The Duties of Citizenship

Some Christians seem to have adopted a philosophy of consequentialism in regard to voting. Should Christians vote in the US presidential elections even if a single vote will not tip the balance?


This week Americans go to the polls to select the next President of the United States. You would think that given the issues that are involved in this election that every Christian would be eager and exercised to vote, but I received the following email from a person this week that I found very troubling. He writes,

Many of my Christian friends do not vote and furthermore they do not believe in voting. The most common argument that they say to me is that their vote will almost certainly not determine or influence the election. They say that the odds that their single vote will influence the outcome of the election are basically zero so they do not vote. They simply talk about the pure math. I am not exactly sure how to respond to this because in a sense they are right. How many elections are determined by a single vote? And with all of the people that vote in presidential elections, there is no way that it will be even close. Can you shed any light on a logical argument against these anti-voting points raised by my friends?

When I read this email, I thought to myself, “Boy, I hope this person doesn’t live in Ohio!” I don’t see how anybody who lived through the 2000 election – with its hanging chads and disputed court cases that dragged on for agonizing weeks – can think that his vote in a presidential election is unimportant or doesn’t count. All it takes is just a few hundred Christians adopting this attitude of disengagement from political life and the course of American history could be changed. Your vote does matter.

In any case, even if you are in a non-battleground state where the election in your state is pretty much a sure thing, that doesn’t mean that the plurality of the voting in the election doesn’t matter. Granted, we have an electoral college system but still, a person who gains a large plurality can claim a mandate justifiably from the voters that can cause him to put through his policies and reforms with greater confidence. So even if it doesn’t influence the electoral college, nevertheless, your vote is important in adding to the plurality or detracting from it.

And, of course, this doesn’t say anything about the local elections in which your vote has an even greater significance and weight.

But leave all of those points aside. Just forget about it. Let’s suppose that we agree that your vote is inconsequential. Does that mean you should not vote? Well, I don’t think it follows at all. The more fundamental error on the part of these disengaged Christians is that they have adopted a philosophy of consequentialism or pragmatism. That is what underlies their disengagement. They think their vote doesn’t have a consequence, doesn’t make any difference, and therefore they may as well not vote. But this kind of consequentialistic thinking is simply wrong. You don’t determine what you should do simply based on consequences. Imagine, for example, a father who refuses to help his little daughter with her schoolwork because he knows that she will probably get C’s anyway. Even if it were true that his helping her won’t make much difference, does he fulfill the duties and obligations of fatherhood if he refuses to help her just because it might not make any great consequence? Well, obviously not. I think there are some things we should do regardless of the consequences.

In particular, this political philosophy of disengagement, I think, shows an utter and entire misunderstanding of the responsibilities and the duties of citizenship.[1] The privilege of voting has been secured for us by the blood of those who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima and more recently in Iraq and in Afghanistan and, yes, in Libya as well. I believe we profane their sacrifice when we refuse to take seriously the privileges of self-determination. That is the kind of government we have – self-determination. As Lincoln said, “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We, as citizens, have certain civic responsibilities and duties to fulfill particularly voting regardless of the consequences.

So I think these disengaged Christians are, frankly, guilty of a dereliction of civic duty when they refuse to vote. This is especially significant in an election like this one that involves such great moral questions about which I have spoken on other occasions. Jesus said that on the Judgment Day we will be held accountable for every idle word that we utter. Henry Hyde, the pro-life congressman, wrote a book called Every Idle Silence. Hyde’s point was that it is not just our idle words on which we will be judged but also our idle silences. When we had a responsibility to speak out on some moral issue and be counted but instead we choose to remain silent. We will be judged for every idle silence as well. In a case like this, an election that involves these great moral questions, we cannot responsibly before God shirk our civic duties and responsibilities and choose to remain silent and uncounted by staying home on election day. We need to fulfill those duties of citizenship that have been purchased at such a heavy price by those who have died to give their lives for this great privilege.[2]

[1] 5:02

[2] Total Running Time: 7:30 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)