On Sunday, in evangelical churches across the country, worshippers heard variations on the same message: voting on Tuesday isn't just a civic duty, but a religious one as well. And the message wasn't limited to pulpits inside church buildings. I heard one of the paladins of the Christian Right tell his radio listeners that if they did not vote, they would have to answer to God. That's right, your failure to go to the polls would come up on Judgment Day.

Can that be true? Is exercising the franchise a duty comparable to keeping the Sabbath, caring for the poor, and loving your neighbor? Nope. This transformation of a secular political duty into a religious one is both theologically flawed and diminishes the idea of religious duty.

For starters, the exhortation to vote is, to be honest, often disingenuous. What's really being urged is not the exercise of the franchise, but voting for a particular candidate. Imagine, if you will, a parishioner coming up to an evangelical pastor after the service and saying "I want you to know that I heard you and, in light of the labor and environmental problems associated with globalization, I'm going to be sure to cast my vote for Ralph Nader." What do you think the response would be? ) It's true that part of the subterfuge is caused by the requirements of the Tax Code. But that doesn't change the fact that the "duty" in question isn't voting per se.

Then there's the theology. A survey of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, which evangelicals consider to be the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals, reveals an attitude toward government and governance that is, at best, ambivalent. The people of Israel initially lived in a theocracy, ruled by Yahweh alone. The Ark of the Covenant, made famous by "Raiders of The Lost Ark," was a throne where Yahweh sat, invisibly enthroned among His people.

Then Israel asked for a king to keep up with the neighbors. The response was the first recorded instance of someone - essentially, at least - saying "be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it." As the prophet Samuel warned them, "[the king] will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses . . . [the king] will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants . . ." Hardly a ringing endorsement of human governance.

If anything, the New Testament is even less enthusiastic about human governance. The gospels, apart from "render unto Caesar," have very little to say about the believer's relationship with government. Then there's Saint Paul. He urges believers to pray for those in authority and tells us that government has been given authority by God to keep order. But that isn't the same as a command to actively participate in the process of government. (The Bible, of course, knows nothing of mass participatory democracy or voting.)

On the contrary, Paul's rationale reminds me of the Rabbi's words at the beginning of "Fiddler on the Roof" who, when asked whether there was a proper blessing for the Czar, answered "may God bless and keep the Czar . . . far away from us." As I Timothy puts it, the purpose behind praying for those in authority is that "we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." By the time you reach the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation, government, in the person of the Roman Emperor, is considered the enemy of the Christian faithful.

I'm not arguing that there aren't good theological reasons for active participation in the political process. It's simply that you can't derive these reasons from the Bible alone. And since American evangelicalism emphasizes scripture alone as its theological basis, treating voting as a religious duty is inconsistent with its own reasoning.

If the origin of voting-as-religious-duty isn't a matter of theology, then where does it come from? Ultimately, raising voting to the level of religious duty is the product of conflating the needs of liberal democracy with the imperatives of the Christian faith - a problem that particularly plagues American evangelicals. As historian Mark Noll noted in his book, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind," American evangelicals have never figured out the distinction between "American" and "evangelical." They've combined the two in what Noll calls the "American-evangelical cultural synthesis." What's more, the activist strain, the need to "do something," within the same group produced the urgency you hear in these exhortations.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't vote. (I certainly plan on doing so, although two of the three races in my district - President and congressman - are foregone conclusions.) But the best reasons to do so are rooted in a sense of civic, rather than religious, duty. Going to the polls is rooted in our obligations as American citizens, not citizens of a heavenly kingdom.

What's more, trying to pass off voting as a religious obligation diminishes the idea of such an obligation.

How? Because it dulls us to the real thing. You know the drill. The person who complains about everything is not taken seriously when his complaints are justified. Likewise, if nearly everything - from healing the sick to diet and exercise - is a matter of religious command, then we soon will discount all such appeals - including those appeals we should heed, such as the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

We should very hesitant about telling folks that doing or not doing something will affect their relationship with God. We should be loathe to label something as a sin - which essentially is what is being done - unless we have strong theological warrant for doing so. There are some things whose importance transcends even choosing the next president - things you might really have to answer for on Judgment Day.

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