Twenty five years ago, John Piper wrote:
No endorsement of any single issue qualifies a person to hold public office. Being pro-life does not make a person a good governor, mayor, or president.
But there are numerous single issues that disqualify a person from public office. For example, any candidate who endorsed bribery as a form of government efficiency would be disqualified, no matter what his party or platform was. Or a person who endorsed corporate fraud (say under $50 million) would be disqualified no matter what else he endorsed. Or a person who said that no black people could hold office—on that single issue alone he would be unfit for office. Or a person who said that rape is only a misdemeanor—that single issue would end his political career.
These examples could go on and on. Everybody knows a single issue that for them would disqualify a candidate for office. . . .
You have to decide what those issues are for you. What do you think disqualifies a person from holding public office? I believe that the endorsement of the right to kill unborn children disqualifies a person from any position of public office. It’s simply the same as saying that the endorsement of racism, fraud, or bribery would disqualify him—except that child-killing is more serious than those.
What this means is that being pro-life should be a necessary condition for earning my vote, but it is not a sufficient one.
I want to commend a new piece this week by Robert P. George and Ramesh Ponnuru.
They look at Joe Biden, a Roman Catholic, who claims to agree with his church about abortion, but does not believe he should impose his religious belief upon others. In other words, he is in the camp of those who are “personally opposed” to it but believe it should be legal.
Here he is, speaking briefly last night about Roe v. Wade:
George and Ponnuru show that the Catholic Church agrees with the indisputable fact of modern embryology.
Because this is a truth fully available to natural reason (that is, it doesn’t require special revelation in the way that belief in the incarnation does), this means “abortion is not the sort of wrong (or sin) that law and the state have valid reasons for tolerating. On the contrary, it is precisely the sort of grave injustice and violation of fundamental human rights that it is a central duty of law and the state to prohibit.”
They continue: “For government to permit abortion, the Church teaches, is for government itself to commit an injustice against its victims—denying a disfavored class, the unborn, protection it affords to all others. To be responsible, or partially responsible, for the injustice of the law in exposing unborn children to legally authorized lethal violence is to be complicit in grave injustice.”
George and Ponnuru then connect this to implications for voting: “To grasp the grave injustice of abortion is to take on some responsibility to work to end it both as a social practice and as a legally permissible option.”
It is not the only issue, and citizens have other responsibilities too. But the gravity of abortion and the fundamental issue of human rights weighs more heavily than other political issues, even important ones.
The individual pro-life voter is not responsible for ending abortion, because he cannot achieve that goal. He is obligated, however, to do what he can, which is to cast his vote in solidarity with the unborn victims of abortion. Because the modern Democratic Party has become ever more committed to abortion and more hostile to legal protection for unborn children at any stage, pro-lifers who agree with Democrats on issues other than abortion have sometimes labored to find ways to rationalize voting for Democratic candidates who pledge to ensure that unborn children are exposed to lethal injustice (though, of course, they prefer different, more euphemistic language).
The authors enumerate several of arguments for why a pro-life person might vote for the Democratic candidate, but they argue that each of them suffers from similar fatal flaws.
In particular, it is important to note that Biden “not only supports the legality of abortion but gives every indication of supporting it at every stage of pregnancy, and who shockingly and shamefully discarded his decades-long opposition to taxpayer funding for abortion (only hours after reaffirming it). He is allied to a speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who says that the next set of budget bills will include such funding. His current position on this question annihilates any possible case for Biden as someone who would reduce the number of abortions, even if (contrary to what justice in fact requires) his opposition to a right to life for the unborn could be overlooked.”
George and Ponnuru conclude with a wise perspective on voting:
To vote for a candidate for president is to have an infinitesimal effect on the outcome of the election, but to wholly determine whom one wills to be president. And while one need not will all that the candidate one votes for endorses, one’s choice must be fair, that is, in accord with the Golden Rule, applied bearing in mind the gravity, scope, and scale of the greatest injustices and violations of human rights at issue in a society and in contestation between candidates and parties.
The pro-lifer who votes against Biden may not keep him from winning. He will, however, at least refuse to join in tolerating a massive violation of human rights for hundreds of thousands of victims of direct and intentional lethal violence.
This is true of the pro-lifer who votes for Trump; it is true as well of the pro-lifer who, moved by objections to President Trump on the basis of human rights or other weighty reasons, votes for a different pro-life candidate or for no presidential candidate at all.
The choice between those options can reasonably be influenced by all kinds of considerations, including even how close the election seems to be in one’s state.
Neither of us has endorsed Donald Trump. Both of us have been intensely critical of him on issues of personal character and, in some cases, public policy. We do not claim, as some have claimed, that Catholics and other pro-life citizens have an obligation to cast their ballot for him. The premises of the argument against abortion do not by themselves compel such a stance. People who share the view that the abortion license is a profound injustice on a massive scale that must be resolutely opposed can reach different conclusions about whether Trump deserves their vote.
If, however, the considerations we have adduced in this essay are sound, they practically preclude a vote for Biden. If one acknowledges the gravity, scale, and scope of the injustice of abortion, and of a legal regime that denies to an entire class of human beings the most basic of human rights, thus exposing them to lethal violence, then it is hard to imagine what proportionate reasons there could be for joining one’s will to the desire of a supporter of it for great political power.
I also commend this piece from Jonathan Leeman, What Makes a Vote Moral or Immoral? The Ethics of Voting.
He offers nine principles, which build cumulatively—the first being most foundational and the ninth incorporating everything.
- Your vote bears moral weight by virtue of a chain of causation.
- With regard to what a vote does, your motives don’t matter (but see point 8).
- There’s a distinction between morally permissible laws and immoral laws which is crucial to our moral evaluations.
- The character of a candidate matters by the same chain of moral causation described in point 1.
- Saying “But Democracy!” doesn’t sanctify your vote.
- There are a number of rocks on the scale, but some rocks are heavier than others.
- Is it morally permissible to not vote or to vote for a candidate that is certain to lose? It depends.
- With regard to church membership, your motives matter.
- In the final analysis, ethically evaluating our votes involves both moral principles and strategic calculations.
Here is how he addresses the issues of abortion and voting in point #8:
Moral evaluation among Christians operates in two gears. Gear 1: our determination of right and wrong. Gear 2: our determination of wrongs that, apart from repentance, require excommunication or removal from membership in the church. What’s key here is that not every moral evaluation in Gear 1 will downshift into Gear 2.
You might be personally convicted that a certain vote is probably sin (Gear 1), but for any number of reasons decide that it’s not a sin for which you would recommend excommunication.
For instance, I believe it’s ordinarily a sin to vote for a pro-choice candidate, by virtue of principles 1, 2, and 6 above (Gear 1). Furthermore, if someone was voting for the pro-choice candidate because of his or her support for abortion, I would probably recommend excommunication (Gear 2). Christians absolutely must not support abortion.
Suppose, however, a fellow church member told you she was voting for the pro-choice candidate in spite of the candidate’s view on abortion. She hates abortion, yet she says she’s unconvinced the pro-life party is actually pro-life. She cares about other issues, too, and she sees other strategic considerations in play (see principle 9 below). I would still affirm my own conviction that she was probably sinning for her support of that candidate (as an unintentional instance of Romans 1:32), and I would want to persuade her otherwise. But I would still affirm my willingness to come to the Lord’s Table with her.
In short, a fellow Christian’s motives do make a difference, at least in terms of how I would relate to someone as a fellow Christian. And here the difference between because of and in spite of is meaningful.
Does this mean Christians should accept any potential vote so long as the person says they’re voting for a candidate in spite of the evil aims of the candidate? No. When the occasion comes that a party exists almost exclusively for the purpose of wickedness, when a particular evil becomes an entity’s raison d’etre, then at that point churches should consider excommunication for party membership or support. For instance, it’s difficult to know how someone could vote for the KKK in spite of its racism and not because of its racism. The KKK exists expressly for the purpose of racism. To be sure, there’s no mathematically precise way to determine when that moment for a major party comes. For the Nazi Party, that moment arguably came in 1934 with the Barmen Declaration. Yet every instance involves a judgment call, and every church, as led by its elders, needs to ask the Lord for wisdom, moral clarity, and courage to make that judgment.