It’s election day in Alabama. If recent electoral trends are a reliable metric, today’s election is probably a preview of what we can expect to see more and more often in the years to come: a wildly unqualified Republican candidate whose character alone should disqualify him from office and an unapologetically pro-choice Democrat who represents the increasingly strident social progressivism of his party.
Certainly that is what we have with Moore and Jones. It is also what we had in the presidential election last November. Given that, it’s reasonable to zoom out a little bit and talk about some of the challenges with voting in such a disordered system.
1. Character matters when electing politicians.
In a democratic republic, which is what we are, elected officials are not actually supposed to simply govern as their citizens would prefer. They are, rather, chosen by voters to make decisions that they themselves are not able to make. For this reason alone, character is a significant concern: The elected official is being given an enormous amount of power by design and wielding power well requires good character. Indeed, the wisdom of the ages would tell us that wielding power well requires not wanting power in the first place, but rather having it thrust upon you.
For this reason, Republican candidates like Trump and Moore, both of whom seem to share the same shamelessness, should not be allowed anywhere near the seat of power. It’s not simply that we have some sort of “eww cooties” response to them as officials, which is the way that more dismissive critics of #NeverTrumpers have sometimes talked about us. It’s that we understand the nature of American politics, we recognize the enormous amount of power that elected officials in the federal government have, and we don’t want anyone with the character of Donald Trump or Roy Moore holding that power.
There is another consideration here as well, which we can get at in two different ways. First, politicians routinely become a symbol of the national life of a country and of its citizens. Morally diseased candidates like Trump and Moore symbolize our own moral decline as a nation and normalize that decline in troubling ways that will make the problem worse. Second, as others have noted, while it is trendy to say that politics are downstream from culture, it is also true that there are many ways in which culture is downstream from politics. Whichever way you want to say it, the end point is the same: Shamelessly immoral candidates like Moore and Trump are not only a political liability due to their lack of principle, they are also an active risk to the public life of a nation by normalizing various forms of immorality.
2. The GOP as a party is not actually interested in governing.
There are any number of examples you could furnish here to make the point. We might begin by the years of cynical obstruction the party engaged in under President Obama, to the point of torpedoing a healthcare agenda whose signature element was an idea taken from the Heritage Foundation! We could also consider the reactions to the Trayvon Martin shooting, and especially to Obama’s comments about it, and the Sandy Hook shooting. In all cases, the GOP did not behave like a party interested in governing within a democratic republic system that runs on compromise and incremental gains. Since the late 80s or early 90s, the GOP has been hardening and hardening, such that today the party’s agenda is divorced almost entirely from coherent governing policy.
The most recent example is the tax reform bill. First, they took steps with the tax reform bill that will, according to almost all third party organizations, increase the deficit. To be sure, there may not be anything necessarily wrong with ballooning the deficit. Maybe you buy into an economic model that says that a larger deficit isn’t a problem and that the economic stimulus provided by a tax cut makes the deficit increase worthwhile. That is a fine political view to hold. I don’t know that there is a ton of historical data to back it up, but it is at least a broader overall philosophy on state-level economics.
That said, almost immediately after they passed this bill, full of tax cuts for the richest Americans which will dramatically increase the deficit, Paul Ryan turned around and said that the House agenda in 2018 is going to be cutting Medicaid and Medicare, specifically citing fear about the deficit as a reason for that agenda. So when we’re cutting taxes for rich people, we don’t care about the deficit. But then when it’s time to pay for poor people to go to the hospital, we suddenly get worried about deficit spending. There are many things you can call that—and I can think of more than a few colorful examples from the prophets—but you can’t call it an internally consistent political agenda. You either care about the deficit… or you don’t.
Really, what we’re dealing with at this point in the GOP is an ideology that sees rich people as unambiguously good because they create #value and poor people as being leeches on society who spend their money “on booze and women” and who, presumably, are better off dying “and decreasing the surplus population.” If you care about the deficit enough to cut entitlements, then you can’t justify the tax cuts. And if you don’t care about the deficit, you can’t argue on those grounds for cutting entitlements.
The GOP, as others have noted, has become a drunken caricatured version of Zombie Reaganism. And whatever else we might say about it, it does not have a coherent approach to governing.
3. We should not glide easily over the substantive problems with the GOP’s policies.
Due to the serious concerns about Moore’s character, policy questions have largely fallen to the side as they relate to this particular election. That is unfortunate. One of the largest lacunas in evangelical political discourse right now is substantive engagement with policy and broader political philosophy.
What we know about Moore is that he is on the record as saying that the American family was strongest during the antebellum era—a time when black families were routinely broken up for the sake of profit—and that getting rid of all the amendments after the 10th—which includes amendments to overturn slavery and guarantee voting rights for all Americans—would solve a lot of problems. There aren’t single policy proposals in those views, of course, but those views do suggest that the person will be extremely dangerous on matters of policy, especially as policy affects black people, other racial minorities, and women.
One of the unfortunate side effects of the Democratic support for abortion has been that many evangelicals essentially give the GOP a pass on policy issues. For many evangelicals in the past 30 years, voting Republican is a kind of natural default that is often done without taking the time to soberly reckon with the consequences of Republican policy. But because the GOP is, increasingly, unconcerned with character and unconcerned with actually governing, it is more important than ever that we learn again to understand and care about policy and factor it into our political choices.
4. We should not pass over the abortion question as “a policy issue.”
All that being said, one of the things I have seen amongst younger evangelicals is a pivoting toward the Democratic party as a principled alternative to the GOP. In a sense, this is an understandable move: Al Franken is no longer a senator and even John Conyers has been removed from his position in the aftermath of credible abuse allegations. On the other hand, this is also the party that stood by Bill Clinton for 25 years and seems to have only discovered that he was bad once the Clintons ceased to have any real political power or influence. So while they may not be as egregious as the GOP in their disregard for character, that is still a theme you’ll find with them at times.
That said, the larger moral emergency amongst the Democrats is their increasingly strident support for abortion. The Jones candidacy is, in fact, the perfect symbol of that emergency: According to Pew, 58% of Alabamians think that abortion should be illegal in all or most situations. Mississippi and Arkansas are the only states that top them on that metric. If there is any state where the Democrats would be incentivized to tolerate a pro-life candidate, it’d be Alabama. Yet even there, the Democrats have nominated an unapologetically pro-choice candidate of the sort that you simply did not see regularly in the mainstream Democratic party until Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy in 2008. Now this view is normal in the party, even in a state as staunchly pro-life as Alabama.
Moreover, a convincing case could be made that Jones has every incentive to simply lie about his views on abortion in the short-term. Given Alabama’s demographics, it is highly likely that he will be a one-term senator. So don’t worry about re-election, just win this race, get into office, and then vote with the party. From a pragmatic stand point, there is strong incentive for Jones to run as a pro-life Democrat in the mold of Tim Kaine. He hasn’t. That he has not done so—and that it may well cost him the race!—should tell us a great deal about the state of the contemporary Democratic party.
Abortion in America is a national plague and one that, alone, would be sufficient to merit severe divine judgment. Indeed, for Christians it should not seem intuitively crazy to suggest that the decline we are experiencing now may well be a product of God’s judgment on our country for the death of nearly 60 million people since 1973. To support abortion as dogmatically as the contemporary Democratic party has is not simply taking a stand on “a policy issue.”
It is choosing to offer continued support for an order responsible for a loss of life that is roughly equivalent to the estimated number of people killed during World War II on all sides of the conflict. “Safe, legal, rare” was not a great solution, but it was something that would reckon with the horror of abortion and recognized that it was something sad, symptomatic of a disordered and diseased society. But what the Democratic party is doing now is of another magnitude altogether, seeing children as a medical liability, something to be avoided as much as possible. It is inhuman in the most literal way imaginable… and it is the mainstream view of the Democratic party.
5. Our default should be toward saying there are multiple acceptable options for Christians while also insisting that those options be chosen for reflective, careful reasons.
One of the things I’ve tried to do, though I suspect I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded, is give a fair shake to writers who are more friendly to the American right than I am. It is a large part of why we have and will continue to run editorials by people like my friends Keith Miller and Stephen Wolfe, both of whom, I’m sure, have rolled their eyes at my own politics on more than one occasion. They have had and will continue to have a platform at Mere O because they make a case for their political positions in a rigorous and helpful way that invariably sharpens my own thinking and helps me better understand a given subject. Indeed, much of my thinking on how to act in American politics after Trump has been shaped by Stephen’s essay on third parties that we published last year.
If an evangelical wants to go to the polls today to vote for Doug Jones, I can understand why they would do that. There is a symbolic harm done to women and minorities when a man like Moore is elected. Moreover, given the character concerns with him, there is real reason to fear that Moore would abuse his power in egregious ways—the man has ignored the rule of law on multiple occasions and almost certainly knows about the various attempts to discredit the media via (poorly done) stings. Given those fears, I can understand a vote for Jones. Even so, I hope Jones voters have wrestled with the horror of his views on abortion and I hope they are approaching their relationship with the Democratic party in an extremely pragmatic and even cynical way. It will not do any good if young evangelicals become the Democratic party’s useful idiots in the same way that older evangelicals have been useful idiots for the GOP.
A vote for Moore is harder for me to wrap my head around both because of how spectacularly bad he is and because, unlike in the case of Donald Trump, there is no empty Supreme Court seat to justify the pick. Indeed, if we’re talking about the actual powers that the office has, there’s a very good case to be made that as a senator Jones’s abortion politics are not that big a deal for the simple reason that the Senate can do relatively little on the abortion issue. Given that the number one mark against Jones is abortion and given that he has relatively little power to do anything on that issue, this may well strengthen the case for voting for Jones.
That said, should Jones win, his success in Alabama would legitimize radical pro-choice politics within the party, which is a reason to push against him. And here we must return to the importance of policy: In a much-discussed editorial written last fall, Wayne Grudem counseled readers to “vote for Trump’s policies.” That such a position could be taken more seriously within evangelical circles than “vote for Trump” could is, of course, one of our biggest problems. Trump was absolutely disqualified on character grounds. But it is not as if his policies are that much better.
Unfortunately, because of the evangelical indifference to policy and our reluctance to engage with it seriously, we have struggled to get over our knee-jerk support for the GOP for any reason besides character concerns. Sadly, it seems probable that the GOP will continue to trot out moral black holes as candidates for elected office. So character alone may be a strong enough pull to draw evangelicals away from the GOP.
That said, given the consequentialist logic that prevails in how many Americans think about politics, it seems increasingly likely that any number of horrific moral offense may be tolerable, provided they produce the desired political outcome.
The answers to our political problems, then, will not be easy ones. But one thing we can say with confidence: Any sort of revived evangelical political witness will require a more robust understanding of political theology as well as a clearer understanding of how policy works in a modern nation-state. Short of those two things, it is hard to see any way forward at all for evangelicals as a coherent political bloc.