This is not about any particular candidate or contest. Every election will have special features and personalities to consider. What’s necessary for Christians, then, is to step back from the hoopla of Right Now! and try to develop some big-picture principles for making difficult voting decisions.

Let’s assume that in the United States at present we are going to have a Democrat or a Republican win virtually every election, especially at a state or national level. And let’s also assume for sake of this article that one party is more clearly aligned with your political, cultural, and ethical convictions. Furthermore, let’s stipulate from the outset that there are no perfect candidates—no one gets everything right, not politically or personally. Voting is simple when the party you like more puts forward a candidate whose character, convictions, and competence you can trust.

But how should we think about voting when the party you like more puts up a candidate you have a hard time liking at all?

A few questions to ask

1. Is this really a choice between two evils? If so, don’t vote for either. Christians should never choose sin. Period. Am I saying then we never vote? No. I’m saying that the phrase “lesser of two evils” may not be the right one. Perhaps we really mean “the less bad of two bad options.” But if we are really making an evil choice, we shouldn’t do it, no matter what party might win with or without our vote.

2. Do I believe that the candidate’s character, convictions, and competence are such that I can reasonably expect that he will make good decisions once in office? The parties matter, but ultimately individual politicians cast votes.

3. Do I believe the candidate will represent me and my beliefs tolerably well? Politicians do more than just vote. They give speeches, they offer commentary, they shake hands, they meet with national and international leaders. Even if we are pretty confident one candidate will share our beliefs more than another, we have to ask what sort of spokesman and representative he will be for our side (and I’ll just use “he” for this post, even though it could be “she”).

4. Is there a threshold of sound character and good judgment without which I cannot cast my vote? Maybe your answer is no. “I’d vote for Al Capone over Hitler,” you might reason to yourself. But for others the answer is, “Yes, I cannot vote for someone who does not possess a minimum standard of decency and reason.” If so, you’ll need to flesh out what that minimum standard looks like.

5. How might voting for a bad candidate affect my preferred party and positions in the long term? Assuming we want more than just victories this election cycle, we have to think about more than short-term gains. Some officeholders, by their ethical folly or political incompetence, end up sullying their party’s reputation and causing good ideas to fall into disrepute. Not every win is a win.

6. What message do I send my preferred party if there are no candidates so bad I won’t vote for them? If there is no minimal standard of character and competence to be met in order to win someone’s vote, over time we will likely end up with worse and worse candidates. Sometimes voting for none of the above or writing in another candidate is better in the long run than voting for one of the two parties that (almost) always wins.

7. Will my vote normalize behavior or ideas that should not be tolerated? Elected officials, by definition, hold public office. As representatives of thousands or millions of people, they have the potential to inspire us with their courage and thoughtfulness or “define deviancy down” by their moral bankruptcy.

8. Have I begun to defend in my party’s candidate what I would never defend were he in the other party? As Christians, the goal is not political victory at all costs, but integrity, honesty, and consistency.

9. Am I casting my vote for someone who will damage the reputation of Christ and may harm the cause of Christ in the world? While it is often good to vote for other Christians, we have to consider how someone conducts himself in public as a representative of Christian convictions, ethics, and character.

10. Am I willing to consider that thoughtful Christians may answer some of these questions differently than I would? I certainly have my opinions about how these questions might apply in specific instances, but more than a particular vote, I want to encourage Christians to think critically and strategically about their civic participation. There is more to consider than majorities for our side and defeat for theirs.