[Note: This is the first in an occasional series on how Christians should think about voting and the electoral process.]

In America political campaigning is a never-ending process. But today voters in Iowa will officially begin the process of nominating a presidential candidate. This is the time of the election season when even those who have not been paying attention to the political horserace begin to seriously evaluate candidates. From immigration and economic growth to terrorism and education, there are a wide variety of issues that we’ll consider when we deciding who would make the most effective president. But while all of these are important, I believe they are “secondary”, at least in relation to the issue that should be most important to us.

The single issue that determines my vote—and I believe should determine how all Christians vote—is justice.

Justice and Human Dignity

As Hunter Baker has explained, justice results from enforcing a moral order, which protects the freedom of human beings from malignant interference. A key component of this moral order is the recognition of human dignity as the foundational principle of freedom and human flourishing. Although the terms are not interchangeable, I believe the term “sanctity of life,” as defined by David Gushee, could serve as the standard definition for human dignity:

The concept of the sanctity of life is the belief that all human beings, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, potential, class, social status, etc., of any and every particular quality of relationship to the viewing subject, are to be perceived as persons of equal and immeasurable worth and of inviolable dignity and therefore must be treated in a manner commensurate with this moral status.

Gushee notes that this is first and foremost a moral conviction that carries implications for how human beings are to be perceived and treated. This moral conviction is, I believe, a part of what Christians refer to as common grace and is therefore accessible by natural reason (even though it can be illuminated by supernatural revelation).

While Christians may disagree on how these perceptions shape out moral obligations, I believe we can and should agree to accept this as a basic moral conviction and agree that the best way to recognize the dignity of our neighbors and to seek the welfare of our earthly city (Jer. 29:7) is by promoting justice. Because the State plays such a significant role in meting justice (Rom. 13:4), we have a duty to elect politicians who have both a robust view of human dignity and the courage to govern accordingly.

The Usefulness (and Limits) of Litmus Tests

Recognizing such characteristics in a politician is certainly an inexact science, which is why we often rely on heuristics like “litmus tests.” Such tests, of course, are not without problems. Indeed, when applied singularly the tests may produce “false positives.” For example, a presidential candidate may oppose abortion and embryo destructive research yet may fail to fully appreciate human dignity in later stages of development. Before we can consider a candidate to be “solidly pro-life” we would need to know how they would treat children in poverty and our neighbors in Syria. 

On the other hand, failing on a particular litmus test is often a clear signal that the candidate has an inadequate view of human dignity, and will fail to consistently promote justice while in office. For instance, knowing that a candidate favors abortion-on-demand can be a clue to how they would act on foreign policy issues. If a candidate is unwilling to protect children in the womb in America, why should I believe they care about the plight of children in Darfur?

This does not mean, however, that we should support the candidate with the purest motivation. Too often, voters who focus on justice and dignity can be tempted to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. As Kevin DeYoung has written, “we should consider the function of our vote, not only the ethical motivation behind it.” Similarly, pro-life activist Clarke Forsythe argues that, “there is no moral compromise when we make the aim of politics not the perfect good but the greatest good possible.”

Politics is indeed the art of the possible, which sometimes requires the sacrifice of the ideal. We must not, however, compromise too easily or too willingly, lest we forget that the “good” can become the enemy of the “just.” We may not be able to cast a ballot and make the world a better place. But we should be able to enter the voting booth knowing we are not leaving behind our convictions about justice and the sanctity of life.