Election day is but a few weeks away now. Most of the chatter I’ve seen on the internet lately, of course, has been about the recent debates and how the Romney campaign has been surging in the polls over the last couple of weeks. As I write this, there is much anticipation for the final debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. But prior to all this, much of what I saw at social media sites and the like was something else: The Evangelical base of the Republican Party fighting a bit of a civil war over whether it should support Romney.
This isn’t simply a fight between conservatives in the base and the so called “RINOs” (the “Establishment” Republicans), although that dynamic is at play as well. This is something that goes much deeper than that. It goes to the religious convictions of the Evangelical Christians themselves.
There are many Evangelicals that are sufficiently horrified by the prospect of another four years of the Obama Administration that they are fully prepared to vote for Mitt Romney, and they haven’t seen any particular need to justify their position on the matter. There are others who are actively trying to dissuade Christians from voting for Romney. And there are many reasons given for why: His record as Governor of Massachusetts, his views on allowable exceptions for abortion, and the general lack of confidence that Romney really shares their values in his heart of hearts. There is another one as well, and that is Romney’s Mormonism.
There are quite a number of Christians that are suggesting that the right thing to do in this election is either to vote for someone other than Romney or Obama, or sit this election out altogether. My friend and fellow Caffeinated Thoughts contributor David Shedlock has actually written a book essentially advocating this position. And while I certainly respect those who choose to embrace this position, it seems to me it is hardly the duty of the Christian to do so.
The accusation of voting for “the lesser of two evils” is frequently made against those who vote for candidates who, for one reason or another, fail the test of political purity. Voting for a “lesser evil” is still evil, we are reminded. I would have far more regard for this accusation if I thought for a moment that those who ordinarily assert it had really thought through the issue.
As I have written in the past, for me this whole matter is primarily dependent upon the answer to two questions: First, what are the civil obligations of Christians in a pluralistic nation and society as opposed to a distinctively Christian nation and society? Secondly, what is the nature of a vote? Surprisingly, these questions rarely get asked.
We spend a lot of time debating whether the Unites States is (or was) a Christian nation. But I think a fair assessment of the situation would lead us to conclude that the consensus Christianity once had in our country is gone, and, officially or constitutionally, pluralism is what we’ve had all along. We need to be asking ourselves what our duty is in the situation we find ourselves in rather than what once perhaps was or what we hope will be. We may long for the days in which Christianity was pervasive in our culture, and the results were happily evident. We may have even entertained hopes that our nation would embrace Christianity as its established religion in a formal way through an amendment to our constitution. But the present reality is, in my opinion, that we live in a post-Christian culture and in a nation which has codified pluralism as its established religion. We are not Jerusalem with its temple and Torah. We are, rather, Babylon with its demigods and decadence.
This is an important point, because it cannot be assumed that the Christian’s duties in each situation are identical. Writing about the relation between church and state found in The Westminster Confession, Dr. William Young, Professor emeritus of Philosophy, University of Rhode Island, writes: “The modified form of the Confession adopted by several Presbyterian denominations in this country still maintains the fundamental principle of the right and duty of the civil magistrate in religious matters, and contemplates in fact a predominantly Evangelical Christian nation…I, for one, would insist that it would be a disaster if our government—federal, state or local—were under the present circumstances to exercise fully the rights that are allowed even by (this) modification of the Confession adopted by a number of Presbyterian churches in this country.”
It seems clear that Young sees instances where a situation may alter rights and duties that are ordinarily required. While Young’s comments are with regard to the rights and duties of “civil magistrates”, it nonetheless also seems clear to me that the rights and duties of the Christian citizens who elect these civil magistrates may be altered in these situations as well. It is entirely possible that Christians would be obligated to vote for singularly Christian candidates if a case could legitimately be made that we presently live in a Christian nation. As Supreme Court Justice John Jay wrote, “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” But even if Jay, like others, was right in asserting that the United States was a Christian nation, it strikes me as a moot point as we consider the civil obligations of a Christian in today’s circumstances.
If it is true that a Christian’s civil duties always remain the same regardless of circumstance, what are we to think about Joseph? (Gen. 41:38-44) It’s hard for me to imagine that Joseph, the most powerful man in all of Egypt next to to Pharaoh himself, never appointed a pagan Egyptian to a place or office of civil authority.
The second consideration I mentioned earlier is the question of the nature of a vote, and this question gets far less attention than the first. I was excited some time ago when I saw that R.C. Sproul had written an article entitled Principles for Voting and I was really excited when I saw he had written this: “As a Christian you have obligations opposed (sic?) upon your conscience that in some sense other people don’t have, although they should have. And the first thing is this: You have to understand what a vote is.” His assertion about the importance of understanding the nature of a vote got my attention, because it was something I had been saying for years. I was a bit disappointed, however, because other than telling the reader about the etymology of the word (“The word vote comes from the Latin votum, which means ‘will’ or choice”) he really didn’t develop an argument for a particular definition. There are a number of questions that Sproul doesn’t address. Here are just a few:
- Is a vote always and absolutely a highly principled endorsement?
- Is a vote a positive and objective act?
- Are the criteria for voting distinct from appointment?
- Is who one votes for a matter for the Christian’s conscience?
- Must a Christian vote for only Christian candidates?
I cannot see how a vote can be construed as a highly principled endorsement. If that’s what it is, I don’t know that I’ve ever voted for anyone in my lifetime that met that bar with the possible–possible— exception of Jack Kemp back in 1988 and 1996. In the ordinary course of things, the voter assesses how close the candidate is to his own views on issues. Some issues will be more important than others. On those issues where there is disagreement, the voter decides whether or not he can “tolerate” the candidate’s position and still support him. I like how Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association put it in an essay he wrote on Facebook: “I have come to look at candidates in one of four ways: 1. Those who are very supportive of my views. 2. Those who will listen to my views. 3. Those who are indifferent to my views. 4. Those who are openly hostile to my views.” He goes on to say more or less that candidates in groups one and two he can support. A candidate that is in group three is a possibility. A four is out of the question.
But if a vote is a highly principled endorsement, depending on how far one takes this, what candidate could possibly pass muster? I think the consistent Christian would be forced to practice political dissent (which many have over the years) and simply not vote. Period.
A good friend of mine (who I profoundly respect) once told me in no uncertain terms that a vote was a positive, objective act. He went on to say that when one voted for a man he is saying “I will have this man rule over me”. I suggested that voting might be a subjective thing in which the “I will” is replaced by “I would rather”, where one is choosing who will do him the least amount of harm. He replied that the intent or motivation was irrelevant to the nature of the vote. It is a positive act that is immediate to the end. So, in other words, he was saying you can’t really vote against someone even if that is what may be motivating you the most. Nor can you cast a vote for a candidate you “would rather” see elected, given the choices on the ballot, as opposed to one you “will” to elect. I have two thoughts about my friend’s position: First, I simply don’t see how anyone can put something like a vote in such a rigid construction as this. It seems to me that the tally of a vote may well be an objective thing, but the act of voting itself cannot be. It is quite subjective as far as the intent of the voter is concerned. It may well be true that no one cares what the voter’s intent was when they count the votes, but the voter’s conscience obviously may care very much. Secondly, in my estimation a consistent application of this rigid construction necessitates the highly principled endorsement I mentioned earlier, and would necessarily end in disengaging from political activity.
I think that very few people would contend that the criteria for voting is identical to that required in making an appointment to an office. Unlike a vote, an appointment is an act immediate to its end, and is generally understood to carry much greater weight. However, David Shedlock, in his new book With Christ in the Voting Booth, does urge Christians to vote “as if you were appointing the person to office”. Shedlock is rightly concerned with the Christian honoring Christ through his vote, and correctly observes that the Christian’s conscience will be clear when Christ is honored. But I think the notion of making no distinction between a vote and an appointment isn’t necessary to the honoring of Christ. To be fair, so far as I know, Shedlock doesn’t think so either, even though he advocates that approach. Shedlock’s work deserves a fair hearing. While I disagree with a number of his conclusions, he has done his best to reach them from principles derived from scripture. For that he is to be commended.
Who one votes for is indeed a matter of conscience. Despite all the incendiary remarks aimed at those Evangelical Christians who are Romney supporters, I know of no one who is going so far as to say that the vote is not a matter of conscience. And most of the criticism I hear about Romney is not about his Mormonism (Sproul makes no mention of it at all). It’s mostly about how he (Romney) looks at same sex marriage and abortion. But in any case, a vote for him, or anyone else for the matter of that, should be a private matter that is between one’s conscience and God.
There are certainly plenty of reasons not to vote for Romney. It’s completely appropriate for Evangelicals to “sit this one out” if that’s what their consciences dictate. But it’s not appropriate to accuse Evangelicals who support Romney of being faithless, unprincipled hacks for voting for him. Allow me to be clear: I remain unconvinced that a Christian must vote for a Christian (and only a Christian) in our present circumstances. I say this even though it is still my hope and desire that some day our nation would establish Christianity as the religion of the land (Psalm 2:10-12, 68:32). I think that a Christian may look at his vote as merely a civil instrument that he can use to attempt to slow down the progress of evil. His intention is to elect a candidate who he hopes will do the least amount of harm to him and the things he holds dear.
Once again, let’s consider the Israelites in Egypt (Ex 1:8, Acts 7:18-19): Would it have been appropriate for the Israelites to ask God in prayer for a Pharaoh who remembered Joseph and would treat them kindly? Would it have been wrong for them to use any civil power (such as a vote) to bring about that end?