How Then Shall We Vote? Rethinking Christian Citizenship in 2016
Do not lay hands on anyone too quickly,
and so participate in the sins of other men; keep yourself pure.
– 1 Tim. 4:22
Note: I am writing this paragraph in October of 2019, about three years after the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency. It is my pleasure to say that, so far, a considerable portion of the contents of this essay have been proven wrong; and it is a good penance to explain where and why. While I continue to have some reservations about Mr. Trump’s character and views, his three years in office have shown him to be a man of genuine conviction, considerable competence, and a clear calling to his office. While the future remains open, I must confess that I badly misjudged him. More importantly, I now think that I applied too high a standard to the candidates. Yes, character, conviction, competence, and calling all count; and all are to be scrupulously weighed in the mix as we prepare to vote. But I now see that God, for wise reasons, may be pleased to put badly flawed people into positions of power; and that as a consequence of this, it may not only be wise, but even necessary, to vote for what seems to be “the lesser of two evils,” if only to avoid falling prey to the greater. My refusal to vote for Mr. Trump (a declared pro-lifer who has been true to his word) was a half vote for Mrs. Clinton; I ought to have done differently. As we mull the candidates before us, each of us will have his spiritual, moral, and political lines in the sand, over which the candidates dare not cross, for fear of losing our vote. God help us draw all such lines wisely and well. And God help all our leaders rise to the lofty demands of their office, including the President of the United States.
American evangelicals are in a quandary. No, they’re in a crisis. They are eager to vote for an electable presidential candidate who embraces biblical values, but in 2016 it appears they cannot. For reasons that are painfully obvious—and that have been rehearsed ad nauseum—they realize that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump is worthy of their enthusiastic support. How, then, should they vote? Should they vote for “the lesser of two evils”? Should they vote for a third party candidate? Or should they vote Christian and conservative down the ticket, but not vote for president at all? Trust me when I say I have given this matter LOTS of prayer and thought. In the present essay I offer both my reflections conclusions. I hope they will help you vote, both now and in the years to come.
In mulling this matter, I have isolated four biblically based lenses through which I believe we can successfully evaluate any candidate for office. They are character, conviction, competence, and calling. Let’s think together about these for a moment, and then apply them to our present situation.
First comes character. And first it is, for character always precedes policy, and determines policy. As our Lord said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad cannot bear good.” We must, then, pay the closest possible attention to a candidate’s character.
But how, exactly, do we evaluate a man’s character? For the Christian, the benchmark of all true character is the character of Jesus Christ. In evaluating a candidate, we examine him (or her) for the presence of those spiritual attributes that made the Lord Jesus the ideal man, the “firstborn” over a whole new race of godly human beings. These attributes include piety, holiness, righteousness, wisdom, honesty, love, kindness, courage, self-sacrifice, and more. And among sinners who truly know their Savior, these attributes also include one important trait not found in their sinless Master: the ability humbly to admit one’s mistakes and misdeeds, and to apologize for them.
No biblically informed Christian expects a candidate to display a flawless character; as it is written, all have sinned and fall short of the glorious character of Christ and God. Nevertheless, in a world where darkness and light always commingle, some among us, by God’s grace, do indeed display many of the character traits of Christ, and in noticeable measure. Christians should only vote for candidates who do.
Christ assures us that there is no hiding a man’s true character, for again, “A good tree cannot bring forth bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bring forth good fruit.” Accordingly, wise Christians will examine, first and foremost, a candidate’s spiritual fruit. They will look closely at his words and deeds over the long haul, and not simply at his words alone, spoken on the campaign trail. In short, they will examine and evaluate his character.
Here is the apostle Paul on the qualifications—the character—of a prospective elder. He states that an elder must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, and able to teach; not given to drink, not pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, and free from the love of money; he must be one who governs his own family well, keeping his children in submission with all dignity; he must not be a recent convert, lest, being puffed up with pride, he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Finally, he must be well spoken of by those outside the church, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
I well understand that these criteria are meant to depict elders, not presidents. But surely it is clear, both from Scripture and moral common sense, that God desires these very qualities to be substantially present in any successful leader in any sphere, and certainly in the supreme leader of our nation! Such a man is, after all, “a minister of God to us for our good” (Rom. 13:1f). Should he not, then, reflect something of God’s character?
The second criterion is conviction. By this I mean the world-view, or the spiritual and political ideology of the candidate. In some ways, conviction may be even more important than character, for conviction always shapes our choices, and our choices always shape our character. So then, the wise Christian will also want to learn what a given candidate believes; the Big Ideas he clings to, proclaims, lives by, and fights for. Knowing these, the Christian voter will easily discern the kind of policies that the candidate is likely to embrace.
Now with respect to convictions, it is certain that a presidential candidate living in these United States must believe in God, by which I mean an infinite personal Spirit who is the Creator, Sustainer, Providential Controller, and Moral Governor of men and nations. Though some of our founding fathers believed more than this about the Supreme Being, none of them believed less. And it is for this very reason that they all agreed to extol Him in our founding documents as the spiritual basis for the American experiment; as the One from whom all our rights, responsibilities, and hopes properly flow. Therefore, any candidate who cannot heartily consent to (and speak confidently of) the existence and prerogatives of such a God, is unqualified to be president of the nation dedicated to Him.
It is also certain that a worthy candidate must be thoroughly acquainted with, and a stout defender of, our Constitution. In particular, he must appreciate the fact that its ingenious system of checks and balances reflects a wise and deep-seated distrust of human nature, with its innate lust for power, and its proclivity to institute, or submit itself to, tyranny. In other words, a candidate who truly understands the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution that is built upon it, will have a high view of God, a low view of mans innate goodness, a strong bias towards individual freedom and responsibility, and a huge fear of big, powerful, all-encompassing, and all-controlling government.
In passing, I should mention here that neither our founding documents nor, I believe, God himself requires that our president be a born-again Christian. However, to my mind, Romans 13:1f does entail that he should be a theist, and a theist who well understands that as a minister of God he is accountable to administer faithfully the law and justice of the Creator and Moral Governor of the nations. If then, by God’s grace, such a theist were to come upon the scene; and if, again by God’s grace, he were to manifest in good measure the character of Christ, I could vote for him. But having done so, I would at once begin to pray for him, that the God whom he serves in the half-light of general revelation would bless him still more with a full, saving knowledge of His Son.
Summing up, then: Before he ever considers a candidate’s stated policy preferences, the wise Christian voter will strive to gain a clear understanding of the candidate’s faith, and also of his devotion to the principles and precepts of our two great founding documents.
Both Scripture and history teach that God never calls a man to leadership unless He first gives him the spiritual gifts and life experience to fill the office well. Think of Joseph in the cells of Egypt, Moses in the wilderness of Sin, and David in the caves at Adullam. All were men with great gifts, yet all were tested and refined in the fires of long and difficult life experience. Such gifts and such experiences are, of course, no guarantee that a candidate will succeed, for he is always free to turn his back on them; nevertheless, the lack of them assures us that he has not been called to high office, and that if he forces his way in, he will not succeed.
Christian voters have every right, then, to expect that a candidate for president will be able to present the nation with a resume of his meaningful accomplishments, whether inside or outside of government. By examining these, the electorate may be assured that the candidate does indeed have the gifts of vision, leadership, temperment, relational skill, administrative ability, and endurance that are all necessary for him to stand strong in what is arguably the most grueling job in the world.
Also, given the extraordinary complexity of government in our time, it is probably not reasonable to think that a candidate with no experience at all in law, politics, or elected office would be able suddenly to migrate from a career in business, medicine, or religion into the presidency. A successful president will be called of God to the work, and he will have the kind and quality of life experience to prove that God also prepared him for it.
The final criterion—and one I have mentioned repeatedly—is calling. In our secular day, it is a notion that has fallen on hard times. Nevertheless, every Bible Christian will agree that a worthy candidate with any possibility of real, lasting success must be divinely called to the work. He will be what our forefathers referred to as a “statesman”, a wise and skillful leader whom God Himself has graciously given to a nation that needs him, and (one hopes) to a nation that is worthy of him. By my lights, Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan were such gifts. It is true, of course, that many modern American voters would never even think to examine a candidate for evidence of a divine call. But Christians will and should. They do so by closely examining a candidate’s character, convictions, and competence, as well as his desire for the work, and his God-given ability to instill confidence in the people that he is able to do it. Seeing such things assures us that God may well have called this candidate to office, and it enables us to vote for him enthusiastically, with a clear conscience.
It is vital, especially in the present moment, that we have a biblically sound understanding of the divine call to office. In particular, we must understand from Scripture that God is the sovereign King and Controller of all events, including the rise and fall of nations, and the rise and fall of individual political leaders, whether good or bad. He would have us to know that the Most High is sovereign over all the kingdoms on earth, that He gives them to anyone he wishes, and that He (sometimes) sets over them the lowliest of men (Dan. 4). Again, he sovereignly chooses both good and bad leaders. As surely as He placed righteous Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan over the U.S., so surely did he place wicked Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus IV, Nero, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot over their respective realms. Note carefully, however, that the former statesmen were divinely called into office, and also to be rich blessings to their people; whereas the latter tyrants were divinely appointed to their office, and to be instruments of divine judgment against (many of) their people. Happily, we also know that such historical judgments preceded the Last Judgment, and so were part and parcel of God’s merciful and gracious plan for the advance of His redemptive purposes in the earth.
This important distinction—the distinction between a good man called into office according to God’s revealed will of precept, and a wicked man appointed to office according to God’s secret will of purpose—must ever be borne in mind by the Christian voter. A Christian voter living in a day of spiritual decline may well hope that God will call a good man to the presidency, and thereafter use him to divert or postpone divine judgment against a wicked nation. But if in fact that voter sees that his choice is only between two wicked candidates, neither of whom is remotely qualified for the office in terms of character, conviction, and competence, then he may surely conclude that God has not called either candidate to be president. And if it is clear that God has not called them, then it should be equally clear that the Christian cannot vote for them.
The Sad Case of the U.S. in 2016
I do not want to write this part of the essay, but I must. Yet though I must, I rejoice that I can be brief; for if you are reading these words, you are likely a politically literate person who realizes all too well that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are qualified to be the president of the U.S.
They fail every test.
Their character—as evidenced by any number of words and deeds spread out over their long careers—displays little or no resemblance to the character of Christ; nor do they give any evidence of a nascent Christian faith by which their characters might be transformed.
Their spiritual convictions, to the extent that we know them, are not shaped by the Bible, or by any other purportedly sacred writing that they are willing to share with us. Thus, while they may indeed pay God lip service on the hustings, we know nothing of what they actually think about Him, or even if they think of Him at all. Moreover, it is equally clear from their track records that neither candidate understands, loves, or has a mind to defend the underlying philosophy, intended meaning, and declared principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the U. S.
This is why many of Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Trump’s policy preferences run sharply counter to the basic tenets of theistic religion and our founding documents. Here I especially have in mind their misshapen views on the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of marriage, sexual propriety, religious freedom, the stewardship of wealth, the proper role and extent of government in the affairs of men, and the responsibility of powerful, godly nations to secure, so much as may be possible, fundamental human rights for all peoples, including especially the right freely to investigate and choose one’s own faith.
Finally, their competency, as reflected in the paucity and unworthiness of their actual accomplishments, is gravely in doubt. A woman may skillfully run interference for Planned Parenthood, and a man may skillfully build and operate a string of casinos; but without properly formed character and conviction, no one can skillfully run the United States of America.
For all these reasons, I conclude that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump is qualified to be president of the United States, or called by God to that office.
How Then Shall We Vote?
Actually, it is not too hard to answer this question, once we are clear on the fact that a Christian can never, in good conscience, vote for “the lesser of two evils.” To vote for evil is to do evil, and deep down inside we all know that right well!
This matter is the nub of a great debate now transpiring between Christians of the “Never Trump” persuasion (who would, of course, never vote for Hillary, either), and Christians of the “Never Hillary” persuasion. The latter group feels that the only way to keep Hillary out of office is to vote for Trump. For them, Trump may be somewhat evil, but Hillary is more evil; therefore, we ought to vote for Trump, and if we do not, we are actually voting for Hillary.
On the face of things, the arguments of the Never Hillary group seem quite compelling. However, upon closer inspection we realize that they almost always involve Mr. Trump’s recently declared policies, rather than the larger, longstanding issues of his character, conviction, and competence.
Thus, Never Hillary Christians remind us that throughout the primary season Mr. Trump has consistently promised to protect the unborn, appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court, control illegal immigration, engage Islamic terrorists, and get the middle class back to work. Moreover, they remind us that he chose the conservative Mike Pence to be his Vice President; that if Mr. Trump should die in office, we would have a conservative in the White House; and that Mr. Trump will also likely appoint conservative cabinet members and advisors. In the eyes of Never Hillary Christians, these declared policies and recent decisions make Mr. Trump far superior to Hillary. Accordingly, they exhort the rest of us to overlook his flawed character, amorphous convictions, and manifest incompetence, and to focus instead on his recent decisions and declared policies. We are to hold our nose and give him our vote.
While this line of argumentation is understandable, I reckon it to be a serious temptation, fraught with grave danger for our conscience, our country, and our prophetic witness for Christ. Happily, I also reckon that the Lord has spoken to us quite clearly on this kind of thing. Let us hear Him in His own words:
“Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, by their fruits you will know them.”
What is the main point of this admonition? Simply this: In a fallen world where wolves abound, and in which those wolves can temporarily look like sheep, we believers are commanded to test every critter coming our way by their track record: by their words, their deeds, and the fruit thereof, over the long haul.
Speaking personally, this is why I knew long ago that I could never vote for Mr. Trump. Not at all unlike Mrs. Clinton (or President Obama), his track record speaks so loudly and so decisively against him, that no short term words or deeds could ever persuade me that he is other than a wolf. His long-term pattern of impiety, self-centeredness, braggadocio, sexual promiscuity, marital infidelity, lying, deception, fraud, cruelty, impulsiveness, pugnacity, greed, and overall mental instability all “trump” (if one may so speak) any recent decisions or declarations he may have made. By his long term fruits I know him; therefore, I know enough to beware of him.
Let us apply what we have learned so far to the arguments of the Never Hillary Christians.
Mr. Trump tells us he is now pro-life. But seeing that only recently he was openly pro-choice, who is to say that he will not perfunctorily nominate one or two pro-life judges to the Supreme Court, and then contentedly cave in to the Democrats who are sure to block his choice? After all, he is impenitent in his praise of an organization that uses millions of tax payer dollars to destroy tens of thousands of unborn babies each year, not to mention the fact that this same organization traffics in aborted baby body parts. Would a candidate who is genuinely capable of bearing good fruit fail to discern the wickedness of Planned Parenthood; would he maintain his allegiance to such an organization; and would he promise to continue funding it with taxpayer dollars? And besides all this, what if Mr. Trump plunged the world into a nuclear war; how well would that serve the unborn and the pro-life movement?
Will Mr. Trump really crack down on illegal immigration? So he says. But secret conversations with the New York Times, the contents of which are as yet undisclosed, make us wonder. On the other hand, what if he really did crack down, but in such a harsh, inhumane, and pugnacious way that he antagonized not only Mexico, but all of Central and South America? Similarly, what if he did indeed take steps to purge radical Islamists from the American scene, but at the same antagonized more moderate Muslims, thereby driving them into the radical Islamist’s arms? What if he abandoned our NATO allies to a terrorist fate worse than death? Or again, what if, in the interests of peace, he turned a blind eye to a nuclear-armed Iran, thereby pushing little Israel into all out war with her many enemies in the Middle East?
What if Mr. Trump tried to revive our faltering economy, but did so primarily by igniting global trade wars that turned out to wreck it? What if he, following the lead of his children, was increasingly on board with all of the illicit sexual permutations imaginable to sinful man; what if he couldn’t care less about the future of monogamous marriage, or the fate of children growing up LGBT homes; what if he turned a blind eye to infringement of conscience, and to the free-speech rights of Christians, Muslims, and orthodox Jews trying to honor their faith in the face of the Progressive jihad for absolute sexual freedom, and absolute freedom from hearing a single word about its being sinful and worthy of divine judgment?
What if Mr. Trump does not die in office and thereby pass the presidency on to Mr. Pence; indeed, what if instead of dying, he lives on to turn against Mr. Pence—and against any other member of his cabinet who might dare to disagree with him—and fire him? What if Mr. Pence quits? What if cabinet member after cabinet member quits?
Do you see why character, conviction, competence, and calling count for everything? Do you see that they predict policy and behavior? Do you see that in the case of two presidential candidates who fail these crucial tests, there is simply no way of telling which one is more evil than the other, or which one would do more damage to our nation and our world? And do you see that such a “binary choice” does not at all force Christians to vote for one or the other, but rather compels them to vote for neither?
Touch Not the Unclean Thing
Many are the heartaches of this election year, but for me the most painful by far has been to see so many Christians, and so many Christian leaders, compromise their convictions and damage their prophetic witness to our culture by jumping aboard the Trump train. I am not here to judge their motives, but I cannot refrain from judging their wisdom.
By my lights, the Scripture could not possibly be more clear on this matter. Our Lord himself warned us that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. He said we ought not to cast our pearls (or, presumably, our votes) before swine. Wise Solomon admonished us: Make no friendship with an angry man, and have nothing to do with a furious man (or woman), lest you learn his ways and set a snare for your own soul. The apostle Paul, a man who sought always to keep his conscience void of offense, warned that we must never do evil that good may come. He said we are to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness; and he asked incredulously, “What fellowship can there possibly be between light and darkness, or between Christ and Belial?” Quoting more than one OT prophet, he channeled to us the very voice of God, saying, “Come out from among them and be separate,” says the Lord. “Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.”
Finally, Christ himself, through the apostle John, warns us that His people must never take the mark of the Beast; which is to say, they must never sell their blood-bought souls to the government; they must never give their supreme allegiance to the godless, self-deifying State. Hear me well: I am not saying that Christian leaders who endorse Trump (or Hillary) have taken the mark of the Beast; I am saying that they are staining and compromising their Christian witness, and that they are playing with strange fire.
As the above texts make clear, from time to time God is pleased to present His people with extraordinary–and extraordinarily challenging–providences, in order that He might test and refine them. 2016 is one of those times. Alas, I fear that far too many of us are failing this particular test.
How Then Shall We Vote?
Before answering this question, I must first ask another: How should we understand the troubling turn of events that has befallen us in election year 2016?
Here too I can be brief. As I see it, the tragic choice facing conscientious Christians is a sign. It is a sign that the wider culture, which in the primaries freely gave us these two unqualified nominees, is so far sunken into sin and spiritual forgetfulness, that God, both in justice and mercy, is now giving the nation the leaders it deserves, and along with that, the consequences it deserves. Speaking personally (and not prophetically, for James warns us that no man knows what tomorrow will bring), I expect those results to be catastrophic.
However, catastrophe is not the whole story—far from it. For I also expect the results to be glorious. Why? Because against the dark backdrop of America’s sin and judgment, the glory of Christ’s true spiritual Church will shine as never before. She will become exactly what her heavenly Husband desired: a city on a hill, where weary travelers, plodding along the road in darkest night, can find a refuge; she will be a lighthouse guiding terrified, chastened sinners to the only safe haven that exists in a world doomed to destruction. Utterly disillusioned with the fake worship of man and the State, God’s elect will find in the bosom of the true spiritual Church the everlasting joy of worshiping their true Creator, Redeemer, and King.
On premises such as these, I know how to vote. I will vote for, or write in, a candidate who, though imperfect, displays something of the glory of Christ; who has demonstrated over the long haul that he is a man of character, conviction, and competence; who may be–and certainly is worthy to be–called of God to occupy the highest office of the land. I will strive to vote as brother Ted Cruz told us to vote, according to a biblically based and biblically formed conscience. I will vote in such a way that I do not participate in the sins of other men, but keep my heart, my Christian witness, and my reputation pure. And in doing all of this, I will also vote in the absolute confidence that no matter who wins this election, a trustworthy God will be in complete control of all subsequent events, working all things together for the good of His beloved people, of whom I am so gratefully one.