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Must Christians Vote? Part III—Character in the Context of Factions

[Editors’ note: This is the fifth article in an occasional series on how Christians should think about voting and the electoral process. The first entry is here, the second entry is here, the third is here, and the fourth is here.]

Because this series has dragged on almost as long as the primary season, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on what has been covered so far and what remains to be examined.

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The question we’re exploring is whether Christians must vote, and if not, what are sound biblical reasons for choosing not to do so. The position I’ve argued for so far—and which I will attempt to provide reasons for throughout the rest of the series—is that Christians are under no moral obligation to vote if doing so requires them to violate their conscience. Choosing not to violate our conscience when voting may be the best or only way we can both maintain our integrity and fulfill our civic obligation to love our neighbor. (Mk. 12:31)

But determining whether a voting decision would (or should) violate our conscience can be complicated, so I proposed that we take into account three elements: the context of voting, the biblical principles that should inform our decision, and the strategies that determine whether we should or should not vote.

Context of Factions

In the first two posts we looked at the context of the American system and developed what could be called the “factionalism theory of voting.” Briefly summarized, this is the idea that when a person cast a vote for a political candidate they are not merely choosing a representative but are voting as a part of a faction in order to further factional interests.

Because we vote for factions as factions (and not merely for individuals as individuals), we discussed some of the reasons why, if we could not in good conscience support a particular faction, we could not vote a leader of that faction. In this article, I want to examine a related question: When should we reject a leader for a faction that we agree with?

As I noted in the last article in this series, a political party is a “faction of factions,” and in voting for a leader of a party (i.e., the presidential candidate), we are voting for him or her to enact the party’s platform and all the various planks. We may find that while we do not agree with every plank in a party’s platform, supporting the party’s positions would not cause us to violate our conscience.

In practical terms, this means that if we support a political party then we should, generally speaking, be able to find a candidate in the primary season who would be a suitable leader of the faction we endorse. But candidates are humans, and thus character and ability must factor into our decision-making process.

Character and Context

When we begin to consider biblical principles apply (the topic of the next article in this series) we’ll look at what the Bible has to say about the character of a leader. But in this article let’s focus on character as a function of context, specifically as it relates to the will and ability of a politician to effectively serve as a factional leader.

An example of a broad political faction with which I align is the pro-life movement. More narrowly, I belong to the subset that advocates for aggressive incrementalism. For me, a political candidate who self-identifies as “pro-life” would be preferable to one that openly supports the “culture of death” (abortion, euthanasia, and so on). But if I strongly believe candidates do not have the will or ability to act on their stated pro-life beliefs, then I may be violating my conscience by voting for them just as I would be in voting for a candidate that was openly pro-abortion.

But how do we determine whether a candidate has the will and ability to advance a particular factional interest, such as the pro-life cause? Unfortunately, the answer is more nuanced and complicated than it might seem because a candidate’s character is manifested in a particular context—the context of factionalism.

The factionalism theory of voting states that we individual voters act as part of a faction in order to further factional interests. The same is true for politicians — with one major exception. Individual voters can choose what factions they want to align with and disregard any that do not interest them. Politicians, however, do not have that luxury. To get elected they have to represent a broad range of factions, and those factional alliances may shift when they seek a higher office. In fact, it’s almost inevitable that a presidential candidate will have to change his or her position—“flip flop”—on at least one key issue in order to get elected as President of the United States.

For instance, a governor of a state that strongly opposes the death penalty may decide to also take an oppositional position to gain re-election. But when she runs for president she may “flip flop” on the issue to win a national election. The question a supporter of capital punishment would need to ponder is not merely whether the politician had a sincere change of heart, but whether she is likely to have the will and ability to actively support her new stance on the issue in the future. Once elected, she may decide to appease her friends and supporters in her home state by “flip flopping” once again to her original position.

Four General Rules

Since every presidential candidate will invariably “flip flop” on some issues, how do we determine whether he or she will support the factional issues we most care about? While there is no sure-fire answer, we can be guided by a few general rules of thumb.

First, consider how a politician has spent political capital in the past. Candidates have a limited amount of political capital and tend to spend it either on building political alliances or on issues that are truly important to them. For instance, a candidate who has consistently fought for the unborn is more likely to continue to do so in the future than one who became “pro-life” because it was necessary to win a party’s nomination.

Second, consider the incentives a politician has to remain loyal to a faction or factional interest. Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, once said, “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.” While that may seem cynical, it is a prudent consideration for supporting a candidate. We may view politicians as generally untrustworthy or unlikable and yet have no qualms about their willingness to strongly support a faction. If we think they have a strong enough incentive to support our interest, we may have a sufficiently strong reason to support them.

Take, for instance, one of history’s most notorious politicians: Pontius Pilate. The Roman governor had a strong incentive to maintain order in the province of Judaea. The Sanhedrin was able to exploit this incentive, knowing that Pilate would be more inclined to keep the peace in his region than to see justice was done in the trial of Jesus.

Third, consider how seriously a candidate treats oaths and vows. As I noted above, factionalism almost requires that candidates “flip flop” on some issues. But not all issues deserve equal weight—some are simply less important than others (for example, abortion is more important than minimum wage laws). Yet we should take into account how a politician has previously treated oaths or vows related to an issue.

One factor would be a relevant change is circumstances. A politician who vowed to never raise taxes might be forgiven for raising taxes in a time of war. Similarly, a politician may cast a vote for the least bad option. A politician who vowed to never vote for any law that protected abortion might decide to compromise by voting for legislation that outlaws abortion except in cases of rape or incest. But a politician who breaks a vow to uphold a position merely out of political expediency will likely continue to do so in the future.

Finally, politicians who breaks the most sacred of institutional vows—the marriage vow—has given us a solid reason not to trust them under any circumstances. If their self-interest would lead them to break the most intimate bonds of trust by being unfaithful to their spouse (or committing adultery with someone else’s spouse) then there is no reason to believe they’d keep any vow made to us strangers.

(While others may disagree, I take a rather hardline stance on this point: I could not, in good conscience, vote for a candidate who committed adultery if they have not at least attempted reconcile with their spouse or sought forgiveness of the people who’s marriage they violated.)

Don’t Expect Perfection

While we should be careful not to expect an unrealistic level of political perfection, this lack of trustworthiness may be sufficient reason for a Christian to choose not to vote for a particular candidate. A factional leader who cannot be trusted to lead on a factional interest is no leader at all.

By no means is this the only, or even most important, application of the “character issue” to voting. There may be other disqualifying factors based on character that could lead us to reject a candidate. We’ll examine some of those in the next article as we discuss how to apply biblical principles to our voting decisions.

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