Call it a campaign strategist’s nightmare – more than 30,000 people coming to a central location in Cleveland over four weekends, and hardly a single vote to be had.
In this most political of seasons, where small percentages of votes in key states could prove decisive, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are staying true to their theological beliefs that their kingdom is not of this world.
There will be no voter-registration drives for the more than 8,000 delegates as the Witnesses’ hold four district conventions, beginning at the Cleveland State University Convocation Center. Neither candidate has been invited to any of the monthlong series of weekend conventions, and campaign literature is nonexistent. Voting in elections would only be divisive to their work of preparing for a biblical Armageddon that the more than 1 million Witnesses in the United States believe will usher in a time of universal peace.
“You can’t legislate love. You can’t make people love each other,” said Carole Johnson, 67, of North Ridgeville, Ohio. “You have to do it from the heart.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, a true made-in-America religion, grew out of a movement that began with the end-time prophecies of William Miller, the founder of Adventism. The “Great Disappointment” of 1844 – when Miller’s predictions of the Second Coming did not come true – did not deter him or others from their vision.
Coming out of the Adventist tradition was Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Witnesses.
Russell set 1874 as the date for Christ’s return, and 1914 for the battle of Armageddon and the beginning of Jesus’ rule on Earth.
World War I seemed to confirm his prophecy, but the slogan of Russellites that “millions now living will never die” lost some impact when Russell died in 1916.
After several other failed attempts to predict the end of this world, the Witnesses in the 1990s officially dismissed date-setting as speculation. But the church continues to teach that the end is near, creating an urgency for individuals to prepare for the coming kingdom.
In their theology, there is a battle now raging between God in his heavenly kingdom, and Satan, the ruler of this world.
Witnesses are called to work for God’s kingdom, not to try to improve or prop up the existing system by political means, the church teaches.
Jehovah’s Witnesses can serve their communities as teachers, doctors or social workers, but voting, serving in the military or holding elected offices are off-limits.Let the Democrats in Boston, or the Republicans in New York, tell how their parties will change the world. The prize that Witnesses keep their eyes on is a new world where the meek will inherit the Earth.
On a recent Sunday, in a simple plain brick building next to a strip mall in Westlake, Ohio, politics was nowhere on the agenda during a typical two-hour service consisting of singing, prayer, a lecture and Bible study. Elders said that each Witness is free to make his or her own decision about voting. But when asked how many of the 85 members in the Westlake congregation would vote in November, Michael Dobbs’ reply was immediate: “No one.”
Once the church starts talking politics, the elder said, “it would be impossible” to maintain the unity and peace that he said Witnesses are trying to create throughout the world.
Before she became a Witness 32 years ago, Carole Johnson not only voted for John Kennedy in 1960 but also worked for his election.
She had traveled in the South and had seen the pain of segregation. She was hopeful that Kennedy could change things.
But that was the last time she voted.
“I realize now no man can really solve all our problems. It hasn’t been proven yet,” she said.