ESSAY
For Whom Should a Christian Vote: Moral Reasoning and the 2020 Election
POSTED
October 13, 2020

Can a Christian vote for Donald Trump? That might seem like a surprising question given the widespread evangelical support for the President. Yet for a growing number of evangelicals, to vote for Trump is to endorse his moral repugnancy and further discredit gospel-believing Christians who have sold their birthright for political power. In this view, Trump is a Trojan Horse whom too many Christians have naively welcomed into the gates only to see chaos ensue, and perhaps long term damage to the Church’s witness. And certain evangelical leaders have enjoyed such a coziness with the President that it’s difficult to imagine any situation in which they would ever deliver a prophetic rebuke to power. Trump’s brand of nationalism and his rhetoric on matters of race and immigration sit uneasy with many Christians who see the kingdom of God as a multi-ethnic community of every tribe, tongue, and nation. While race relations did not improve under our first African American president, they have certainly gotten worse under our first celebrity president. These and other reasons are why many otherwise socially conservative and well-meaning Christians will vote not so much for Biden in November but against Trump. Many of my friends will make such a decision and can’t imagine why any thoughtful, caring Christian would vote for Trump.

To my friends whose Christian faith and moral reservations about Trump I share, I want to raise the question, Can a Christian vote for Joe Biden? Raising this question is not an argument for Trump as much as it is an attempt to apply the same sort of moral scrutiny to voting for Vice President Biden that’s applied to voting for President Trump. It’s not surprising that many Christians have supported Trump, not because they endorse his style or approve of his character, but because he has taken a strong pro-life position (even if he’s come to the position late in life). In the wake of Trumpism, many pro-life voters, however, have been shamed by their more woke brothers and sisters in the faith for being focused too exclusively on one issue to the exclusion of others, all the while supporting such a divisive leader. The group Pro-life Evangelicals for Joe Biden expand the definition of what it means to be pro-life and make the case that Biden’s policies, even though he is pro-abortion, would be more consistently pro-life (at least for those who are born). Another common argument is to assert that nothing will change anyway; even with  pro-life presidents in the past, abortion is still the law of the land. Such moves, however, miss the moral gravity of the traditional pro-life position. Justice for the unborn means advocating for an entire class of persons who may be killed with the full endorsement of the state. Pro-lifers understand this state-sanctioned violence against the unborn to be the most important of all human rights, and therefore the social justice issue of our time. An expansive understanding of the sanctity of life should absolutely include the welfare of the child outside of the womb, alleviation of poverty, and the like. But such a point is moot if the child never makes it out of the womb. 

Democrats allowed for a moderate position on abortion in recent history, advocating for abortions being “rare, safe, and legal.” That gave some cover for politicians—like Joe Biden as recently as 2012—to say they are personally against abortion but support the law. But now the platform on abortion for Democrats has shifted such that abortion is not just a tragic necessity; it’s an unquestioned good and the sine qua non of women’s rights. Further, to take the life of the unborn is a “reproductive right” against which no restrictions should be enforced. Even restrictions on late-term abortions are now fiercely opposed. While the number of abortions overall have trended downward under Republicans and Democrats since Reagan, the pro-abortion position has in recent years gotten more extreme. Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, has been called the loudest “cheerleader” for loosening restrictions on abortion and enjoys a 100% rating from the pro-abortion group NARAL. Biden has promised to make Roe the law of the land via legislation, restore tax-payer funding for abortion, and set a litmus test for judges that they must be pro-abortion. A Biden Harris administration would govern according to this extreme agenda.

Christians must understand the grave sin of taking the life of the unborn and never accept it as just the way things are. Lutheran Theologian Robert Jensen has argued that the practice of abortion is not simply a violation of “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but the undoing of civilized order, a return to barbarism. Any culture that supports this practice will eventually undo itself.  Many younger Christians especially, however, have become complacent on the issue of abortion, focused on other seemingly more pressing concerns for justice. To be staunchly pro-life may not be as appealing or sexy to younger believers, but care for the unborn has been a hallmark of the church’s concern for justice for the most vulnerable since the early church. Of course, there are many other political issues that call for careful moral reasoning, but abortion should stand out as uniquely urgent and serious: abortion has claimed the lives of nearly one million babies a year for some time. One political party and one presidential candidate think that this practice must be defended at all costs. Another candidate—whose personal morals and public persona are embarrassingly crude—takes a position that abortion must be ended. Can a Christian who takes the sanctity of life to be the fundamental basis for all human rights and all pursuits of social justice support a candidate who advocates for such a grossly immoral practice? 

As I’ve wrestled through these issues, I’ve run a thought experiment. Say there’s candidate A and candidate B. Candidate A seems to be a decent person and you find many of his policy positions persuasive. But candidate A supports the institution of race-based slavery. And not only does he support it, he believes that it should remain in effect with no restrictions. Further, he doesn’t just tolerate it as a necessary evil, but promotes it as an unquestioned good for the flourishing of civilization. Candidate B, however, is the incumbent and a moral mess. He belittles his opponents, has little self-control, and often acts like a child. But candidate B, for all of his unpleasantness and chaos, is adamantly opposed to race-based slavery and promises to do all in his executive power to effect change. And candidate B in his first term has a track record of using his power to resist the status quo of slavery. Most people would agree now that the evils of race-based slavery were so great that until slavery was eradicated all other causes palled in comparison. If slavery were on the ballot, being a single issue voter would seem not just justifiable but a moral imperative. 

Pastor Tim Keller recently tweeted: “The Bible tells me that abortion is a sin and great evil, but it doesn’t tell me the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which policies are most effective.” Keller’s point is well-taken: the Bible, of course, does not lay out a political strategy for abortion, or really any contemporary political issue. Keller is rightly concerned with Christians being too closely aligned to one political party in a two party system. Conservatives and liberals might both advocate for wise and biblically sound policies when it comes to matters of poverty, economics, immigration, and the like. Surely neither Republicans nor Democrats have a complete monopoly on all policies that align with a Christian worldview. Keller’s counsel should be heeded especially in an age of political polarization where both Christian conservatives and left-leaning Christians have a tendency to make partisan politics an idol. 

But imagine if something as morally stark as slavery were on the ballot and a live policy discussion. Would we say: “The Bible tells me that race-based slavery is a sin and a great evil, but it doesn’t tell me the way to decrease or end slavery in this country, nor which policies are most effective”? Would we say in a two-party system, where one party was pro-slavery and the other party was abolitionist, that maybe both parties have points to make regarding human flourishing and that we shouldn’t be too closely aligned with either? If Christians understand state-sanctioned abortion as morally evil as state-sanctioned slavery, then perhaps we can reimagine the gravity of what our vote for a someone who endorses such an extreme pro-abortion stance might mean. If Christians who supported slavery in the past, even while they may have been personally bothered by it, were in some way complicit in the perpetuation of that evil institution, would it not be the case that those who steward their vote for pro-abortion candidates in some way lend support to another evil system? To be fair, to vote for a candidate does not necessarily make one complicit in everything that candidate will do if elected, nor does a vote somehow impute the unrighteousness of the candidate unto the voter. Accepting the reality of a moral ill you do not approve of for the hope of achieving an even greater good is an uncomfortable and inescapable part of our fallen political system. But when such a grave moral issue like abortion is in play politically, our individual votes will have a cumulative impact in determining policies that affect that issue.  In a constitutional republic like ours, Christians have the civic duty to vote for candidates who will best approximate our Christian understanding of human flourishing and public righteousness. Coming to a decision for whom to vote requires establishing a moral hierarchy of concerns. Our vote should not be based on a visceral reaction to the personality of any one candidate. The sacredness of human life of the born and preborn should be at the top of that hierarchy, even ahead of an individual candidate’s moral fitness. As we discern such a moral hierarchy prayerfully, in accord with Scripture and the tradition of the church, we would do well to consider ourselves as strangers and aliens, politically homeless in the current regime of bitter partisan politics. If the protection of the unborn is at or near the top of our moral hierarchy of concerns, then we may see our vote as a strategic play not so much for a particular candidate, but for a particular end. Of course, some will opt out of the binary choice altogether and, as a form of protest against both candidates, vote for a third party. But while there are principled reasons for which a Christian may choose to not vote for Trump, there are many reasons for a Christian to not vote for Joe Biden—about one million reasons a year.


Blake Johnson is pastor of Church of the Holy Cross in Crozet, VA.

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