PMW 2020-093 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

This is the second in a three-part series on the Christian principle of voting for the lesser-of-evils. Please see the previous article for context.

Our Christian Response

In allowing the lesser-of-evils approach to voting from a Christian perspective, I would have us first note the principles involved, then consider their theological and biblical justifications. I present the question of principles first to introduce the argument; then I will show why I believe we can endorse it from within a Christian worldview.

The Question of Principle

We need carefully to reflect on the question of principle itself, which I will do under several headings.

First, distinguishing our principles. When we are engaging in politics we must be careful not to place our political actions (e.g., voting) on the same level as our doctrinal commitments (i.e., faith in Scripture). We must be careful not to develop a messianic political outlook. That is, we should not believe that if we can only elect the right candidate he will save our nation. Unfortunately, as Christians we can be so earnest in our desire for a better America that we can slide into this messianic conception of politics. This allows us to become so enamored with a particular candidate as the “right” one, that we see him as our great hope who will bring forth justice, peace and prosperity.

This problem of viewing political principles as if they are on the same level as doctrinal convictions is quite widespread. For instance, consider the “Defending Contending” website cited above. Notice how the writer (“Pilgrim”) sets up the debate: “true Christians should not have to vote if they first have to sit down and estimate which candidate is the lesser of two evils.” This writer is classifying “true” Christians by their voting rather than by their doctrinal commitments and personal lifestyle. This type of thinking apparently believes that “by their votes you shall know them.”

Our doctrinal convictions differ from our political actions in that they are immune from revision. Doctrinal convictions are rooted in the complete and permanent revelation of God in Scripture. Of course, our political positions should be rooted in our understanding of Scripture so that they are relatively secure commitments. But our political actions are not drawn directly from the Bible, and they are caught up in a system built on the necessity of compromise. We do not vote for our doctrinal convictions. Political actions are not on the same level as doctrinal convictions. They also invariably involve a commitment to fallen men and their political promises.

Evangelical Christian theologian J. I. Packer has wisely observed:

“Political compromise, the basic maneuver [of politics], is quite a different thing from the sacrificing of principles. Whatever may be true in the field of ethics, compromise in politics means not the abandonment of principle, but realistic readiness to settle for what one thinks to be less than ideal when it is all that one can get at the moment. The principle that compromise expresses is that half a loaf is better than no bread.”

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Second, establishing our principles. Those Christians who argue that we must vote for the “right” candidate because of our principles overlook an important issue: the problem of competing principles. What do I mean?

Let us take as one example a commitment to “constitutional government.” Usually conservative Christians desire a candidate who will operate on constitutional principle. Now suppose three candidates are running for a particular office. Candidate A is promoting a platform based on strong constitutional commitments. Candidate B has some strong positions but is weak in other areas. Candidate C has little interest in maintaining constitutional policies and is promoting a platform clearly antithetical to the Constitution. But now suppose (as is often the case) that Candidate A has dismal poll numbers that indicate a virtually certain landslide loss.

The strongly-committed Constitutionalist Christian now faces a dilemma. He loves Candidate A’s platform, but recognizes that he almost certainly will go down to defeat. He knows that if he votes for Candidate A, then he is ultimately helping Candidate C by drawing off pro-Constitutional voters. Consequently, he decides to vote for semi-Constitutional Candidate B over anti-Constitutional Candidate C. By this action he is acting in a lesser-of-evils manner. But is he thereby acting in an unprincipled manner? No! Indeed, it is quite the opposite. Let me explain.

Since the Christian voting for the lesser of evils has strongly-held pro-Constitution principles, his basic political commitment is to defend and promote constitutional government. Therefore, in light of the very real circumstances he is facing, he is acting on virtually the same principle as the Christian who would only vote for Candidate A. That is, he is voting to support the Constitution by recognizing that if Candidate C were elected he would radically undermine it. He is voting therefore to limit the damage done to our Constitutional form of government. Therefore, by voting for Candidate B his principles regarding Constitutional government have led him to defend the Constitution as best he can in the current circumstances by opposing the greater, more dangerous enemy of the Constitution. Had he voted for Candidate A (who was certain to lose), then Candidate C would effectively be gaining a vote which would allow him to gain more anti-Constitutional influence in the long run.

By voting for the lesser of evils, the Christian is operating in terms of principled realism. The other Christian who will only vote for the “pure” candidate is voting in terms of idealism. The principled realist engages in a stop-loss voting with a long-term hope for the day when more greatly committed Constitutionalists will be able to win an election. Voting for a sure loss is like saying: “Be warmed and filled.” Your heart (i.e., principle) is right but your actions (i.e., voting) are unhelpful (even harmful).

Let me provide a helpful illustration of how principled realism (lesser of evils voting) can lead to a better outcome than idealism, while attempting to hold the line. Consider a parallel situation to the electoral process just stated. This one involves a deeply-held principle but has real-world results that are more quantifiable: abortion. Evangelical pro-life Christians deem abortion as an evil that clearly undermines the very sanctity of human life.

But now let us consider a scenario presenting itself to a Christian Congressman. Say two bills are presented in the House of Representatives regarding abortion. Both of these bills are being offered in our current legal climate which allows abortion-on-demand (abortion for any and all reasons) throughout the nation. Bill A takes a strong pro-life position by making all abortions illegal. Bill B takes a largely pro-life position by declaring most abortions illegal except in the case of the potential death of the mother or rape or incest.

Now suppose that a straw vote has clearly shown that the strongly pro-life Bill A would go down to a resounding defeat, but that the largely pro-life Bill B could win the House vote. For which bill should the Christian Congressman vote? He wants to stop abortion. But if he votes for Bill A which is destined to defeat, abortion-on-demand remains the law of the land. If, however, he votes for Bill B then abortions will be largely curtailed. Tragically, if he stands on his idealism and refuses to vote for the lesser bill, he will have consigned tens of thousands of pre-born babies to death. On principle.

Choosing the lesser evil may be likened to an innocent person being wrongly convicted of a murder. In court he would have his lawyer seek prison time over execution. The lesser evil (prison) buys him time to seek his freedom in the future. Death, being much more permanent, removes the opportunity of future reversal of his fortunes.

Those who decry lesser-of-evils voting as mere pragmatism which rejects principle operate by faulty logic. Aaron Blumer explains this problem:

“The truth is that there are at least three approaches to the relationship between conscience (principle) and practical results:

1. Pragmatism: practical results are always decisive and are all that matter.

2. Idealism: practical results are completely irrelevant; only principle matters.

3. Principled realism: practical results are part of the principle that matters.”

Thus, Blumer observes that an unstated premise is at work in the argument against principled realism. That unstated premise is that practical matters have nothing to do with conscience. But this is erroneous. Two of these approaches allow the Christian to vote his conscience (#2 and #3). Therefore, two of these approaches stand on principle, one realistically (#3) and one idealistically (#2). One of these two approaches has positive practical results (#3); the other, negative practical results (#2). By this I mean that approach #3 strives to preserve as many principles as possible against large-scale opposition, while approach #2 holds a full panoply of firmly-held principles — but effectively allows them to be washed away by employing an all-or-nothing strategy.

Surely as Christians we should strive to do what we morally can to resist evil. In fact, this should be one of the basic principles of Christian social concern. But consider our a position today: we usually have voting choices that are imperfect, but nevertheless have the opportunity to vote against the “greater evil.” Since the very best candidate often has no chance of winning, should we not vote in a way that effectively opposes the greater evil? Is this not a good principle — in light of our circumstances? Why let the greater evil have the victory because we approach politics as an all-or-nothing proposition?

Third, evaluating our principles. We are considering political issues in this book, and are especially focusing on voting as an important political act that Christians should pursue. As believers we often find ourselves and our principles under assault. One of our principles should be to strive to protect our other principles as best we can against the majority opposition. I am arguing that, given our circumstances, we sometimes have to act as principled realists and vote for the lesser of evils in defending our principles for the long haul. Just as freedoms may be lost incrementally, they may also be re-established incrementally.

Unfortunately, many idealistic Christians will reject any call to voting for the lesser of evils. Sometimes they will ask: “As a Christian why would you vote for the lesser of evils?” The answer, of course is: “Because I want less evil.”

Some of these will indignantly rebuke principled-realist Christians by complaining that they should never vote for the lesser of evils. But when considered from a Christian perspective, this position is self-refuting and borders on a messianic conception of politics. After all, Christians should be aware that unless Christ is on the ballot every vote is for the lesser of evils. Does not Jesus say: “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18b). In fact, he can even speak to his followers as children of the “heavenly Father” and yet call them “evil”: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (Luke 11:13).

In opposing the lesser of evils the Christian could not even vote for the Apostle Paul, for he says of himself: “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. . . . For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. . . . I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (Rom. 7:14, 19, 21). He even cites the Old Testament’s universal declaration: “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10).

Because of these realities no conservative Christian can avoid voting for the lesser of evils. A vote for the Apostle Paul would be — on Paul’s own admission — a lesser of evils! No candidate in this fallen world is perfect; all candidates have some flaws, some “evil.” In such a world we cannot escape lesser-of-evils voting.

Taking this a step further, I would argue that an attempt to vote for a “perfect” candidate by voting third-party in national presidential elections is unrealistic, risky, and self-defeating. It is unrealistic because excellent third party candidates fare miserably and embarrassingly in presidential elections. They have absolutely no chance of winning. And as a consequence they project the appearance of an ineffectual, back-water Christianity with little or no clout.

This can be demonstrated statistically. In the 2000 election Patrick Buchanan of the Reform Party (deemed by many Christians as an excellent candidate) garnered only 448,895 votes out of 105,405,100 cast. This translates to 0.42 % of all votes. Howard Phillips, a strong Christian representing the biblically-faithful Constitution Party received only 98,020 votes, for 0.09% of the vote. In the 2004 election the Constitution Party candidate received only 144,499 votes, for 0.12% of all votes. In 2008 the Constitution Party garnered only 199,880 votes or 0.15% of the total.

Voting third party is also risky. The following statistics are not endorsing one candidate over the other, but are used to illustrate how just a few votes can make a difference in an election.

In the presidential election of 2000 a very few votes allowed George Bush to defeat Al Gore. In that remarkable election (which was so close that the winner was not determined until December 12th, over a month after the election), Bush lost the popular vote but won on the basis of the Electoral College vote. Gore, the Democratic candidate, received 50,999,897 votes to Bush’s 50,456,002. That is, he won 48.38% to Bush’s 47.87%. But Bush won the Electoral College vote that decided the election — due to Florida’s extremely tight voting results. Thus, Bush won the presidency because he won Florida (with its sizeable Electoral College votes), and he won Florida by only 537 votes (a victory of 0.061%). In that Florida vote, Howard Phillips received 1,378 votes and Patrick Buchanan 17,412. Had these two candidates received just 538 more votes between them, the race would have gone the opposite way.

Tragically, Hitler won Germany on a divided vote. “Hitler became Germany’s chancellor (prime minister) without ever having received more than 37 percent of the popular vote in the elections he had entered.” This shows the risky nature of third party candidacies. Split votes can often produce horrible results. Six million Jews paid with their lives on the basis of a split vote — as ultimately did over 40 million who died in the European theater of World War 2.

Fourth, explaining our principles. The principled realist recognizes the nature of our American political system: it is virtually impossible statistically for a third-party candidate to win. Generally, they only cause one of the two major party candidates to lose, such as Ross Perot in 1992. In 1992 George H. W. Bush was projected to win as much as 55% of the vote, coming off high approval ratings and a rather week unknown governor from Arkansas. But with Perot’s entry into the race and his securing of 18.91% of the vote, Bill Clinton won with only 43.01% of the national vote. Clinton never was elected by a majority vote in either of his two presidential wins.

Idealists often encourage third-party candidates by arguing: “this candidate or that party provides a dream platform.” That may well be true, but we have to wake up on the day after the election and realize the dream is over (or in the case of the 2000 election, we would have to sleep for a little over a month). We need to live in the real world rather than a dream world.

Some challenge the lesser-of-evils approach by arguing that it is simply a choice of fast poison (the bad candidate) versus slow poison (the tolerable candidate). They ask: “Why prefer slow poison over fast poison?” I would ask: Which would you prefer to accidentally ingest if you were thirty minutes from a hospital? In politics, if we have to vote for “slow poison,” we can at least buy some time to work on a “cure.” After all, the worst candidate often wins when conservative votes are drawn away to dream candidates. By drawing votes away from a tolerable but electable candidate you are actually taking fast-acting poison by default.

Others ask: “Why do we keep voting the same way (for centrist candidate) but expect different results (Christian- principled leaders)?” This question is a two-edged sword for it can be turned on the Christian idealist: “Why do some Christians keep voting for third party candidates and watching their candidate be demolished (receiving less than 1% of the vote), while allowing their votes effectively to be siphoned off to the more liberal candidate?” Beating our head against the wall in small numbers is not a good game plan.

But now we must consider:

The Question of Theology

As Christians living in God’s world, we must understand that we are here in the world for the long run. And as we come to grips with this it will be encouraging to recognize an important method of God’s dealings with man: gradualism, or incrementalism. That is, God generally works gradually over time to accomplish his purpose. We must therefore be willing to labor for our Christian influence in politics over time, not expecting all to be accomplished over night.

This theological principle should buttress our hope for the future. It allows us to seek smaller, stop-loss victories now with a goal to winning larger ones as history unfolds. Thus, this theological principle shows the practical wisdom in accepting compromise in our political actions (not compromise of our principles themselves) in the present time with a view to gaining influence in the long run. Rather than approaching politics as an all-or-nothing venture, we must recognize the significance of incremental victory over time.

In Scripture we find the principle of gradualism embodied in the actions of God in history. God works by slow providence over time by means of a “here a little; there a little” gradualism (Isa. 28:10). Indeed, he encourages his people by rhetorically asking: “who has despised the day of small things?” (Zech. 4:10).

For instance, we see divine gradualism at work in various theological issues in the Bible.

Creation. God created the universe on a gradualistic principle — an accelerated gradualism, to be sure, but gradual nonetheless. God created the universe step-by-step over a period of six days, though he could have easily created it all at once in an instant. “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them” (Exo. 20:11a; cp. Gen. 1:1–31; Exo. 31:17).

Redemption. God promised redemption just after the entry of sin into the human race in Eden (Gen. 3:15). Yet its accomplishment follows thousands of years after Adam when Christ comes. “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5; cp. Eph. 1:10). Our chapter-heading verse speaks to this gradualism (Mark 4:26–27).

Revelation. God did not give us his entire, written revelation all at once. Rather he gradually unfolded his Word to men over a period of some 1,500 years, from Moses’s writings (1450 BC) until the last of the New Testament was written in the first century. “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1–2a; cp. 1 Pet. 1:10–12).

Sanctification. Even in God’s gracious salvation he works gradually in our lives. Though our justification brings salvation as a once-for-all act (Rom. 4:2–3; 5:1), God works sanctification within us by an ongoing process throughout our lives. “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2; cp. Phil. 2:12-13).

It is difficult for us to be patient in a day of freeze-dried this and instant-that where scientists can measure actions in nanoseconds. But God teaches us in his Word to work patiently for the long run. We should not be dismayed if our political activities do not produce instant fruit. Sometimes we must expect less than we would hope for — by voting for the lesser evil.

But now how does this all square with:

The Question of Scripture

To be continued! See you tomorrow!

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  1. B Jay October 29, 2020 at 7:43 am

    Reblogged this on God's Amazing and Abundant Grace and commented:
    An argument for principled realism for Christians participating in the American electoral system.

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