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Courtesy of Wesley Theological Seminary

The Rev. Carolyn J. Davis

Voting as Christian Discipleship: Let compassion, care shape participation

Carolyn J. Davis
November-December 2016

Televised presidential debates are a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. The practice originated with the 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy appeared looking rested, youthful and tan. Nixon, in contrast, resisted wearing makeup or being styled for television despite showing the wear of a recent hospital stay. He looked pale, tired and increasingly sweaty as the night wore on. Tellingly, those who watched the debate on TV overwhelmingly saw Kennedy to be the clear winner, while those listening on the radio judged the evening for Nixon.

In our modern era, our approach to presidential debates carries the legacy of the Nixon-Kennedy debate to new extremes. Politics has become subject to the need for "good television." Like any good reality TV, this means conflict over kindness.

Viewers of the presidential debates are frequently admonished to pay attention less to the content of candidates' positions on policies. Instead, pundits pick apart candidates' body language, tone and ability to parry and pivot through the attacks of their opponents. Exhaustive post-debate coverage makes much of determining which candidate appeared more "presidential" despite rarely giving any real attention to the substance of their presentations. Observing and judging the debates has become far more of an exercise in vivisection than any real project in strengthening a voter's comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand.

Watching the Sept. 26 debate between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, with its dramatic matchup of political calculus and sheer will to power, it was easy to get lost in the gamesmanship if not utterly dejected by the current state of American electoral politics.

As one candidate attempted to get in yet another almost profanely low blow against the other, a thought struck me: "How would the tone and form of this debate change if each candidate approached their task from a position of concern for the other?" If Clinton or Trump started first with an intentional moment of genuine, truly altruistic preoccupation with the well-being of the other, it could very well change how they addressed one another. Perhaps that low blow might be reconsidered, a contentious policy point better understood. Could it also change how they considered their task as presidential candidates, public servants and citizens?

To ask one another "how is it with your soul" has long been a central practice in the lives of faithful Christians. The question echoes habits formed in a variety of Christian orders and spiritual traditions. When engaged in the context of a community of faith, the question can carry with it a dual meaning. Friends ought to be concerned with the well-being of others. At the same time, the very practice of cultivating concern for the other carries with it an investment in the overall well-being of the community. When we share our burden together, we are better able to attend to the needs of the communities we inhabit. The cultivation of such a habit of concern for the other bears spiritual fruit. We become, over time, more inherently compassionate. Spiritual discipline eventually gives way to spiritual formation.

While we await, with hope that is perhaps eschatological, for our candidates to discover a renewed sense of compassion for their opponents, we can nonetheless consider what a similar principle could mean for our own participation as citizens in the electorate.

What if Christians were to count voting as an expression of the spiritual discipline of compassion?

Voting is, in itself, a practiced discipline. Studies show that voting habits are formed over time — we must register, maintain our voting records, become attuned to the rhythms of electoral cycles, vote on appointed days. In our current American system, the burden to register and vote is placed on the individual. There is no direct, tangible penalty for refusing to vote. And voter disenfranchisement continues to be a tempting strategy for political forces looking to manipulate the system in their favor.

Within this frame, it is especially easy for the unengaged voter to simply sit out an election if the candidate or the issue does not feel especially compelling.

However, when we discard our votes into the dustbins of cynicism, apathy or sheer frustration with the system at large, we miss an opportunity to participate in acts of care and compassion as a spiritual discipline. Assessing the needs of our communities — considering how is it with our neighbor — can and should be paired with participation in the structures that might help bring greater justice and mercy to bear in the world. In an electoral democracy, this means voting (and running for office).

Suffragettes and civil rights activists alike did not march for simple self-empowerment. Immigrants seeking citizenship do not work (to achieve that status) just so they can go out and manifest their ideological opinion in the ballot box. These groups and all who seek a more robust democracy know that voting is critical to improving the lives of their communities. Christians who take their practices of care and compassion seriously should be committed to doing the same. (It has often been people of faith driving these social movements toward enfranchisement.)

Voting forms us into citizens mobilized to action. Voting strengthens our bonds to our civic and social structures. Let us pray that our Christian discipline of compassion might shape as well the ways in which we attend to the care of our neighbor with our vote.

The Rev. Carolyn J. Davis serves as deputy director at the Center for Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, where she develops new programs and partnerships about the interplay of faith, ethics, values and public discourse. She formerly was a senior policy analyst for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.,. and taught for Andover Newton Theological School. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, Newsweek, Talking Points Memo, Religion Dispatches and Sojourners and other outlets. She holds a doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University and a master of divinity from Emory University. Davis is an ordained deacon and a member of the Texas Annual Conference.