In that season of reflection I came to the conclusion that there are five major options which may present themselves to us when voting as a Christian. I will do my best to explain each option, provide some biblical examples of this type of moral reasoning in action, and then give an analogy to help you see the conclusion which I think should be drawn about the strategy. Of course the Bible doesn't really show people voting for political leaders, so I will be using examples of decisions I believe to be in the same realm of action in terms of motivations and pragmatic approaches. My goal is to create moral parallels - categorically similar scenarios though not analogically identical. I think you'll see the connection. In the end I am not wishing to prescribe a particular candidate for whom you should vote, as I don't have a formula for evaluating how to determine the morality of all candidates and policies. I'm sure that threshold is different for different people and comes down to a matter of conscience. However, you will, by the end, be able to evaluate your philosophy of action in voting, which I do think is much more morally discernible.
Before jumping into the discussion, I want to express that though my personal experience and my community of influence have been politically conservative in nature, my assessments here are for all Christians, myself included. We are all guilty of making decisions blindly, of self-justification, of self-deceit, and of immorality. We all desire to seek God and follow him in all areas. Our moral decision making process in the political sphere also extends into other areas of our lives. We all, at times, seek to progress our own agendas in the world, whether that be through politics, religious institutions, peer relationships, or whatever else. I am guilty of these things daily. I hope that wherever you stand politically, you can look at my evaluations as a call to search both our individual and collective heart, turn from any evil which may be present, seek God, and show the world the gospel of grace in action as we allow God to change our own hearts, and as we patiently and graciously love those who differ from us. And if you find any issues with my thoughts, please reach out to me in love and help me to grow as well.
Option 1: Vote for the Powerful Good - Most Christians can undoubtedly say that this is the strategy they would opt for in an ideal world. Voting for the candidate who is personally moral, runs in a moral party, and has a strong chance of winning is the most moral way to cast a vote. This view does not require that a candidate or platform be perfect. It can accept flawed decisions and actions, but it cannot accept compromised decisions and actions. A candidate or platform with either egregious or continued moral failings without true repentance is one which is compromised. Some Christian voters rarely have problems finding a candidate and platform they believe to be a powerful good, while for others, this option is often not on the table. Consciences differ, but every Christian would likely agree with this method so we don't need to discuss it further.
Option 2: Vote for the Lesser of Two Powerful Evils as Savior with Joy- Sometimes Christians are faced with the choice of either voting for an evil or voting for a weak good. Voting for a weak good is considered by this group as "throwing their vote away." This happens when there are either no moral candidates or the good candidates are weak and have no chance of victory. Sometimes Christians choose to vote for the lesser of two powerful evils rather than a weaker good, as they feel their duty is to bring about God's ends - even if that means not choosing that which is good. Since aligning with evil and elevating pragmatism don't seem to be biblical notions, Christians who vote for an evil sometimes feel the need to rationalize their decision. Deep down they know they're siding with an evil, but they want to think they're in category #1 and voting for a powerful good. They deceive themselves by making the continually compromised evil out to be a person or party who is good, repentant, changed, misunderstood, and so on. They turn the most negative aspects of their candidate and party into conspiracy theories and can't stand to hear something negative being said about their candidate. They have a hard time accepting facts if the facts don't come from their preferred source or align with their elevated vision of their candidate or party. They are unwilling to call out the evil they see in the candidate or party they support. Defensiveness and self-righteousness are key indicators here. Self-blinding to the evil of the candidate/party or excusing away the evil helps Christians who voted for the evil to feel as though they made a positive moral decision, and makes them feel superior to others. These individuals tend to struggle with moralism and feel the need to maintain the appearance of moral purity. Since siding with evil is morally defiling, they blind themselves to the evil so they don't have to acknowledge their participation in it. This allows them to maintain a moralistic facade.
Biblical Example: In the Old Testament we see Israel rely on Egypt for help rather than God, despite God's strong words against them. Israel faces what they believe to be an insurmountable threat and only find comfort in making their evil enemy their ally. To fight off what they perceive to be a greater evil, Israel chooses to join herself to a lesser evil and forego trust in God. Choosing to join oneself to that which God has told us not to be joined is not a valid moral strategy. Isaiah 31 has some strong words for those Israelites who chose to side with evil rather than cling to God and his means. Isaiah says, "But the Egyptians are mere mortals and not God; their horses are flesh and not spirit. When the LORD stretches out his hand, those who help will stumble, those who are helped will fall; all will perish together." Surely Isaiah wasn't speaking directly to us, but it seems like the general principle of obedience to the means of God instead of siding with evil would still hold firm today.
Another example is Moses. Twice in the Bible we see Moses attempt to procure water through a rock, as directly commanded by God. Once he speaks to the rock and another time he hits the rock. While the means in either case seem largely irrelevant, his choice to implement his own means in one cases is considered disobedience by God. Rather than receive a slap on the wrist, God actually prevents Moses from entering the Promised Land because of this seemingly small circumvention of God's means. There are a plethora of other examples of individuals throwing off the means of God for something they think is better, or choosing to side with a seemingly powerful evil rather than trust in God for ultimate deliverance.
Finally, the Pharisees are perhaps the best example of the attitude common to this position. They were self-deluded into thinking that their actions were in line with God. Since they claimed to seek God's glory and despised blasphemy and sin, surely God was on their side. But Jesus was against no group more strongly than he was against the Pharisees. Their self-delusion, moralism, and superiority-complex turned him off not only because it was a facade, but because it was a stumbling block which kept others away from God as well.
Analogy: While I don't recommend you watch the movie "The Watchmen," it gives us a great moral dilemma. In the movie, we see an alternate 1970's and 80's world where the Cold War is still going on. Through a long list of events it becomes known that the world will certainly obliterate itself in a nuclear holocaust. However, one of the main superheroes devises a plan that kills tens of millions of people, frames another innocent superhero for doing this, and causes the world to unite against this superhero they think is a mass murderer. Though tens of millions of innocent people are murdered, the "hero" saves billions of lives by giving the world a common foe. While the "hero" isn't happy about all the lives lost, he takes joy and pleasure in knowing that the evil he committed was necessary and for the much greater good - at least in his mind. It was justified because it saved so many lives. As a Christian, I think it is clear that participating in that which pragmatically leads to less evil (at least in the immediate future) is no excuse for our participation in evil.
Biblical Example: You can use the same examples from above to show that siding with an evil means is inappropriate, but I will throw in another example. In Genesis 37, we see Joseph's brothers conspire to kill him. Judah, on the other hand, devises a plan to sell Joseph into slavery instead of committing murder. Judah's plan keeps Joseph from being killed as all the other brothers had verbally planned (Reuben secretly was going to save Joseph, but Judah didn't know that). So Judah saved his brother by choosing a path of what seems to us a lesser evil - selling Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. However, we can all agree that this was still horrendously evil. Reuben, the one who wanted to save Joseph, never told his father about what happened or tried to reconcile the evil by pursuing Joseph's captors. Though he desired to save Joseph in his heart, Reuben was still complicit in this evil act. Reuben's desire to do good - even if his brothers would have vetoed him or killed him - doesn't excuse his complicity in going along with the lesser evil rather than standing up for what was right. Though he likely would have lost, the correct moral answer would have been for Reuben to choose good rather than be complicit in choosing a lesser evil.
Analogy: While I could use the same "Watchmen" analogy from above here, I think a different analogy will help a little more. There was a well-known M.A.S.H. episode a long time ago which depicted a South Korean mother smothering her crying child in order to save the lives of those with whom she was traveling. Had she let her child cry, thirty or so lives would have been lost because the group would have been found and killed by the enemy. Her choice to smother her child, while extremely traumatizing and undesirable, was deemed the lesser of two evils. I used to believe this was a moral conundrum and wasn't sure how to handle it. Almost every Evangelical I asked said the same thing - the lesser evil had to be done for the greater good. It was better to take one life if it meant saving fifty. I have come to believe that our pragmatism has blinded us to situations like this which should be morally clear. One is not justified in the murder of an innocent even if that murder is committed to save many lives. If you disagree with my assessment, you can read more about this situation and my reasoning here.
If my conclusion about this moral dilemma is correct, then it seems to follow that choosing a lesser evil isn't justified by achieving a greater good. Participation in evil is not justifiable.
Biblical Example: Joshua and Caleb were minority voices in Israel when they spied out the land of Canaan. To make the math simple, assume there were twelve tribes in Israel, everyone aligned their vote by tribes, and all tribes were of similar size. That would mean Joshua and Caleb, coming from two separate tribes, had about 17% support to obey God. While the majority of Israelites did not want to enter the land God had promised them due to fear, Joshua and Caleb said that God could be trusted and Israel must follow him. The majority were so upset at the insurmountable odds against them - the thought of facing giants and their wives and children being taken as slaves - they even began planning to stone Moses and Aaron, and perhaps Joshua and Caleb too (though we're not told about them). It was apparent to Joshua and Caleb that their vote lost, and it was likely apparent to them as well that the people would be willing to kill them if they maintained their position. The people weren't going to go for it. Joshua and Caleb could have tried to offer some alternative plans and strategies other than an attempt at direct conquest. But rather than change their position, Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes and were heartbroken for those who wouldn't align with them in making the right choice. They maintained their weaker position because their weaker position was the moral one which aligned with God. While the rest of their generation was judged by God, Joshua and Caleb were commended and blessed for their persistence in the good, even though this good didn't come to fruition for another forty years.
Analogy: Imagine that they are taking a vote at Jesus's trial, asking who the crowd wants to be released: the thief, Barabbas the murderer, or Jesus. Whoever gets the most votes will be released. You know Jesus is the Son of God and he is not guilty of anything worthy of death. However, you also know that there is no way Jesus will get enough votes to be set free. The crowd is obviously against him. So if you want to "waste" your vote, you can vote to free Jesus. However, it seems like Barabbas and the thief might be pretty close in popularity. You know that Barabbas is guilty of murder and you would much rather have a petty thief running free than a murderer. If you want your vote to "matter," you can choose the lesser of two evils which seem to be within your power to control and vote to free the thief. What is the right choice to make? It seems obvious to me that your power of influence is not a determining factor in the morality of the situation. You vote to free Jesus and leave the outcome up to God. Your personal responsibility has nothing to do with what the crowd is doing. While it is obvious that no political party today has Jesus running as a candidate, there are individuals and parties which are unambiguously immoral and should not receive our support.
Option 5: Don't Vote- If all candidates are compromised, then perhaps the best option is not to vote. Now there is a difference between being compromised and flawed. We are all flawed. Everyone makes mistakes. But a compromised individual is one whose "mistakes," embracing of evil, or failure to do good characterizes them or their party. If there are no moral options, Christians who don't vote believe that it is better to act by not voting than to act by being complicit with evil. There are also Christians who believe that one shouldn't vote and participate in the system regardless, but for the sake of this post I'm going to focus on those who don't vote due to a compromised pool of candidates.
Biblical Example: Jesus. While it's obvious that Jesus submitted to God in his willingness to die, what is interesting to note here is that Jesus did this largely through his silence. Through his ministry, Jesus remained silent about the passions of the people (politics, economics, and the religious institution). I don't mean that he simply didn't confront those things, as he obviously did. In fact, after Christ's inauguration at his baptism we see Jesus getting tempted by Satan in the desert using these very systems of power for temptation. Christ's silence wasn't in an ignoring of systems, but rather in his refusal to manipulate those systems for power. This is the main reason the people turned on him. He refused their attempts to crown him as king, set him up as their religious leader, and follow him as warrior because he wasn't interested in establishing his kingdom in the ways they wanted. He was mostly indifferent to such systems and remained silent in his use of what we consider to be society's levers of power.
Jesus is also very notably silent during the last hours of his life. He refuses to defend himself in the garden. He refuses to defend himself before the religious leaders. He refuses to defend himself before the political leaders. He refuses to call his legions of angels to defend him. He commands his disciples to stand down during his at. And he refuses to call upon God to get him off the cross. Christ's final hours are marked by deafening silence - filled only with a small amount of dialogue which doesn't contain much content (mostly rhetorical phrases or telling the authorities to go ask their questions to someone else) and a handful of phrases. Whereas Matthew averages more than fifteen words of Christ per verse from the moment Jesus speaks to the moment of his betrayal, from his betrayal to his final statement on the cross, Matthew averages less than two words of Christ per verse. At the crux of Christ's ministry we get silence. Jesus trusted in God's sovereignty and timing even if it meant submitting to seemingly foolish means.
Beyond the notable silence of Jesus, we hear a deafening silence from God as well, who refuses to intervene in the most unjust act of history. God just allows evil to happen, even when his son cries out to him, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" While God and Christ's silence may not be prescriptive for us in all situations, it surely shows that choosing silence may sometimes be right, that silence does not mean one is cowardly, ineffective, or indifferent, and that silence is sometimes the moral high road. Silence may at times be the most appropriate option for Christians. Obedience to God is what matters, and this obedience trumps evident pragmatism.
Analogy: You are living in a Nazi controlled country during WWII. You are told you must either join a death squad whose job is to round up and kill Jews, or you must work at a concentration camp where you are responsible for administering the lethal doses of Zyklon-B gas to victims. You know that if you choose to participate, you will be complicit in evil. If you don't participate, you will be killed. What do you do?
As another analogy, pretend that terrorists have taken you, your spouse and your two kids hostage. The terrorists are content to leave you alone, provided you tell them which kid you want them to kill. These terrorists have previously struck throughout the country, and you know from the news that this is their M.O. They really do allow you to live after you choose which kid to kill. You have every reason to believe that if you choose a child, they will kill that child and then leave the rest of your family in peace. Which child do you choose?
I think the moral answer in both cases is obvious. You must refuse to be complicit in either system of evil. For you to give into evil's incorporation of you is to be complicit with evil. Sometimes abstaining from participating in a system is the only way to uphold morality. Though silence may cost you more than taking other forms of action, our deeds are not measured by the outcome.
Since this view on voting is likely the most controversial, here are some resources to help you hear more from this side. While I don't know if I think abstention is always the right choice like some who hold this position below, I think it's good to hear a rationale for some of the moral pitfalls which may be present in voting.
Electing Not to Vote (Book)
Christian, You Are Free Not to Vote (Video - John Piper)
Voting: An Abdication of Responsibility (Video - Followers of the Way)
My Position: If it's not readily apparent, I believe that choosing a morally compromised candidate or platform is always the wrong choice. I vividly remember a poster in my 6th grade classroom at my Christian school which read, "Integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking." Translated for our scenario, it would say that integrity is doing the right thing even when it doesn't gain you anything - even if the moral path seems ineffective. We Evangelicals claim to believe in integrity, objective morality, and God's sovereignty. We believe that the right thing is done because it's right, not because it's useful. We declare that the maintenance of our relationship with God is the primary informer of our decision-making, as our unity with him is both the pinnacle and goal of our existence. And through our example of non-conformity with those things which the world deems pragmatic and necessary moral compromises - through our unwavering dedication and obedience to God - we pray that the rest of the world will be drawn into unity with God. Pragmatism be damned so that I and those around me may not be.
Christian, we are free to vote our conscience within God's moral framework, but we are not free to create our own moral framework within which we declare our own actions moral. That's taking a bite out of the "apple" again. That's setting ourselves up as God, determining good and evil for ourselves, and declaring our ways higher than God's ways.
The immorality of compromising and siding with evil seems apparent. We are not morally free to side with evil. That is a moral compromise. However, determining when a flaw becomes a compromise is more a matter of conscience. There's no doubt in my mind that there were Christians from all five categories above in the last election due to differing, sometimes legitimate convictions. Because of my conscience, I could almost never vote for a Democrat because I would become complicit in the evil of abortion. Abortion seems like a glaring compromise to me, not a flaw. But at the same time, there are a large number of societal, racial, and fiscal policies as well as attitudes which I believe undermine the valuation of life when choosing the Republican platform. Both major parties are almost always disqualified by my conscience from the outset, and we haven't even begun to talk about assessing the character and actions of individuals who are running within these parties. I may not be voting for a pastor in chief, but I am making a moral decision when I vote. My leaders represent me before God. God judges individuals, of course. But God also judges nations. I would rather vote morally and receive only God's collective judgment on me through my wayward nation than receive not only my nation's judgment, but personal judgment as well. I don't know where the line between a flawed candidate and a compromised one is, but I do know that a candidate my conscience declares is compromised cannot get my vote lest I be morally culpable for their actions. The Bible is filled with notions of what a good leader looks like, how we're to align our company with the good and avoid foolish and evil people, and how we face collective judgment based on our leaders. The Bible is filled with stories of good and bad leaders, and it's also filled with stories of good and bad followers. We see those who refuse to compromise and we also see those who choose their king based on his appearance and seeming ability to save. We also see God's attitude towards and the blessings/judgments on each type of response. It is a terrible mistake for Christians to say that they can throw moral judgments and moral objectivity out the window when they cast their vote, so long as they're voting for a governmental position and not a pastor.
Once again I want to emphasize that while I think the strategies which select morally compromised candidates and platforms are objectively wrong, coming to the conclusion on whether an individual or platform is compromised is more ambiguous. Many in my community would disagree with my assessment of the Democratic or Republican platforms in general. I know godly and trustworthy individuals who voted either way in the last election, and who I believe did so in accordance with their conscience. They believe items I've identified as compromises are really just flaws. I don't know who's right, though I believe we should have a long discussion and try to figure it out. That is the beautiful thing about Christian liberty and God's grace. We can be free in our decisions and love others in our differing freedoms. And more importantly, we can trust that if we're mistaken, God's grace will cover us. That being said, I think it is important for everyone to do some self-examination. I have met a lot of Christians who have openly declared in the previous election that they were voting for the lesser of two evils with sorrow. That was my initial position as well. I understand it. But we need to be thoughtful about such things as we prepare for future votes. We must ask ourselves how a Christian could ever side with evil. I have also met many Christians who seem to be in category two, as they are defensive, gloss over the ills of their party's platform, gloss over or excuse the ills of the candidate they chose, and malign those on the other side of the aisle. Such self-blinding as well as defensiveness and animosity towards brothers and sisters who differ from us are often signs that an idol is present. Christians should not be like this. If slave and free, men and women, adult and children, rich and poor, and Jew and Gentile could all worship together in ancient Rome, surely Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and abstainers can do the same in modern America. I strongly encourage you to evaluate yourself and your philosophy before the next vote.
So what are we to do in an increasingly polarized world? A conclusion like mine doesn't come easily in such a world, as it tends to pragmatically cripple one in the political sphere. To refuse complicity in some evil is often to refuse voting for any candidate who has a chance of winning, and may even mean not voting at all. But perhaps many of us need to be crippled politically so we can become more appropriately dependent in the celestial sphere. I understand that such a position brings up myriad questions about the role of Christians in politics, the role of the church, how this political view avoids isolationism or escapism, etc. Those are all huge questions which I have spent a long time thinking through. I would love to have those discussions with you or provide you with more resources as you think through them for yourself. I also need your push-back as well, as I have my own blindspots. We must be iron which sharpens iron.
For me, the clincher on voting and pragmatism was reading a book called "The Politics of Jesus." It helped me to recognizing how pragmatic I and my community were, and how we had conflated this pragmatism with morality. I began to see the many moral concessions we were making and I became appalled by some of the moral conundrums we couldn't answer. How easy should it be to say that one should never murder an infant - even to save many lives? If our political ethic requires us to be confused when answering such a simple moral question, lest we have to be consistent and vote differently, then something is very wrong. Yet I met very few Evangelicals who could answer such questions. They needed to maintain the ethic of pragmatism in the political sphere, so for consistency's sake they had to uphold pragmatism as it related to other areas of morality. They simply label the less appealing scenarios as conundrums or absurdly hypothetical, then move on with life. That's what I did, and I'm sure still do. I'm guessing that like me, you're morally pragmatic somewhere, so let me just leave you with a lengthy summary from John Howard Yoder, who was pivotal in the formation of my views.
One way to characterize thinking about social ethics in our time is to say that Christians in our age are obsessed with the meaning and direction of history. Social ethical concern is moved by a deep desire to make things move in the right direction. Whether a given action is right or not seems to be inseparable from the question of what effects it will cause. Thus part if not all of social concern has to do with looking for the right 'handle' by which one can 'get a hold of' the course of history and move it in the right direction...
Whichever the favored 'handle' may be, the structure of this approach is logically the same. One seeks to lift up one focal point in the midst of the course of human relations, one thread of meaning and causality which is more important than the individual persons, their lives and well-being, because it in itself determines wherein their well-being consists. Therefore it is justified to sacrifice to this one 'cause' other subordinate values, including the life and welfare of one's self, one's neighbor, and (of course!) the enemy. We pull this one strategic thread in order to save the whole fabric. We can see this kind of reasoning with Constantine saving the Roman Empire, with Luther saving the Reformation by making an alliance with the princes, or with Khrushchev and his successors saving Marxism by making it somewhat more capitalistic, or with the United States saving democracy by alliances with military dictatorships and by the threatened use of the bomb.
Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus the Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same... The cross is not a recipe for resurrection. Suffering is not a tool to make people come around, nor a good in itself. But the kind of faithfulness that is willing to accept evident defeat rather than complicity with evil is, by virtue of its conformity with what happens to God when he works among us, aligned with the ultimate triumph of the Lamb.
The vision of ultimate good being determined by faithfulness and not by results is the point where we moderns get off. We confuse the kind of 'triumph of the good,' whose sole guarantee is the resurrection and the promise of the eternal glory of the Lamb, with an immediately accessible triumph which can be manipulated, just past the next social action campaign, by getting hold of society as a whole at the top. What in the Middle Ages was done by Roman Christianity or Islam is now being attempted by Marxism and by democratic nationalism. In spite of all the difference in language, and in the detailed vision of just what a good society would look like (and as a matter of fact even the visions are not that different), the real uniqueness of each of these positions is only that it identifies differently the particular moral elite which it holds to be worthy of guiding its society from the top. We may well prefer a democratically controlled oligarchy to some other kind. We may well have a choice between Marxist and Islamic and other statements of the vision of the good society. But what our contemporaries find themselves practically incapable of challenging is that the social problem can be solved by determining which aristocrats are morally justified, by virtue of their better ideology, to use the power of society from the top so as to lead the whole system in their direction.
Once a desirable course of history has been labeled, once we know what the right cause is, then it is further assumed that we should be willing to sacrifice for it; sacrifice not only to our own values but also those of the neighbor and especially the enemy. In other words, the achievement of the good cause, the implementation in history of the changes we have determined to be desirable, creates a new autonomous ethical value, 'relevance' itself a good in the name of which evil may be done...
Christ renounced the claim to govern history...What Jesus renounced was thus not simply the metaphysical status of sonship but rather the untrammeled sovereign exercise of power in the affairs of that humanity amid which he came to dwell. His emptying of himself, his accepting the form of servanthood and obedience unto death, is precisely his renunciation of lordship, his apparent abandonment of any obligation to be effective in making history move down the right track... The universal testimony of Scripture is that Christians are those who follow Christ at just this point.
..."The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!" John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross is not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God's people is not their effectiveness but their patience (Rev. 13:10). The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict. The triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God's cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection... we find the most desperate encounter of the church's weakness (John was probably in exile, Paul in prison) with the power of the evil rulers of the present age. But this position is nothing more than a logical unfolding of the meaning of the work of Jesus Christ himself, whose choice of suffering servanthood rather than violent lordship, of love to the point of death rather than righteousness backed by power, was itself the fundamental direction of his life. Jesus was so faithful to the enemy love of God that it cost him all his effectiveness; he gave up every handle on history."