Sin always seeks an opportunity to push into our lives. Don’t “make room for the devil,” the apostle Paul warns (Eph. 4:27, NRSV throughout). But election season offers Satan sprawling acreage on which to trap and tempt.
One tool Paul and other biblical writers employed to help Christians fend off temptation was the simple act of listing sins we might commit. There are more than a dozen “vice lists” in the New Testament, modeled on the ancient Greco-Roman “ethical catalogue” and covering everything from murder in 1 Timothy 1:9 to Ephesians 5:4’s “obscene, silly, and vulgar talk.”
The best-known vice list arrived later in the Christian tradition. The seven deadly sins—wrath, sloth, pride, envy, greed, gluttony, and lust—as we now list them came to us in the Western church through Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, Pope Gregory the Great seven centuries prior, and a mystic named Evagrius two centuries before that. These aren’t the “‘deadliest’ sins or the worst crimes against humanity,” explained Calvin College philosophy professor Rebecca DeYoung, who researches virtues and vices, in a brief history of the list. They’re rather “the most familiar, recurring pitfalls everybody deals with sooner or later.” The 2020 election gives occasion to deal with them all.
Wrath is the most obvious, perhaps. Anger itself isn’t a sin, but this wrath is not plain anger. It’s bitterness indulged and accommodated (Eph. 4:26), made into a habit of mind that colors our encounters with those frustrating people on the other side who can’t or won’t see what seems to us the clear moral choice at the ballot box this year. It is equally the tense, twitchy fury I’ve noticed in myself, far too easily summoned over far too little when I’m far too immersed in the political controversy of the day. Wrath is particularly at home on social media, where disguised as righteous anger it “cannot be sated,” as Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, until the offending party is verbally “hounded down, beaten, and trampled on … without restraint and without magnanimity.”
Social media is an election season home to sloth, too, inviting us to spend attention we rightly owe elsewhere on the never-ending stream of campaign news—meaningless horse race snapshots, gaffes we’ll forget in a week, predictions the pundits who made them will forget in a month, and policy promises the candidates who gave them will forget in a year. There’s another sort of election-time sloth, too, a sloth, Sayers said, that is “the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing.” It doesn’t vote or votes without understanding, abstaining not out of conviction that kingdom work lies elsewhere but out of apathy and insensibility.
The vice opposite that latter sloth is pride, rearing up in certainty of one’s own unassailable political righteousness. This is the pattern of sin that keeps us from seriously entertaining any political perspective other than our own, that assures us we are “not like other people: thieves, rogues,” Democrats, Republicans (Luke 18:11). This temptation is often strongest for those who have recently adopted a new political perspective and retain the convert’s zeal. The Latin word ancient Christians used for “pride” is the discomforting superbia; it is a clever demon, always trying to twist our excellences and virtues into vice.
Envy takes a diagonal spot from pride, popping up in this election as anti-elitism and epistemological crisis. When we are proud, we think ourselves superior. When we are envious, we want no one to be deemed superior to us. Envy accordingly loves debunking and destroying, as Sayers explained; it denies pure motives, cannot fathom true public service, and loves to cry “fake news!” It rejects expertise—“Who are you to say you know better than me?”—over any unwanted advice. At its extremes, in this moment, envy is at work in the pernicious nonsense of QAnon and the callous, indiscriminate destruction of looting.
If envy is a temptation of the have-nots, greed comes for those who have and want more—and certainly I need not tell you every election involves greed. There’s the large-scale greed of PACs, lobbyists, and campaign surrogates, jockeying for favors from the next administration. Among us little people is the greed of a politics grounded solely in self-interest. Greed asks, “How will this help me?” but not “How will it help my neighbor?” The virtue opposed to greed, Aquinas taught, is liberality, the generousness that comes of trusting God (and therefore not a politician, party, or policy) will provide for our needs (Luke 12:22–34).
Gluttony may seem an odd sin to find in politics, but it is here as well, even in its most vulgar form. What else, after all, are the drinking games we craft for presidential debates? Excess consumption of political news and commentary is gluttony, too: Consider that many of us could make an adequately well-informed decision on whether or how to vote for president from a single day of research, deliberation, and prayer in late October. There are legitimate, even virtuous, reasons for greater engagement, just as our eating habits necessarily vary. In either case, however, we’ve crossed into gluttony if we’re controlled by our consumption more than it’s controlled by us.
Last is lust, the sexual version of which primarily appears in presidential politics via allegations about candidates’ behavior. In ourselves we are more likely to find lust in its broader sense of inordinate, self-gratifying desire. Power is its favorite political object, and what we have is never enough. A larger majority in Congress, a bigger margin on the Supreme Court, four more years—lust never reaches fulfilment. It feels “[s]harper from each promised staying,” C. S. Lewis wrote in a poem on the seven sins, less satisfied the more it gets. This lust’s seductive whisper tells us every election is the most important in our lifetimes, a thrilling conquest we must get into our grasp.
These vices won’t leave us once the last vote is counted. They’re less discrete acts than habits of being that shape our words and deeds, and they’ll find new expressions after Election Day, both political and private. There never is a respite from sin’s intrusive attempts in this life, but in Christ, all deadliness gets swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54).
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today.