After elections, many Christians admit they voted for someone who had no chance of winning, rather than voting for someone who at best was “the lesser of two evils.” Some also have done so as a personal protest against the two-party system. Such choices born out of frustration are understandable, but do they accomplish their purpose or are they actually counterproductive?
Statistically, a vote for someone other than the two major candidates is really a vote for whoever wins. For instance, in 1992 Ross Poirot ran the most successful third-party effort in the last 100 years and received a remarkable 19 percent of the popular vote. That still wasn’t enough to win and he likely took enough votes away from George H.W. Bush to give the election to Bill Clinton.
In the heavily contested election of 2000, Ralph Nader took enough votes away from Al Gore in Florida for George Bush to win. In 2016, Jill Stein of the Green Party probably took enough votes away from Hillary Clinton in states like Michigan and Wisconsin to give those electoral votes to Donald Trump. Are these the results third-party voters really wanted or did third-party voters unintentionally help their least favorite candidate win?
Others vote for individuals they wish were running. Some even make unusual choices like Maryland Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who recently said that he voted for Ronald Reagan in this year’s election. He now has political deniability no matter who wins but was his vote meaningful?
On the surface, third-party votes or what some criticize as throw-away votes suggest that we want to stick with our conscience rather than be a part of electing an imperfect person. The reality of course is that any person we vote for will be imperfect. Any vote we cast will involve compromise. But is voting for someone who could never win really the best compromise we can make? And what are we sacrificing when we make that choice?
When I lived in Chicago, I experienced the tremendous rivalry between Chicago Cubs fans and Chicago White Sox fans. A perfect day for my neighbor was when the White Sox won and the Cubs lost! He found great identity and pride in being a White Sox fan for life.
Whether we follow sports or not, we all embrace certain identities. We might consider ourselves pro-life or pro-business or pro-gun control or pro-family. When we must choose between two opposing identities, we aren’t always sure how to choose and still maintain who we are.
In this year’s election, for instance, we must choose between Trump and his rampant dishonesty and divisiveness and Biden, who is pro-choice. Most Christians would say that we don’t identify with either of these men in those ways. So many of us, then, are tempted to come to the conclusion that we must vote for someone else, rather than compromise our integrity and identity.
The problem with this is that in choosing to “save” our conscience, we miss the opportunity to be a part of a decision that will affect millions of lives.
A vivid example of this is abortion, which I wrote about in my previous blog. As I indicated then, abortions trend downward under Democratic presidents more than under Republican presidents. Yet it can be hard for someone who is pro-life to vote for a pro-choice candidate even if the real goal is to lower the number of abortions. Identity, in this case, becomes consciously or unconsciously more important than the actual result.
Compromise for the Common Good
Catholic Social Teaching and various strands of Reformed theology speak of the “common good.” This refers to what is good not just for Christians but for society as a whole. The common good is what allows all peoples to “reach their fulfillment more easily.” It reflects the biblical theology that everyone is created in the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity and care in society.
Thinking of others in this context adds a necessary ingredient to our political decision-making beyond just our conscience and our identity. It reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Christians in Philippi, “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” (see Philippians 4:2)
In the Old Testament, Jeremiah instructed the captive Jews in Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (see Jeremiah
. 29:7) Jeremiah did not say this because King Nebuchadnezzar was catering to them as a voting bloc, but because the people of God were called to be a witness among the nations. Seeking the common good is a political extension and expression of the Great Commandment of “loving your neighbor.”
With this perspective, we can look beyond identities we may be holding onto and ask, “In terms of biblical values, which candidate would best care for the poor? Who would be a better steward of the environment? Who would seek peace and unity rather than divisiveness? Who would more likely tell the truth and ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God’?”
No candidate or political party or political system is perfect. Whoever we vote for will involve compromise. But not voting or voting for a third-party candidate is also an act of compromise and may actually be compromising our values more than we realize.
It is also good to remember that we are not marrying a candidate and we don’t need to make a moral or lasting commitment to support or defend them. Our vote does not make us supporters of all that candidate does or says and we must be free to criticize what we don’t agree with in terms of policies and practices.
Consequently, and in humility, we need to make the best choice we can in light of how likely each candidate is to promote biblical values and the common good for the country. In this way we can leave behind our fear of “identifying” with any one candidate or platform. Instead we can embrace our first identity as citizens of God’s Kingdom willing to make hard choices to live out that Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.