I realize this is too late to be of any immediate use to anybody, but I hope that our remove from the situation can help us to think through the issues more clearly. For what it is worth, this article is adapted from a paper written as a letter to a friend, so you can expect that voice throughout.

I know you’ve been getting hit hard with all your friends insisting that “voting third party is just a vote for Hillary,” but hopefully we can work through the problem with a more biblical frame. Emotions tend to run hot during election season, and, when we get this spun up, people inevitably fall into using whatever arguments they find at hand, even if they break down when cooler heads prevail. One of the more significant ideas that I’ve bumped into lately is what John Frame calls the normative perspective. It’s a way of looking at issues which asks what ethical norms, or standards apply to the actions that we should take. The only “norm” which people are usually considering, when they tell you that not voting for Trump is a vote for Hillary, is that the highest possible good is making sure that she doesn’t get the presidency. This drives them to make bad arguments, since they necessarily see everything through that lens. My hope is that we can talk through not just why it is very much within the range of justifiable actions to vote third party (or not vote at all), but also to work on laying down the real “norms” which we should be taking into account when we’re deciding how to exercise our right to vote.

Rejecting Coercion

The first point to note is that the argument offered for the necessity of your voting for one of the major party candidates is simply flawed on its face. Suggesting that a vote for anyone else is really a vote for Hillary Clinton is straightforward refusal to acknowledge how math works. If two candidates have the same number of votes and I vote for candidate A, candidate A will have one more vote than candidate B. If I vote for candidate B, candidate B will have one more vote than candidate A. If, however, I vote for neither, either abstaining or voting for someone else, the vote totals for candidates A and B are unaffected. To apply the logic of the accusation strictly, voting third party is also a vote for Donald Trump, since I’m not voting for Hillary. Apparently, if you want your vote to really have some weight you should vote third party; it clearly counts as at least three votes (one against each candidate you’re not voting for, as well as your actual vote).

In fact, that argument is so patently false that it demands that we take a closer look at the assertion under the surface, which is actually being made through this argument. If we’re going to really engage with the critique, we’ll have to put it in a form which expresses what’s really being said. In reality, the sentiment being expressed is that “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23, Matt 12:30). You, if you vote third party or don’t vote, are declaring yourself not to be part of the coalition of the accuser, and thus, you are an enemy. In most settings where the argument mentioned above is made, the accuser is making it towards people who, in other respects, would be considered part of the same social group. If your friends at church make this argument, it’s because they perceive that you should be their ally in this matter; your vote is a vote which should be “in the bag.” Your dissent is not just dissent from a particular election; it is a defection from the cause.

What this sentiment does not consider is that the situation in which we find ourselves in an election is not binary, while our relationship with Christ is. Christ’s assertion that “Whoever is not with me is against me” is also paired with the seemingly contradictory statement, given by Christ upon the disciples protest that others were driving out demons, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). How can these both be true? They can only be true if we are dealing with a truly binary situation, with only two possible states. Indifference or dissent are not real options; they are de facto declarations of opposition to Christ. However, Christ’s willingness to acknowledge those who were not strictly aligned, in organizational terms, with the disciples asserts the existence of a broader coalition, whose agreement is based on a fundamental alignment upon substantial matters. This strictly binary situation is not the case in an election, despite what the media and social pressure might insist. There are, potentially, a great number of candidates, and deciding where to place one’s vote asks questions which are much larger than just “which one of these two would you rather win?”

So, when we consider the actual forces at work behind the accusation “voting third party is just a vote for Hillary,” it is not so much a legitimate understanding of how voting works, but a statement of the necessity of group affiliation and conformity. There is some moral urgency in this plea, but it’s worth stating that such moral urgency is based upon more utilitarian reasoning than scriptural norms. Even if it’s worth talking about utilitarian concerns when deciding on a course of action, they do not retain the force of biblical injunction. The Bible does not enjoin you to vote for a particular candidate, or even to vote at all. However, the Bible was not written within a democratic context, so understanding how we are supposed to relate to our current context in a genuinely biblical manner demands to that consider, at greater length, what fidelity to Christ means in the exercise of our vote. I believe you’ll find that it is not nearly so clean as those who would coerce you into their coalition assert.

Utilitarian Approaches to Voting

When we speak about a “utilitarian” approach to voting, we are primarily talking about outcome-oriented practice. Utilitarianism tends to assume the primacy of the “greater good of humanity,” even if defining that greater good is difficult (or impossible, within a secular worldview). There are innumerable problems with using utilitarian thought as an ultimate paradigm, among which are a lack of criteria to evaluate, much less measure, the goals of our actions, as well as a lack of any justification for seeking the greater good of humanity. Nevertheless, this does not entirely discard the importance of utilitarian thought. Indeed, we exercise basically utilitarian thought every time we consider the best way to get to work in the morning. Even if utilitarian thought doesn’t give you a justification for why work is necessary to life, it assumes that we want to get there and gives us tools to consider how to do that best. Accordingly, when people insist that you join their voting bloc, the calculations underlying that insistence are utilitarian; if they are to succeed in achieving the goals of that bloc, they must bring you in. The goals of that voting bloc have taken the place of the “greater good,” so all considerations orbit those goals.

It is inevitably part of the discourse about voting today that it is considered the moral obligation of every citizen to vote. John Stuart Mill, a notable utilitarian thinker, wrote, in response to a woman who voluntarily declined a vote within an organization, “I am certain that a time will come when it will be felt that a man, and I need not add a woman too, because any rational creature, is committing a most gross dereliction of duty when he habitually neglects to make use of this power conscientiously and at any cost of labour to himself.”[1] Whether or not we agree with Mill’s attitude that this is a positive thing, he certainly was prescient regarding the current attitude toward voting. Brown’s evaluation of Mill’s statement is extremely compelling as well, as he writes, “Can it be that he counts inaction by which one fails to prevent harm as causing harm or as conduct harmful to others? I have long argued that as a general matter he not only does but must.”[2] If we are concerned with outcomes, there is no meaningful moral reason inaction is different than action, especially when the action required has very little cost.

This is fundamentally what is being asserted when people insist upon the moral obligation of every individual to vote, and, on a basic level, I don’t even disagree with that assertion. It is also not a big step from the importance of voting to the importance of coalition building to achieve goals through political means. Where I would dissent from the common wisdom on the matter is that, yes, a vote is a potent political voice for every individual, but we must be more considerate with what we say through that voice. Sometimes, the appropriate statement we must give with that voice is “none of the options given are remotely acceptable,” and in such a situation, abstaining from voting is an entirely appropriate gesture. The reality that a political process will render a decision does not mean that the process necessarily gives us an acceptable moral choice. Even in a utilitarian frame, we must consider the outcome of our actions and realize that, sometimes, dissent may be more effective in achieving our aims than accepting a lesser evil.

This, however, brings us to issues of conscience. Frequently, when discussing voting, people will make a distinction between our public and private functions. Lynch writes, “ The central act of the ‘democratic citizen,’ as described by Frederick Turner, the vote embodies a doubleness that reflects the citizen’s two roles: one public, one private; one objective, one subjective.”[3] Many people, in justifying their commitment to their voting bloc, talk about putting away certain convictions as matters of conscience in order to serve other public goods. Lynch lays down her basic convictions as to how society should function:

All of us who live together in a society, who must join together to form that society by acts of common consent, remain at the same time separate people, with individual integrity—and with consciences so personal and unique that they will never be fully and rightly understood by others.[4]

This is basically a statement of society contract theory, which suggests that we govern by the agreement of people upon how they will be governed.[5] I imagine it sounds silly to point this out, given our commitment to democracy, but commitment to God demands that we acknowledge truth is not a head count. Were our society deem it proper to permit the slaughter of thousands of innocents, it would not make that slaughter any more moral. As Kuyper writes, “Authority over men cannot arise from men. Just as little from a majority over against a minority, for history shows, almost on every page, that very often the minority was right.”[6] The analysis set up in the Lynch article is fundamentally positioned to give the conscience an authoritative voice which is necessarily personal, rather than rooted in the divine. This is contrary to the biblical picture of conscience. While conscience is certainly individual, the proper functioning of conscience is necessarily coordinate with moral truth. If one’s conscience speaks against universal moral law (for example, if your conscience prompts someone to kill his or her neighbor), that conscience is “broken.” As Kuyper suggests, there is such a thing as “right,” and it is to that which we are loyal, rather than to the dictates of a commonly chosen government. Lynch’s argument is fundamentally a caution toward saying that we understand what might be driving the conscience of another. This is destructive. From a Christian perspective, we do say that we can understand the proper functioning of the conscience, at least to some degree.

All that being established, it is important to acknowledge that there is room for Christian liberty in matters of public policy as well as private. It is appropriate that we would vote in accordance with our moral convictions, regardless of the common insistence from the left that we segregate such interests from the public sphere. Lawler writes:

 First, our “moral values” voters are to be celebrated as an antidote to the creeping and sometimes creepy libertarianism of our time; they, whatever their intellectual deficiencies, know that there are limits given us by God and nature to our selfish or individualistic efforts to remake the world to suit our convenience as individuals.[7]

There is an impulse, within libertarianism even of the Christian stripe, to suggest that the function of the government is essentially secular – that government should simply “get out” of legislating morality. This places an inseparable wall between the private world of religion and the public world of government which is ultimately unbiblical; it fundamentally fails to acknowledge the fact that all legislation is inherently moral and based upon ultimate moral principles. Secularism is a religion itself, in the sense that it makes claims upon ultimate values based on certain assumptions taken on faith. It is not a neutral space, regardless of what the secularists say. Defining the difference between secular democracy and religious democracy, Gonzalez writes:

Though a democracy that separates church and state, the US is in many ways a religious democracy, as described by legal scholar Bruce Ledewitz: “I mean simply that a substantial number of voters in America now vote the way they do for what they consider to be religious reasons, and that, as a result of their voting, government policy is changing.” This is in contrast to secular democracy that maintains that religion and politics must inhabit separate spaces. What makes a religious democracy distinct from a theocracy is that there is no hegemony to religious democracy. However it is defined, it is clear that religion is manipulated to create communities around key political issues, cast them in a moral or religious vein, and then create a common narrative of US identity.[8]

I am somewhat loathe to quote this at such length, but such a perspective makes it clear that the consensus opinion in modern academia is that religion should not have any place in politics. Through Gonzalez’ article, the fact that voters consider religion in casting their votes is, repeatedly, held up as the great problem with America, even if the author considers such a situation inevitable. To give a somewhat pithier quote from the same essay, “The influence of religious belief on voting patterns is due to the fact that believers do not compartmentalize their faith and moral convictions when they vote.”[9] Although it is nowhere stated forthrightly, it is implied throughout that this failure to compartmentalize is wrong.

As Christians, we should reject social contract theory, viewed through a utilitarian lens, as adequate to set out a frame for our government, and, blessedly, our country was not founded in such a manner. Kuyper writes, discussing the difference between the secularism of the French Revolution and the piety of the American Revolution, “Or as Hamilton himself expressed it, that he considered ‘The French Revolution to be no more akin to the American Revolution than the faithless wife in a French novel is like the Puritan matron in New England.”[10] Due to its secularism, the French Revolution cannot offer a greater warrant to its governance than the simple agreement of those who came together to accomplish it. The American Revolution assumes that the principles it set down were based upon divine warrant, and even if the method of government was based upon the consent of the people, such a government was only legitimate if it was given its authority by God himself.

A Christian View of Voting

It is well enough to point out the flaws with the various secular and utilitarian approaches to voting and the state, but this does us little good if we do not consider what then must fill the vacuum. If it is acceptable to take a utilitarian approach to the way we make our way to work in the morning, why would it be unacceptable to make our political choices based on mere pragmatism? I really don’t ask this question facetiously; there will undoubtedly be quite a few pragmatic, utilitarian choices which we make in how we choose to pursue those agendas which we are convinced are godly. We must, however, lay down the principles which must be considered to guide those practical decisions, lest we compromise the gospel at the end of the day.

First, it’s appropriate to ask what the state’s job should be. At least one aspect which must be considered herein is the power of coercion which the state must bear for it to do its duty. Murray writes, “Paul says that the civil magistrate is the minister of God, an avenger for wrath upon him who does evil, that he attends upon the service committed to him, and that it is for this reason that, out of conscience toward God, we must be in subjection. It is as the avenger of evildoing and in pursuance of that function that he bears the sword.”[11] This speaks both to the reality that the mandate of the government is bestowed by God and, when it is practiced faithfully, is God’s wrath itself upon the evildoer. The power of the sword is not given to the church, even if the church is absolutely required to speak truth to the government. The modern conception of the separation of church and state is starkly unbiblical, in that it frequently insists that the church must have nothing to do with the state, or vice versa. Contrary to this, we insist that both the church and state are founded upon God’s mandate, but that their tasks are different. They both should be “Christian,” at the end of the day, if they are being pursued in conformity with the tasks given to each in scripture. This does not imply that the government is responsible for enforcing adhere to Christianity – only that the government should be run consistently with the Christian principle of the role of government. Kuyper writes, regarding this, “The duty of the government to extirpate every form of false religion and idolatry was not a find of Calvinism, but dates from Constantine the Great, and was the reaction against the horrible persecutions which his pagan predecessors on the imperial throne had inflicted upon the sect of the Nazarene.”[12] While Israel certainly had this mandate, we no longer live in a theocracy. In a country which has not made a vow to covenant with the Lord God, it cannot be expected that all the citizens of that country should adhere to Christian morality and Christian worship. Regardless, it is the commission of government to restrain to evil abuses of society, whether they arise from false religion or mere pride and selfishness.

I confess that I find Frame’s treatment of the matter of church involvement in state affairs rather unsatisfying. He writes, answering the question of whether churches should be involved in politics, “Well, certainly, for many ‘political’ issues are straightforward questions of morality. If the church is to preach the whole Word of God, it must preach against abortion, homosexuality, relativism, and so on.” This is true and obvious, but he qualifies it with this statement, writing, “Ethical and political preaching do become problematic when specifics are involved.” [13] While it is certainly true that application of biblical truth becomes more difficult the more precise one gets, I’m not sure that has any special application to the political realm. If pastors would be comfortable giving moral advice to their congregations on various issues, I see no compelling reason that we should be any less precise in the political sphere. There is a certain species of Christianity within American which seems to regard involvement in too much of the practicalities of governance and society to be “beneath” the right-minded Christian. I believe that this is an unfortunate concession to the division between the public and private spheres of life which has been so aggressively asserted by secular society lately. Froehle, speaking to a Catholic context, evidences some of Frame’s hesitation about political involvement as well, writing:

A public theology will naturally be contextual and as such confessional in its discourse, to one degree or another. Theological framings around political choices must build on particular theological understandings and are primarily subject to critique from within the theological tradition and community of faith where those framings are produced. In a context of plurality within Christianity, not to mention plurality in terms of the presence of other faith traditions and options in the public square, one simply has to be specific.[14]

This is heavily coded theological language, but what is being asserted here is a caution against being overly dogmatic about certain issues and their implications for voting. It is speaking against the sort of sentiment which Frame expresses when he says that he will never vote for someone who is in favor of abortion, only they are willing to say so from the pulpit. While this caution is healthy to a degree, as we must be Christians before we are Republicans or Democrats, it does suggest a certain theological flexibility which does not seem ultimately biblical. When God has spoken clearly on a matter, as he has on the issue of abortion, we should not be shy with pointing out the implications of that statement. This does not have to give way to political bullying from the pulpit, but it should manifest in a boldness to speak about God’s instruction in specific instances. There is no biblical reason that elections should be any different, even if we should be cautious around the strong emotions which such elections tend to bring out in people.

Conclusion

Previously, we discussed the idea that the assertion which is really behind the accusation “voting third-party is voting for Clinton” is an attempt to enforce adherence to a perceived coalition. I still believe this to be the case, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t be involved with a voting bloc which votes only for perfect men. Unless Christ returns, we don’t have that candidate on the ballot. What we have discussed does mean that we must consider issues more complex than simply “who would do the least damage.” Even under a utilitarian ethic, there are many options for how we might decide to exercise our political voice to achieve our political ends. However, if we consider the frame of reference that the mandate of our government is from God himself, that should give us the boldness to bring our theological convictions to the fore and give those full voice in our vote. Paul speaks great condemnation upon the mass of unregenerate mankind when he writes, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom 1:32). The church should be willing and bold to speak the Word of God, even to those in power, and even when it cuts against the grain of the interests of whatever coalition to whom we may have bound ourselves.

[1]D. G. Brown, “Mill on the Harm in Not Voting,” Utilitas 22, no. 2 (June 2010): 128.

[2] Brown, 130.

[3] Kathryn L. Lynch, “VOTING ONE’S CONSCIENCE,” Society 42, no. 4 (May 2005): 27.

[4] Lynch, 27.

[5] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2008), 603.

[6] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1931), 82.

[7]Peter A. Lawler, “VIRTUE VOTERS,” Society 42, no. 4 (May 2005): 23.

[8]Michelle A. Gonzalez, “RELIGION AND THE US PRESIDENCY: POLITICS, THE MEDIA, AND RELIGIOUS IDENTITY,” Political Theology 13, no. 5 (October 2012): 571.

[9] Gonzalez, 575.

[10] Kuyper, 87.

[11] John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1957), 114-15.

[12] Kuyper, 100.

[13] Frame, 617.

[14]Bryan T. Froehle, “Voting and Political Discourse as Practical Theology: Catholics, Bishops, and Obama in the U.S. Elections of 2008,” International Journal Of Practical Theology 15, no. 1 (August 2011): 90.

Jason Waeber

Jason Waeber is an elder at Grace Bible Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, where he worships with his wife and three children. He is also a seminary student, under care with the Great Lakes Presbytery. As GBPC is looking forward to planting a church with him in the next few years, he felt called to develop the online presence of the denomination, both for outreach and the doctrinal maturity of the denomination. The Manna and the Stone is his attempt to pursue this. Currently, Jason is serving as the general editor for the site.

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