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
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,"
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
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