Don’t Vote Your Conscience

vote your conscience

I have been reluctant to wade into political waters up until this point. Not because I don’t have strong feelings or opinions one way or the other*, but because it is becoming increasingly difficult to say anything meaningful without succumbing to name-calling or worse. But this is my attempt to try and think through how some of my past reflections on faith and disability might relate to this election season.

Voting My Conscience

For a lot of people I’ve spoken to or interacted with online, voting for a third party candidate is the only reasonable option. After all, they have to vote their conscience. There is no room for compromise when it comes to voting – you must, through the casting of your vote, pick a side. This seems to me to be based more on integrity and allegiance to a certain ideal more than anything else. I resonate with that sentiment – I can be very idealistic at times, too.

There have been others in the past several days who, though once adamant they would never vote for the Republican candidate, have now changed their minds. Why? There have been two reasons as far as I can tell: keeping the Democratic candidate out of office at all costs, and supporting Republican policies while disavowing their candidate.

Those supporting the Democratic candidate have taken a slightly different approach: reason, facts, and the moral high ground. When considering the objective facts, the choice seems obvious enough. If it isn’t obvious, then an appeal to morality follows shortly thereafter. This is a less idealistic and more pragmatic response, although there is a hint of, “we need to keep the other candidate out of office at all costs” to it as well.

Yet, I would argue, the common thread through all of these positions is the point of reference: the self. I vote because it is my duty and privilege as a citizen. This is the democratic process and every individual voice needs to be heard equally. But more than this, I vote for what I believe to be right and best for everyone else. Oddly enough, it sometimes seems more like we are a country of individual autocrats, each with their own belief about what would be best for everyone else, shouting, “I know best!”

Christianity: Beyond Human Flourishing

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes Christianity (and Buddhism) this way:

In both Buddhism and Christianity, there is something similar in spite of the great difference in doctrine. This is that the believer or devout person is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing in their own case; they are called on, that is, to detach themselves from their own flourishing, to the point of the extinction of self in the one case, or to that of renunciation of human fulfillment to serve God in the other.

To put that another way, the goal of Christianity is not individual or personal benefit. The goal of Christianity is beyond the individual, although it encompasses the individual. There is a sacrificial call in Christianity: to forgo personal flourishing for the flourishing of another, with the goal of participating with God in the flourishing of all things. Taylor puts it this way,

God wills ordinary human flourishing, and a great part of the Gospels consists in Christ making this possible for the people whose afflictions he heals. The call to renounce doesn’t negate the value of flourishing; it is rather a call to centre everything on God, even if it be at the cost of forgoing this unsubstitutable good; and the fruit of this forgoing is that it become on one level the source of flourishing to others, and on another level, a collaboration with the restoration of a fuller flourishing by God.

So there is an inherent tension in Christianity. The affirmation of the pursuit of human flourishing on the one hand, and the renunciation of it in pursuit of something higher, on the other. Yet, in our current political, economic, religious, etc. climate, we have lost sight of this transcendent dimension. There is no longer any tension between human flourishing something higher than human flourishing. Because we have lost this transcendent orientation we now only strive for mere human flourishing, specifically on the individual level. If there is no appeal to anything transcendent, there is no reason to renounce human flourishing – we have lost that which we served in the renunciation, and in the process lost the reason to serve others.

The Buffered Self

If we have in fact lost sight of this transcendent dimension, this changes radically the way we understand ourselves and how we understand ourselves in relation to others. Taylor calls this understanding the buffered self. The buffered self, as opposed to the porous self,

… is essentially the self which is aware of the possibility of disengagement. And disengagement is frequently carried out in relation to one’s whole surroundings, natural and social.

The buffered self is not only able to disengage from the transcendent but is also invulnerable to it. The porous self, which was characteristic of the pre-modern era, was essentially open (hence porous) to the transcendent, vulnerable to attack and healing. The porous self was a social self, while the buffered self is an individual self.

One of the most important aspects of the buffered self is the source of authority. The new authority of the buffered self is the inner life of the individual – the mind – rather than the external transcendent other – God.

Voting: Beyond Human Flourishing

What does all of this have to do with voting?

In our country today, voting is one of the most individualistic processes we have. It is a deeply personal affair that is meant to reflect your personal beliefs and desires. The problem I have with “voting my conscience” is that we only ever think about it in terms of how it will benefit us individually. More often than not, voting has become a means to the end of mere human flourishing.

No one is ever willing to vote on behalf of someone else. I vote for myself, and for how I believe the country should be. Why would I ever vote for someone else? Republicans tell the poor and oppressed that it is failure on the part of Democrats that has put them in their situation, and so to make their lives better, that is, more like the lives of the Republicans running for office, they should vote Republican. Democrats tell the poor and oppressed it is because of unjust systems which largely benefit the rich and powerful (read: Republican) that they are in the situation they are in, and to make their lives better, that is, more like the lives of the Democrats running for office, they should vote Democrat.

Like I mentioned in a previous post, the church is the church of the first, and has been in the business of keeping the first, first. Similarly, politicians are in the business of keeping the first, first, and trying to make the last first, too. That should come as no surprise.

However, voting our conscience plays right into this. By voting our conscience we are essentially voting for those people, policies, and systems that perpetuate this dynamic. It atomizes everyone into individuals each pursuing their own highest good, and turns the other into a means to that end. Voting your conscience makes your personal human flourishing the end in itself.

I would argue that what we should do, if we are going to attempt to overcome mere human flourishing, is to vote not with our conscience, something we inherently understand in an insulated, isolated, and buffered way. Voting in this way closes us off from others and limits the outcome to mere human flourishing. If we really want to make a difference, to change our communities and societies for the better, then we should be voting for the other, the poor, the oppressed: the last. Not so that they may become more like us, something which will benefit us more than them, but so we can become more like them.

Throw Your Vote Away

In more pragmatic terms, I believe this means that we should be voting for the candidate, and therefore their policies, who will bring about the greatest benefit, the greatest flourishing, for the last. But this necessarily means that we will be voting for the candidate and policies which pose the greatest threat to our well-being and way of life.

We inherently believe that voting our conscience will give us peace, that we will be better able to sleep at night because we listened to and acted on the moral authority of our interior lives. This is one of the legacies of the buffered self – all moral authority is internal; there is no appeal to the transcendent. Therefore, voting my conscience, which is something I notice is particularly strong among Christians, is really a way of cutting oneself off from the transcendent.

Or, I should say, the pull to vote my conscience is really the result of already being cut off from the transcendent. Because we exist in the world today primarily as buffered selves, we can feel this lack of transcendence very acutely and interpret it as a lack of meaning. Yet, precisely because we understand ourselves in the buffered way, the search for meaning is always inward. By appealing to the inner moral or spiritual authority we hope to reclaim something that we feel we have lost.

…This means our participating in the love of God for human beings, which is by definition a love which goes way beyond any possible mutuality, a self-giving not bounded by some measure of fairness.
– Charles Taylor

All of this is to say that voting with your conscience feeds right into this and perpetuates the turn inward, so that no matter how morally upright we feel we are, we are only ever doing things for ourselves. By giving up our vote, throwing it away, as it were, and voting for the candidate or party that will help us the least and help the least the most, maybe we can break this cycle. Perhaps, by making the last first we can move beyond mere human flourishing.

If you would like a more concrete guide to voting in a way that promotes collective human flourishing, as well as beyond, then I implore you to read through Rabbi Artson’s guide to voting biblically.

*Disclaimer: I do not support the Republican Party, candidate, or platform. I never have.

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