Staying out of the fray – Jehovah’s Witnesses’ political neutrality

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Gun control. Fake news. Abortion. Healthcare. These buzzwords dominate headlines and incite strong reactions from both sides. But while Democrats and Republicans are more ideologically divided than ever before, Jehovah’s Witnesses remain neutral in the face of a divisive American news cycle. One expression of their neutrality is their choice not to vote.

Some picket, protest and petition to fight for their beliefs, but Jehovah’s Witnesses and married couple Samuel and Melissa Burden have a different approach: Preaching. You won’t catch them at the polling stations on voting days, but sharing their gospel on a street corner such as this one in Grand Rapids, Mich.  

Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t fill out ballots, because that is not something Jesus modeled, Melissa said. 

“[Jesus’] followers wanted him to be part of the government at the time, and He said that His world was no part of this world; His solutions weren’t going to be earthly like that,” Melissa said.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in God and Jesus, but unlike other branches of Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use a cross in worship or celebrate holidays. They rely on strict interpretations of the Bible that extend as far as refusing blood transfusions. They also do not vote.

“As Jehovah’s Witness, we choose not to cast any vote typically for government,” said Samuel. “We feel like the only real solution to mankind’s government is through God’s government; it’s a more long-lasting solution than maybe short-term [measures] now?”

So what is a Jehovah’s Witness? “Jehovah” is the personal name of God, according to the Jehovah’s Witness website.

Thus, our name Jehovah’s Witnesses designates us as a group of Christians who proclaim the truth about Jehovah, the Creator of all things. (Revelation 4:11) We witness to others by the way we live our lives and by sharing with them what we’ve learned from the Bible”

There are more than eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses internationally, according to the religion’s official website, although some accounts are much higher. That’s because the religion only counts followers who actively preach their gospels every month.

Members report their outreach efforts to local congregations who crunch the numbers. Samuel and Melissa Burden are married and regularly perform outreach efforts together.

Worldwide, the religion’s spread is growing dramatically in underdeveloped countries like Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador while growth is stagnant or minimal in wealthier nations like the U.S and countries in Europe, according to official stats from the Witness website.

On one busy Saturday in Grand Rapids, Mich. the couple camped out on a busy street corner downtown to explain their beliefs.

Not voting: Un-American?

In Michigan, the religion makes up less than 1 percent of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. Last year’s presidential election was preceded by mud-splattering, fake news and contention, but Jehovah’s Witnesses like Samuel and Melissa stayed out of the fray.

“We choose to be neutral, politically, so we can show love to our brothers around the whole world,” Melissa said. “We don’t choose one side or another side.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses are the least likely to vote of any religious group. Sixty-four percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses report they are not registered to vote, or they are unsure of their registration status.

That stat pisses a lot of people off, said former Jehovah’s Witness Vanessa Robles, 27.

“The moment someone finds out that I’m not registered to vote, they’re just appalled … it’s a whole can of worms unleashed on me,” said Robles. “[They’ll say] ‘that’s un-American!’ or ‘How can you not have a say? Your opinions matter!’ – You really feel cornered.”

Robles grew up in a strict Jehovah’s Witness family that did not discuss politics. She did not learn about government or civics, except in grade school. Even then, it was hard for her to relate.

“In fifth grade, when we started learning about the constitution and politics at school it was extremely hard because I hadn’t the slightest clue what was going on,” said Robles. “I’ve been raised this way, that’s just what I am.”

Robles’ grandmother taught her the Jehovah’s Witness belief system and brought her to church and Bible studies. When she died, Vanessa fell out of touch with the religion.

Over time, Robles began questioning her Jehovah’s Witness belief systems and adopted “pagan” customs: Celebrating her birthday and even participating in gift-giving Christmases with her boyfriend. But Vanessa has not yet ventured into politics.

Left, right? Who cares?

“Even today, I’ll listen to Michigan Public Radio or NPR, and I just cannot make left or right out of it,” said Robles. “It does not make any sense to me… I couldn’t tell you what’s going on.”

For Robles, it wasn’t hard to resist one side or another, mostly because she barely knew which side was which.

“The only reason I could tell you who the candidates were was because it was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s Donald Trump,” said Robles. “He doesn’t know anything, and then there’s Hillary Clinton, because her husband was president, right?”

Damned if she does damned if she doesn’t

The game of politics is a catch-22 for Witnesses and former Witnesses like Robles – she’s “wrong” for having different views, even though her position is not actually having one. Her neutrality riles people up just as much, and she feels the brunt of their anger and hostility.

“Everyone is always giving me such a hard time … I’ve gotten so much backlash for not voting but it would be really, really hard for me because I don’t know what some of these [politicians] are saying,” said Robles. “I don’t know if I would be a good candidate for voting.”

Election Day was Tuesday, Nov. 7th, and in East Lansing, voters decided on changes in income tax and picked two city council members. While her friends and neighbors headed to the polls, for Robles, it was just another Tuesday.

“I make the joke – and I think there’s some truth to it – I just want to go hide under my rock,” said Robles. “Let me know when things get worse.”

  • Temanu

    Many in this religion are sincere in their beliefs and truly strive for a high moral and ethical standard in their lives.We can also admire the courage needed for groups like theirs and others to take an admittedly unpopular stand regarding political or military involvement. People who maintain their own internalized code of values, independent of what is popularly believed, can add a valuable point of view to society.
    However groups like these have their own set of problems.The benefits must be weighed against the costs.
    – Restrictions on critical or independent thinking skills.
    – Extensive use of logical fallacies.
    – Misrepresentation of past doctrines or reinterpretation of them.
    – Reliance on others to dispense arbitrary new interpretations to follow.
    – Treating criminal conduct as “sins” to be dealt with inside the religion.

    The potential power of a religions words or beliefs to oppress or harm, is every bit as real as political policy or military action.
    The majority of people seek something to anchor themselves to in this life. Attacking that security whether it be a religion or otherwise is ineffective, but helping them to honestly assess the costs can lead them to lobby for change or find a different path.

    • Beverly Fessel

      I appreciate that they spoke with actual baptized witnesses and got some real facts from the website. However, it reads as though they turned it into an opinion piece. The “ex-witness” they interviewed seemed to paint Witnesses as unthinking and somewhat imbecilic, as most ex-JWs do. She likely wasn’t even baptized or she wouldn’t have fallen away so easily upon her grandmother’s death. We are instructed to KEEP ON THE WATCH and how do we do that if we don’t utilize our critical thinking skills by watching and reasoning about what’s happening in the world around us, including watching politics? The whole reason I became a Jehovah’s Witness is because I used my critical thinking skills to determine that this is the ONLY group teaching the truth about the Bible. I stopped voting many, many years prior because I saw the corruption in the political systems and chose not to participate in the scheme.

      • Alex

        Tell what happens when one disagree’s with the ‘Organization” (Governing Body members) who call the shots for millions of members around the world. It’s called shunning and it comes from even your closest ‘baptized’ family members.
        This is a HIGH CONTROL GROUP.

  • yeahbut

    Jehovah’s Witnesses do not think. They are like sheep (but not the good kind) in their conformity, unable to ask questions apart from the ones already written out for them in their Watchtower study. Baa-a-a-aa. That is bleating in line, not thinking. They may claim that their religion provides the only true interpretation of the bible, but time and again their ‘truth’ turns out to be a slippery and inconsistent thing as their cliffhanger doctrines get updated (see new truths!) over time, as previous claims (1975) become ridiculous. They are a cliffhanger religion – the end of the world is always just round the corner – dont get educated, stock up on tinned food, clean windows, give everything up to serve ‘where the need is great!’ The Witnesses say it is only they who will survive their forthcoming war of Armageddon, where their ‘God of Love’ will intervene and kill all the godless and all the followers of religions (apart from theirs). As there are 8m of them, and 7.2 billion of everyone else, that makes almost a million corpses for each surviving Witness. You dont have to be Aristotle to find plenty to think about (and to reject) there.

  • Alex

    Don’t vote yet the ‘Governing Board’ member ( a position not found in the scriptures) of a handful of men, who dictate all JW lives, regularly vote on policies and procedures.

  • yeahbut

    Jehovah’s Witnesses do not think. They are like sheep (but not the good kind) in their conformity, unable to ask questions apart from the ones already written out for them in their Watchtower study. Baa-a-a-aa. That is bleating in line, not thinking. They may claim that their religion provides the only true interpretation of the bible, but time and again their ‘truth’ turns out to be a slippery and inconsistent thing as their cliffhanger doctrines get updated (see new truths!) over time, as previous claims (1975) become ridiculous. They are a cliffhanger religion – the end of the world is always just round the corner – dont get educated, stock up on tinned food, clean windows, give everything up to serve ‘where the need is great!’ The Witnesses say it is only they who will survive their forthcoming war of Armageddon, where their God of Love will intervene and kill all the godless and all the followers of religions other than theirs. As there are 8m of them, and 7.2 billion of everyone else, that makes almost a million corpses for each surviving Witness. You dont have to be Aristotle to find things to think about (and to reject) here.