Turmoil brought about by elections is nothing new, but this is a unique moment of political upheaval in the history of our country. The major parties’ presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have historic levels of unpopularity. According to recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, both Trump and Clinton are viewed unfavorably by about 60% of registered voters. To put this in historical perspective, before 2016, the highest unfavorable rating belonged to George H.W. Bush at 53 percent shortly before his defeat in the 1992 election.
So what is one to do this November? Even if compelled to vote for Clinton as an anti-Trump vote, many people feel stuck between a rock and a hard place this election, like there is no satisfying answer to what they feel is their political duty.
This reality feels stifling in large part because in our current political culture, we think of politics simply as periodic voting contests to determine who gets to make laws. Our elections, especially presidential elections, are the culminating events in this Nietzschien power competition. Politics are a thing that happen “out there” in Washington, DC or in our state capitals. If major elections are our only touch point to the “out there” world of politics, then when they disappoint, it can feel like we don’t have a voice in politics at all.
It is tempting to let this presidential election cycle, which has resembled more a reality television show than our highest ritual of civic engagement, confirm this conception of politics that is narrow, removed, and one-dimensional—a begrudged intrusion on our daily lives. But to do so would be short sighted.
A conception of politics that thinks of electing officials into power as the only way to engage in politics is inadequate. Rather than thinking about politics as primarily an electoral competition, we should think of politics more broadly as the way that power is used to structure and organize communities. If we conceive of politics in this way, then we realize our political lives encompass much more than simply casting a vote and waiting until the next presidential election.
As Christians, we recognize that we do not live as isolated individuals but in community. God has given us responsibility to one another. Part of this responsibility includes the institution of government to uphold public justice and restrain evil. Our stewardship of the Earth and responsibility to others finds partial expression in our participation in political community holding government accountable to justly order and structure our communities.
This does not mean that every Christian needs to be a policy wonk or a card-carrying member of a political party. However, it does mean that Christians need to recognize their individual and communal relationship to politics. We need to prepare and support members of our local congregations for public service and political work as Christian vocations. We need to understand the role that other institutions such as churches, families, and businesses have in political community. And we need to cultivate a robust theology of citizenship in our churches.
Politics is not just the “out there” of elected officials making decisions on our behalf at a national level, but also the daily decisions we, both as individuals and communities, make that impact how our communities are structured and organized.
Do we care who is sitting on our local school boards as much as we care about who is sitting in the White House? Do our food choices reflect our role as stewards of the Earth and promote dignity and an honest wage for the producers? Does our choice of where we go to church reinforce racial and socioeconomic divisions or break them down? Maybe something as simple as limiting the amount of trash we produce each day is a powerful political statement.
Thinking of voting as the exclusive metric for political engagement is like thinking of church attendance as the exclusive metric for faithful Christian living. The election process, culminating in voting, is vital to our political system and is a great privilege, but it is only part of our political lives.
The breadth of political community reaches much further than we usually give it credit for. And in a presidential election season that makes us want to wash our hands of the whole thing, recognizing and participating in the breadth of political community is liberating.
When we recalibrate our political imaginations to see presidential elections as an important piece of our political lives rather than the whole thing, the possibilities for political engagement explode. Helping with refugee resettlement, purchasing ethically made clothing, joining a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, tutoring underprivileged students, and even simply getting to know our neighbors, are all political acts. Each of these actions involves a range of individuals and institutions demonstrating the breadth and interconnectedness of political community.
So when voting makes us want to retreat from politics, we must remember that voting is a major piece, but still only a piece, of our political lives. Loving our neighbor through our politics goes far beyond the vote we cast this November.
-Andrew Whitworth is a recent graduate of Taylor University and alumni of the Trinity Fellows Academy. He lives in DC working to build flourishing political communities.