Voting is the most American religious ritual.
Like most things religious, we do it infrequently, but with great fervor and passion when necessary.
With every presidential election, we hear it is the most monumental one in our lifetimes until the next one, which allows us to slip into sleep until the next time our passions need rousing.
I say this not to dismiss the need for loving our neighbors or for bearing witness to the Kingdom of God in public life, but to say this: Voting is one part of this picture.
Political representation means the people who win elections make decisions on our behalf for years on end, and as such, voting means something. But voting means something if, and only if, the slower work of being present as Christian witnesses is being done.
The representation that we have in legislative bodies is an important part of the political process, but our relationships with our neighbors is not mediated by our legislators.
We do not relate to our neighbors through organs of government or by laws, but because we are given to one another by the God who calls Christians to love their neighbors in and out of season.
Apart from this, we approach our neighbors not as familiars, but as strangers, bearers of ideas that we do not agree with, enemies.
If we do not do the long work of being present to our neighbors, what we do on Election Day is of limited value, as it only reinforces a vision of the world as competitive, of winners-take-all. And that is not a Christian vision of politics.
The reason that election days take up all the oxygen in the room is that we spend the time between elections refusing to breathe the same air as our partisan rivals in the intervening years, and so, Election Day becomes the only thing that matters.
What happens in our political representation changes the possibilities of what can be done in local spaces, the ways in which our cities can and cannot respond to a pandemic, the ways in which our children’s schools function.
But it is also no substitute for conversations in the park, local protests, neighbors organizing to check on the next street over, PTA meetings.
And it is these admittedly more boring ways that the shape of election days is either accelerated or defused: the more social decay there is, the more elections matter, and the more elections matter, the less we tend to the ordinary social bonds, which help us live day after day.
So, vote, and invite your neighbors for dinner. Work for better representatives than the ones on offer and show up for back-to-school night. Advocate for better laws for migrants and support your local food pantries.
For unless we “live at peace with those around us” regularly, all we are left with is a gasp of breath every four years filled with rancor, holding our breath until the ballots are counted next time.
Director of Baptist Studies at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. Werntz is the author and editor of eight books in theology and ethics.