(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:
- Pragmatism: practical results are always decisive and are all that matter.
- Idealism: practical results are completely irrelevant; only principle matters.
- 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.