Bahai News - Some Faiths Abstain From Casting Ballots Tuesday, April 10, 2001 |

Some Faiths Abstain From Casting Ballots

Beliefs: Jehovah's Witnesses say voting would be a transgression, while Bahais and Mennonites lead a restricted political life.

By CARLA HALL, Times Staff Writer

It would never occur to Javier Gonzalez, 41, of Boyle Heights to vote today. Political talk at work has never tempted him. There are no campaign fliers, no TV ads, no issues that would jolt him into a voting booth. Yet, he's neither cynical nor apathetic. As far as he's concerned, he's already voted--for God. As a Jehovah's Witness, Gonzalez has essentially sworn, by his baptism in the faith, not to vote in any earthly election.
"We pay our taxes, we're law-abiding," said Gonzalez, an elder in his congregation. "But our loyalty is to God's government. If we were to vote for another government--well, you know what happened in Florida when people voted twice on their ballots? It's like our ballots would become invalid too. We would be voting for a government here and God's government."
In the city of Los Angeles, according to a spokesman for the religion, there are 204 congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses, each with about 100 people. (Gonzalez's congregation numbers about 120.)
In their eyes, they're not relinquishing a right--"We already know there's really no hope in man," said Gonzalez--they are upholding their long-standing choice.
Known for their door-to-door proselytizing, Jehovah's Witnesses recognize only God as their leader and believe that eventually God will establish the perfect world.
"The Bible says none of these governments will exist long into the future," said J.R. Brown, a spokesman for the faith, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
By avoiding the ballot box, Jehovah's Witnesses are following a tradition of some religious groups that, for reasons of theocracy, separatism or persecution, don't vote.
The Amish, famous for separating themselves from society, do not vote--but there are no practicing Amish living in Los Angeles.
Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad, in the mid-20th century, urged his followers not to participate in the government of a predominantly white society. But after his death in 1975, that thinking among Muslims in the Nation of Islam faded away; today they vote.
Some ultraconservative Christian groups don't vote as another way of keeping themselves apart from a sinful society, said Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara. The members of a group called the family, which has about 9,000 members worldwide, some in Los Angeles, do not vote. "They want to separate from as much of the world as they can," Melton said.
Few groups reach the philosophical commitment of the about 6 million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide who make it a tenet of their religion to abstain from voting--but several religions' members circumscribe their involvement in political life.
"There's always been a struggle to know what it means to give absolute loyalty to the kingdom of God without compromising your loyal citizenship," said Wilbert Shenk, a professor of mission history at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Mennonite minister.
Members of the Mennonite religion, after centuries of persecution and disenfranchisement in other countries, often choose not to vote. "Their starting point is not one of opting out but simply being pushed out," Shenk said.
The Mennonites believe that society is never warranted in taking a life, even in the course of law enforcement. The clash between their views and society's mores has led some members of the faith to decide not to participate in the society's voting process. Shenk chose not to vote during the Vietnam War--which he did not support--when he was involved in missionary work. "It was an act of solidarity with people in other parts of the world who criticized my government," he said. "It was done in a considered way."
These days, Mennonites, like most everyone else, try to vote for candidates who come close to sharing their beliefs. Shenk--who lives in Pasadena and does vote--figures that most of the 1,000 Mennonites living in Los Angeles County are not averse to voting.
Members of the Bahai religion--who number about 2,000 in the city of Los Angeles--vote but do not participate in partisan politics.
"We don't involve ourselves in partisan politics. We're not members of a party. We don't take sides," said Randolph Dobbs, secretary of the spiritual assembly of Bahais in Los Angeles. "The central idea of the Bahai faith is unity. Taking sides would be a divisive measure. People are encouraged to vote for the person who has the qualities that suit the office."
Most religions have no edict against voting in this country. In addition to most Christian and Jewish sects, Mormons vote, Buddhists vote, Hare Krishnas can vote. Even members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities who go out of their way to separate themselves from the modern world still vote.
An act of voting by a Jehovah's Witness would be considered a transgression against the religion. A member wouldn't be barred from meetings, but he or she might be relieved of their duties in that congregation. Brown said he would hope that the member made amends for voting. "You could do it and repent the next day," he said.
However, according to members, Jehovah's Witnesses make no attempt to get others outside their faith not to vote. "We don't campaign to get others not to vote," said spokesman Brown. "It's a personal thing."
Their faith fuels an almost fatalistic approach to the governments under which they live.
"From a human point of view, we do want to see a decent person ruling," said spokesman Brown. "The Bible says pray for rulers and kings. But no matter who gets in, he won't be able to make the changes that God will make."

©Copyright 2001, Los Angeles Times

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