moderate Republican like George Pataki on the ballot. County-wide races are closer, and so is the U.S. House district, which was almost a toss-up in 2006. Things were even more one-sided when I lived in Rhode Island.

But it simply isn't true that voting is only worth doing if you're going to be the deciding vote. There are other reasons people give for voting, some better than others. One that often occurs to me when it seems hopeless for my candidate is that if everyone voting for the other side thought it wasn't worth voting because the outcome is assured then my candidate might have a chance. Other reasons include that it helps you psychologically to feel like you're contributing and that it's simply your obligation to do what you can to influence things for the better even if what you can isn't by itself going to make the difference in who wins the election.

Any of those responses would be sufficient by itself, except perhaps the psychological benefit one (at least if that involves self-deception, and if it doesn't then it's not a distinct reason but depends on one of the others). I think there's an even better reason to vote, and I think it might actually be what motivates me most, but I hadn't actually thought about it in these terms until today. It takes a page from Calvinist responses to the objection that if the future is already determined then there's no point in praying.

Calvinists come in several varieties, but the most common sort of Calvinist (which isn't the same as being the most noticed kind on the internet) is compatibilist about human freedom and divine predetermination. If God has a plan that includes everything I'm going to do, everything every other person is going to do, and an outcome for every prayer I ever pray, then is it worth praying? My prayer isn't going to change anything, after all. Of course, my prayer would also be in this plan, and if I didn't pray then a different outcome may well have been in the works. Compatibilists about divine predetermination and human action are going to insist that God works through our choices and doesn't just force things outside our control. Our prayers are part of how God's plan works itself out as history unfolds.

One thing Calvinist sometimes say is that praying is not so much for the outcome but for us. God wants us to pray because of what God will do in us because we pray. I don't want to deny that, but it's certainly not the emphasis in scripture on reasons to pray. The emphasis seems to be on two things. One is that prayer does affect things. It doesn't change them, because the future can't be changed anymore than the past or present can. If the future is a certain way then it can't be changed. Even open theists don't think the future can be changed. Why should someone who thinks there's a definite future think it can be changed? But for the reasons in the previous paragraph, the future can be influenced. It can be caused by things in the present, and I can be part of that process of bringing it about. A compatibilist should have no trouble saying that sort of thing.

But there's another reason in scripture for why we should pray, even though God has worked out the end from the beginning, and this one (unlike the previous one) does have some relevance for voting. God wants us to communicate our dependence on him and to express our desires to him. He wants us to see him as the Father who cares for us and meets our needs and our wishes, provided that our wishes are righteous and as long as there isn't some other reason beyond our ken for why God wouldn't grant a particular wish (as there may well be). As Jesus points out, what father when presented with a request from a child for bread or fish will give a snake? God wants to bestow good things on his children and delights when we come to him with requests, for the same reasons a giving parent delights in such things. Given that, it's a privilege to call him Father, which is why it's a big deal that Jesus starts out the Lord's prayer with "our Father". Those who don't avail themselves of that title in addressing him are missing out on something great. Those who don't address him at all are missing out on even more.

The same dynamic plays out in a smaller way with voting. I'm privilege to live in a country that seeks my opinion on who should occupy certain offices. Even if my vote doesn't have an effect in putting someone in office, it's a privilege to be able to contribute my thoughts in the process of the communal decision that an election involves. I don't believe voting is a moral right. But I think I'd be wasting an opportunity to express my opinion if I didn't vote, and wasting a privilege is at least unfortunate (and I would even argue that it's immoral). This seems to me to be a much better reason to vote than any of the more common ones that I hear, even if most of them are good enough reasons.

2 Comments

Hey Jeremy, I know where you are coming from - I live in Connecticut. But if we take the Romans 13 texts seriously (and I do) then we must believe that God has ordained Obama to be our President. For good or ill I do not know yet...

That's exactly right. God has selected him as the leader of this country. That's compatible with blaming voters for voting in a way that's incompetent, immoral, or just ignorant. I'm certain that at least some voters fall into that list somewhere, and it's probably enough to have moved things the other way if they'd voted for McCain, which isn't to say that people who voted for McCain weren't in those categories themselves; many probably were. It's just that most people probably vote for bad reasons, and in this case it was for someone who I think will end up being a terrible president, perhaps the worst ever.

According to Romans 13, God ordained Hitler also, who I think clearly wouldn't have had God's endorsement as a good leader. The same should be true of leaders who might be bad but not nearing Hitler's evil. God's ordaining a leader doesn't mean he approves of those who put the person in power or that God wants the person in power because the person will be a morally good leader. There may be other things God will accomplish through that leader, and it might be judgment on the people through disastrous consequences of selecting that leader. The biblical descriptions of the kings of Assyria and Babylon are often along those lines. I sincerely hope that that's not the case with Obama. I hope he'll be a good leader and do a lot of good things. I just don't think he ought to inspire hope on that matter, despite the fact that he seems to be doing so in a lot of people.

I certainly have my doubts about any positive effect he'll have in certain areas. I think the American people just voted to lose the war in Afghanistan. I expect there still will be opportunities for the Supreme Court to diminish the evil effects of Roe v. Wade but not as much as might have been the case had McCain won. I expect Obama's economic policies to damage the economy even further and extend the recession the same way FDR's extended the Depression and made it the Great Depression. He'll impose regulatory and tax policies that will make life noticeably more difficult for the poor and lower middle class, something especially bad in what everyone seems to be calling a crisis (not that it's made life any more difficult for me so far, since the only effect I've experienced besides the loss of an election is much lower gas prices). He's planning to prioritize the removal of as many restrictions on third-trimester abortions as possible, even though it's been shown that the do reduce the number of abortions, which have continued to diminish as laws have been passed imposing more restrictions within the framework of Supreme Court jurisprudence. He's admitting that he'll appoint judges who decide hard cases by which side they might feel sorry for, which seems unconscionable to me given that a judge's job is to interpret the law, not to decide what they wish the law had said. So he's got a long way to go if I'm going to consider him a righteous leader. His views on every controversial issue are at odds with my basic moral convictions. I can think of issue after issue where he doesn't inspire hope in me about what he'll do.

But you're right that God must intend him to accomplish certain things, and I'm certainly open to the possibility that some of those things will be good in ways that aren't just to punish this country or to bring us to repentance by showing us the depths of depravity that we can come to. It's hard to expect a lot of that on the issues where he's taken a stance, but I'm certainly open to it. It's important for Christians to recognize him, once he's in office (and he's not yet), as their president in the way that the left never did with Bush (except maybe for a couple weeks after 9-11) and the right mostly never did with Clinton. Submitting to the government when the government gives us the legal right to offer criticism of our leaders does give us the responsibility to offer criticism when those leaders do things that are unwise or immoral. For the same reasons I think we have an obligation to express our preferences in voting, I think we have some obligation to speak out against bad leadership. But it does need to be mitigated in some way, and I'm going to try hard to resist jumping to conclusions about evil motives the way that so many have done with Bush. It's hard to be in the minority against a popular leader whose views you find abhorrent, and it's even harder when you're a Christian who thinks you have a moral obligation to submit to your leaders and pray for them but also a moral obligation to say something when you disagree with what they're doing. But I think it can be done, and I'm going to make an effort to give him the same benefit of the doubt that I've extended to the current president while still expressing my concerns when I do have them,

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