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.
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.