I’m pleased to welcome a new guest writer, Donald Norman, to Mere O today.
By now most Christians have thought about the “lesser of two evils” voting strategy:
“I can’t vote for Trump. He’s too [fill in the blank]. But, I can’t vote for Clinton either. She’s pro-choice. Lacks integrity. ‘I don’t trust her.’ So, I guess I’ll just vote for the lesser of two evils.” At which point I’m never really certain if someone has just told me they’re voting for Trump or Clinton. All I am sure of is they think both people (and by proxy, political parties) are evil.
It’s paramount that we, as Christians, deeply evaluate the paradigm through which we engage politics.
It’s self evident to the people who make this “lesser of two evils” case that it doesn’t help them make their decision as voters, or to engage our community in a productive way. This paradigm isn’t just unhelpful, though, it’s wrong. It’s actually leading many Christians to support evil things.
We do not need to passively accept our current political choices.
While one can surely empathize with a conflicted conscious in our current context, the “lesser of two evils” paradigm reduces evil to the general sinfulness of life after the fall or to some sort of passive reality we must accept in the smallest measure possible. We can’t hope to escape it, so we must choose to accommodate it in the least objectionable way. This misses much about the pernicious nature of evil, not only in systems and structures but also in our own lives. We know, through both experience and orthodox Christian theology, as well as helpful non-biblical texts like C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, that evil is an active and intimate reality of our existence. We simply need to read the temptation of Christ to be reminded of this.
This paradigm also trivializes actual evil in the world. When we casually refer to partisan political ideas that we disagree with as evil we deny the far reaching effects that the forces of evil have across the world. Some, then, would advocate simply for a new turn-of-phrase. While others will surely point to policies that support things like abortion, the death penalty, war, mass incarceration and environmental despoliation as clear signs of evil. Whatever the merits of their criticism about a specific policy or candidate, they mean what they say. Inasmuch as one candidate (or party) represents fewer evils than another, they’ll close their eyes, and vote for the “lesser of two evils” as if all of the perceived “evils” of candidate, policy, or party carry the same weight. In this calculus racism and abortion cancel each other out, for example.
This trivializes the personal experiences of women who’ve had abortions, by lumping them in with evil regardless of their story, it also also serves to further dehumanize people who––by life circumstance or birth––are different than ourselves by simply comparing the daily realities of racism to some other thing. If we are to take evil seriously we can’t marginalize the effects of its various manifestations to the “con” side of a spreadsheet. That fools us into thinking we’ve done something. Instead, we need to specifically confront evil with a call towards righteous wholeness. The redemptive response to abortion is adoption; the counter to racism is friendship.
The Dangerous Dualism of Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils
More importantly, it misses God’s direct call on our lives to pursue righteousness through Christ and with the help of the Holy Spirit. We can’t sing of victory over sin and death on Sunday morning while denying the very same power, imparted to us, to participate in God’s Kingdom through our political engagement as well as in our daily choices of faith and obedience. At least not with integrity. When we do this we create a troublesome sacred/secular divide between the beliefs we profess on Sunday morning and the choices we make to shape our community. This is a dualism that does not exist within Christian praxis.
As believers in the resurrected King, we have every reason to be hopeful. Settling for the “lesser of two evils” defers that hope for another day, marginalizes the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and hinders us in our obedience to the Great Commission.
What frightens me most about the “lesser of two evils” paradigm is that it doesn’t engage in deep, on-going, questioning about what it means to be a Christian. It simply accepts the way things are, and that’s never been a part of God’s story.
“To be a Christian means you become a part of the most significant story the world has ever heard. You don’t become part of that without an ongoing questioning of what it means to become part of that.” – Hauerwas
So, in a political climate such as the one we’re in, what’s the way forward in faith and obedience? I think Wendell Berry has the right perspective,
“…we can see how superficial and foolish we would be to think that we could correct what is wrong merely by tinkering with the institutional machinery. The changes that are required are fundamental changes in the way we are living.” –Think Little, 1969
A lust for political power has compromised the church’s witness.
For the better part of the last 40 years, American Christians have been focusing on the “institutional machinery” and have been attributing the lack of faith and obedience in generation after generation of young adults who are leaving the church to the culture wars, the moral decline of society, postmodernism, or liberal higher education. When instead we need to look inward. We’ve embraced the idol of political power and in so doing have willfully accepted the “lesser of two evils” so that our votes matter to certain politicians.
In Daniel chapter three faithfulness and obedience in the midst of a challenging political climate are modeled in remarkable clarity:
“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us[c] from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” 3:16-18
Their faith is evident, not primarily in their willingness to go the furnace, but more so in their confidence in God. “We do not need to defend ourselves before you” is a posture we’d be wise to assume as modern Christians in America. God doesn’t need our defence, nor do we need aspire to political power to defend God’s cause.
“Never think that you need to protect God. Because anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshipping an idol.” – Hauerwas
Letting go of our self-defense and the defense of God is the profound shift that needs to happen within the broader Christian community if we’re to regain a compelling witness in America. This isn’t the same thing as being apolitical or non-political. But it does mean that our political engagement only matters as much as our faithfulness to God’s mission. This kind of political engagement isn’t Republican or Democrat. It is relational. And, most importantly, it isn’t arrogant or entitled –– the constant call on the people of God has been to serve rather than to be served; to seek the lowly place, not the places of power; and to love our enemies and our neighbors in equal regard. This kind of political engagement is active, not passive. It’s optimistic, not pessimistic. It’s about making people whole, not about winning.
The question then isn’t “what’s wrong with our politics?” That gets it all wrong. The question is, “How are you engaging your community in faith and obedience to reflect the Kingdom of God?” That’s our task, and that’s what will change our politics.
Donald Norman is a politics writer whose work has appeared in Paste. You can follow him on Twitter @dnld_nrmn.
featured image via Gage Skidmore
Thanks for the essay. While I agree with your thoughts, I guess I’m left wondering about application. You’ve convinced me, but what do I do now? What does this look like in practice?
The author insightfully presents that as a citizen I am faced with two basic natures: the secular act of voting for a presidential candidate and the spiritual act of aligning with others to move the political pendulum toward a God centered country. This article arouses my awareness that I must make a conscious choice to distinguish between two fundamental things: good and evil, and mind and matter.
What if Christians are always choosing the better of two evils in a political realm. Always. Every election. We shouldn’t be endorsing political candidates ever. We believe that in the fallen political system the best it will ever be is broken. So we vote as we hold our nose and then we move on to engage the people of our city or town with acts of love and grace and truth.
We don’t wait for the government to do ANYTHING. They aren’t our first allegiance. Matter of fact we “hate” the government (just like we hate brother, sister, mother and even our own selves because our allegiance to Jesus is spectacularly different!)
If we don’t view things that way we end up thinking that Bush was a “Christian” president but what do we say when the war HE initiated causes the death of hundreds of thousands!! I know a bunch of them were brown people who we don’t really care about. And he did that with the foolishly arrogant notion that we could be a part of nation shaping. (which only got worse when Obama pulled us out prematurely and left a huge vacuum that ISIS has filled.)
The true danger is thinking that voting is going to change anything significant. Jesus sends us out to engage people. That is primary. To engage them with love. The voting part, no matter where or when, is long, long after that.