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The Case for Voting Third Party

November 7th, 2022 | 11 min read

By Bob Stevenson

These days, it’s hard to be a Christian who cares about politics—and public ethics, character, and the mission of God. On the one hand, our political system is a mess, with platforms pushing toward the extremes, and constituencies nursing rising antipathies toward the other side. Add to the picture the emerging problem of Christian nationalists openly embracing Christian nationalism as the way forward, and the troublesome association of evangelicals with Donald J. Trump, and Christians who believe that political power can and should be wielded wisely and ethically increasingly find themselves without a home. Which is not all bad. We are citizen-strangers, after all. But doing political good is awfully hard when the field is filled with abysmal choices.

Yet we are not hamstrung. For far too long, we’ve been sold a partisan bill of goods and told with a shrug that it’s Just the way things are.” This framing masks the power play with the veneer of realism, and hides a better way: rejecting pragmatism by choosing disruption.

The Pragmatic Choice

Every two years on Twitter, in churches, and over Sunday night dinners, Christians grapple with difficult decisions about who they should vote for. For committed partisans, the choice is clear: they’ll vote a straight party ballot. Others, however, face frustratingly common indecision, torn between two unappealing options, without a clear line of action. Many evangelical writers and Twitter pundits regularly try to guide the conflicted faithful by arguing forcefully for a realistic, pragmatic logic. The argument goes something like this:

  1. A vote is an opportunity for a Christian to seek the good of the country, by helping to elect political leaders who will seek goodness and justice in our society.
  2. The majority of candidates and voters are registered to either the Democrat or Republican parties (see ANES 2020), and on balance, political races will be filled by either a Republican or a Democrat (e.g., in 2020, ~97% of voters cast ballots for either Trump or Biden).
  3. Votes by themselves hold minor individual power, but elections are won in aggregate. However, third party votes are viewed with suspicion, and alternately viewed as a wasted vote (it does not contribute meaningfully to the de facto electoral calculus, via [2]), or a vote for the “other” candidate (since it robs the “better” candidate of a potential vote).
  4. In a perfect world, we would have a clearly good candidate, and a clearly bad candidate, but in reality, nominees rarely fully represent Christian constituencies, and are unavoidably marred by flaws (and even scandal). Because Christians have to make a realistic choice (2), in cases where there is no great option, they must redefine the “better candidate” as the “less bad candidate.” This is popularly described as “the lesser of two evils.”

This logic resembles the trolley problem. Since there are only two options, we have to choose, even if it means making a really difficult (and even conscience-violating) decision. But that’s life, after all. As much as we’d all like to accommodate our moral sensibilities, at the end of the day, we’re going to run over someone, so it might as well be the lesser evil of the two. Every two years, we are dragged through the same arguments and rationalizations, compelling us to make one choice out of two.

This pragmatic rationale was on full display throughout the 2016 election when Christian conservative voters were confronted with an unpleasant dichotomous choice: vote for Hillary Clinton, and the increasingly progressive platform she embraced; or vote for philandering, blustering, racist, Donald Trump. Rationalizations abounded in the mainstream, and most strikingly, by conservative evangelicals, ostensibly known for their firm commitment to biblical ethics. The argument worked. According to a 2016 Pew analysis, 81% of self-described white evangelicals who voted, voted for Trump. While this statistic has been breathlessly touted over the past few years, the vote share among Protestants, white evangelicals, and Catholics all remained generally consistent from 2000 on. What made the 2016 election so striking wasn’t Protestant and Catholic commitment to the Republican Party; it was the selection of Donald J. Trump despite obscene revelations about his recent past which would have obliterated campaigns in decades past — clear evidence of the increasing compartmentalization between character and public office among Americans generally, and evangelicals in particular.

As many struggled to make sense of a Trump presidency, the Trump administration bulldozed on, generating scandal after scandal, finally resulting in not one, but two impeachments by the end of his term. The political crisis was worsened by a Democratic party that turned the hearings into very watchable primetime television, exacerbated the widening gap between parties with quick and easy accusations of fascism, and by using Trump’s so-called conservatism to push progressive policy toward their extremes.

While one would suspect the behavior of both parties over four years would change the electoral calculus for Christians — certainly chastening the easy association with the Republican party — by 2020, it was clear little chastening had occurred. Rather a clarified pragmatic turn emerged among Trump-supporting evangelicals, with new and surprising converts, leading to similar (and possibly increased) vote share among evangelicals. For many, the decision came down to a key pair of issues: abortion and sexuality. Al Mohler, who in 2016 boldly declared, “Never. Ever. Period.” changed his tune in 2020 with a sophisticated and impassioned articulation of this pragmatic argument. Key to his and others’ arguments were the non-negotiable duo: abortion and sexuality. To Mohler and others in 2020, it was no longer a difficult choice between the lesser of two evils, but a simple rejection of one clear evil. The Christian choice was clear and binary: “any real true believer” would be on the side of Donald J. Trump. Why? Because the White House would be filled by either a Republican or a Democrat, and the notion of a Biden presidency vs Trump was the less bad option because of his policies. Christian fidelity and realism required this choice.

On the other side, never-Trumpers who recognized the dangers of a second Trump term saw one clear path of action: vote Democrat or lose our democracy — a point made with startling clarity after the events January 6, 2021.

The Failure of Christian Pragmatism

There’s an intuitive attraction about pragmatic politics. After all, life is complicated, and rife with ethical quandaries, and we are often forced with difficult decisions. However, the argument is far less effective — and morally beneficial — than appears at first glance.

Means and Ends

Christian ethics eschews rank utilitarianism, recognizing that both means and ends are morally significant. And yet, pragmatic politics trend toward this very thing. Whether the end is securing conservative justices to overturn Roe v Wade, or simply to keep Donald Trump from gaining office again, pragmatic political rationales downplay the significance of means in service of the end. But utilitarian logic never ends well for those called to consider not only where we’re going, but how we get there. And ignoring the morality of the means leaves the door wide open for manifold unintended consequences.

It’s a Game

While the vote is the crowning privilege of any democracy, imbuing citizens with agency in their own governance, the vote exists in a negotiated space between voter and politician—each exerting influence over the other. The voter exercises her agency by selecting a politician who represents her interests and convictions. This is plain enough, and evident in the pragmatic logic articulated above. However, the politician also exerts influence over the voter. Politicians vying for the vote cultivate a platform that satisfies as broad a constituency as possible, to secure the greatest number of votes. This political calculus requires an evolving and responsive platform to demonstrate to various diverse voters that the candidate does, in fact, represent them better than the other option. Politicians are not, therefore, unchanging representatives of clear-cut ethical systems, but dynamic players in a rapidly-changing game. And it is a game. One played with live ammunition. Tim Miller makes this point in his dark memoir, Why We Did It. The former GOP operative writes, “We knew exactly what GOP voters wanted. We understood who they were angry at, what issues riled them up, and which ones made them glaze over. We just didn’t care. Except to the extent that it helped us win elections.”[1] In failing to recognize “the game” being played, voters can mistake malleable platforms for authentic concern, thereby providing support for political actors who do little more than use Christians as stepping stones to power.

Different Kinds of Power

Most critically, however, is the pragmatic failure to grapple with the relationship between the mission of the church, and the nature of political power. To vote is to exercise fractional, mediated power in the public sphere. On its own, the power of one vote is imperceptible and nearly meaningless. Individuals do not decide elections; communities do, as they form statistical advantages by aligning vast numbers of individual wills in a particular direction, to select a particular candidate. The pragmatic argument recognizes this, calling its adherents to contribute to the statistical advantage of the most plausible (and less bad) candidate. The aggregate is a massive force, and one might as well change the direction of a tsunami by splashing it away with your hands then change the ineluctable victory of a Democratic or Republican candidate. This is why those abiding by pragmatic logic see third-party votes as hopelessly futile and wasted.

Despite its ostensible realism, such reasoning ultimately abdicates Christian moral agency. Individual Christians resigned to this blue-red fate are, at the end of the day, held hostage by political and cultural forces far more powerful than them, and are funneled into responsive and pliant postures, rather than a proactive and prophetic ones. In seeking to exercise and obtain power, such Christians become powerless, for while some of the ends they desire may be obtained, they are ultimately subordinated under parties, platforms and politicians who set the agenda for multiple and different policy points. You may get Roe overturned, but your president will enact desperately cruel family separation policies. You may keep Trump out of office, but your president will seek to federally protect abortion. Is this deep compromise really power?

Another kind of aggregate power exists which doesn’t result in winning, but is far more enduring. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his sermon “A Knock at Midnight” wrote, “The church must be reminded once again that {it} is not to be the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state — never its tool.”

“Never its tool.” The mission of the church remains the same as it has been across culture and time: to herald the gospel of God. The church in the United States possesses a remarkable stewardship, considering our right to free speech and political involvement. This proclamatory work has been all too often bifurcated into private-public dichotomies, segregating the work of bearing witness into the personal sphere, and the public work of politics the secular.

While I believe the church and state, proclamation and politics must remain distinct, I do not believe they should be kept utterly separate. Neither the fabrication of a sacred-secular compartmentalization, or the total rejection of the secular through societal withdrawal are satisfactory approaches for living faithfully in the world. We are called to do good, to seek good, to love, as embodied citizens of a world that is future and present.

None of this is to suggest that the Christian Nationalists were right all along. Far from it. Christian Nationalists are interested in concrete forms of power that coerce the state into being agents of God’s righteousness. Yet such power cannot come, ultimately, without either the violent conflict of conquest, or the very compromising pragmatism addressed above. In either case, however, the mission fails, because both paths sidestep the mission of the church.

A Soft Revolution

Christians are a body politic of a different kind: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9 CSB). Ours is to embody the euangellion. To bear witness to the crucified and resurrected King of kings in word and deed. Pragmatism obscures this identity, and should be rejected. How then do we remain faithful to our embodied heralding task, serving as the conscience of the state, and never its tool in the political realm? One way is to choose disruption.

Christians form a significant voting bloc. According to a 2021 Pew study, white evangelicals comprised 19% of the total vote share in the 2020 election, white mainline Protestants holding 14% of the share, Black Protestants 8%, and Protestant, other races 4% of the share (representing 45% of the total vote share). Recognizing that the question, “who is an evangelical?” remains fiercely debated, we can observe that there are still a lot of people who follow Jesus in the United States. These Jesus-following voters are a crucial constituency that candidates need to win over.

But look at the data for who voted for what. In the 2020 election, around 97% of votes cast were marked for either Trump or Biden. These numbers are why the pragmatist argument has such power. But where the pragmatists see inevitability, I see opportunity. Imagine for a moment that Christian voters chose another way. That a significant portion of that share suddenly disappeared from the red/blue binary. I am confident that questions would get asked. I am confident such aberrations would set party strategists panicking, send shivers of fear down the spines of pollsters and candidates desperate to secure already razor-thin margins, and entire departments of journalists, sociologists, and political scientists would unquestionably embark on quests to figure out what happened.

Such disruption could be accomplished through abstention — choosing not to vote. But abstention would have to be accompanied with public identification of intent. Voter participation fluctuates from election to election. But major third-party upsets are rare. A major reallocation of “wasted votes” has the potential to produce a palpable disruption of the status quo.

To be clear, this is not just about disruption. The purpose of such a movement is to raise the question, “why?” A question which can be readily answered with, “the church is neither the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.” Anchored securely to our King, we are liberated to speak to the brokenness we see. Captured by his righteousness, we are freed to call our nation into a vision of truth and goodness. Satisfied in his eschatological victory, we are able to confidently call for non-partisan solutions which promote authentic good: which benefit the poor, middle-class, and the wealthy; which promote flourishing and protect all life, whether in the womb or out, at the border or within, incarcerated or not; which protect religious freedom and create space for robust and constructive dialogue around the big and hard questions of life. We have incredible resources to bring about true good in our society. But we must be courageous enough to step away from the desperation of the pragmatic argument.

After all, what is more enduring? A church that gains temporary political power, or one that faithfully serves as the conscience to the state, under the Lordship of Christ? Al Mohler inadvertently made this point while making his own pragmatic argument. He said, “every single election matters, but every single election is followed by the next one.” His point was that Christians should always vote, and always vote for the “right” candidate (ahem). But his comment was on the nose. Elections always follow elections. Everything done can be undone. And under the present conditions of our political landscape, putting our faith in “taking back America” is a Sisyphean task. I for one would rather see God’s people cast a more meaningful ballot — a vote toward conscience.

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  1. Miller, Tim. Why We Did It. p. 73. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.