ESSAY
Voting, Praying, and Purity: Two Different Versions of Civil Religion
POSTED
October 30, 2020

Pastor John Piper has written on why he (probably) won’t be voting in this month’s presidential election. Reading his argument, I couldn’t help wondering if voting has a cultic significance to Piper.

As much as self-admitted Christian Trump-voters are characterized as cult followers, Never Trump Christians often strike me as the ones who turn voting into a sacrament or confession of faith. Voting for the bad man will somehow taint you before God. If you vote for him, you have somehow joined him in his sin.

But if you find one of two bad possible futures preferable to the other, you don’t prefer the bad in that future by preferring the good. David wasn’t guilty of wanting his people to die when he made his preference known to God and chose plague over famine and war (2 Samuel 24:10-13). Likewise, if an Israelite chose to side with Jehu over the house of Ahab, that doesn’t necessarily make him guilty for Jehu continuing in the sins of Jeroboam by worshiping at the golden calves.

And the act of voting changes nothing about that. It does not make you a participant in someone’s sins. You are simply acting consistently with your preference in the context of your interpretation of God’s providence. Because, otherwise, voting in a national election is one of the most inconsequential things you or I ever do.

Mathematically, from the perspective of an person acting to bring about a better future, voting is stupid. Think of all the science fiction stories about time traveling and the dire consequences that occurred when the past was changed. Voting is an exception. If you changed every ballot I ever filled out throughout my life to the opposite, nothing would be different about the present. Voting, for an individual, is inconsequential to political outcomes.

But there is another way to think about voting.

God does answer prayers, sometimes affirmatively. Lines of causation can be obscure just like any case of one friend asking another for a favor. Nevertheless, praying to God for a better future is not stupid, but wise.

But all prayer is not equally wise. Praying for a job promotion is usually superior to praying to get a million dollars in the next month. This is because, while prayer does involve wishing for a better future, it also involves interacting with God and how you see him working in the world.

So while I pray for a better political society in general, my more specific prayers are usually informed by foreseeable possible outcomes. Just like I pray for my current car to not break down rather than for a new car to appear in my driveway tonight, so I pray for a better candidate to win rather than a perfect candidate who I know would not win, even if he existed (and he doesn’t).

If I’m really praying for a candidate to win, why not express that by voting for him or her? This gets to what might be called my version of civil religion. It seems inconsistent to tell God I want someone to win an election and then not bother to express that preference in that election. (It certainly seems crazy to pray for a candidate to win but refuse to vote for him merely because he’s evil and stupid. If you’re worried that God might impose a worse ruler on you, and yet think you’re too “good” to vote for a better–if only less destructive–candidate, how are you not claiming to be holier than God?) So voting, in my mind, can and should be a kind of prayer that complements the more regular verbal prayers. It isn’t really about math.

Yes, as Piper suggests, we’re on the road to judgment and perhaps on the road to ruin. The northern Kingdom of Israel was headed for invasion and exile. But God made distinctions, sent prophets, and offered people choices in which he clearly wanted them to serve him by opposing great evil even if the new ruler was not completely repentant.

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