Some Christians to sit out election for religious reasons

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by Catherine Guiles
Nov 03, 2008

Grace Schrock-Hurst, a junior at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, was set to vote for Barack Obama for president – until she spent a summer interning at a community center with a soup kitchen.

“Seeing the hope from a local community and a Christ-centered community makes me realize that’s where the hope is,” rather than government, she said.

Plus, “as a follower of Jesus and a proclaimed pacifist, casting my vote for someone who would be the commander-in-chief would be hypocritical.”

Schrock-Hurst’s decision not to vote is common among Mennonites, although not universal.

In keeping with their Anabaptist tradition that emphasizes pacifism, social justice and allegiance to Christ above national identity, some professors and students at Mennonite colleges are sitting out this election.

“There’s never been a unified Anabaptist tradition” on participating in government, said John Roth, a professor of history at Goshen College in Indiana.

Historically, “Anabaptists engaged the state, usually at the wrong end of the sword.”

After the 2004 presidential election, Roth urged Mennonites to take a five-year break from voting.

“I didn’t think [the election] was our finest hour as a church” because of partisanship, Roth said. His call “was an invitation to step back and be more reflective, and to some extent, I think that’s happened.”

Roth also wanted people to “expand how we think of political engagement. A vote is one expression, but it doesn’t cost you very much to go to the polls.”

Instead, Mennonites should realize “the church as the primary source of identity,” Roth said. “Your allegiance to the body of Christ is greater than your allegiance to any civic group.”

Goshen freshman Paul Manickam, 20, had another reason for abstaining: “By voting for someone, I’m asking them to … protect our lives over the lives of others.”

Like Roth, Schrock-Hurst, 20, said she is put off by the nastiness of politics within the church. She spent part of her childhood in the Philippines, where her parents worked for the Mennonite Central Committee, coordinating relief efforts. She attended a school for missionary children and was in the minority for leaning Democratic.

“I experienced persecution for thinking the way I did,” Schrock-Hurst said. “How Christians on both sides can be so vehemently against each other, that’s sad to me.”

Goshen sophomore Seth Grimes, 20, said partisanship goes both ways.

“I have a friend who’s a pretty hard-core Republican,” he said. When others start criticizing Republicans, “he removes himself.”

However, Grimes and other Mennonite students said they will vote.

“If I don’t have a voice, I don’t have a right to complain,” Grimes said. “If you vote or not, you’re still voting.”

Goshen senior Lydie Assefa agreed.

“Voting is a way of negotiating or articulating your faith,” Assefa, 22, said. “My church doesn’t explicitly push voting. In my family, it was very much that it’s a right and a responsibility, and we were encouraged.”

But some have reservations.

“I will vote; it’s just hard to support someone who’s saying, ‘We will go into Pakistan,’” Goshen senior Tyler Falk, 21, said. “It’s hard when there’s only two ways to support the government.”

Students from other Christian traditions differ.

Goshen sophomore Jeremy Pope, 19, grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an African-American denomination.

“Blacks weren’t always able to vote,” so he made sure to vote absentee, he said.

EMU senior Kimberly Nissly, who grew up in the Assemblies of God church, agreed.

“A lot of people give and gave their lives for the freedoms we have,” Nissly, 21, said. “People in other countries would gladly trade places. I think you pick the person who has the majority of the things you agree with, and you vote for them.”

At Anderson University in Indiana, affiliated with the Church of God, senior David Melton, 21, is editor of the Andersonian newspaper. Melton, a Catholic, said students who skip voting are “just lazy.”

However, Anderson senior Abby Walker, 23, said some may be putting more thought into it.

“I know people who aren’t voting because of their beliefs,” said Walker, who was raised Catholic and is now a Quaker. “I think voting and not voting is a way to follow their faith.”

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Catherine Guiles/Medill

Grace Schrock-Hurst, a student at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, is not voting because she says it conflicts with her faith.

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Catherine Guiles/Medill

Tyler Falk, a student at Goshen College in Indiana, will be voting.

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Catherine Guiles/Medill

Paul Manickam, a student at Goshen, said he also plans to skip voting.

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Catherine Guiles/Medill

Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Indiana, has a peace pole on its campus.

©2001 – 2013 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University.  A publication of the Medill School.