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?

Identity Politics

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’?”

Conclusion

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.

Is it okay for a Christian to vote for a pro-choice candidate for president? This is the question I hear from many evangelical friends. Some say no because one is then complicit in supporting the evil of abortions. They believe that abortion should be the sole issue in voting for a president.

Others who are also against abortion say yes because there are many other pro-life issues at stake. In fact, both Pope Benedict XVI and the Conference of Catholic Bishops permit a Catholic to vote for a pro-choice candidate. So even though the Catholic Church has been the strongest religious voice against abortions, no Catholic is bound to vote on the basis of abortion alone.

But many others are still undecided. Can a Christian in all good conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate without feeling they have lost or compromised their convictions and commitments to the sanctity of life? I think such a choice is possible due to the following factors.

The Bible

First, the Bible doesn’t mention abortion at all. Although abortion was common in the ancient world, neither Jesus nor the apostles say anything about it. David, though, had rich insights of how God was intimately involved in “knitting me together in my mother’s womb” (see Psalm 139:13), and Jeremiah records God’s words: “I formed you in the womb” (see Jeremiah 1:5). These verses speak poetically and theologically about God’s sovereign involvement in creating life even if they do not address all of the complex medical and ethical issues regarding abortion.

The Bible is also clear about murder being a sin, a commandment that lies at the heart of the abortion debate. Yet we grapple with perplexing questions: Should all abortions be considered murder or does it depend on the circumstances, such as incest or the life of the mother? Does the stage of pregnancy matter? Why does Ecclesiastes 6:4 describe a stillborn child as one that “comes without meaning and departs in darkness”? Why is the Bible so silent about abortion when we are so vocal?

Religious Convictions

Scripture doesn’t give us answers to these difficult questions, but abortion is such a significant issue that the people of God have wrestled with it for centuries. For instance, the early Church strongly believed in the sanctity of life and was against the killing of any human life through abortion. They cared so much about life that they also resisted serving in the military.  

The ancient priest and scholar, Jerome, however, distinguished between the formed and unformed fetus—a position that echoed early Rabbinic law. Augustine also made this distinction and confessed that he “couldn’t bring myself to either affirm or deny the final state of aborted babies.” These scholars and others wrestled with how human life developed and when the soul becomes alive. Chris Hall provides an extremely helpful commentary on the early Church discussions on abortion in his book, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers.

Today, most Christians are against abortions and especially late-term abortions. But many make exceptions for instances of rape, incest, and the life of the mother, arguing that taking life in these situations is similar to reasons for killing in self-defense.

Politicization

A complicating factor in the abortion debates is that in recent decades, the passionate cry against abortion has become not just a moral issue but a political one. This has not always been the case.

Abortion became a key strategic issue of the Moral Majority to unify Republicans behind Ronald Reagan (who ironically had passed the most liberal abortion laws in the country when he was governor of California) against Democrat Jimmy Carter. This fault line between Republicans and Democrats over abortion has intensified since then, although there are still pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans. The reality is that a candidate’s position on abortion today may be as much for reasons of political identity and power as it is for deep moral convictions.

We Can Use Our Vote for What Will Actually Make a Difference

A very practical question is whether the next president, whoever he is, will make any real difference in the rate of abortions in the country. Recently David French—a pro-life commentator who is theologically and politically conservative—wrote a provocative blog titled, “Do Pro-Lifers Who Reject Trump Have ‘Blood on their Hands’?”

This is a significant blog, as French presents statistics and historical facts that suggest that no matter who becomes president, the abortion rate will likely continue its downward slide from a level that now is actually below where it was when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.

In fact, history shows that the abortion rate has declined faster under Democratic presidents than under Republican presidents. It’s difficult to pinpoint whether that is the result of presidential policies or other influences. But with those numbers in mind, French argues that presidents are inconsequential to the rate of abortions despite the battle over Supreme Court nominations. Even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion rates will largely be unaffected.

Michael Gerson is another pro-life, political and theological conservative who recently argued that abortion isn’t the only issue on the ballot to be considered. He believes that “persuasion will matter more than federal legislation” for the pro-life movement. He also asks the question, “Is it really in the long-term interest of the pro-life movement to associate itself with a form of right-wing populism that dehumanizes migrants, alienates minorities and slanders refugees?”

A recent meme quips: “Abortion: The only word that can make followers of Jesus vote against everything Jesus ever talked about because of one issue that Jesus never talked about.” Although this is clearly a generalization, there is truth to it. In voting for a candidate who claims to be pro-life, we could very well be failing to uphold the biblical call to care for the poor, to welcome the refugee, to seek justice and love mercy—all for the sake of the mis-understanding that voting for a pro-life candidate will necessarily reduce the number of abortions in this country.

Conclusions?

I can’t decide for other Christians how to vote for president, especially with respect to such a difficult and serious issue like abortion. But I can offer these reflections for consideration.

  1. The Bible affirms the sanctity of life and condemns murder but is silent about abortion.
  2. The people of God have consistently stood against abortion as wrong and we should continue to persuade our culture to honor and preserve the sanctity of all human life.  
  3. Who we choose as president will not affect the rate of abortions in our country. We should feel the freedom to vote for other reasons without condemning ourselves or others.
  4. Who we choose as president, however, will affect other pro-life issues in the country, and the world, such as poverty, racial and economic justice, gun control, immigration reform, controlling the pandemic, and combating climate change.
  5. No matter who we vote for, we can speak to one another out of love, respect, and an understanding that we each have been created in God’s image. This is another way of being truly pro-life in all we do and say.

Bridget Phetasy, a podcaster who self-identifies as “politically homeless” is quoted in the Dispatch Weekly as saying, “If Trump wins, I reckon America will burn. If Trump loses, America will burn. Either way, I’m preparing for America to burn.”

Confirming these feelings, President Trump says that he “is the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness and chaos.” He says that if he loses, “America is gone forever.” Not to be outdone, Democrats are fearful of losing our democracy if Trump wins. They also fear right-wing militias that threaten “we’re a trigger-pull away” from resisting government controls like mask mandates.

Looking at the election itself, President Trump stokes fears by claiming that millions of mail-in ballots will be fraudulent while Democrats fear that millions of mail-in ballots will be disqualified because of Republican interference.

Politicians, commentators, and Americans across the political spectrum are increasingly fearful for our country. It is a fear not only of the consequences of our presidential election but tragically it is also a fear of one another. We have become a tribalized society of identity politics. Some of us fear those who use their racial or sexual identity for political power while we don’t understand the inherent power of centuries of white and male privilege. Some of us fear the political influence of those who aren’t Christians while others fear the influence of those who are.

On top of all of these political fears are the continuing fears of the pandemic and our economic crisis. We have a low-grade fever of uncertainty and of fear that spikes with every new death projection from COVID 19 or when there is another police shooting of a black man with subsequent protests. If we are black, we fear constantly for our lives and if we are a small business owner we fear for our livelihood. And after months of COVID trauma and drama, we’ve come to fear even our fears.

Coping with Fears

It is tempting to dismiss these fears as just temporary or pre-election hype that will somehow go away like the virus is supposed to according to the president. But in our heart of hearts, we know that like the virus, our deep fears are real and will have lasting consequences.

We could deal with our fears by trying to be impervious to them, channeling the extreme confidence of those like Franklin Roosevelt who famously said, “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Courage and fortitude are great characteristics in the face of danger and fear, but they in themselves do not eliminate the reasons for fear. Without action, positive thinking can quickly become denial with debilitating results.

There is also the temptation to spiritualize our fears and “just trust God,” but that is likely the right answer to a different question. The different question is “Who do we trust?” as if there is any doubt of whether we should put our trust in God or in politicians. There is no contest! The Psalmist says, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” (see Psalm 118:9). Our faith in God is our ultimate security and should not be second to any earthly competition.

A right question in this situation, though, is, “How do we trust God?” in a democracy where we have the freedom not only to vote but to use our votes and political involvement to be “salt and light” in the world. Do we trust God by dismissing our responsibilities as citizens and not voting because there isn’t a perfect candidate? Do we trust God by avoiding biblical issues of justice? Or, do we trust God to give us spiritual discernment to make political choices that would best reflect Christian values and most benefit the common good?

Election Fears

It is commonplace to say that this election is a great inflection point in American history. In a highly polarized electorate, it is also true that Christians are right at that inflection point of influencing which way the country goes. Many evangelicals lean toward reelecting a deeply flawed president in order to maintain their cultural influence on issues like abortion, human sexuality, and religious freedom. Their fear of losing power is greater than their fear of compromising their moral convictions.

Many other Christians lean toward choosing Biden as a compassionate leader who seeks to bring people together. They see him as someone who cares deeply about biblical issues like immigration, racial and economic justice, and environmental stewardship. They are willing to take the risk that the number of abortions and matters of religious liberty would not change much, if at all, with a change of administrations.

In the next eight weeks before the election, it is vitally important that Christians wrestle with these competing convictions in a thoughtful and humble way. Someone who does this well is Ron Sider, who is a pro-life theological conservative. Ron recently posted “Why I Will Vote for Joe Biden,” which sets a high bar for careful reasoning and spiritual discernment that is worth reading and considering. You can read his post here.

But how does thoughtful reasoning like Sider’s help us deal with our fears for our country? It doesn’t take away the reasons for our fears but it does provide careful and knowledgeable insights into the issues we are facing. We often are more afraid of what we don’t know than what we do. We like doctors to give us an accurate diagnosis. We want to know the risks associated with certain occupations or travel decisions. Naming our fears helps us cope with them and Sider helps us to articulate the issues at stake. I highly encourage you to read his words as you wrestle with your own fears and decisions for the upcoming election.

An Antidote to Fear

Finally, I want to point to the words of the Apostle John, who says that “perfect love casts out fear” (see 1 John 4:18). Unfortunately, a biblical love that is “patient and kind, not boastful and not proud, that doesn’t dishonor others or is self-seeking, or easily angered…but rejoices with the truth” (see 1 Corinthians 13) is a rare commodity in contemporary political discussions. Anger, deceit, and ridicule are more often the weapons of political debate.

However, if we as Christians would speak and vote out of love for others rather than out of fear of others or fear of losing what we consider to be power, we would be a winsome witness to a very fearful nation and world. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Because we love something else more than this world, we love even this world better than those who know no other.”

In my previous blogs, I wrote about two predispositions for wise decision-making. One was the virtue of feeling conflicted about the complexities of an issue so we can arrive at a meaningful conclusion. Right now, for example, parents and schools across the country face tremendous complexities about how to handle the upcoming academic year. If we don’t feel conflicted about the best way to manage the medical, mental, and social health of our children and teachers, we probably are not fully understanding the issues at stake.

The other predisposition for decision-making was the courage it takes to be moderate in our relationships with others. We may have strong convictions about certain issues but that does not justify a demonization or rejection of those who disagree with us. The fruit of the Spirit includes attributes such as gentleness, patience, and peacefulness, not argumentation or ridicule of others.

But even if we desire to approach difficult political choices with thoughtfulness and kindness, how do we discern what may or may not be right for any given situation or issue? Can we practice godly discernment that transcends political parties, personalities, and talking points?

I find it helpful to go back nearly three hundred years to a comprehensive framework for discernment developed by the English theologian John Wesley. It came to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because Wesley taught that there were four inter-connected principles for spiritual discernment. Although Wesley was applying his principles mainly to church and individual matters, I think that they are helpful for political decision-making as well.

Scripture

The first and foundational principle for discernment is the teaching of the Bible for moral clarity and direction. Wesley believed that understanding the Bible in its context and straightforward meaning was essential for discerning God’s truth. He strongly affirmed that “all Scripture is useful for teaching…and for training in righteousness” (see 2 Timothy 3:16).

When I was a staff member among college students with InterVarsity, I used to meet regularly with a student leader who always had a list of questions to discuss, each one beginning with, “What does the Bible say about…?”

That kind of reflexive submission to the authority of Scripture is what I think Wesley had in mind. The Bible’s commandments against sins such as lying, stealing, and adultery set boundaries for how we are to live. The positive commands of Scripture, such as loving others by caring for the poor and for foreigners, are also all directives for us to follow. So, when we start discussing controversial issues like immigration or racial justice or leadership character, we should first of all ask that student’s question: “What does the bible say about…?”

Tradition

But not all political issues can be solved by a direct application of Bible verses. For example, the Bible doesn’t talk about the size of government or capitalism or even abortion. We need additional help. Wesley’s second principle is that we need to listen to the traditional teachings of the church. He agreed with the Apostle Peter that we cannot depend on our own private interpretations of Scripture (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21).

Wesley was primarily referring to the tradition of the early church councils. But I think that the value of learning from the broader counsel of other Christian communities is a wise extension of Wesley’s principle. For instance, Protestants can learn much from the valuable teaching on social and political engagement developed by Catholics. White Christians can learn about racial justice issues from people of color. Listening to the broader Christian community helps us constantly add to the wisdom of our traditions.

Reason

Wesley’s third principle of discernment is that of reason, which is one of the great gifts of being created in the image of God. Reason provides illumination and, in the words of Wesley, “It is the candle of the Lord.”

As we apply reason in the political realm, we draw conclusions from available facts and allow those conclusions to shape our opinions and actions. Currently, for instance, we can learn from numerous scientific studies that wearing a mask does hinder the spread of COVID 19. Our reasonable interpretation of those facts, more than our political affiliation, should guide our mask-wearing behavior.  

But spiritual reason goes beyond facts. Our rational processes grow into wisdom when they integrate a moral consciousness. Our choice to wear masks may be based on the advice of experts, but it is also an expression of the biblical command to love others. In other words, we bring together facts and our rational processes into a spiritual submission to God’s purposes. Reason then becomes a practical expression of loving God and neighbor with one’s mind.

Experience

The fourth principle, that was unique to Wesley at the time, is listening to our spiritual experiences. Wesley believed that God speaks not only through Scripture, church tradition, and our reason, but also through our personal experiences with God. He referred to an “objective internal knowing” guided by the promptings and filling of the Holy Spirit.

The early Church practiced this when they made a spiritual and political decision regarding what requirements should be placed on Gentile converts for them to be fully included with the Jews as the people of God. After lengthy debate over Scripture and tradition, they came to an agreement on community requirements, saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

The British politician William Wilberforce is another good example of spiritual discernment in the political realm. Wilberforce devoted decades of his political life to ending the slave trade. His passion to do this came not only from his biblical convictions about human dignity but from God guiding his experience to witness how cruel the bondage of slavery really was. His friend, former slave trader John Newton, also had a divine transforming experience, equipping him to write that remarkable hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

Summary

In Wesley’s Quadrilateral, he suggests that we need to study and apply the Scriptures as foundational to all matters of discernment. We also need to listen to the historical (and contemporary) community of believers and apply our minds and experiences as led by the Spirit to properly discern what is right in any given situation.