By Stephen Wolfe

The Trump and Moore political campaigns raise an important question for Christians: does one endorse the moral life of the candidate he votes for? Surprisingly, there seems to be consensus on this, regardless of one’s willingness to vote for Trump or Moore. A vote in some way endorses, or at least signals approval or acceptance of, the moral life of the one voted for.

But many will say that although endorsing sin is an evil, it is sometimes necessary in our fallen world given the alternatives and stakes in the election. One must choose the lesser evil to avoid a greater one. Trump is morally corrupt, but Hillary is far worse. So when one must choose between two evils, one chooses the lesser evil (Trump) to prevent the greater evil (Hillary). Others have rejected this, insisting that Christians should not choose evil to fight evil, nor follow “consequentialist” ethics.

What is strange to me is how few have actually stopped to analyze the statement, “Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of his moral life” and similar statements. Few have asked whether or in what way voting endorses the moral life of the one voted for. Few have questioned the received view of Christian voting theory. Here I will assume and modify it as I subject it to reality. In the end, I show that voting is a matter of assessing likely consequences.

Christian Voting Theory

For a Christian, the standards of the moral life is the moral law, which is summarized in the Decalogue. The first part concerns man’s duty to God, including proper worship. Since the principal end of humankind is the worship of God, which most distinguishes humankind from brutes, the true worship of God is the highest moral act one can perform. Not to give God his due in worship is the supreme act of moral corruption. One who fails to worship God properly (which, according to orthodox Christianity, is only through faith in Christ) is morally corrupt.

But surely those who believe that voting endorses candidates’ moral life do not think that true or false worship is part of the endorsement. Evangelicals have been very willing to endorse and vote for Mormons and Roman Catholics, despite having serious disagreements with the former over a host of theological issues and the latter over what is traditionally considered the “idolatry of the Mass.” These are moral issues, that is, they are First-Table disagreements over giving God his due. Yet failures to give God his due are seemingly not endorsed through voting.

Voting does not therefore endorse all parts of the moral life, even the principal part. But why? Because proper worship and good soteriology do not concern the civil realm. Worship concerns heavenly life and the ecclesiastical administration, not the civil. The Second-Table concerns civil justice, order, and our earthly duties. Voting does not endorse all of the candidate’s moral life, only the part relating to earthly life. This is a matter of civil righteousness.  

So the principle so far is:

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of a candidate’s moral life as it pertains to civil righteousness.

Civil righteousness at this point refers to one’s perfect obedience to the Second-Table of the moral law. Let’s remember however that the Law has an external and an internal component. One must act outwardly in conformity with the Law and internally in accordance with the correct motivation (or principle, mode, and end). In our sinful world, even if one seems outwardly blameless, he cannot be internally blameless. He will be covetous, for example, without showing any external indication of it. Surely when people vote for such a person they are not endorsing one’s past or present propensity to sin internally. Why?

Because what matters in the civil realm is civil action, not internal motivations seen only by God. This hypothetical candidate’s internal sin has no impact on his outward behavior. Since there are no adverse consequences, the vote does not endorse evil. So the principle is:

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of a candidate’s moral life as it pertains to his external conformity to civil righteousness.

But has there ever been such a blameless person, one who though internally sinful (like all of us) is perfect as to civil righteousness? Surely not. Everyone outwardly sins. Does voting for him endorse that evil? If a candidate badly failed to honor his parents decades ago, does one endorse that sin by voting for him? I think that most people would say it doesn’t. Why? Because one endorses another’s sin in voting for him only when those sins adversely affect the suitability of the candidate for civil office. The sin must relate in some way to civil office. So:

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of the candidate’s moral life as it pertains to his external conformity to civil righteousness sufficient to qualify the candidate for civil office.

We’ve significantly reduced the scope of sins that voting can endorse. We have shifted away in part from who the candidate is to what he does. More precisely, we now care about his personal features pertaining to civil action. A civil officeholder fulfills a civil function, which necessarily involves action for civil ends; and qualifying for civil office is necessarily a matter of possessing characteristics conducive to producing good, long-term civil outcomes by means of civil action in a particular time, place, and set of circumstances. An action-less officeholder is a bad one; and to be a good one, one must have the time-sensitive traits and skills to produce good outcomes. Hence:

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of the candidate’s moral life as it pertains to his external conformity to civil righteousness sufficient to qualify the candidate for civil office, qualifications judged by the likely long-term consequences of his term in office determined by his likely political actions.

But political consequences in modern democracies are the result of political action mediated through the constraints of political institutions. Every civil office when part of a robust constitution has a limited set of powers, and in modern constitutions other branches of government or institutions “check” those powers with their own.

So when evaluating the consequences of someone’s term in office one has to judge how institutions will shape his actions’ outcomes. Therefore, the suitability of any given candidate for civil office is determined by the likelihood that, when mediated through the constraints of the office and surrounding institutions (e.g., those that provide checks and balances), he will produce good and desired civil outcomes (e.g., policy) The principle therefore is:

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of the candidate’s moral life as it pertains to his external conformity to civil righteousness sufficient to qualify the candidate for civil office, qualifications judged by the likely long-term consequences of his term in office determined by his likely political actions after mediated through the institutional constraints of his office and the checks and balances of other institutions.  

But surely one does not have to agree with all of the likely outcomes of another’s term in office in order to vote for him, only that its overall results are good.

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of the candidate’s moral life as it pertains to his external conformity to civil righteousness sufficient to qualify the candidate for civil office, qualifications judged by the likely preponderance of good or bad in the long-term consequences of his term in office determined by his political actions after mediated through the institutional constraints of his office and the checks and balances of other institutions.  

We can conclude then that voting for another endorses sin only if that sin reveals a character whose actions would likely result in a preponderance of bad consequences from his term in office. Ultimately and put simply, the likely consequences are the basis for our choice to vote or not vote for someone, even if you think that voting can endorse sin. But notice that this theory does not permit one to vote for someone whose term’s outcomes will likely be bad overall, even if this bad will be less bad than the other candidates’.

This is not consequentialist ethics. It’s voting theory. Voting theory is not a subcategory of ethical theory; it is a subcategory of political theory. For this reason, consequentialist voting theory does not necessarily assume or entail ethical consequentialism.

Factors for Voting

Many evangelicals place moral character as sort of litmus test for public office, not just one factor among others. According to this view, when any evangelical votes for an immoral character, they have abandoned moral criteria for voting and criticizing politicians. They can never again talk of any candidate’s morality. But the truth of this morality litmus test is almost always assumed, never demonstrated. And as I argued above, a moral standard as a first condition for vote-worthiness is arbitrary, unless it is shown to be relevant to good civil outcomes resulting from civil actions in a particular time, place, and set of circumstances mediated through particular political institutions. One would have to prove that a particular standard of morality is universally necessary for good civil outcomes. I’ve never seen anyone even attempt to argue this.

Most people consider moral life to be one factor among many (e.g., experience, character, knowledge, eloquence, high energy, likeability, fortitude, truthfulness, and use of power), and each factor is weighted in importance given their interests and their judgment on the state of their country. Moral life could matter a great dealt to someone and yet he could consistently vote for a candidate below his moral preference because the candidate scores high on the other factors.

But in voting for one with a moral life below his preferences he does not ipso facto abandon the morality-factor anymore than voting for an ineloquent speaker forces one to abandon his preference for eloquence. Nor does it mean that he can no longer criticize some politician’s moral failures while in office or even declare him unfit for office on account of it. All he does in the vote is declare that in this particular situation the low morality score does not trump the scores on the other factors. One could still use morality as one factor to reject a candidate in the future without inconsistency.

To be sure, the consequences assessed do not have to be merely policy outcomes. There is something to say for the demand that our leaders set a good, moral example. One could, on this basis, not vote for Trump or Moore. But as I said above, voting for either does not necessarily force one to reject a preference for leaders setting a moral example. One could, for example, see Trump’s eschewing of moral denunciation and his willingness to confront elites head-on as a useful means of achieving certain policies goals, policies which were prevented in the past by elite social pressure. And yet the byproduct of this personality is an unpreferred buffoonery, which one might consider in other circumstances to be a deal-breaker.

But while avoiding political buffoonery is a worthy goal, is it an absolute condition for voting for someone or is it a highly weighted preference? Is avoiding the embarrassment of an ineloquent leader an absolute condition for voting someone or is it a highly weighted preference? I could go on and on. What is the principle to distinguish between absolute conditions and preferences? My argument here is that every qualification for civil office is ultimately a preference and each is weighted by importance. Our decisions to vote or not vote is based on our consideration of candidates in light of these weighted preferences.

We should also consider that the importance of morality, and any other factor in judging likely consequences, is relative to the nature of the political institutions. A confrontational political system with many checks and balances and with an administrative state as a de facto additional branch of government—I’m speaking of the United States—can likely limit the excesses of any branch. The separation of powers limits the functions of the President, arguably making “benevolent” and “moral” rulers less applicable than in traditional political regimes. The point is that the weight given to this or that factor is determined by its relevance to existing political institutions. Countries with different political institutions will weight the factors differently.

This theory of voting also evades the power/principle dichotomy popular in evangelical political tropery. Power is the ability to do something, and in this context it is the power to bring about civil outcomes. The principle, as outlined above, is voting on the basis of the likely civil outcomes. Hence, the principle is not opposed to power; rather it is an essential part of it. The vote is an instrument of power to bring about perceived good civil outcomes. Power can be used in an unprincipled way (viz., voting for bad consequences), but the principle is not opposed to the use of power itself.

Conclusion

We need to bring consequences back into our discussion on the ethics of voting. Ultimately, our voting decisions ought to be based on the likely consequences of the candidate’s term in office determined by applying weighted factors given the time, place, and set of circumstance and the existing political institutions. The moral life of a candidate remains a factor, perhaps even a strong one. But it is a factor like the rest; it is not sui generis. The fact that any given candidate fails to meet one’s moral preferences does not preclude voting for him, since the other factors may make-up for this low mark.

I hope that this essay spurs an honest discussion on Christian voting theory. We rely on too many assumptions, and our reasoning is often sloppy and moralistic. If morality is a sui generis test for one’s vote-worthiness—the first condition and an inflexible, universal, and absolute factor for further considering a candidate—then its truth needs to be demonstrated, not assumed. Evangelicals have sought after simplicity, but their theory is just simplistic.

Stephen Wolfe is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. His research interests include the American founding, modernity, aesthetics, and politics, and meaningful work. He is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. You can find more of his work on his personal blog.

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  • Bonnie

    Thank you for articulating what I’ve long thought but lacked the eloquence to express.

  • Physiocrat

    This is the most sane political article on here for a long time. I would go further however – should you not frequent a restaurant because the head chef is an adulterer? To make the personal moral conduct matter as much as some do for politicians why not for other jobs? You’d have to make a special case. Now that could be plausible but I have never read one.

    • Cal P

      I suppose it depends upon the American version of republican political theory, where the representative is an independent force, selected among a group to be the group’s advocate. This is contrary to more parliamentarian democratic theory, which sees a representative as an extension of popular will. In the first case, you are choosing your leader, and in the second, you, as the popular and majoritarian will, lead through your mediating representative. Thus, in the republican theory, you want to make sure you’re picking a benevolent overlord and, in that, moral character may come to play a far more important factor. It’s as if the chef, in your example, not only cooked the food, but decided what you would eat, when, and in which order. You’d probably not want a morally unscrupulous fellow at that rate.

      • Physiocrat

        That makes sense but as the article above points out it is character which leads to bad outcomes in the particular role that matters not moral character per se. An adulterous politicians could well produce overall better outcomes than the chaste man. I think one of the main characteristics for politicians would be honesty however even someone who is dishonest could be better as long as the actual behaviour could be reasonably predicted.

  • hoosier_bob

    This article glosses over a couple of key points.

    First, Moore’s moral failing had to do with trustworthiness more than sexual morality. When criminalizing consensual same-sex sex is the centerpiece of your campaign, it comes off as dishonest when you happen to be a pedophile.

    Second, Moore’s rejection of the rule of law is also problematic. Traditionally, we have viewed religious liberty as a shield that limits the government’s reach. The new view of religious liberty promoted by Moore, Rod Dreher, and most evangelicals is one where religious liberty is a sword.

    • Martin Barnard

      I’d be interested to hear more about you’re concerns with Dreher and Moore and their new reading of religious liberty.

      On the other hand, your first point is spot on and you’re right, it’s completely ignored by this article.

      • hoosier_bob

        My point is that religious liberty has traditionally been viewed as a defensive right that limits the government’s intrusion into one’s practice of religion. The First Amendment says that Congress shall pass no law “prohibiting” the free exercise of religion.

        There are two key points in the wording. First, it is a limitation on Congress, and, by virtue of the 14th Amendment, the states. It is a defensive right that limits government power. Second, it is not an absolute right. Note, for example, that the First Amendment recites that Congress shall pass no law “abridging” freedom of speech. Thus, the Constitution provides stronger protections for speech than it does for the free exercise of religion. Congress can’t prohibit the free exercise of religion, but it can abridge it.

        We have not generally viewed the Free Exercise Clause as conferring onto religious practitioners the right to impose harm onto others without consent. In fact, that’s the gist of the Establishment Clause. If the government permits religious practitioners to harm others in the name of their religion, it is arguably privileging one religion over another (or over no religion). But Dreher and others (notably, ADF) are asking the courts to confer onto religious practitioners a private right to harm others via the exercise of their religion. Notably, they are arguing that places of public accommodation should be able to refuse to engage in certain transactions with same-sex couples (an egregious dignitary harm) if doing so would violate one’s subjective religious convictions.

        This is most clear in the Stutzman case. Unlike the case of the Colorado baker, Stutzman’s case is not a speech case. She didn’t object to writing certain words or phrases on her floral arrangements. Rather, she refused to engage in the transaction altogether, much like the proprietor of the Piggie Park Restaurants in the Newman case. Courts don’t weigh the relative merits of one’s religious claim. Those who believe that Christianity requires racial segregation are just as entitled to the benefits of the First Amendment as those who believe that Christianity forbids vowed same-sex relationships. Even so, courts have consistently upheld laws that prevent businesses (including those owned by religious practitioners) from inflicting dignitary harms onto racial minorities, despite the good-faith religious objections of the business owner. But Stutzman is asking the courts to reverse that longstanding principle, and to permit religious business owners to inflict dignitary harms onto protected classes in the name of the Free Exercise Clause.

        I’m rather sympathetic to the legal arguments proffered by the Colorado baker. I believe that the First Amendment sets forth a near-absolute right not to engage in speech that one finds objectionable. This likely applies to certain speech-acts, where the certain conduct unambiguously implies speech. But that’s not the Stutzman case. She, like the proprietor of the Piggie Park Restaurants, is simply being asked to engage in a simple sale of goods. If the courts permit Stutzman’s argument to stand, it places us on a very slippery slope that places us one step away from the revival of whites-only lunch counters.

  • James McClain

    In this medium of fast takes, this is the best thing I’ve seen in awhile re. concerns that face voters in this republic. Thank you.

  • Martin Barnard

    Two things I think should be said.

    First of all, in insisting on consequences as a guide to voting ethics, you have introduced a factor which is, in many ways, abstract and unknowable. “Even the wisest cannot see all ends.” Public morality is a known quantity by definition. Consequences can be endlessly debated. As one of my friends likes to say regularly, no matter how bad our President gets, he’s still better than Hilary would have been. How do you even argue with that?

    One of the motivating factors for Evangelical political engagement is imposing a moral vision through the civil government, for example banning same sex marriage. That factor the driving force is part of why abstaining from voting is seen as neglecting moral responsibility.

    If imposing your morality is in any way a part of your motivation for voting, it seems to me a convenience for that the candidates you vote for to live by the code of public morality they are trying to impose on others.

    • hoosier_bob

      I agree. There are too many unknowable factors to permit one to carry out any meaningful consequentialist assessment.

      What you’re hitting on seems to relate to the difference between political realism and political idealism. Evangelicals, like progressives, are political idealists. They have a particular moral vision, believe that it is right, and consistently seek to impose that moral vision onto others. That’s why it’s a bit of a misnomer to refer to evangelicals as political conservatives. They’re not. They tend to reactionaries more than Burkian conservatives, and have a strong preference for a hierarchical, authoritarian social order. I think that explains why so many evangelicals are accepting of Trump, despite his moral failings.

      I believe that Christianity compels us to be political realists. As C.S. Lewis so aptly noted, we can never be more than “probably right.” There are simply too many contingencies for idealism to work effectively. We’re far better off giving people the space to experiment socially and economically, even as we place certain limits on that experimentation. For example, we don’t generally allow experimentation that would impose unreasonable harm onto others without their consent.

      Consider Haidt’s five moral foundations: (1) harm prevention; (2) proportionality; (3) in-group loyalty; (4) authority; and (5) purity. The first two are largely susceptible to objective analysis. By contrast, the latter three rely more on subjective analysis. In general, government can only work efficiently in instances where its actions are susceptible to objective analysis. Thus, as a realist, I believe that the government should do no more than ensure that people don’t suffer unreasonable harm without their consent and restrain the use of power for self-serving (disproportionate) purposes. There probably does need to be a certain minimal level of national loyalty and respect for authority, but not much more. The latter three moral foundations are better suited for enforcement via mediating institutions, like churches and other civic organizations.

      As Charles Murray notes, one of the big differences between Belmont and Fishtown lies in the wealth of mediating institutions that are available to the denizens of Belmont. In Belmont, the government can afford to limit itself to preventing harm and protecting proportionality because a host of mediating institutions serve the other three moral foundations. Progressivism has generally opposed the existence of such mediating institutions, and has instead sought to bring the latter three moral foundations within the ambit of the state’s responsibility. But the reactionary proposition of evangelicalism isn’t much different, at least at a procedural level. It too opposes all mediating institutions; to the extent that the church is preserved, it is preserved in a way that largely eliminates the boundary between church and state.

      So, I don’t think it’s necessary that the government operate with an all-encompassing moral vision, where mediating institutions cease to be centers of experimentation and become little more than agents of state authority. But evangelicals, like their Puritan forbears, have typically taken the idealist tack and therefore expect mediating institutions to fall in line. And I fear that evangelicals are often so obsessed with opposing progressivism that they miss out on legitimate opportunities to partner with political realists. Starting in the 1990s, evangelicals and other reactionaries began castigating political realists as RINOs, and began to focus on political issues that were unlikely to gain realist support (e.g., opposition to early-term abortion and same-sex marriage).

      Even so, it’s always been unclear what evangelicals want. There are folks like Rod Dreher, who are simply confused. Dreher’s proposed Benedict Option amounts to little more than a mediating institution that focuses on shared agreement on the latter there of Haidt’s moral foundations. It’s no different than the kind of mediating institution that political realists have promoted and nurtured for decades. But despite his recognition of the need for such mediating institutions, Dreher can’t seem to bring himself to embrace political realism. Dreher still wants to immanentize the eschaton. For him, the Benedict Option is only temporary: The ultimate goal is regaining political power and imposing a reactionary moral vision onto society by force. But if you press Dreher on this point, he retreats back into a kind of realism. At the same time, many evangelicals are true reactionaries. They want to gain political power and use that power to bring society into conformity to their moral vision by force. They’re looking for something akin to the kind of illiberal democracy that we see in places like Singapore, Russia, and the Visegrad nations of Europe.

      Most educated evangelicals are in Dreher’s camp. They are functional realists, but still partake selectively of idealism, especially when it comes to things like sex and marriage. That said, most rank-and-file evangelicals are probably in the reactionary camp. They’d prefer a president without Trump’s moral foibles. Even so, they like his illiberalism and his rejection of democratic norms, and that trumps their other misgivings. I was in the Admirals Club at the airport last week, and inadvertently walked into the Fox News section of the lounge. A noticed that about half of the advertising was specifically geared toward evangelical Christians. I’m convinced that most evangelicals would rather live in an illiberal state, where the government enforces the values of and grants additional privileges to white middle-class conservative Christians.

      So, in a sense, Roy Moore doesn’t bother me too much. I think he’s a fairly accurate reflection of the kind of leader that most evangelicals want, maybe without the pedophilia. That’s probably not true of certain educated evangelicals, like Dreher and Russell Moore.

      • Martin Barnard

        When I read a comment like yours, I realize I have so much more reading and learning to do. I am an avid reader and can hold my own in discussions of C.S.Lewis, having been immersed in his writing since my early teens. But many of the other authors you mentioned are not familiar to me.

        I must confess here that I am no fan of Trump or Moore and wrote in my preferred candidate in the last presidential election. So I guess in that sense I am an idealist. However, on the other hand, the reason I refused to support Trump is I believe his lack of ethical sense or decency or…well, anything I would look for in a leader, meant voting for him would be the height of folly, in my opinion.

        I am not wise enough to know what the results of this economic policy or immigration policy might be. On the other hand I know very well what will result from leaders devoid of ethics will be.

        So I see most Evangelicals as political idealists who voted like political realists in the last election. It appears rather hypocritical.

        • hoosier_bob

          There was an interesting editorial in NYT today on the “Fox Evangelicals.”

          Within my former denomination, there was too much of a tendency to judge the health of the denomination by views of its leadership. Few pastors in my former denomination, the PCA, are in the crowd of Fox Evangelicals. But they pastor churches and have ruling elders who are committed Fox Evangelicals. So, even if they don’t agree with this white nationalist form of Protestantism, they generally tolerate it because their livelihoods depend on not offending its practitioners.

          Now that I’ve left the PCA for an ECUSA church, I’ve been surprised by the number of theologically conservative people in the ECUSA. Many of them once attended evangelical churches, but came to see themselves as outsiders within their own church communities. In many ways, they felt that they were left to make a bargain between (1) a church in which they were culturally at home, but not quite theologically at home, and (2) a church in which they were theologically at home, but not culturally at home. In the end, the former won out.

          I feel for guys like Dreher. He’s looking for a church home that shares his hostility to left-leaning heterodoxy. The problem in America is that it’s difficult to find that without immersing oneself in a community that tolerates all manner of right-wing heterodoxy. Evangelical churches are not nearly as theologically orthodox as they purport to be. In fact, I would argue that most PCA churches have about the same percentage of orthodox Christians as most ECUSA churches. The difference lies in what kind of heterodoxy is tolerated. In the ECUSA, there’s a fair amount of left-leaning heterodoxy that one has to endure. But in the PCA or SBC, there’s an equal amount of right-leaning (and right-lurching) heterodoxy that one has to endure. The question comes down to what kind of heterodoxy do you want to deal with.

          I deal with left-leaning heterodoxy Monday through Saturday. I’m probably the only registered Republican in my Saturday morning running group. I’m quite comfortable navigating that terrain and building meaningful friendships within it. Right-leaning heterodoxy was only something I encountered on Sundays at church or in various online publications. It was something foreign to my everyday existence, and I wasn’t very deft at navigating it. Never mind that I had grown up in a left-leaning subculture, and had only come to evangelicalism when I was in college. So, moving from the PCA to the ECUSA was a relatively easy transition. There’s a certain seamlessness between the subculture in which I operate throughout the week and the one in which I operate on Sundays. And the same is true for most people who attend PCA or SBC churches. People like me stay within the PCA or SBC because they have enduring social connections with Fox Evangelicalism.

          I was recently given the choice of scheduling a meeting in London or Tokyo. I chose the latter. My Japanese is good enough that I can get by in Tokyo without difficulty. And I lived there for several years and know the city reasonably well. I know nothing about London. I’ve been there a number of times for work, but have never lived there or spent any time exploring the city. It’s foreign to me in a way that Tokyo is not. Tokyo is certainly a different place, but it feels comfortable and easy to me in a way that London does not. Going there doesn’t induce stress.

          During the time that I was attending PCA and SBC churches, Sunday morning always induced a certain degree of anxiety in me. I had to prepare myself to enter into a challenging, cross-cultural experience in which I was an outsider and lacked the cultural know-how to bridge the gap easily. I don’t feel that at all with the ECUSA. No church will ever feel like home. After all, our home is in heaven. But attending church shouldn’t be an anxiety-inducing experience. For years, evangelicals tried to put up a front of being open to people of all subcultures. But it just isn’t true, and can’t be true. I’d guess that every PCA church has a critical mass of members who embrace the culture of Roy Moore. There are probably fewer such people in Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan than in Briarwood Presbyterian in suburban Birmingham. But every church has them. That’s what it means to be in denominations like the PCA and SBC: We’ll do orthodoxy, but we’re also going to accommodate a fair degree of right-wing heterodoxy.

          All that to say that I don’t know that recent evangelical discussions on political theology make much sense. Part and parcel of being an evangelical is accepting a fair degree of reactionary politics and being willing to try to pretend (with as straight a face as possible) that the Bible supports such as position. After all, is there any credible theological basis for not ordaining women to positions of authority in churches? Not at all. The practices in the PCA and SBC are merely an accommodation to a reactionary subculture that believes in rigid gender-role hierarchies.

          • Martin Barnard

            Fascinating comment sir. You leave me wishing that we could sit down over lunch and talk for a few hours.

            So I’ll insert here that I am part of an extremely conservative corner of evangelicalism called the Holiness Movement. I don’t know if any qualify as “Fox Evangelicals” because most don’t have a TV.

            Much of what you said resonates as far as leaning right and tolerating folk who lean even further right. In my broader church affiliations, probably 90% of them supported Trump and of those I know in Alabama, 100% of them supported Moore.

            I’m fortunate that in my extended family, a fairly high percentage are much more reasonable and accepting, even if we are still very conservative theologically and socially.

            As for myself, I’ve been forced by the recent events in politics to do some serious soul searching. As a pastor, I’ve tried to confront confront kindly but firmly mindsets that do not reflect genuine Christianity as I understand it. At the same time, I feel the inexorable pressure to not “rock the boat”. I pray God gives me wisdom, help, and mercy.

            As far as the tension between pragmatism and idealism in politics, I think many from my church circles are pragmatists masquerading as idealists. I think I attempt to be a idealists masquerading as a pragmatists.

          • hoosier_bob

            Thanks for interacting. My comments apply most aptly to the churches that lie within the genealogy of historic neo-evangelicalism. These days, that includes the SBC, PCA, and a number of independent Bible churches.

            I generally view the Holiness movement as something else altogether. Historically speaking, the Holiness movement was quite progressive relative to fundamentalism. For example, Holiness churches were some of the first to ordain women to leadership positions. Many evangelical denominations still haven’t caught up to where the Holiness movement was a century ago. The Holiness movement seemed to bifurcate once the Religious Right came along. Folks in major urban areas seemed to make their way to churches similar to Willow Creek. The remaining churches seemed to fall more closely in line with the evangelical movement.

            I will say that I think that the Willow Creek movement is the one bright stop today in evangelicalism. I attended Willow Creek churches several times when I was living in the Chicago area, and didn’t feel the oppressive stench of reactionary right-wing politics hanging in the air.

            Also, I think the perspective of a pastor is different from that of a parishioner. In some sense, your receive your primary spiritual sustenance from interactions with other pastors of churches similar to yours. So, even if you have a dysfunctional church, it doesn’t affect your spiritual life in the same way that it affects that of a parishioner. For me, the church community is all that I have, as my work takes me outside of Christian circles. So, if church life is dysfunctional and full of Fox Evangelicals, I don’t get much sustenance.

  • Benjamin Ledford

    There is a sharp turn between the third and fourth permuations of his principle. The idea of external conformity to civil righteousness suddenly becomes relativized by being considered only in relation to political outcomes. That is a huge turn and it determines the course of the rest of the essay.

    I also think that is original principle, by this point, is becoming unclear. At this point I am no longer sure how “qualifications judged by the likely long-term consequences of his term in office” really relates to the idea of “an endorsement of the candidate’s moral life.” Moral life here has somehow been redefined to refer to those moral actions which we think may filter through to political outcomes on the other end. Maybe that’s not what he means, but either way, that comma after “civil office” is very confusing grammatically.

    • James Coleman

      I noticed this as well. It’s at that point that it becomes clear that:
      1. He’s going to assume his conclusion rather than proving it.
      2. He’s going to shift presuppositions under the argument in midstream.
      3. He’s going to equivocate terms to make the argument.

      Up until that point it’s interesting, but it’s also not exactly controversial. After that point the post is more a matter of stating a position rather than arguing for it to those who hold the view being critiqued. Ironically this is the same flaw he accuses the other side of —refusing to actual argue for the base assumption.

  • Benjamin Ledford

    In addition, I think upholding morality as what he calls a “sui generis” test for candidates actually conceals an intuition of consequences that is both deeper and more far-sighted than the proposed consequentialist view.

    First, it relfects a deeper understanding of consequences because a person’s sinful behavior has farther-reaching effects than we see on the surface. A candidate’s sexual promiscuity may not appear to make any difference in which way they will vote on the next tax bill, but that is not the whole story. Their character affects what constituents will think of the causes they’re associated with (see below), how people interact with them (or don’t), and their own ability to reason clearly and make good judgments. It affects their effectiveness as a civil servant more deeply than we see on the surface.

    Secondly, insisting on minimum moral qualifications for offices reflects a longer-term understanding of consequences because political leaders define and shape the movements of which they are a part. Choosing morally compromised candidates reflects on the causes they’re championing, often for a long time. Having a good cause associated with a bad man is probably more damaging to it than whatever small benefits gained from “his likely political actions after mediated through the institutional constraints of his office and the checks and balances of other institutions.”

  • Avery Thorn

    I think the problem with this theory is that it just doesn’t fully account for the degree to which a republic relies on the election of particular persons, not just a set of policies or agendas.

    The moral record of a candidate is perhaps the best means to determine the suitability of a man or woman for office. After all, he or she will be faced with a multiplicity of unplanned and diverse situations throughout the term, and their character will shade every one of those decisions. As has already been stated, much of the matter involved in electing an official is recognizing the challenges he or she will meet are currently largely unknown. Therefore, it is more important to elect a person with the character, which is demonstrated in the morality of their actions, to meet challenges.

    The result of this is voting with morality as the greatest barometer for fitness for office. Not the only barometer – I doubt severely anybody, evangelical or otherwise, would actually support what seems to have been proposed as a group of evangelicals who ONLY vote with morality as a factor. Admittedly, this becomes a bit fluid, but that is a result of the variance of individuals which campaign for office before the method itself. It’s simply a nature of electing people with all their shortcomings and misgivings, rather than bundles of policies.

  • M.J.Davis

    “[D]oes one endorse the moral life of the candidate he votes for?” Some Christians say “Yes.” Not Mr. Wolfe. He argues “voting for another endorses sin only if that sin reveals a character whose actions would likely result in a preponderance of bad consequences from his term in office.” Mr. Wolfe’s answer is a bit surprising given his premise “voting is a matter of assessing likely consequences.” If he is correct, and I think he is, a vote is a type of prediction. The voter is predicting how a candidate will behave if elected. Granted, the prediction is based upon the voter’s assessment of the candidate’s past behavior. However, the fact the voter has utilized the candidate’s past behavior in order to make a prediction does not mean the voter endorses the behavior. Predictions and endorsements are two very different things. A prediction is simply a guess about how events will unfold. It may be a good guess; it may be a bad guess. Either way, it’s a guess about the future, not an endorsement of the past.

    Mr. Wolfe’s essay is a breath of fresh air at Mere Orthodoxy. I hope he continues to refine his totality-of-the-circumstances test.

  • Dan Grubbs

    Due to my own lack of eloquence in the heady waters of political (or voting) theory, I will ask two genuine questions of Mr. Wolfe. Please accept the questions at face value and not as some kind of armor probing to an argument.

    Question 1 – If an evangelical decides their vote based on the position the candidate has on an issue (as demonstrated by their behavior to date, not on their words), where does that fit into your outline? Would it depend on the issue, such as abortion?

    Question 2 – How would you classify voters who cast their vote (or abstain) with the knowledge of having to justify their vote to God Himself, Who sees all, knows all, and judges the hearts of men (voter and candidate)?

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