Re-Creating Ourselves: Voting and Eucharist

As Theological Shark Week X winds down, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the event of voting itself.  Christine McCarthy and Stephen Okey helped us think about voting our conscience and the issues surrounding cooperating with the lesser of two evils, Jessica Wrobleski walked us through dialogue, and Kevin Ahern cautioned us against buying into ideologies of American exceptionalism.  They’ve given us great food for thought, and in order to look at the the event of casting of a vote—after the dialogue, discernment, conscience-forming, and everything else—I’d like to compare two rituals: voting on election day and the Eucharist.

Before anyone gets out the pitchforks, let me be clear: there are a number of serious differences between the rituals of election day and the Eucharist.  One is explicitly political and one is explicitly religious, voting does not point to a deity at its head, voting is (ideally) not an act of worship, and while the Eucharist includes an important element of thanksgiving, casting a ballot rarely does.

A voting line, or procession in the ritual (credit: James Willamore, “2008 Presidential Election Early Voting Lines, Charlotte; CC BY-SA 2.0)

All that said, election day remains a kind of civic ritual.  Life in the United States sees a number of public rituals that aren’t explicitly religious, perhaps the largest two being election day and the Super Bowl.  The Super Bowl tends to be a little more fun though—it’s generally a big celebration characterized by anticipation, fellowship, and merriment (particularly if your team is winning).  It’s a little like Christmas in that sense.  Election day however, is a bit more like Easter; it’s a solemn occasion, the vigil can take a long time, and it’s usually preceded by a number of weeks that aren’t much fun.

However, it’s still quite important.  Just as Easter includes a particular Eucharistic celebration, election day includes formal casting of ballots.  One might rightly ask, if election day isn’t religious, doesn’t point to God, isn’t worship, and isn’t thanksgiving, then in what possible way could it be compared to a ritual like the Eucharist?  Really, in one central way, and this is the point: in elections as in Holy Communion, a people re-creates itself.

The thought of John Zizioulas is helpful in this (though many others could also be), as he argues that the celebration of the Eucharist is not just an affirmation of a church that already exists, but the real creation of a particular, concrete, local church in a new way.1  The Eucharist makes us Christians who we are anew every week as we participate in it.  How the church lives in the world is actively formed by its life of eating and drinking together, and how it eats and drinks together is formed by the lives of its members in the world.

The parallels become a touch easier at this point: just as one should (ideally) form one’s conscience, dialogue and reconcile with others, and enter into discernment as one approaches the Eucharist, so one should also do these things as one approaches the voting booth.  These rituals both make a powerful statement about the bodies they represent.

And, of course, both the Eucharist and voting have been seeing declines in participation.  Nevertheless, the reality of institutions (ecclesial and civic) grows out of the actions—or inaction—of those who make them up.  This is the import of the re-creation that occurs in both elections and the Eucharist: it moves people not into a static institution, but into a dynamic entity.  The Eucharist expresses and calls Christians not just to communion with God, but to communion with others, and that includes a mission and ethical mandate.  There is more to the Eucharist than Sunday; it should resonate throughout the week, in love of neighbor, in forgiveness, in pursuit of justice.

Likewise, participation in an election is not the end of citizenship.  To participate in the republic is more than just showing up on its constitutive holy days (though it certainly includes that as well).  “Voting” includes myriad civic acts or inactions throughout the year, just as the Eucharist occurs regularly.  To participate in the rituals of election day requires (at least if it is to be effective in moving us closer to the common good) the same kinds of preparation the Eucharist calls for.  And while the Eucharist expresses, creates, and calls Christians to a religious reality—the communion of the church—voting on election day expresses, creates, and calls citizens to a civic reality: the city, state, and nation. 

To re-create the republic well, as to re-create church well, requires preparation, participation, and entering again into the preparation that follows the event, working to move us ever closer to the ideal.

1John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 132.