For years, I have urged Christians to take seriously their obligations as citizens, starting with exercising the right to vote. In the public square and at the ballot box, we must be more engaged, not less.
But what happens in a race where Christians are faced with two morally problematic choices? Should voters cast a ballot for the lesser of two evils? This unpredictable election cycle could go in any number of directions, and I keep getting asked this question.
For starters, unless Jesus of Nazareth is on the ballot, any election forces us to choose the lesser of evils. Across every party and platform, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Still, the question is a valid one. Believing in human depravity doesn’t negate our sense of responsibility. By the standard of God’s law, every person is a liar, but that doesn’t mean we should hire an employee we know has a pattern of lying. Jesus taught that all who have lust in their hearts are adulterers, but that doesn’t mean a woman should shrug her shoulders when she learns her potential new husband is a serial philanderer.
When considering the question of choosing between the lesser of two evils, we must begin with what voting is within our system of government. In our system, citizen is an office; we too bear responsibility for the actions of the government. Just as the lordship of Christ made demands for public justice on office-holders in the New Testament (Luke 4:15), the same is true for those who rule as citizens.
The apostle Paul taught that the sword of Caesar is given by God to commend good and punish evil (Rom. 13:1-5). The Bible addresses the limits of this role, recounting those who use the sword in unjust ways and are held accountable to judgment (i.e., Revelation 13).
In a democratic republic, the authority over statecraft rests with the people themselves. In the voting booth, we delegate others to swing the sword of public justice on our behalf. If we think of a campaign like a job interview, we cannot ethically contract someone to do evil on our behalf.
Can a candidate make promises about issues then do something different in office? Yes. Can a candidate present a sense of good character in public then later be revealed to be a fraud? Sure. The same happens with pastors, spouses, employees, and in virtually every other relationship. But that sense of surprise and disappointment is not the same as knowingly delegating our authority to someone with poor character or wicked public stances. Doing so makes us as voters culpable. Saying, “the alternative would be worse” is no valid excuse.
Think of military service, another office of public responsibility, as an example. Members of the military don’t need to approve of everything a general decides to be faithful to their duty to the country. But if they're commanded to either slaughter innocent non-combatants or desert and sign up with the enemies of one’s country, a Christian can’t merely choose the least bad of these options. He would have to conclude that both are wrong and he could not be implicated in either. If a Christian doctor were forced to choose between performing abortions or assisting suicides, she could not choose the lesser of these two evils but must conscientiously object.
That said all political issues are not equal. I’ve voted for candidates I disagreed with on issues like immigration reform or family medical leave because I’ve agreed with them on the sanctity of human life. I could not, though, vote for a “pro-life” candidate who is also for racial injustice or war crimes or any number of other first-level moral issues. There are some candidates I agree on issues like economic growth or national security for whom I could not vote for because they deny the personhood of the unborn or restrict religious freedom for all people.
Given these moral convictions, there have been times when I’ve faced two candidates, both of whom were morally disqualified. In one case, one candidate was pro-life but a race-baiter, running against a candidate who was pro-choice. I could not in good conscience put my name on either candidate. I wrote in the name of another leader. Other times, I’ve voted for a minor party candidate.
Candidates from outside the two major parties sometimes win. Abraham Lincoln ran as a Republican in an era when the major parties were the Whigs and Democrats. Even when third-party candidates don’t win the election, they can introduce issues and build a movement for the future. Write-in candidates have occasionally won; US Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska won her re-election as a write-in candidate in 2010.
In the cases when I’ve voted for an independent or written in a candidate, I didn’t necessarily expect that candidate to win—my main objective was to participate in the process without endorsing moral evil. As Christians, we are not responsible for the reality of our two-party system or for the way others exercise their citizenship, but we will give an account for how we delegate our authority. Our primary concern is not the election night victory party, but the Judgment Seat of Christ.
When Christians face two clearly immoral options, we cannot rationalize a vote for immorality or injustice just because we deem the alternative to be worse. The Bible tells us we will be held accountable not only for the evil deeds we do but also when we “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32).
This side of the New Jerusalem, we will never have a perfect candidate. But we cannot vote for evil, even if it’s our only option.
Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.