From the Archives: Why Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils

(First posted in Dec., 2011)

A recurring question in the American political experience is this: ”Should people of conscience vote for the lesser of two evils?” The question is of interest to all who care about right and wrong but carries special interest for Christians, since their aim is to do all things in obedience to Christ.

My thesis is simple. In a vote between two evils, Christians ought to back the lesser of the two.

For the purposes of this essay, I’m assuming readers already believe Christians ought to vote. My aim is to present three arguments for voting for the candidate who is least evil, whether the office is President of the United States, U.S. Senator or Village Clerk.

1. Such a vote is the lesser of two evils.

The first argument for voting for the lesser of evils is in the proposition itself: less evil. Who can be against that? Here’s the argument one statement at a time:

  • It’s good to do what results in less evil.
  • Voting for less-evil candidates results in less evil.
  • Therefore, it’s a good thing to vote for less-evil candidates.

Let’s evaluate the argument one premise at a time.

The first premise should be an easy sell. All good people want to see less evil in themselves and in the world around them. Some may object that there really are no good people—and they’ve got a point. No one is “good” in the sense of Mark 10:18 (ESV: “No one is good except God”) or Romans 3:12 (“no one does good”). But many are good in the sense of Romans 15:14 (“you yourselves are full of goodness”), and even more are good in the sense of Proverbs 13:22 (“a good man leaves an inheritance”) and 14:14 (“a good man will be filled …”). All decent people are in favor of doing what results in less evil.

The second premise is the controversial one. What sort of voting behavior really results in less evil, especially in the long term? Three attitudes toward that question predominate. Some voters maintain that, over time, more good (less evil) comes from supporting only those candidates who are a near-perfect match to the ideal. In this view, though voting exclusively for superb candidates may have worse results in the short run, we would eventually see excellent results if everyone voted this way.

Another attitude is that there is no voting behavior that results in less evil. The world is doomed to ever increasing wickedness and there is nothing any of us can do about it. Evil will increasingly dominate until Christ personally establishes His geopolitical kingdom on earth.

Parts of that attitude resonate with me. In the end, evil will come to dominate the globe as never before, and that situation will be reversed only when Christ conquers. However, the Scriptures that reveal this end game have been in the Bible for more than two thousand years (much longer, if you include Daniel!). During that interval, human history has witnessed many periods of increased justice (and diminished evil) in various regions—sometimes for centuries.

Christians understand that human nature will remain sinful regardless, and that the redemption of the planet comes only through the reign of Jesus Christ. But it doesn’t follow that we are unable to reduce the evil in the world in one place or another for a few decades or longer.

So what kind of voting results in less evil in our land? The third attitude toward that question is that a voting strategy that results in less evil in the short run often results in less in the long run as well. Good ideas are amenable to more good ideas, and even a leader with few good principles is more open to improvement than a leader with zero good principles.

An objection is that the leader with only a few good principles must have a whole bunch of bad ones. And just as good ideas tend to lead to more good ideas, bad ideas tend to lead to more bad ideas. But this argument actually supports the third attitude: if both good and bad thinking tend to lead to more of the same, the leader who starts out with fewer erroneous beliefs is the best choice.

If less evil is better than more, and voting for the lesser of evils results in less evil, it follows that this is a wise way to vote.

2. The alternatives are imaginary.

At this point, we need to clarify what we mean by “evil” when we say “lesser of two evils.” In my experience, debaters on this point tend to equivocate, defining “evil candidate” sometimes as “garden variety sinner” and other times as “people like Stalin.” The “never vote for a lesser of evils” crowd uses a Stalinesque idea of “evil candidate” to argue against voting for a garden variety sinner they don’t like. The equivocation comes when they turn around and defend voting for the candidate they do like (also a garden variety sinner) because he is no Stalin.

Not exactly a strong argument.

So what do we mean by “evil” when we say “lesser of two evils”? As long as we’re internally consistent (that is, if we don’t equivocate), it doesn’t really matter. If we say an “evil candidate” is any candidate who is not Jesus Christ, then we really have no choice but to vote for “the lesser of evils.” On the other hand, if we say that an “evil candidate” is one who belongs in a whole different class from your average sinner—the class that includes Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein—it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll ever be choosing between two candidates who are in that class.

Either way, we’re stuck with voting for someone who is less imperfect than someone else.

“But there’s another category!” some insist. Any Christian is not an evil candidate. The thinking here is that if there are two top candidates who are unbelievers and one unelectable, obscure candidate who is a true disciple of Jesus Christ, we can vote for the third and avoid promoting the lesser of evils.

What this counterargument has going for it is that there is indeed a fundamental difference between the regenerate and the unregenerate. You’ll get no denial of that from me. It would also be hard to overstate the potential of that fundamental difference to change how a person weighs his options and governs.

However, the difference in how the believing leader weighs his choices and governs is a potential difference, not necessarily an actual one. Though the believer is fundamentally devoted to Christ, he or she does not necessarily respond to every choice with a conscious and passionate desire to know what would please our Lord. We should make every choice that way, but we all know we don’t. So what’s the real governing difference between an unbelieving candidate and a believing one? Because of the blessing of common grace—often in the form of Christian principles that influence even the thinking of some atheists—a Christian who is immature or poorly informed may govern less Christianly than an unbeliever who has been instilled with deeply Christian habits of thought and true breadth of knowledge.

Of course, having “deeply Christian habits of thought” will not save the non-Christian. Only faith in Christ, and the resulting imputed righteousness, can do that. But these habits will make him a wiser ruler than anyone who lacks them.

If you get out much, you’ll meet non-Christians who, despite their unregenerate condition, think and act much like Christians should. I don’t get out much, and even I’ve met a few. What I’ve encountered more often are professing Christians who do not evidence particularly Christian ways of evaluating the kinds of the moral and ethical questions statesmen face.

To summarize, then, while all believers are “righteous” in a sense that all unbelievers are not, this spiritual and positional difference does not necessarily correlate with governing in a truly Christian way. So when it comes to voting, we can’t class all non-believers as “evil” and all believers as “good” in any sense that relates meaningfully to ability to govern wisely and justly. The real choice we face is one of choosing among candidates who are evil in varying degrees and in different ways.

3. You can still vote your conscience.

I often see this issue framed as though there are two, and only two, choices: voting for a candidate who can win or voting your conscience. It’s an interesting disjunction. Let’s scrutinize it a bit. This argument basically says that you can either vote for a candidate who is nearly perfect or, if you vote for another guy, you are voting for all the things he lacks—you are falling to pragmatism. So a citizen (especially a Christian one) can either vote his conscience or he can vote according to practical considerations.

There’s an unstated premise in this argument: practical matters have nothing to do with conscience.

But how well does that hold up? Suppose I’m fleeing from a burning hotel and discover a damsel in distress on the way out. She’s helpless, pinned down by a heavy beam. For some reason, my many hours of typing haven’t resulted in enough muscle to free her. So what’s the right thing to do? If I stay with her, we both die. If I leave her there and run for help, someone might be able to get her out. The idealist reasons that practical results are irrelevant and conscience requires that a man of principle must not abandon a damsel in distress. But most people abandon idealism in these situations. They understand that conscience sometimes dictates that we do what is practical.

Proponents of “voting your conscience” often make the mistake of assuming that if practical considerations can ever define the conscionable choice, they must always define the conscionable choice. Worse, they often assume that if practical considerations have any role in making ethical choices, they must have the dominant or exclusive role.

But the truth is that there are at least three approaches to the relationship between conscience (principle) and practical results:

  1. Pragmatism: practical results are always decisive and are all that matter.
  2. Idealism: practical results are completely irrelevant; only principle matters.
  3. Principled realism: practical results are part of the principle that matters.

Two of these approaches are ways of “voting your conscience.”

If I believe that voting for candidate C (who is a close match to my principles) will result in the election of candidate A (who believes in very little that I know to be wise and good), and I vote for candidate B (who is better than A) for that reason, I am voting my conscience. I just don’t happen to be an idealist.

Whatever the ticket ends up looking like in 2012, Christians ought to vote with the goal of putting power in the hands of the lesser of evils.

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There are 26 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

This piece was easier to write when we weren't looking at the possibility of the two main choices being The Donald vs. Hillary or The Donald vs. Bernie.

The logic is still sound I think, but what if you honestly can't tell which of the two is the "lesser evil"? In a race between Trump vs. any of the top two Dems, I would probably join the idealists who back an impossible third party option or cast a protest vote.

I could not justify helping any of these three gain President-level power.

Rolland McCune's picture

Aaron:

I resonate very well with your analysis and reasoning here. I recall the utter dismay when I went to seminary class (NTI with Dr. Kent, Jr.) the morning after JFK won the election. (We had an old, small TV and a little radio, but the rigors of Grace Seminary under Drs. McClain, Hoyt, Kent, Jr., and Whitcomb, among others, took a heavy toll on spare time for world matters.) I was as sure as God makes little green apples (an old farm colloquialism) that God would not permit a Roman Catholic to become president of the US of A. Only the devil and democrats could think otherwise. Since then I have added a lot of pragmatism to my decision-making apparatus (i.e., conscience). Fourteen years of working with R. V. Clearwaters also helped quit a bit. (Ignore what the lips are saying but look where the feet are pointing.) Personally, I don't pay much, if any, attention to all the political God-talk. I had someone tell me in 2012 that he "would never vote for a Mormon." Well and good, but now he gripes his head off about Obama. Where evangelicals are on this and why is a vacuous question since evangelicalism is ten miles wide and one millimeter deep. Following lofty but unrealistic and uninformed principles sound very pietistic, but, as John Calvin would say, good luck with the outcome.

Rolland McCune

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

This piece was easier to write when we weren't looking at the possibility of the two main choices being The Donald vs. Hillary or The Donald vs. Bernie.

The logic is still sound I think, but what if you honestly can't tell which of the two is the "lesser evil"? In a race between Trump vs. any of the top two Dems, I would probably join the idealists who back an impossible third party option or cast a protest vote.

I could not justify helping any of these three gain President-level power.

It strikes me that if you don't know who is the greater evil, you ipso facto have no chance of selecting a lesser evil, no?   You might say you'd vote for the one who doesn't clearly belong in jail, but I'm starting to wonder about Drumpf and Sanders along those lines.  How did Drumpf get construction rates in NYC down to near market rate in a city corrupted by its government, the Mob, unions, and the like?  And what did Sanders promise the USSR to get his visa for his honeymoon?

At the very least, I fault Drumpf for not passing on more evidence of corruption to people like Rudy Giuliani, and Sanders for not figuring out exactly how messed up the USSR really was.  It took me about ten minutes after passing through Checkpoint Charlie to figure out all I'd learned about the disasters of Communism was an understatement.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

In my view one has binary choices:

  • Choice # 1: Vote or not 
  • Choice # 2: Republican or Democrat :
    • B/c of our 2 party system)
    • B/c of fact that President will work with his or her own party primarily
Steve Picray's picture

I have always held my nose and voted for the Republican candidate, because the GOP candidate was always less liberal than the Democrat candidate.  The GOP candidate was always "not as bad" in my view.  I think back to the Iowa Straw Poll in 1999.  There were ten candidates.  If I had ordered them from 1 to 10 (with 1 being my favorite candidate and 10 being my least favorite), GWB was my #10.  In other words, I would have preferred any of the other nine over George.  And yet I ended up voting for Bush twice ('00 and '04), and then McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012.  I didn't want any of those guys.  On a scale of liberal to conservative (with Hillary being at 1 and Reagan being at 10) I would put Bush, Romney, and McCain around 6).  But this time I am presented with the hypothetical choice of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.  And this is where my new philosophy comes into play:    

* Voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil.  

In other words, I refuse to vote for Donald Trump because I believe him to be a godless, vain, and dishonest man who is so self-centered that he might actually be worse than Hillary for our country.  

I watched these videos some time ago, and I agree 100%.  When presented with a choice between Hitler and Stalin, your only good choice is not to vote.   So when I believe that neither of the D or R candidates would be a good President, I will be voting for someone other than those two.  

Jonathan's picture

The Bible teaches us to separate from all evil, not just the lesser of two evils.

In the long run, voting for the lesser of two evils usually results in options that are both more evil then before. So the end result is more evil, not less evil.

As a group, the Church loses its impact when it is seen to compromise and vote for evil candidates. Some Christians then take that as a license to compromise similarly in other areas.

The way to reduce evil is to make disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit.

The Good News is that God saves people in all times and in all countries, good and evil.

 

Larry's picture

Moderator

As a group, the Church loses its impact when it is seen to compromise and vote for evil candidates. Some Christians then take that as a license to compromise similarly in other areas.

Who, in any election in any location at any time in history, has been on the ballot as a perfect person?

Darrell Post's picture

My vote has normally been for the lesser of two evils. But with Trump its a bridge too far. Besides, Hillary would defeat Trump in a huge blowout. So I would never waste the dignity of my vote with such a personage as Trump. Besides, if you follow this closely, you know that Trump needs over 58% of the remaining delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot. He has been slipping, both in national polling and in losing the last several contests. Futhermore, Cruz is very cleverly working behind the scenes in states who are choosing their delegates to get his people to the convention. Yes, many of them will be required by the rules to vote for Trump on the first ballot, but if he falls short of 1,237 delegates on the first ballot, they will leave him for Cruz on the second ballot. At this point there is a strong probability that Trump fails on the first ballot.

Steve Picray's picture

Who, in any election in any location at any time in history, has been on the ballot as a perfect person?

Larry, there's a difference between a "good" person and a "perfect" person.  We aren't talking about total depravity here, in which you would probably agree with me that there is not one person on earth right now who is not "evil" in the sense that they are a sinner by nature.    We're talking about the difference between voting for someone who tries to do what is morally correct and wise, and someone who is evil in the sense that their morals are so far removed from what God says is right that we would refer to them as "evil."  

Voting for someone like Donald Trump, who is an immoral, proud, selfish unbeliever who has made bad decision after bad decision in his life, is not something I personally believe any Christian should do. Especially when there is an alternative who is a born-again Christian with conservative values who has stood on principle against the wretched hive of scum and villany (i.e. Washington DC).  

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Definitions are so important...

The Bible teaches us to separate from all evil, not just the lesser of two evils.

Does the Bible teach anywhere that we are not to support a leader who is a sinner? What needs clarification here is what "separate from all evil" means. (1 Cor. 5:9-10 is germain.)

In the long run, voting for the lesser of two evils usually results in options that are both more evil then before. So the end result is more evil, not less evil.

I have not observed this to be the case... and again there is a definition problem. Isn't a leader who produces more evil than the alternative pretty much by definition, not the lesser evil? So I'm left uncertain what the statement means.

Voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil.

See argument 1 in the article. A vote for the lesser of evils is a vote for less evil. The word "less" matters.

But as several have pointed out, it can be really difficult to figure out who the lesser evil actually is. Often, it's not that hard. But even if we're looking at Trump vs. Hillary in the fall, we're not looking at Hitler vs. Stalin. As deeply confused and unprincipled as the two of them are, neither of them show any interest in exterminating millions of people because they think they are either racially inferior and/or a threat to their power.

So, no... we are not looking at that kind of choice at all, even in the worst case scenario.

Steve Picray's picture

 As deeply confused and unprincipled as the two of them are, neither of them show any interest in exterminating millions of people because they think they are either racially inferior and/or a threat to their power.

I agree that neither wants to kill people because of racism or power struggles, but they are both pro-choice, and 57 million babies have been killed since 1973.  

Darrell Post's picture

Cruz won the remaining delegates in CO last night, pushing the magic percentage of remaining delegates that Trump needs to clinch the nomination on the first ballot up over 59%.

It is looking like Trump will end up at least 100 delegates short of a first ballot win, meaning most bound delegates are free to vote for whomever they wish on the second ballot. In that scenario, it is very unlikely Trump is the nominee, so this whole Hillary vs Trump question is irrelevant.

Barry L.'s picture

He is just as rotten as Trump, but worse in that he hides behind the evangelical label.

Larry's picture

Moderator

there's a difference between a "good" person and a "perfect" person. 

The point is that all voting is always voting for the lesser of two evils.

Steve Picray's picture

Barry L. wrote:

He is just as rotten as Trump, but worse in that he hides behind the evangelical label.

I've heard his testimony and I believe him to be a brother in Christ.  That being said, I'm going to need some objective proof for your assertion that he is "as rotten as Trump", a serial adulterer, liar, and false-accuser who has no morals other than his own self-interest.     Either that or retract your statement in keeping with James 4:11-12 "Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It's easy to become cynical about politicians in general. Super easy. But they are ultimately just human beings manifesting human nature in some special ways that politics creates.

  • If you believe every negative attack ad, you'll soon conclude that the whole lot of them are evil beasts.
  • If you disbelieve every attack ad, you'll soon conclude that every one of them plays awfully fast and loose with the truth when striving to discredit the opposition.

Somewhere between is probably the wiser course, leaning toward the second option.

As for Cruz, the emails I get from the campaign every day (often multiple times a day) do show a certain manipulativeness. They are heavily spun. You could argue that this is just the genre. But the constant manufacturing of crises that need my donations to help with... they cannot all be real.

As a strategy though... wow, these guys know how to campaign. It's excessively pragmatic, but the thing about pragmatism is that it, well, works.

Verifiable facts

Given the verifiable facts about Trump vs. the verifiable facts about Cruz, it is quite obvious who has more credibility when it comes to the accusations that go around in campaigns. It's abundantly clear what sort of liar Trump is. He's been cutting lose whoppers every day for 40 years. (Pinch of hyperbole there, but not much I think.)

Cruz isn't spotless in this department, sadly. But if Trump is the NFL of lying and womanizing, Cruz is kind of the backyard flag football match.

James 4

A word about how James 4 applies in the case of politicians who claim (credibly or not) to be Christians. When you run for public office you are putting your character out there for all to analyze and pass judgment on. So you've invited that. That said, we do all have an obligation to be as factual as we can... and not reckless in accusations.

Jonathan's picture

Definitions are important.

What does it mean to "support a leader who is a sinner"? I am to pray for those in authority. I am to submit to those in authority. But I owe no support to leaders when their course of action is against God's will (Acts 4).

As for 1 Cor. 5:9-10, the key definition is for "keep company". Paul's point is that we don't need to live in a monastery or convent. When candidates come to Iowa I can visit with them in person and even eat with them. However, 1 Cor. 5:9-10 gives no indication that I need to vote for any of them and give my support to ungodly policies and positions. On the other hand, my understanding and application of passages like Eph.5 is that I should not vote for any candidate who pursues ungodly policies. Eph. 5 speaks of "taking part" which is a stronger relationship than "keeping company". While the primary application of Eph 5 isn't voting, I believe the principles in Eph. 5 do apply to voting. And in this case "less" does not matter.

While everyone is a sinner, some rulers are evil and some are not. And some rulers are more evil than others (1 Kings 16:30). So there is a basis for us to categorize some candidates as evil and some as not evil.

The point of Hitler vs. Stalin is not that any candidate today is like Hitler or Stalin. The point is that there is a certain level of evil that people will not cross. The question then becomes, what is your maximum level of evil? And if the syllogism is sound, then it should apply in all cases, even with Hitler vs. Stalin.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think I understand you better, Jonathan.

Part of the case I make in the article is that 99% of the time, when people decry voting for the lesser of evils, there is not really an "evil" candidate on the ballot, much less two of them. That's the gist of argument #2.

But does the logic of argument 1 work in a genuine "two evils" scenario? No. It's really not meant for that.The whole piece is about what to do when one electable option is actually less problematic than the other.

But the logic of argument 1 can still work in a Hitler vs. Stalin scenario if a few stipulations are thrown in. One of them is already included: that we can actually tell which of the two is less evil. If we stipulate as well that in the case, a vote for a third "can't win" option or a refusal to vote at all has the result of helping the worst of the two win, the reasoning that a voter for the better of the two is a vote for less evil still holds... which is pretty much the reasoning of argument 3. Actual results have moral significance.

So probably what helps most at this stage is point out that argument 1 in the essay assumes that there is a candidate who can win who is likely going to do less evil than the alternative. The logic holds in the scenario it's meant for.

Steve Picray's picture

I think the main issue for me is "where do you draw the line?"  It's not so much the "lesser of two evils" as it is "how evil do they have to be before you refuse to vote for them?"  

If you had to choose between Hitler and Stalin, obviously that's a Hobson's choice, but when it's not as extreme as that, where do you draw the line?  

Given the choice between Clinton (pro-choice) and Trump (who I believe to be neither pro-choice nor pro-life but instead pro-Trump), I can't choose.  It's six of one, half dozen of the other.  

Joeb's picture

Cruz maybe a pretend Evangelical but he will stand up against both sides against kicking the can down the road.  The only two Canidates who spoke honestly about about SSA and Medicare and the financial situation were Cruz and Chisti and only Cruz is still standing.   Kasich with all his bravado about balancing the budget when he was a congressman did so with Clinton era taxes. Take that amount out and then what do you have.  On the social issues Kasich is a joke along with Trump.  No matter how much I detest Cruz on a personal level he is the man to go against Hillary.  Lest not forget if we have one bad situation with ISIS in this country which I pray will never occur.  Hillary is done.  It's time for someone who will trim the tree in the Government and this is coming from a retired Gov employee who if Cruz wins will eventually take 20 % cut in monthly income.  So this is personal to me.  All in all we can only do are part and must have faith that all is on the Lord's hands.  He is the one who ultimately picks the Kings for his glory and plan not ours.  

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

If history is any indicator, what a theoretical President Cruz would accomplish in reducing gov. spending vs. what he would like to accomplish will differ by a good bit.

To Steve's comment. I don't personally believe the degree of evilness is relevant. We always want less of it, so the guiding principle for voting has to be "what is likely to result in less evil?" as best we can determine that. Where that principle truly fails is when there is no reasonable certainty as to which option is going to be less evil...   There is always a lot of uncertainty, and it comes down to voter's best judgment. But sometimes even best judgment can't identify a better option.

And, as already noted, there is the short-term vs. long-term good-vs.-evil factor, which gets even more difficult to evaluate. But sometimes it can be better in the long run for the inferior candidate to win and make a short term mess. Sometimes. It's risky because you never know what the electorate will actually learn from a disaster. Given that most of them voted on pure emotion to begin with (or so it certainly seems), it's improbable that letting the worst option win to "teach 'em all some long term wisdom" would prove to be effective.

The electorate does not seem to actually learn much.

Blessedly, where bad policy has relatively short term disastrous results--which is the case not all that infrequently--even our cognitively-challenged electorate gets in a mood to try something else. And a little good comes of it now and then.

Democracy... if only there were something better. But not as long as sinners rule over sinners.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

In the article I show why we cannot morally ignore outcomes... At least when we have a high level of certainty.

pvawter's picture

I'm not sure how to evaluate a high degree of certainty when it comes to the whole "vote for candidate B who's a scoundrel to block candidate A who is a worse scoundrel" scenario. This presumes to know that candidate A is a lock unless we all gang together to vote for candidate B. And who exactly are the "all of us" who will stand together to establish this certainty?

I think the whole thought process assumes a level of control over the outcome of an election that no single person can possibly exercise.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Pretty much everything we do in life is in hopes of accomplishing particular results--results we are always less than 100% certain will occur. . But we are supposed to try. We all rightly admire the guy who tries to rescue a drowning person in frigid water even though he is not able to be certain he'll succeed. (but we don't admire the guy who attempts this when he himself doesn't know how to swim! )

Steve Picray's picture

I'm not responsible for who wins the election. I'm only responsible for my involvement.  

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