Super Thursday wasn’t, after all, as unsuper as predicted. Quite a few people voted.
Even so, we cannot help wondering. In some countries people lose their lives campaigning for the right to vote. In others they can vote, and queue all day for the privilege. Here, postal voting is introduced to stave off embarrassingly low turnouts.
Why does it mean so little to us and so much to others? Maybe people are content with the way things are. Or they are discontented with all the parties on offer. Or they don’t trust politicians, or the professionals have got the system sewn up in their own interests, or their policies are too similar to each other. There may be much truth in at least some of these, but I suspect there is a deeper problem, one which an engaged kind of religious faith can help address.
Our understanding of democracy has changed. In the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, elections were accompanied by public debates, local and national, about what kind of society we should be striving for. The alternatives on offer differed immensely. But by the 1970s, Archbishop Coggan’s question, ‘What kind of society do we want?’ in his Call to the Nation, was already beginning to sound old-fashioned.
Today, elections are perceived more in terms of counting the preferences of individuals. For some, there is no such thing as society. Others accept that it exists, but not that there is any objective truth about the difference between good societies and bad ones. The argument goes that only humans evaluate, so the only values are those of individual humans. Since preferences differ, the fairest way to make social decisions is to count individual preferences. Voting, it follows, should be an essentially selfish process, in which people vote for what they want for themselves as individuals.
To deny objective values on the basis that only humans evaluate is of course to deny a role for God. Christianity, like all the world’s major religions, must beg to differ. Firstly, a society governed according to the wishes of the majority is not necessarily a good society. A return to the policies of Adolf Hitler would soon remind us that there are better and worse societies, objectively – over and above the question of whether a majority of its members approve of it.
Secondly, freedom to choose what the individual wants has been wildly overvalued. Its defenders often presuppose that what the individual wants is an absolute arbitrary given, as though it were self-evidently true that, whatever someone wants, it would be a good thing if they could get it. The dominant consumerist values of our society often take for granted that it is; but we often tell our children that it is not, and recognize it for ourselves whenever we wonder what to want.
Indeed, what each of us wants as an individual may contradict what we want as a society. An obvious example is traffic: as individuals we want to drive our cars faster and further, but as a society we bewail the noise, pollution and danger caused by so much traffic. More generally, there is bound to be conflict between the wants of individuals, unless every individual is trained to want what would benefit other people.
It is religious traditions, and usually only religious traditions, which have taught that human behaviour is at its worst when we use our power to get what we want for ourselves as individuals. At our best we distinguish between our wants and our needs, we recognize that other people’s needs are as important to them as ours are to us, and we try to co-operate with other people in meeting our needs and theirs. To achieve this, over the centuries we have reflected on how to develop good societies, where people’s needs are met with a minimum of conflict; and generalizing further still, we have reflected on how conflict between societies can be minimized in the interests of justice and peace throughout the world.
Cynics may reply that justice and peace have never happened, and there is no evidence that it is possible. Conflict is here to stay, so the best we can hope for is for each of us to defend our own interests as best we may. The world’s great monotheisms have nearly always denied this. Instead they claim that we have been designed for well-being by a God who loves us and has made it possible. God is also the creator of other societies, and the physical environment which makes life possible, and seeks their well-being too. The possibility of better societies, living in peace and justice, has been built into the design of the world, and true fulfilment comes through working towards it. Therefore we ought not to want economic or industrial processes which benefit us at the expense of other people or the environment. When we do, we have misunderstood the nature of our own well-being. The Creator, being one, has created a world capable of harmony, and our best political systems are the ones that seek it.
If voting is only about the pursuit of individual self-interest, there is nothing wrong with low turnouts. They are only to be expected whenever people think the outcome will not make much difference to them. On the other hand, if it is about long-term vision for a better society in a better world, there is something wrong when people do not bother. The point is well illustrated by the Greek derivations of two English words: to Aristotle, the person concerned for the affairs of the city was a ‘politicos’, while the person only concerned with private matters was an ‘idioticos’.
If we believe there is no higher standard than the wants of individuals, we cannot expect more of society than endless conflict between competing interests, and we condemn ourselves to living selfish lives. Alternatively, if we believe that higher standards do exist, then the possibility of working together to achieve them is a real one.
That higher standard, Christians have taught through the centuries, is an invitation by the One who created us and loves us, to work together for a society of peace and justice in which the needs of all are met. If this is what we have been designed for, it should be possible.