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.”