by Rod D. Martin
August 26, 2016
This year – like every year – we are faced with imperfect candidates between whom we must choose.
As I write this, the context is Donald Trump, whom many conservatives find appalling, and against whom I fought in the primary. But I stress the words “every year.” I have been politically active since I was a teenager, and yet I’ve only rarely had the chance to vote for my preferred candidate post-primary, at least at the Presidential level.
Some suggest withdrawing from the process as a viable option. Others join third parties (and it’s important to note: in all of American history, no third party has ever elected, or come close to electing, a President, although several have caused the other side to win).
I contend, and have always contended, that these are almost never good options. The advocates of these “options” say they are “voting their principles” in the seeming assumption that no one else has any. I have written, spoken and lived my principles on this for decades.
It is finally time I write them down in a comprehensive form.
Principle 1: It is almost never “the lesser of two evils,” only “the better of two choices.” We hear this argument ceaselessly. But it’s less Christian than humanistic. It suggests there’s an option to have candidates who aren’t fallen. That isn’t going to happen.
Some say we should apply the Bible’s standards for elders to our candidates. Generally speaking, I agree. But we have to remember that they are not actually candidates for elder, and that unlike in a church setting, someone will be elected regardless of whether they meet our preferred standards.
If we wish for godly men to be electable, we should commit ourselves to sufficient evangelism and discipleship to produce a culture in which 51% want that too.
If we won’t, we cannot help but be a minority, and the best viable candidates will look less like David and more like Darius. That’s just reality.
Principle 2: When it comes to the general election, you owe God two duties: gratitude to Him, and neighborly love for and protection of His saints. Voting is not about “rendering unto Caesar.” Caesar does not require, nor even want, us to vote. Self-government is an extraordinary blessing for which we owe deep gratitude to our God. We fling it in His face when we don’t participate.
Ask those living under dictatorships if you disagree. The alternative to involvement – the one preached by too many of our pastors – is to allow God’s enemies to rule over us, and by “us,” I don’t mean “you”: I mean your children and grandchildren and everyone you love and for whom you’re responsible. If that’s our choice, then we are going beyond the sin of the Israelites who demanded a king: we’re begging for that king to be Caligula, or Nero.
The better candidate might well not be good, just better. But the better candidate will do more good, or at least less evil. Our having a say – as Joseph, Daniel, Obadiah, Nehemiah and Mordecai each did – helps mitigate the unvarnished evil which might otherwise befall us, thus protecting the saints and, wherever possible, advancing the Kingdom, even in ungodly times.
Principle 3: Perfect is for the primary, consensus is for the general.
In this year’s Republican primaries we had 17 choices, in my view the best field of our lifetimes so far. We had a robust debate. And statistically speaking, your guy probably lost.
The nomination process is a great argument, in which two broad coalitions dispute internally about what they believe matters most, and ultimately pick champions to represent their consensus position against the other side’s. Or to put that another way, primaries are about persuasion.
If you weren’t persuasive enough (and my guys were not), you have few gripes coming. Dust yourself off and start again.
In both primary and general elections, I subscribe to the famed Buckley Rule, that we should support “the rightwardmost viable candidate.”
But if my team has lost in the playoffs, someone else is winning the Super Bowl no matter how I “feel” about it.
Principle 4: We are not entitled to a “good” candidate: we have to earn one.
No one is entitled – not even us – to 51%. You have to earn it, just as you have to disciple your family, your church or your city with work, sweat and tears.
Some try to avoid this, longing for a multi-party system (and make no mistake, we don’t have one). But in fact, whatever its flaws, our two-party system is a great blessing.
Why? Because it’s more honest. Far more.
In multi-party systems (such as Italy’s), every party pretends to voters that it can do things it manifestly cannot, for the simple reason that no party will get even close to a majority. Afterwards, there is an election, and the most successful party (which frequently got 30% or less) begins cutting deals with smaller parties to form a coalition government for whom absolutely no one voted.
The coalition represents only the smoke-filled room, and the government after it will only represent some future smoke-filled room.
In America, we make our coalitions in public, with everyone’s full participation. That’s our primary. It’s better by every possible measure, even when our guys lose. And we have a better chance of persuading our countrymen next time if we don’t take our toys and go home today.
Principle 5: Yes, you are actually responsible for the likely outcome of your choices. I’m not sure why this concept is so difficult for so many of our people. If you drink and drive, you are responsible for any deaths you cause, even if you didn’t “mean” to kill anybody. If you’re a bartender and you serve too many drinks to someone who then kills somebody, you go to jail too.
So why do we not understand that standing aside and allowing a truly terrible choice to win is the same, no matter how “virtuous” your no-hope third party or write-in candidate might be? Even if you can’t stand Candidate X, there’s rarely a time you don’t need to vote against some worse Candidate Y. You must do that efficaciously or you’re voting for them in all but name.
“I’m not responsible for the outcome” is the cry of scoundrels and cowards everywhere.
Principle 6: Who will hurt us more? Beat them.
Southern Seminary professor Mark Coppenger expands on this well in his American Spectator essay “Fiduciary Values”. He posits guardianship (“keeping safe our citizens, and hence our laws, borders, liberties, environment, strategic alliances, economy, and cultural treasures”) and stewardship (“making the most of our God-given resources, both personal and material“) as key.
Like Coppenger, I agree that the other virtues matter: I just believe these matter more in this context. Jimmy Carter was a “virtuous” man, in the way we use that term, but he was a terrible president, particularly by the measure of those qualities most needed in a nation’s leader.
More to the point, Carter degraded America’s defenses, enabled the Ayatollahs and the Communists (and their eradication of liberty and persecution of the church) in over 20 additional countries, trashed our economy (which is to say, our families) and placed all of us directly in harm’s way.
Was he “nicer” than Jerry Ford? I don’t know. But I also don’t care.
Or we could put that another way. America was right to choose Stalin over Hitler, even though Stalin was responsible for the murder of ten times as many people. Why? Because there weren’t any ICBMs yet, and Stalin was further away. It was not America’s duty to arbitrate eternal right and wrong: God has that quite covered.
Rather, it was America’s leaders’ duty to defeat the most immediate threat to America’s people, buying time to deal with the further threat in due course. And as it happened, God blessed that choice and wiped both evils from the Earth, the latter without the war we all feared.
Principle 7: As in all else, it’s not about you.
You may have noticed your friends fretting, in this election or some other, about “their principles,” which far too often means their preferences. They talk about irrational things, like writing in someone whose name no one knows, as a valid option to advance these.
They might as well write in Bugs Bunny, or Jed Bartlet. They need to stop kidding themselves. No one knows or cares about their personal made-up drama.
A variant on this is some people’s seeming belief that candidates are gods to whom their vote is a sacrifice, or in whom they are placing their faith. This is silly. They’re just candidates. You are not somehow cloaking them in your moral authority, certification or blank-check approval. You’re just picking the better choice, like vegetables over popsicles.
Our choice, however important, is more prosaic than our egos let us think.
“Getting my way” is not important. “My primary candidate” is not important. Once we better understand how our system really works, once we grasp that the blessing of self-government requires our participation, once we understand that we are actually responsible for our small part in the overall outcome, all of this becomes easier.
Perhaps, as some pastors are quick to say, they are personally ready for martyrdom. But are they ready to make that choice for everyone else? For their daughters? Needlessly?
Now of course there might be special cases. Perhaps Hitler runs against Pol Pot, for example. But this is a strawman: in America we’ve never seen such an example, nor are we likely to. And indeed, Hitler himself did not run against Pol Pot: he ran against Paul von Hindenburg. And though few of us would find Hindenburg acceptable in isolation, in 1932 he was clearly the right choice.
My fiduciary, protective, defensive approach may not appeal to you. Manliness does not appeal to this culture generally.
But manning up is exactly what is called for. First in the primary, where Christians tend to lollygag, only to get needlessly bested by their worldly rivals. And second in the general, wherein we tend to whine about our choices, sit on our hands and let the worse choice lead our nation needlessly further from God’s truth.
I leave to you to decide whether these principles apply this time. But the exception would have to be pretty impressive.
— A slightly shorter version of this essay first appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness.