By Matthew Steven Bracey
American citizenship is not a chance designation. It’s the intentional calling of a sovereign God to those who have it. When and where we find ourselves living life is no surprise to God. Part of the Christian’s task in discipleship, then, is discerning how best to fulfill this responsibility. While everyone can’t do everything, all Christians (of age) can do something: they can vote. The Christian vote can function as a witness in the public square. By not voting we remove this witness. The question remains as to how we should vote.
Considering the Contest
One of the first questions to consider regards the voting contest itself. Is it congressional or presidential? If presidential, is the election primary or general? The answers to these kinds of questions will impact how we carry out our voting responsibility. For instance, we might consider a candidate in a general election who we’d otherwise disregard in a primary. Such considerations might not mean we’ve compromised our principles. They might represent an acknowledgement that we do the best we can with the options available, whatever our personal preferences.
In fact, rare are the scenarios where a presidential nominee, whether in his or her character or policies, completely accords with our politics anyway. Despite our efforts to influence the presidential nominee in the primaries, sometimes our preferred candidate isn’t chosen for the general election. Such scenarios shouldn’t spell retreat, though. While we can’t control the nomination outcomes, we can control our response to them.
Knowing the Issues
This will mean that we know the issues, and the nominees’ positions on them. While these categories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive, they’re a start:
- Constitutional Law Policies: How does a nominee interpret the American founding and the Constitution? What does he or she believe about the Bill of Rights, checks and balances, federalism, religious liberty, representation, rule of law, and separation of powers? Is a nominee friendly, indifferent, or hostile toward religious institutions like churches, denominational ministries, and schools? Would he or she want to abolish tax-exemption or discourage religious exemptions? What is a nominee’s position toward capital punishment, gun rights, and the police? What type of justice would he or she appoint to the Supreme Court?
- Domestic Policies: What are his or her positions toward education, the environment, poverty, and race relations? Does the nominee inspire order or violence, unity or division?
- Economic Policies: Are a nominee’s policies friendlier toward capitalism and free market economics, or socialism and government-controlled economics? Which system encourages greater human flourishing by creating more incentives, inspiring more innovation, and producing more jobs? What about the nominee’s views regarding the role and size of government? How and what does the nominee want to tax?
- Foreign Policies: Are a nominee’s policies more imperialistic, isolationist, or something in between? What are his or her beliefs regarding international trade, the military, torture, and war?
- Moral Policies: What does a nominee believe about family issues like adoption, divorce, and marriage; life issues like abortion, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide; sexuality issues like birth control, LGBT rights, and pornography; and other moral concerns like gambling, legalized drugs, and prostitution?
Part of our responsibility as citizens is to discern how biblical principles apply to these issues in our historical moment—or what’s often called public theology. Well-intentioned Christians differ on specific applications, but Scripture is sufficient for all of life’s needs. We also have a responsibility to know the nominees’ positions. In discerning this, we shouldn’t rely on any one source, but consult several, both favorable and critical of our personal leanings.
As mentioned, we won’t find an ideal nominee. Our positions will differ from his or hers here and there, and perhaps even on some key issues. What, then, do we do? We realize that this dynamic is part and parcel of voting in a democratic republic. And it’s a tension that Christians have encountered throughout American history (although under different circumstances). However, they did not withdraw from the process, but faced it squarely. With this in mind, we should begin to ask what is and what is not negotiable. While every issue matters to some extent, not all of them are as important as others.
Answering these questions will require some work and wisdom on our part. But we must do it, carefully and prayerfully, in our stewardship of citizenship before our sovereign Lord and Ruler.
Choosing a Nominee
We can hope that our choice of nominee will be clear and easy. And we can be upset if undesirable nominees are put forward. Still, we must consider what to do if the choice of nominee is ambiguous and difficult. What if all realistic nominees are bad choices? Regrettably, because we live in a secular, post-Christian America, this may increasingly occur.
Some have suggested we shouldn’t vote for a bad nominee, period. Such a vote, they argue, reveals a lack of integrity and principle. And it amounts to the approval of bad people with bad policies. Instead, the best way forward is either to not vote, or to vote for a third party or write-in candidate.
The question of whether to vote for a bad nominee has always been a question of degree, though. Few voters have agreed completely with those for whom they voted. Also, a vote is not necessarily tantamount to an endorsement of a bad nominee’s practices or policies. A vote might not signify a mark of approval or support, but an attempt to avoid an even worse result.
This, therefore, leads others to suggest we can vote even for a bad nominee, assuming two points: (1) if the nominee has a legitimate chance of beating an even worse nominee; and (2) if no other viable candidates have emerged. To be sure, if a third party (or write-in) candidate with a realistic chance of success offers better prospects, then he or she may very well be the best option forward. But if such candidates are simply not competitive, then a vote in their favor will increase the likelihood of the worst nominee getting elected. If we can’t make the difference we’d prefer, they argue, we can at least work against the one we don’t. One nominee will always be worse than another.
As to the prospect of staying home and not voting at all, this could establish a harmful precedent for the future. No matter how bad things seem now, they can always get worse. And if present and future generations of Christians follow this path, the removal of their vote could hasten that realization, and encourage an even worse future. Instead, we must offer them advice and hope for the future. Most assuredly, their world will look different than ours has, and they must be prepared to face it with all of its challenges. How can we do this? We might ask, for example, how Christians in highly secular, European democracies have approached this struggle. They have been encountering these tensions for far longer than us.
Life doesn’t always give us easy choices. Sometimes it offers a Nazi at your doorstep days after you’ve hidden Jews under your floorboard. Sometimes it squeezes you between a rock and hard place, between the Devil and the deep blue sea. But that’s the business of ethics in a fallen world. With all of the hard questions, competing options, and changing variables, discernment is difficult. Whatever we do, though, when we’re stuck and no choice seems like the right one, we should follow the advice that Leroy Forlines gives in Biblical Ethics: we do our best, and we do not regret our decision.
We can hope we’re not presented with a lesser-of-two-evils scenario in November. That would certainly make the ethics of voting simpler. But if we are, well-meaning Christians will undoubtedly disagree about the best way forward. As this occurs, we shouldn’t look down on those who don’t share our opinion—whatever it is. We shouldn’t malign each other as though some have no spiritual integrity or principles. That’s simply not true. We’re all doing the best we can to apply biblical principles to all of life. Instead, we should look on one another with charity, and not condemnation. We should remember that we’re not each other’s enemies. We’re the body of Christ.
Political pundits are saying this election season defies all the rules. What has worked isn’t. And what shouldn’t work is. No doubt this is a bizarre, unique cultural moment in the history of our nation. And despite the absurdity of it all, we can be thankful it is forcing a conversation among Christians about civic responsibility and public theology.
Whoever wins the election in November, we should remember the biblical function of governing authorities. While God can use them to accomplish good as instruments of His common grace, they can also abuse their power. We hope and pray for the best, but we don’t lose our confidence in God if things go bad. Whatever happens in this world, God has not called us to retreat from it, but to seek its renewal in Christ through the Spirit.
Matthew Steven Bracey teaches Christian Ethics at Welch College. He’s especially interested in the intersection of church and state, and of Christians and the public square. He teaches courses in history, law, theology, and interdisciplinary studies, and serves as Registrar and Law and Policy Advisor. He holds degrees from Cumberland School of Law (J.D.), Beeson Divinity School (M.T.S.), and Welch College (B.A., History, Biblical Studies).