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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Footnotes

  1. Miller, Tim. Why We Did It. p. 73. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
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Posted by Bob Stevenson

Bob Stevenson is a husband, father of four and serves as Lead Pastor of Village Baptist Church. He has an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is pursuing graduate education in sociology at Loyola. He is passionate about encouraging and strengthening the local church through written and spoken word. He writes at Medium and on Twitter.

7 Comments

  1. Not sure why my comment was removed, so I will try to restate it in in hopes that it is posted.

    The above article is interesting. I can relate to the article because I was a third party voter for quite a while. But Trump’s emergence has forced me to reluctantly vote for the dems out of a legitimate fear of Trump’s authoritarianism and his followers’ penchant for embracing conspiracy theories and their rejection of science when it speaks to climate change and the pandemic along with their embracing of the Big Lie.

    When discussing Christian concerns, Stevenson lists two moral issues that are prominent in the mind of many fellow religiously conservative Christians: abortion and sexuality. And in mentioning those issues, we see that Stevenson is missing some information.

    The first piece of information that Stevenson misses is an adequate definition of democracy. While most religiously conservative Christians seem to reduce democracy to majority rule, Jefferson warned us against using majority rule to deny the minority their equality and rights. To deny the minority equality in society leads to oppressing them. That by itself calls on us religiously conservative Christians to distinguish what should be permitted in society from what should be prohibited in the Church. Otherwise we have no freedom of religion.

    That distinction should also apply to our approach to rights for those in the LGBT community. For if we don’t make that distinction, we will end up denying the LGBT community equality and their rights in society. Thus we will end up oppressing them as we have before.

    The second piece of information that Stevenson needs to include here is that we can’t reduce being pro-life to just opposing elective abortion. Here we should note a 2011 NIH article that estimates the number of deaths in America for the year 2000 to a number that is comparable to the number of abortions per year (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3134519/ ). Though many could argue with the number that study came up with, we should note that social factors do play significant roles in causing people to die. And thus we should note that while religiously conservative Christians outpace liberals in being concerned about the unborn, liberals and leftists often outpace religiously conservative Christians in being concerned about those who have been born and the social factors that threaten their lives.

    Like I wrote, I was a third party voter and I hope that I can soon return to choosing that option. But with the authoritarianism of Trump and his followers, I don’t see voting for third party candidates and option in the near future.

    Reply

  2. I’ve been a third party voter for nearly two decades now. This is the first time I’ll be voting Republican. While I understand the premise, unfortunately, I also am so against what Democrats and progressives have become, I can now finally understand the argument of wanting to vote AGAINST something.

    Whether or not it’s the right choice, I don’t know. I may never know in this lifetime. But I’ll never discourage anyone from voting according to their rightly-oriented conscience. That’s what I’m attempting to do now.

    Soli deo Gloria.

    Reply

    1. dm,
      If you don’t mind answering my question, and I understand if you don’t want to, what are the things about the dems and progressives that so bother you?

      Reply

      1. Hey Curt, it’s less that I want to discuss it. I’m a member of the ACNA, so when it comes to matters of sexual ethics, abortion, etc, I’m fairly conservative (theologically, which, in this case, tends to be politically as well). However, unlike the Democratic party I grew up somewhat admiring (I had teachers who were staunch democrats but absolutely charitable and patient and understanding), the progressive party (and Biden, because he’s seemingly caving in every step of the way) are refusing to allow any common ground or compassion. If you believe sex is biological? You’re contributing to the death of transgender teenagers. Not pro-choice? I hope that ten year old who needs an abortion never meets you.

        It’s just shameful rhetoric that doesn’t encourage any sort of cooperation. And it sucks when people from a more conservative persuasion take the same approach with things as well. None of it is helpful, and none of it lines up with the life Christ asks from us. The fact I see it from christians incessantly…..well, I used to before I deleted all of my social media for good.

        Talk about an overdue decision.

        Reply

        1. dm,
          I want to comment as little as possible because I am most interested in why you feel the way you did about dems and progressives.

          I will add one small comment, biological sex and gender identity are two distinct entities that some conservatives and the LGBT movement have wrongfully been trying to conflate. Because biological sex is physical and gender identity is psychological, such conflation is logically wrong. And I understand why some dems and progressives take the stand they have taken.

          Thank you for sharing what bothers you about the dems and progressives.

          Reply

  3. Thank you for this. Our two-party system is increasingly polarizing and dysfunctional, and, as we Christians become more of a minority, increasingly hostile to us. As our culture drifts from its Christain moorings, our two-party system is likely to present us with increasingly unpalatable lesser-of-two-evils choices. In that context, faithfulness to our vocation as Christian citizens may mean voting for third parties or independent candidates, as our author points out.

    I would go further and say we as Christians should be working towards creating third-party alternatives, such as a “Christian Democracy” party, and a first step would be to pursue electoral reform that makes third parties mor viable. As I imagine readers are aware, Maine and Alaska have recently implemented ranked choice voting. This voting reform eliminates the “wasted/spoiler vote” phenomenon, making is “safer” to vote for third parties, thus making them more viable.

    If our electoral system presents us with unpalatable choices, we should work to change the system.

    Reply

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