Response to Mark Noll’s Editorial, “None of the Above: Why I Won’t Vote for President”

[1] Though I disagree thoroughly with the thrust of Mark Noll’s recent editorial in The Christian Century, there is one important comfort I derive from it. That comes from the fact that the essay confirms one of my deeply held beliefs: one can share with fellow Christians the core of Christian faith and morals and yet disagree sharply on matters of public policy. That may seem a banal observation but it is not. It is often the case that those liberal in theology are liberal in politics while those conservative in theology are conservative in politics. Indeed, that is the rule rather than the exception. But such a correlation brings forth a deep suspicion that it is politics that is swaying the theology rather than vice versa. Agreement in politics leads to agreement on theology, which tends to make theology the handmaiden of politics in a way that robs theology of its integrity.

[2] Rather, I believe that Christians who share orthodox beliefs can disagree on politics because there are a number of judgments one makes as one moves step by step from core beliefs to public policy options. Each step involves differences in social ethical principles and their ordering, in political philosophy, and in how one interprets the present situation. As they move from the center to public policy, Christians of good will and intelligence can and do often disagree. Though there are indeed limits to our tolerance of each other with regard to political options, we need not make penultimate judgments into ultimate ones.

[3] Mark Noll is a historian of North American religion of great intelligence and enormous good will. He is one of the most gracious persons I know. I respect him deeply as a Christian and as a scholar. Yet, I arrive at very different conclusions about voting matters than Noll. (A disturbing thought pops into my mind that the reader may believe that our difference of opinion follows from my being a person neither of intelligence nor good will. But we will not let such a dark thought prevent us from plunging forward.) So, with all due respect, I would like to suggest that Mark has reached the wrong conclusions.

[4] First, I think he has reached a mistaken decision not to vote. (I’m secretly happy that he is not voting because if he were I think he would vote Democratic.) It seems that he expects far too much of politics in general and political parties in particular. I vote for a party because its philosophy and its proposals go in roughly the same direction as my political convictions, not because its platform or policies make comprehensive proposals to address my “particular combination of issues.” Noll expects the parties and their candidates to see and act upon “the political coherence of this combination of convictions,” which is decidedly his combination of convictions.

[5] This requirement seems unduly demanding, almost naively so. Noll demands that a party’s proposals fit his very specific combination of high expectations. But if one elaborates such a set of expectations high enough, one would never vote, and it seems that he has reached that impasse. He seems to ignore the fact that to be effective candidates must get elected and that parties must field candidates who can. Some of his expectations-a Marshall Plan for the inner cities, an even more progressive income tax than we have-seem so infeasible that it would mean political death for candidates seriously to propose them. The Clinton administration proposed a comprehensive health plan whose sharp rejection shook it so severely that it never proposed anything so bold again. That debacle was a factor in the Republican victories of 1994.

[6] Perhaps Noll’s real quarrel is with the American people, who set the limits within which the parties and their candidates must operate. But if that is so, wouldn’t it make more sense to vote for the parties and candidates that stretch the limits that the electorate set, rather than petulantly blame the parties for lacking courage? In a diverse and divided electorate, politics is a game of small gains at best. I find it too aloof to refuse to engage in the battle for those small gains.

[7] As to the seven issues themselves, Noll might find the two parties have connected fairly strongly to a number of them, if he would ease up on his purist demands. Though neither party addresses all of them in the comprehensive way he wishes, each party does attempt to grapple with some of them. My scorecard would indicate that the Republicans would move toward Noll´s expectations in three of the issues: life, trade, and religious freedom. Democrats move toward his requirements in taxes, medicine, and international law. Race would be a toss-up, with the Democrats maintaining their commitment to strong forms of affirmative action (quotas, representational schemes, etc.), and the Republicans proposing stronger support for faith-based initiatives. None of these party affinities would be fully satisfying to Noll, but one would think that movement in the proper direction would be worth voting for.

[8] As for myself, I will have no hesitation in voting. There are two over-riding issues for me: Iraq and judicial appointments. While I can certainly understand the arguments of those who think we should not have gone to war in Iraq, I nevertheless think it was a necessary decision, given what was thought to be true at the time and what Saddam Hussein would have done in due time. Though things have not gone well in the Sunni parts of Iraq, it has been worth the expenditure of American life and treasure to get rid of the Hussein regime and to liberate the Kurds and the Shia. My impression is that in those parts of Iraq life is getting much better and self-governance is becoming a reality. It remains to be seen whether we will be successful in helping all Iraqis establish a decent state, but it certainly will not happen if we retreat now, as the left wing of the Democratic party desires. (Who knows where Kerry stands?) We have to persevere and prevail.

[9] I believe that the judiciary in this country has increasingly “usurped” the political process. It has systematically severed the connection between law and its moral and religious bases, and enshrined a rights-based individualism that undercuts communal moral commitments. Moreover, it is slowly denuding the public sphere of religiously-based moral values and practices. To stem this tide, judges have to be appointed and elected who will not take it upon themselves to make policy.

[10] It is not simply that this rights-based secularism will be enshrined in public law, which is bad enough, but it will increasingly be imposed upon private organizations, including the church. There is an authoritarian whiff to secular liberalism. The Left has always yelped that fascism is coming to America, but I think it far more likely that a secular elite will impose its wishes upon the American people without their consent. We may indeed find that one day we will be governed by the Harvard faculty instead of the first one hundred names in the Boston telephone directory. Being from the South I would prefer to be governed by neither, but I would vastly prefer the latter to the former.

[11] So I will vote Republican though I have never thought that George W. Bush is the best candidate the Republicans can put forward. But there he is, and I will vote for him. Only the Republicans will persevere in Iraq and appoint non-secularist and non-activist judges. I would like to take up the rest of Mark Noll´s list of issues, but that would take up too much space. Suffice it to say that I believe that he should vote and that he should vote Republican.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.