More than ever, the 2016 presidential election has troubled and divided evangelicals. Many have long supported the Republican Party but find it impossible to vote for a candidate who seems to glory in his moral flaws. According to others, his stated social views and promise to nominate conservatives to the Supreme Court make it imperative to support him.
I recently saw the discussion play out at a dinner with evangelical leaders. After the main course, the hostess said, “Okay, everybody, who are you voting for and why?”
The first to weigh in said something along these lines: “I cannot vote for Donald Trump. The argument that he’s ‘flawed-but-acceptable’ implies he’s a normal candidate, but he isn’t. He’s morally reprehensible. He boasts of his sexual conquests, and regularly makes sexist and racially charged remarks. He (partially) owns gambling casinos with in-house strip clubs, so he profits from addiction and vice. He’s inexperienced and willfully ignorant of foreign policy. He voluntarily repudiates treaties as fundamental as NATO, and admires dictators like Putin. His domestic positions are sound, but he took the opposite view on almost everything a few years ago, so no one knows what he really believes. Beyond all that, he’s erratic, belligerent, and too unhinged to control nuclear codes.”
Someone else disagreed: “Even if everything you say is true, a point I don’t concede, Hillary Clinton is worse. She’s the most pro-choice candidate in America’s history, a congenital liar, financially corrupt, and guilty of the self-righteousness that makes healthy self-doubt impossible. She’s committed to the ongoing destruction of the family as God defines it, and is so wedded to Wall Street that she cannot govern for the people. Under her, taxes will rise, government will grow, and the Supreme Court will become more liberal. Except for her feminism, she’s a raw pragmatist. She will continue Obama’s assault on the American system of government by ruling through presidential regulations that supplant the role of Congress.”
A third person said, “I agree with the analysis of both candidates, which is why I won’t vote for either. I’ll either abstain or vote for a third-party candidate.”
This caused the anti-Trump spokesperson to protest, “To not vote for Clinton is to vote for Trump.” To which the anti-Hillary advocate countered, “No, to not vote for Trump is to vote for Clinton.” Finally, the abstainer replied, “So I vote twice by doing nothing? I didn’t realize inaction was so powerful!”
Limits of Consequentialism
The nomination of two historically unpopular candidates prompts the anguish that yielded this Clinton “endorsement” from columnist P. J. O’Rourke: “I am endorsing Hillary, and all her lies and all her empty promises. . . . She’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” By endorsing Clinton as “the second-worst thing” that could happen to America, O’Rourke assumed, with most Americans, that voting is a forced choice, guided by pragmatic principles. The goal is to do what’s best for the country (or my portion of it) by choosing a good president—or at least thwarting a bad one.
Is this the right perspective?
In ethics, the label for O’Rourke’s approach is Consequentialism (or Utilitarianism). The simplest version of Consequentialism says an act is good if it brings the greatest good (or least harm) to the greatest number of people. Most Americans are Consequentialists. A reading of Proverbs shows the Bible has concern for consequences. For example, Proverbs 3:1–12 insists that those who trust and fear the Lord will see that he makes their paths straight. That is, obedience normally leads to good consequences—and bad decisions lead to trouble (Prov. 26:4, 6). But in biblical ethics, taking Scripture as a whole, obedience to God’s moral law, and the pursuit of godly character are far more prominent than calculation of consequences.
When it comes to voting, there are two major problems with Consequentialism. First, no human can predict or fully assess the consequence of any action. Full assessment requires omniscience, which is an attribute of God, not man. Second, consequentialism tends to decay into lawlessness when people do whatever it takes to achieve their desired result. Biblical ethics places far more stress on law and character, which are both grounded in God’s character. Christians have long probed candidates for signs they value biblical morals that reflect the character and wisdom of God. I do not mean candidates must be examined for genuine faith and obedience. But Christians want leaders who at least unwittingly approximate godly morality. We prefer that candidates not be murderers, liars, or thieves.
We also believe that character matters. Candidates need qualities like wisdom, justice, love, mercy, even humility. No one knows what crises or agonizing decisions presidents will face. But we do know that character is the chief architect of our actions. As David Jones has observed, people with character “think issues of right and wrong really matter. [They] love the right and hate the wrong and can be counted on under stress to do the right thing.”
An honest president will tell the truth when truth matters most. A courageous president will set the right course when it’s hardest to do so, when the price may be highest. Christians have always insisted that character matters, and rightly so.
Our Duty, His Dominion
If Consequentialism is the proper approach to the vote, then it’s proper to vote against Trump because he will exacerbate racial tensions or to vote against Clinton because she will destroy families. If Consequentialism is correct, the vote is a forced choice: pick the candidate who will likely cause less damage.
But is a disciple of Jesus forced to vote for the less offensive candidate? I don’t think so. If we set aside the Consequentialist approach, we no longer have an obligation to vote for the candidate we believe will do more good or cause less harm. We may instead see our vote as an endorsement of a candidate whose policies and character we generally approve. And if we believe no one merits such endorsement, then we are free to abstain or vote for a minor party candidate and leave the consequences to the Lord. To say it another way, the question, “Who will do the most good for the country?” is valid, but it’s not the only question. One believer may believe it is right to vote for the lesser of two evils. Another may conclude, “I cannot vote for a candidate I consider evil.”
Thoughtful Christians will come to different conclusions on this, but it is clear in Scripture that God’s people often do what is right and leave the results to the Lord of history. We know good consequences normally tend to follow right action, yet it isn’t our duty to control history. Besides, if we consider the consequences of actions, we should consider this: How much damage is being done to the credibility of Christian leaders who have long insisted character matters, yet have recently reversed themselves with no more rationale than the commonplace assertion “all candidates are flawed”?
Because the arguments for all three choices—Trump, Clinton, none of the above—all have a certain plausibility, it’s essential for believers to practice the patience Paul advocates in Romans 14. But if we lay aside Consequentialist assumptions, we aren’t forced to vote for the lesser of two evils. Christians may vote for Trump or Clinton or neither. We serve the sovereign Lord of history. We may do what we judge right, and leave the consequences to him.
- Must Christians Vote? Part II—How Factions Affect Conscience by Joe Carter
- Must Christians Vote? Part III—Character in the Context of Factions by Joe Carter
Editors’ note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent The Gospel Coalition or any other Council members, staff, or supporters. They are the views of the author alone.