Does selflessness have a place in politics? By politics, I mean the process of determining the governing vision of a society. In other words, the electoral process in which we find ourselves. Are candidates and parties influenced by selfless values? Are voters? Are “interest” groups?
An assumption of economics is rationality—usually defined as self-interest. This applies to both individuals and collective entities like organizations. It is assumed that most voters are driven to the polls by their own economic self-interest. And why do parties, corporations, unions, and ideological groups spend huge amounts of cash on swing state advertising? Is it because they want to keep “the other guy” from trampling on the rights of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned? Obviously not—they want to get something for their investment. Something for them. Altruistic advocacy groups are an exception, but their monetary role is slim in comparison. And even when our activism is based in values, why are we campaigning to save the innocents, the children, the unborn? Sometimes even altruism is based in self-interest of one kind or another (to make me feel good, to influence society, to gain influence for my group, my religion, my ideology).
Can Christ’s ethic of selflessness actually invade our political system? Can Christians sleep at night knowing they voted in a selfless fashion? (Is wanting to sleep at night a self-centered motive itself?) Is selflessness even humanly possible? Well, there are a few examples out there besides the God-man…but then again, we all far short and only catch glimpses of our true potential this side of the Kingdom.
My thesis is that if Christ was selfless, and we are to model His life, should we not also strive to think and act selflessly in all we do—even in politics and voting. Of course this seems naïve—but then again, so did Christ to some. And He is to be our example. Can we match our master? No, but we can always ask the age old question: WWJD? He might not always vote, but if He did, He would do it selflessly. How we apply this ethic is entirely up to our own interpretation and implementation—as are all things in this perilous Christian life.
As we vote, let us consider our own, our candidate’s, our party’s commitments to selflessness. This post is not meant to influence WHO you vote for this Election Day. It is meant for you to consider WHY you are voting for one party or candidate over another. You can even reflect post-election on its claims and your actions. No matter who you support, you may be able to keep doing what you’ve been doing by justifying it as selfless. That is fine, but some of you may wish to reconsider (from either side) the course you are on. I made a major course correction in recent years and still do day-by-day. Let’s now consider all of our motivations.
For Republicans and Romney supporters:
Are you really motivated by selflessness? Or are you motivated by distaste with your unemployment or your child’s lack of a job after college, your latent nativism, the president’s “un-American” policies, or even his funny sounding name and skin color? Will the least among us really be better off under a Romney presidency? What scenario would need to transpire under a Romney administration to make that a reality? If you have an idea, if you see the connection, work for that. Vote Romney! Push your party to do what’s best for all and to brush aside “special” interests. What are selfless reasons to vote GOP? True care for the unborn, care for the dignity of people to live self-sufficiently, and love of human freedom and flourishing. Push lower taxes not because of the effect on your wallet, but because of its effect on others! (Even if this means your pocketbook is made lighter in the process.)
For Democrats and Obama supporters:
Are you really motivated by selflessness? Or are you motivated by anger and envy for the rich and successful, your own desire to rebut traditional values or break with your upbringing, or your distaste for a rival religious tradition (i.e., Mormonism)? Will Obama really bring the promised Hope and Change these next four years? Will the poor prosper? Will the bombs halt? Will we embrace our neighbors—even those beyond our borders? If your answer is yes, then work for that. Vote Obama! What are selfless reasons to vote Democratic? True care for the rights of the poor and marginalized, minorities and immigrants; acknowledging that humanity transcends nationalism; and understanding that faith does not constitute a rejection of reason—particularly when reason can be put in the service of selflessness. Push for government social programs that help others, not just that eliminate your student loan debt.
For third party (Libertarian, Green) supporters:
Are you really motivated by selflessness? Or are you motivated by spoiling an election, preaching a new religion of economics or environmentalism, or thinking the major parties are not in your own best interests? Are you comfortable with breaking with tradition, the side you thought you leaned closer to, and even casting a deciding vote that allows “the other guy” to win? (That can be a liberating, selfless moment.) If an alternative world of opportunity and peace, a sustainable future for our children, sounds more appealing than the status quo, then vote Third Party! What are selfless reasons to vote third party? The most alluring are sustainability and non-violence; and regard for those beyond our borders who are equally created in God’s image and worthy of being regarded as more than pawns in our political economic chess game. Of course they won’t win…but maybe that’s the beauty. Jesus could have never won an election between the Cokes (Roman political authority) and Pepsis (the Jewish religious authorities who collaborated) of His time either. I find this to be an attractive option, but am yet unsure exactly what I will do in the booth.
Shame on you. (Just joking!) On a serious note, I would ask whether you are truly motivated by selflessness to disregard this key component of civic responsibility. I would think many are motivated to ignore voting because of selfish reasons: “It takes too much time,” “I don’t want to know what’s going on in the world around me,” or “I want to keep my conscience clear.” I urge you to reject apathy and vote—somehow, someway, even if you leave the ballot blank. Whatever your view of Paul, he did seem to value Roman citizenship and took his responsibilities to others seriously. If you have an actual selfless reason for not voting, more power to you.
So what’s your choice? Each option has elements of Christian views, but none have all—not by a long shot. I guess we each need to devise our own approach—whether its identifying deal breaker issues, choosing the lesser of two evils, or voting for a candidate who holds some of your values, even though he/she can’t win, just to make a statement that people matter. As Christians, let’s embrace a politics of selflessness—whatever that might look like for you. Whatever we say or do, however we vote, let it be motivated by a commitment to the kingdom vision of Christ.
There’s a great parody meme online that turns an Alien vs. Predator poster into a campaign ad: “Whoever wins, we lose!” This may be true when we think as taxpayers. But as believers, let us strive for another slogan: “Whoever wins, may Christ be glorified!” We can’t rely on the government to do this—it is up to us. And we can start with how we vote—and then continue after Election Day to push our country, our leaders, our parties to better reflect a selfless ideal.
Joshua D. Ambrosius, Ph.D., is an urbanist, religionist political scientist who is completing a book manuscript titled A Politics of Selflessness, a rethinking of Christian political theory and action. Holding graduate degrees in public policy from the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Louisville, he is currently an assistant professor at the University of Dayton, a Catholic Marianist institution in Dayton, Ohio. His latest research on religion and politics appears in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, downloadable for free here.