The Myth of the State As Savior and Elections as Confession of Faith

Election season is already gearing up. This is a small excerpt from my article “When There is Nothing to Vote For: Liberalism, John Howard Yoder and the Church,” in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Not Voting, ed. Ted Lewis (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), 10–22.

Through schools, media and in countless fragmentary ways we learn a foundational narrative that situates elections: the state saves people from violence and tyranny. In the United States, grade school students learn stories of revolution and territorial expansion from textbooks, classroom discussions and “fun” films like the School House Rocks cartoon shorts. Students eventually acquire a theoretical framework for this story from classical political theorists like Hobbes, Rousseau and John Locke. Under natural conditions, the story goes, individuals compete with one another over scarce resources creating a “war of all against all.”1 So in order to protect their property and lives people formed a contract: they surrender their “right” to violence to a centralized institution.2 Thus the state, Hobbes’ “mortal God,” saves people from themselves and simultaneously protects each individual’s self-interest without promoting any common or highest good.

Within this soteriological framework students learn about democracy and elections. With the American and French revolutions, the story goes, people broke free from monarchical tyranny and created a fundamentally new form of government: democracy.3 Democracy transfers the divine right of kings to “the people” and focuses elections as the ritual by which people exercise their divine sovereignty. In elections individuals renew the social contract and consent to state rule so long as it helps save them from a common evil—starvation and death in the “natural condition.” In elections, competing individuals once again agree to be social on the condition that their “rights” and interests remain protected.4 Thus, in this mythology, individuals enact their “freedom” to be self-interested through elections; they do not deliberate upon a common good.5

Schools reinforce this story with student government elections that form physical and mental habits in youth to automatically accept the underlying “state as savior” mythology. Studies show that the more educated a person becomes, the more likely they are to participate in elections and to have a high view of the system.6 This mythology, supported by patriotic symbols and folklore, remains the dominant though unstated way in which people evaluate candidates for office. People learn to act without changing their fundamental belief system. Some sociologists and psychologists suggest that Sunday schools also aid in this process when they teach children that God is a “king” who created “the state.” Studies show that these children then transfer their notions of God and Jesus to the Presidential office.7 So even if the media exposes a crime the President committed—like Watergate or the Clinton sex scandal—American society and churches teach children to distinguish the office from the person, so that despite “individual failures” the role remains ordained and worthy of respect and allegiance, and voting remains a “near-divine civil mandate.”8


The mythology of “state-as-savior” and democratic control do not line up with empirical historical research. Rather than saving people from violence, historians have shown that state-making first and foremost arose out of organizing to fight wars.9 William Cavanaugh has used these historical studies to argue that the nation-state is not “the keeper of the common good” as social contract theories presuppose. Instead the nation-state usurps group loyalties and fragments attempts at real community.10 Early modern people were aware of this danger. For example, when princes increased taxes to pay for rising costs of wars and attempted to impose uniform language, currency and religion across wide swaths of territory, people did not accept this state-making easily. From 1489 to 1553 heavy taxes fueled six major rebellions in England.11 Swarms of French peasants engaged in hundred of anti-tax riots during the 1620’s and 1630’s.12 Not only outright revolt but also weapons of the weak—“sabotage, foot-dragging, concealment, [and] evasion”—created “one of the most rebellious decades in European history.”13 Throughout Europe this widespread popular resistance forced state-makers to negotiate their rule. Citizenship rights such as voting, therefore, did not come as a natural result of peaceable social contracts but as a result of struggles against state-power.14 Moreover, these rights were not benign but specifically designed by state-makers to undermine struggles against state-making and fragment social groups into individuals with “rights.”

Telling history truthfully is important. In terms of democratic theory this history reveals both that the “state-as-savior” mythology and the story about transferring sovereignty to “the people” are equally false. Citizenship rights only intended to take the edge off of elite state rulers but never intended to shift sovereignty away from them. As John Howard Yoder has written, “We are still governed by an elite, most of whose decisions are not submitted to the people for approval. . . . The consent of the governed, the built-in controls of constitutionality, checks and balances, and the bill of rights do not constitute the fact of government they only mitigate it.”15

If democracy really masks a shift from one elite rule to another, then national elections are not as crucial to “freedom” as advocates of liberal democracy preach and may actually be adverse to democracy and freedom. For example, Benjamin Ginsberg collected data on black voter demonstrations and unlawful political actions from 1955 to 1977 in the United States. In the 1960’s black voter registration and other forms of political action—violence, marches and civil disobedience—dramatically increased. During this time Congress passed several legislative acts favorable to black communities. When demonstrations and disobedience campaigns decreased in the 1970’s, voter registration remained high; however, the government ceased passing legislation favorable to blacks. This shows that the government does not really respond to minority voter interests and that voting per se does little to gain reforms.16

During the Vietnam War, college students burned draft cards, rioted, demonstrated, staged sit-ins, and orchestrated boycotts and strikes. They did not, however, demand that Congress lower the voting age to include them. Nevertheless senators and congressmen regularly stated that the United States needed to lower the voting age to 18 in order to draw young people away from direct action and to assimilate them into the system. For example, United States Senator Jacob Javits stated in a hearing on lowering the voting age that:
I am convinced that self-styled student leaders who urged such acts of civil disobedience would find themselves with little or no support if students were given a more meaningful role in the political process. In short, political activism of our college-age youth today—whether it be in demonstrations or working on behalf of candidates like Senator McCarthy—is all happening outside the existing political framework. Passage of this resolution before this Committee would give us the means, sort of the famous carrot and the stick, to channel this energy into our major political parties on all levels, national, state and local.17
These examples show that instead of being an effective tool for change, voting is more like a confession of faith in the system as savior. Yet this confession is not always explicit until someone says they do not vote. In 2004, I attended a campaign event for Green party candidate David Cobb at a Methodist Church in Manhattan. Prior to Cobb’s address several speakers repeatedly informed the audience about voter disenfranchisement: why the current voting system does not work, why the electronic system will lead to fraud, and other issues. Basically they claimed that the system excludes certain questions and people from having a voice. Then Cobb passionately begged the audience to vote for him.
During the question and answer time I said that in light of such rampant abuse, exclusion and powerlessness in the system (as they had all just admitted), perhaps it would be better to direct people’s energies into a massive nationwide boycott of the elections. Abstaining from elections in such conditions is more of a political action than voting in a useless system. David Cobb replied, “That is the worst idea I have ever heard. It is dangerous and stupid.”18 He could not imagine such a thing because he had faith in the process despite all evidence that nothing good could or would come out of it. When someone challenges the efficacy and wisdom of national elections, people’s trust in the system—however modest and limited that trust may be—and the nature of voting as a confession of faith become apparent.

  1. Sheldon Wolin observes that rulers inscribe this state of nature—in which a person has a right to take whatever actions s/he thinks necessary to preserve him or herself—into the nation-state with the phrase “Reason of state.” In “reasons of state” the sovereign claims a right to circumvent laws and norms and commit extra-legal acts of detention, killing or other acts. “Reason of state” also forms the moral basis for the idea of revolution. See Wolin, “Democracy and the Welfare State,” 483–85. This notion of original war differs from Christian accounts of original sin in that it makes violence natural rather than sinful. See Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, 24.
  2. For a critique of the “state-as-savior” see Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination. For a concise yet more fleshed out introduction to political liberalism see Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism.
  3. See Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 203. Stout, however, claims that this classicist view distorts the slow evolutionary process that lead up to the modern democracies. However, Sheldon Wolin provides a powerful counter-story to Stout’s in claiming that constitutional democracies seek to discourage the “turmoil” inherent in real Athenian democracy in the name of “order.” See Wolin, “Democracy: Electoral and Athenian,” 475–77.
  4. For example, during the 1994 election campaign the Republicans’ “Contract with America” promised that if Americans “contracted” with them in the elections, they would pass various legislative measures. See Rosenbaum, “It’s the Economy Again, as Democrats Attack the ‘Contract With America’.”
  5. For a more sophisticated look at social contract evolution and a critique see Grant, English-Speaking Justice.
  6. For example, twice as many college students aged 18–24 vote as non-college students in the same age range. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), which represents thousands of private colleges and universities in America, also claims that, “The mission of America’s more than 3,000 colleges and universities is the education of our nation’s next generation of leaders, and the shaping of civic involvement in all graduates, irrespective of their career choices.” Your Vote—Your Voice, 2.
  7. Moore, The Child’s Political World, 228–31.
  8. Yoder, “The National Ritual,” 29.
  9. For example see Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” Ertman, Birth of the Leviathan, and Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State.
  10. See Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good.” I am indebted to Cavanaugh’s article for pointing me to the historical sources cited in this article.
  11. Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making,” 22.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, 101.
  14. Ibid., 102. I have borrowed the term “citizenship rights” from Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence, 200.
  15. Yoder, “The Christian Case for Democracy,” 158, 59. Contract theorists, however, might rightly reply that they were never trying to write history but to imagine what a rights-based society should look like. John Rawls describes his own position this way in John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 136–42. Such theorists as Rawls, however, wrongly believe they can write as if people have no history.
  16. See Ginsberg, The Consequences of Consent, 107–109.
  17. Quoted in ibid., 12.
  18. He was correct on one score, it is dangerous. One fictionalized account of what might happen when people refuse the illusion of the ballot box comes from Saramago, Seeing.


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