To Caesar What is Caesar’s, To God What is God’s: An Examination of Christian Duty In Democratic Elections (Part 1)

Part 1 of 2

Justice is giving every man what is his due. Jesus establishes this concept when he is asked by the pharisees whether we ought to pay taxes, telling them to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matt. 22:21). From scripture and also from natural revelation, we can deduce what these dues are. We know that every man has a right to live without his life being violated by another human being (Gen. 9:5-6). From this right we can also deduce that a man has a right to own anything which he acquires peacefully, i.e. property (Gen. 4:3-4, Ex. 20:15). Anything which a man either makes his own by free trade or by actively using, marking, or possessing belongs to him. From the rights of life and property, we can also gather the right of liberty. This right, properly understood, means that a man may do whatever he wishes with his own person and property, insofar as it does not interfere with the rights of life, liberty, and property of others. These rights do not mean that whatever he does is necessarily moral (for one could easily commit such sins as fornication without violating another’s rights to life, liberty, and property). Instead, these rights mean that no man or group of men, regardless of class, status, or title, have the moral justification to forcefully infringe upon his execution of these rights. This concept applies to the state as much as it does any other individual. The state is no more than a group of individual human beings who are just as much bound by the moral law as any other person, regardless of profession. The laws of the state are force. Though the state may at least attempt to reason with an individual peacefully before using force to enact its will, the laws and will of the state are always ultimately backed by force, up to and including deadly force.

With this in mind, careful consideration must be given to how civil government can justly conduct itself, and in any place where government officials are elected to office by the general public, it leads us to a number of questions regarding how the Christian should relate to that government. There is a common thought among a good many Christians that we should always vote in elections. The thought is at the very least well-intended, since the church is made to be salt and light to the world, in many Christian’s minds we ought therefore to exercise influence over political powers. Since we have that opportunity, the thought goes, therefore we also have the moral responsibility to always take advantage of that opportunity and vote. However, this idea does not always match with justice, and because it does not always match with justice, it is not always true that Christians have a moral obligation to vote in political elections.

A common argument put forth in the community of people who hold that voting is something the Christian must always do when presented with the opportunity is also fairly common in the general population. The argument goes that because we live in some form of a republican democracy, and because officials are elected by majority, the idea is that “we” the common people, are the government, because we elect the representatives to operate in the government on our behalf. This argument concludes, then, that because “we are the government” we are both able and responsible to vote into place the best option we can get. This argument is flawed on two fronts. First is in the collective concept of “we.” There are collectives that Christians would be well served to recognize. The church is a body with many members, and it is the bride of Christ(1 Cor. 12-14, Eph. 5:23). The family is another collective unit comprised of a few (or several) individuals. There are other collectives, however, which we (here meaning the body of Christ), do not necessarily partake in merely by our being in a certain place and time. The “we” (now referring to “we are the government”) however does not exist in any real sense. In fact, this idea is both sneaky and dangerous, and can allow a great number of moral atrocities to be committed in the name of democracy. If it is true that “we are the government” than whatever the government does must necessarily be voluntary, and therefore not a violation of any right to life, liberty, or property, since “we” (here the collective people of a nation) are the government. Murray Rothbard effectively puts the nail in the coffin of this argument:

If the government has incurred a huge public debt which must be paid by taxing one group for the benefit of another, this reality of burden is obscured by saying that ‘we owe it to ourselves’; if the government conscripts a man, or throws him into jail for dissident opinion, then he is ‘doing it to himself’ and, therefore, nothing untoward has occurred.  Under this reasoning, any Jews murdered by the Nazi government were not murdered; instead, they must have ‘committed suicide,’ since they were the government (which was democratically chosen), and, therefore, anything the government did to them was voluntary on their part.  One would not think it necessary to belabor this point, and yet the overwhelming bulk of the people hold this fallacy to a greater or lesser degree.

We must, therefore, emphasize that ‘we’ are not the government; the government is not ‘us.’  The government does not in any accurate sense ‘represent’ the majority of the people.  But, even if it did, even if 70 percent of the people decided to murder the remaining 30 percent, this would still be murder and would not be voluntary suicide on the part of the slaughtered minority.  No organicist metaphor, no irrelevant bromide that ‘we are all part of one another,’ must be permitted to obscure this basic fact.”

The points emphasized here should not be missed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer no more shared responsibility for the genocide of Jews in Germany than an infant child in the United States of America at the same time. The fact that someone is elected to office by majority vote does not mean that whatever he does is agreed upon by all of his given populace, it simply means that a majority has chosen that person as their representative. Those who voted that person into office do bear responsibility for his actions in office, but it is not true that everyone shares that responsibility. The government, therefore, is not “us” or “we” but instead it is the specific people who hold political office and power, and no one else. This allows an effective (and necessary) separation between the general public and the civil government. When we investigate the morality of the actions of state officials, we need not hold everyone responsible for them, and that is a good thing, or else we would all be liable to judgment.

Another especially popular argument which deserves an answer is in a similar vein regarding shared responsibility of the general population. The argument is that “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Again, there’s at least an understandable element to this line of argumentation. If we are given the opportunity to make the works of the state somewhat less unjust (though not truly just), and if we are given the opportunity to vote for government officials who best represent our positions (hopefully the position of justice), but we don’t exercise that right, the belief is that we cannot complain about the behavior of the elected officials. This argument, however, is logically invalid, and its conclusion is simply untrue.  As it relates to the state, whether or not one has a right to complain is not a question of whether or not they have participated in the state’s apparatus for choosing leaders and laws, but rather whether the state has forcefully violated their rights to life, liberty, or property.

Let’s use a story to illustrate. Suppose that Ralph lives on an island with a number of other people. Ralph is living a fairly normal and peaceful life, he works to provide himself with food, shelter, etc. One day the rest of the island’s inhabitants decide to elect themselves their first president. One candidate runs his platform by telling the island’s inhabitants that if they elect him, he will cut off one of their arms. The other candidate promises everyone that if he is elected, he will cut off both arms of all the people on the island. Ralph decides that he’d like to keep his arms (they’re rather useful after all), and since neither option in the election will allow him to keep both of his arms, he decides to abstain.

The second candidate ends up winning the election, and now he enacts his policy of cutting off both of the arms of all the people on the island. He tracks down Ralph and surgically removes both of Ralph’s arms. Ralph is understandably upset, after all, he used his arms for quite a number of very important things, and now they’re gone. Ralph bemoans this fate to another one of his armless island neighbors, but the neighbor will have none of it. Why? Because he voted for the candidate who would have only taken one arm. If Ralph had had the good sense to vote for the candidate who wanted to take one arm only, so he has no room to complain about having lost both of his arms. We can see, of course, that this is ridiculous.

We know that an individual has a right to his person and property and one does need to participate in the installing of a breacher of those rights in order to express dissatisfaction. If a highway robber aims a gun at you and says “Your money or your life” we don’t blame the robbery victim if they attempt to get away or defend themselves. This is usually the same situation as voting, only on a massive scale. No individual has the obligation to choose the lesser of two evils when presented with two evil choices. Instead, the person(s) attempting to enact the evil hold the responsibility for their wickedness. Interestingly enough, an argument could be made in the opposite direction, that if you do vote in a majority election, you can’t complain regarding the outcome, because you chose to play the game knowing the rules and what would happen if your “team” wins or loses.

This raises an interesting point, but doesn’t carry much weight, since the question over whether or not one can complain has much more to do with whether they have been deprived of justice in some way. Now, if you vote for an official who wins, and he then deprives you of justice in line with the promises made in his campaign (the terms of the exchange from his side) then you truly have no right to complain. You signed up for this, and this is what you got. This is how “if you don’t vote, don’t complain” breaks down entirely. The question of whether or not one has a leg to stand on when they complain has to do with whether they have been illegitimately deprived of something (life, liberty, or property) which belongs to them. Limiting the degree of that deprivation is an understandable desire, but it is not a moral responsibility.

To be continued in part 2. [Update: Part 2 here]