To Vote or Not to Vote?
These are the times that try voters’ souls. In 2016 we face a presidential election with two remarkably problematic candidates. Should we vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? Should we even vote at all?
The Clinton name calls to mind impeachment and a family foundation that courts foreign contributions as it skirts on the edge of charges of peddling access and influence for campaign cash. The name of Hillary evokes images of FBI investigations and abandoned ambassadors, of “gross negligence”, certifiable dishonesty under oath and continuing the policies of the current administration and their disdain for our Constitution and rule of law.
But how could anyone of faith and principle vote for Donald Trump? His presidential primary campaign and its aftermath has been strewn with demagoguery, insults and shifting untutored positions, that manifest the self-focus of a reality television celebrity and a calculating business icon who markets a brand name that necessarily includes untested political leadership. The lack of support for his candidacy by previous Republican stalwarts only reinforces the deep concerns of many, but especially his foresworn political opponents who proudly call themselves Never-Trump voters. Nevertheless, both candidates are their parties’ nominees. So where do faith-based voters go from here? For many, the answer is simply to opt out and stay home on Election Day.
Dangerous Idealism and Unhealthy Pietism
The solution many in the evangelical and faith traditions are contemplating is to retreat into the realm of moral idealism or the seeming safety of pietism. Idealism insists we must choose only the very best regardless of the issues at stake. Those with more of a realist view retort that this is being so heavenly minded that it means faith-based voters will be of no earthly good. Along these same lines, Pietism takes a posture something like, “Let’s just be spiritual and stay above the fray, remaining uninvolved in the political mess. For after all, these bad things will pass away in time.”
Whatever approach one takes, let us stipulate that it is true that our nation’s future is in the hands of God’s sovereignty and the outcome of the upcoming election will not interfere with His providential plans for His church, or this nation. Yet we must also assert that the outcome of this election cannot be severed from our responsibility. From a human perspective, our involvement or lack thereof will shape the legacy that we leave for future generations.
When we engage something that’s morally less than ideal but an essential part of the pursuit of a noble cause, we are not thereby becoming immoral. Wouldn’t you pass along a water bucket with a racist if you were trying to put out a fire? I think most of us would deliver food to a starving man using a drug dealer’s car, if it was the only one available. We often have to confront imperfect situations—especially when we are seeking to overcome evil with good. A vote in a nasty election for a sub-ideal candidate can be a means of pursuing a greater good.
The Argument from Silence and the Principle of Conscience
When we think about voting in light of the Scriptures, we confront an inescapable argument from silence. There is no biblical command to stay home from voting if you can’t vote for a perfect godly candidate; nor is there a biblical command that says you have to vote for someone in whom you have no confidence. The principle of conscience must guide us here. The principle of conscience argues that whatever one cannot do in faith, to him it is a sin (Rom. 14:23). This means there is a right of conscientious objection to abstain from a public duty, if we are convinced that to do that duty is a sin against God. But is voting for a sub-ideal candidate a sin? Given the silence of Scripture regarding voting in elections with problematic candidates and that the Scriptures do assert the freedom of conscience, we must look at various principles of God’s Word to determine how they guide us in our voting. Is there a Scriptural way forward that addresses these issues?
Six Timeless and Necessary Biblical Principles
For those of us who are believers in the truths of Scripture, there are several timeless and necessary biblical principles that we should keep in mind in this challenging election season:
Principle #1: As much as lies within us, we must live at peace with all men. (Rom. 12:17)
We should never forget that voting in America is not mere partisanship. Casting a vote is a principle of peace because here ballots have taken the place of bullets. We are not being uncivil, uncharitable, or hostile when we cast a vote. We are committing ourselves to a method of the peaceful transfer of power for the good of our community. We should all be prepared to say, “Madam President” or “President Trump”. Regardless of how we feel about the candidates, we are called to honor the office even if we have difficulty honoring its occupant. We are called to labor together as much as we can in peace and unity with others around us. Thus conservatives, as much as lies within us, must seek to live at peace with progressives.
Principle #2: Render unto God what is God’s and render unto Government (Caesar) what is Government’s (Caesar’s) (Mt. 22:21);
Is abstaining from casting a ballot a moral position consistent with the command that Christ has given in Mt. 22:21? When we refuse to honor the government’s process for leadership transition, we are not only withholding a duty to government, we are potentially disrespecting Christ who told us to honor the government He has placed over us by giving to it its due respect (Rom. 13:1-6). In a democracy, it is the duty of the citizen to enter into the political process in any number of ways, but at a minimum to cast a vote. Many before us have fought and died to preserve and defend this very freedom. A Christian in a democracy should recognize the moral authority that Christ gives to civil government when he commands that we render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s just as we render unto God what is God’s.
Principle #3: Overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21)- The Golden Rule or the Silver Rule? (Mt. 7:12)
This principle teaches us to be proactive, that we are to live out the Golden Rule rather than acquiesce to the “Silver Rule”. The silver rule says don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you. It is passive, neutral and uninvolved. Staying home on election day may give you the right to say I didn’t make things worse, but you have no more claim to moral excellence than a rock on a roadside that didn’t give a flat tire to a car because the car didn’t hit it.
The Golden Rule, “do unto others what you would have done unto you” (Mt. 7:12) requires action and involvement – doing unto others proactively what you would want done to yourself. It is a command and not a mere suggestion. If we as believers retreat from the battle, we are not following the Golden Rule. We cannot ask others to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves. If we choose to stay home, who will take up the charge on behalf of the unborn and the defense of the freedom of conscience? We cannot sit uninvolved on the sidelines and claim moral superiority when we are not following one of Christ’s direct commands. Before you stay home on Election Day, ask yourself if you are doing “good” by staying home.
Principle #4: We are to be Salt and Light (Mt. 5:13-16)
As a substantial body of voters voting for that which is or tends to be moral, just and right, the community of faith has the ability to magnify our influence for good even if we happen to be a minority. A single grain of salt can do very little, but it has been said that it only takes five pounds of salt to preserve a hundred pounds of beef. Similarly, an engaged substantial minority is able to overcome forces of deterioration and destruction. When people who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world cooperate for a common good, they not only can dispel the darkness of moral evil, but they can prevent the decay of that which is good.
Principle #5: We must not be deceived, evil company corrupts good morals (1 Cor. 15:33)
Whether we vote or not, whether we like it or not, we will all be subject to the government that is elected this November. While we cannot escape the rule of government, we do have a right to help to decide what kind of government we will have and to choose the leaders that will shape our lives, homes, businesses and houses of worship. “Do not be deceived”, the government will be keeping company with your family, your business, and your house of worship; but will it strengthen these bedrock institutions or will its “evil company corrupt” “good morals”?
Active and informed participation is necessary for the success of our republican form of government. As Thomas Jefferson noted: Those who expect to be both ignorant and free, expect what never was and never will be. So we must consider the platform of each party and ask ourselves in whose company would we prefer to be? You may not wish to make a choice between the lesser of two evils, but which of the two imperfect platforms and imperfect candidates do you wish to have shaping the lives of you and your children? You may not want to invite either candidate to your home for dinner, but they will be dining with you regardless. Will you aid or deter the expansion of a government whose imposed values will corrupt the good morals of your home?
Principle #6: We must not lose heart regardless of the outcome, for our labors in the Lord are not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58)
When the final votes are counted, we will have reached a strategic moment in the direction of our nation. Regardless of the outcome believers are called to persevere in doing good in such times, believing that the kingdom of God is not stymied by the vicissitudes of human history. Yet, we may well be facing a time of rising opposition and emerging persecution. Again, our nation’s future is in the hands of God’s sovereignty. The outcome of the election will not interfere with His divine providence for this nation. But the outcome includes our responsibility and will leave a legacy of good or ill that we bequeath to future generations.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing! So where do we go from here? We face a binary choice in this election. Either we participate in the public square and state our views and then go to the ballot box and vote our conscience; or we sit passively in our pews praying for a better candidate, until we find ourselves once again relegated to the catacombs. We are not called to elect a saint, pastor, or professor of ethics. We are, though, called to overcome evil with good. Voting is good, and there are platforms and principles that provide a clear choice between good and evil.
Your vote makes a difference for the future. We must not forget that staying home and not voting on Election Day is to remain silent. To remain silent in a moral crisis is to become complicit in the evil. A classic line from Shakespeare says, “’To be, or not to be?’, that is the question”. The personal struggle for Hamlet was whether he should live or take his life. The question we ponder here is “To vote, or not to vote?, that is the question”. I humbly submit to you that your answer to this second question may well lead to the same result as the second alternative of Hamlet’s existential question.