Published November 1, 2023
It is popular to say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and some American Christians seem to think similarly about voting—as if what happens in the voting booth stays in the voting booth. But neither is true. What we do in secret is morally implicated and often has dramatic public and material consequences. Our actions as moral agents always have consequences. The question is the nature of the consequence that results and what degree of complicity we have in bringing those situations to fruition.
The voting booth remains one of the inner sanctums of public life; and, understandably, no one has any obligation to share who it is they voted for. There is no Scriptural compulsion to volunteer such information. But the privacy and anonymity afforded to persons inside the voting booth does not diminish the moral stewardship of voting. In a representative democracy like our own, authority is vested in the electorate to decide what politicians will take office and what set of values they will enact into law. We, the citizens, are part of the governing authority in a Romans 13:1-7 sense. Voting, then, is an act of empowerment. We are responsible for what we knowingly empower. Voting is the delegation of our authority and agency to representative authorities who do the bidding of the commonwealth. So as a matter of political ethics, voting involves one’s agency. One’s actions in choosing a particular candidate inflict outcomes on other citizens by virtue of the candidate’s ability to steward public policy in the direction of civic righteousness or civic unrighteousness.
Christians tend to valorize democratic participation more than they seriously consider what the act of voting signifies. The focus on moral agency and its outcomes, at least in some Christian circles, is given less attention than the good of simply doing one’s civic duty. Before getting to the main point of this essay, consider the various ways that voting is framed in Christian circles. Voting can be framed as somehow irrelevant, neither a feature nor a measure of one’s discipleship. Erecting a strict divide between one’s political life and spiritual life is seen as one option for some. Some Christians talk about voting in ways that make the moral worldviews of competing platforms and candidates morally equivalent. Another approach views voting as weighing a multitude of complicating factors not easily reducible to one issue. Taken to the extreme, prudence and wisdom depict voting as an untidy arena of compromise that implicates everyone. While we must acknowledge that no perfect candidate exists, society being constrained by the realities of sin does not override the fact that moral evils reside asymmetrically in today’s political landscape. Abortion is certainly the starkest example of political forces calling for the advancement of a clear and grave moral evil in law. Recent state initiatives at the vanguard of the moral revolution (e.g., laws providing for euthanasia or for state-enforced gender transition of minors without parental consent) may fall into a similar category, but lack the scale of the abortion issue. But issues like that are the exception, not the rule. There are no candidates, for example, who are running on a platform of trying to impoverish people or do citizens harm. There is no “pro-sex trafficking” platform to speak of. Most planks of competing policy platforms are prudential disagreements about what the best public policy is (i.e., how to balance competing goods in a way that serves the interests of each). This is not so when it comes to terminating unborn life. Platforms, candidates, and lobbying organizations exist in our political landscape seeking to sanction lethal violence against innocent human beings. It is not an overstatement to say that for some political coalitions in the United States, abortion is the tie that binds.
Pastors are not even supposed to address congregants about voting for fear of “getting too political.” Oftentimes it is right for pastors to be guarded about telling people how to vote, yet that does not mean pastors should exclude teaching about the ethics of voting. Also, sometimes, pastors should weigh in on a particular vote where the issue at hand touches at an obvious and essential issue of creation order and the common good. The way that much of mainstream evangelicalism has framed politics and voting sometimes tends toward excusing ethical malfeasance under the pretense of diversity of opinion, as if diversity of opinion is its own good. But it’s not a moral good in and of itself. Diversity of opinion is the result of divergence in thinking among a multitude of people, and one hope of the gospel, indeed, one of the moral goods of the gospel, is unity. Diversity of opinion is, of course, warranted where the array of voting options is truly prudential in nature. But we must do a better a job of considering how our vote furthers or impedes morally egregious evil. We must engage in what I call “ethical triage,” the process of evaluating and differentiating what is morally permissible, morally advisable, and morally obligatory. Such triage would not only help in our own ethical formulation as disciples of Jesus, it would help us understand the ethics of voting with greater clarity.
The occasion of Roe’s demise affords a long overdue opportunity to talk about voting ethics, especially in light of an issue that has been at the forefront of the Christian voting calculus—abortion. For the purposes of this essay, we must abandon categories of “liberal” and “conservative” or “Democrat” and “Republican.” These labels only allow for the specter of American punditry to cloud our judgment. Instead, we should be focused on a question of Christian ethics: Whether and to what degree we can use our moral agency to cooperate with a known and intended moral evil in the act of political empowerment.
After June 24, 2022, it would be easy to believe that abortion is somehow a less pressing issue facing Americans. For decades, the possibility of a President’s Court appointments slowly changing the composition of the Court was seen as perhaps the greatest factor in how many Christians voted. In many Christians’ minds (like mine), abortion is one of the gravest moral tragedies in American history. It is so grave an injustice we should regard it as the most important social justice issue of our day. Over sixty million image bearers of God and fellow Americans were denied their right to live. In most American states even today, one of the most dangerous places one can find themselves is in a womb. If we can pass over those sentences without pause or our heartbeats not pulsing, it only goes to show how seared our consciences have become regarding abortion.
“Vote for judges” was the rallying cry for millions of American Christians (including myself). But now that Roe is gone, are national elections less freighted by abortion? Are Christians now less hamstrung by abortion and free to consider politicians they otherwise would not simply because Roe is gone? The answer to that is no, I think, for most of the same reasons that would have applied previously. First, the composition of the Supreme Court is dynamic and never static. Several elections won by pro-abortion nominees could easily result in a new case before the Court that would resurrect Roe. Second, as we’ve seen the Biden administration do, there is tremendous authority within the executive branch and its administrative agencies to find creative ways to etch abortion into the complex web of federal law.
But I will grant that the urgency of the matter has the appearance of seeming less pressing. Except, that is, when we consider the new frontier that Dobbs has wrought, which is the central focus of this essay. After Roe, based on a Christian understanding of subsidiarity, which holds that the responsibility to ameliorate a wrong is proportional to one’s proximity to the issue, an individual’s vote concerning abortion bears even greater moral responsibility than before. This is so because now that Roe is gone, there is more local impact at the municipal and state level as to whether a jurisdiction will continue the practice of intentionally killing pre-born life. Let me state this in the plainest of terms: Your vote matters even more now that local and state jurisdictions have to grapple with the legality of abortion.
Consider just one example. A very influential candidate for mayor of Louisville, Kentucky (where I live) has vowed to not enforce Kentucky’s abortion ban, thus creating a jurisdiction where women could come for an abortion. I find such a position to be cruel beyond what words can describe, but that’s what’s before voters in Louisville.
Practically speaking, this means my vote in November’s mayoral election has more moral consequence to it concerning grave moral evil now that power is more closely located in the issue at hand. A few thousand votes in Louisville alone could determine whether infanticide continues in the city I call home. Before Roe, abortion was routine in Kentucky. Now it is not. But a vote for this particular candidate means life and death hangs in the balance in a more localized way. Ending Roe, in other words, puts greater direct agency on voters.
A diagnostic test I always want to run is to ask whether the ethics we apply in a contemporary moment would apply in the same way to past historical moments that we all recognize as grievous evil. Ethics requires consistency in application. Would we treat a Christian’s vote for a pro-slavery candidate as a matter of prudence? Would we discipline a church member who acknowledged voting for a neo-Nazi? We need to ask ourselves why it is that we can draw lines at the trafficking of human beings or the slaughter of the born but not at the lethal targeting of the unborn. What moral principle differentiates the moral evil of slavery and the Holocaust from abortion?
Let me state the moral principle undergirding my argument unequivocally: A Christian should never knowingly and intentionally vote for an official who would seek to expand abortion’s legality beyond the current statutory limitations. What is meant in this phrasing is that a candidate would take no positive effort to further advance abortion access. This phrasing also takes for granted the political reality that in many jurisdictions, limiting abortion is more possible than outrightly banning it. Where it is banned, a Christian should never vote for a candidate who would seek to legalize abortion. The ideal vote would be cast for the politician who seeks to limit, reduce, and ultimately abolish abortion as the goal of their service in government, even while acknowledging the obstacles to do so. Christians should vote with a view toward seeing abortion’s legality limited to the greatest extent possible and ultimately abolished in ways that are commensurably feasible within the given context. For argument’s sake, I grant the permissibility of candidates pledging to vote for such proposals as a fifteen-week ban while acknowledging that additional work to eradicate abortion must continue. It would be better, for example, for there to be a fifteen-week ban on abortion than no ban at all or a ban at twenty weeks. The goal should be to save as many lives as possible with the greatest degree of legal protection. I embrace incrementalism even as total abolition is the ultimate goal. While moral goods are absolute, the determinations in procuring and safeguarding moral goods are always matters of prudence and feasibility. In general, voters should rigorously examine what candidates will and will not pledge to do in office concerning the protection of unborn life.
The first moral principle of medicine, “Do No Harm,” should be the first rule of voters and of the magistrates themselves. That moral principle does not mean that a Christian is obligated to vote for every candidate who opposes abortion, either, but that a Christian’s agency cannot be drafted into materially furthering evil with any immediate degree. Forseeably, there could be pro-life candidates whose personal moral turpitude leaves a voter unable to support them. Conscientious objection is a viable argument to pursue when candidates are equally unsuited. No person should violate their conscience when voting. Other situations may mean that a Christian cannot vote for main party candidates or should write one in.
Let’s do a philosophical experiment to consider what a Christian should do when confronted with a less-than-ideal scenario where a viable pro-life candidate is not available. At a principled level, it is not clear to me that a Christian is sinning to the point of triggering church discipline when he or she votes for [X,Y] over and against [X,Z] when X is evil, Z is evil, but Y is not. In that case, their vote does nothing to promote X since X is a fixed outcome. Yet since they can make a difference concerning Y and Z, it’s arguably better, or least we might say they are morally permitted, to therefore vote for [X,Y]. It could be permissible, then, to vote for a candidate who would seek to narrow abortion access even if total abolition is not yet politically possible. It also seems better, for example, to vote for a candidate who opposes gender transitions but who also supports a fifteen week ban on abortion than a candidate who seeks to expand abortion and support gender “transitions.” The interest of justice is advanced as we aspire to make abortion increasingly outlawed, even though political realities prevent us from accomplishing everything we would like in the immediate term.
Without calculations like the above, many Christians in other countries would be unable to vote since there is virtually no pro-life coalition with candidates who can reasonably advance the pro-life cause. In a situation where no pro-life alternative is available, a Christian should still act in their power to vigilantly bring attention to abortion and to see pro-life political views gain traction in their context by whatever means appropriate. For example, a private citizen could start a pro-life non-profit, organize to draft pro-life candidates, do pro-life advertising in local media, and write pro-life opinion columns in their local paper. The lack of a pro-life candidate, of course, is a tragic reality. But it is a reality that Christians living in a fallen age will have to consider as ideals are often not available to choose from. Where ideals are not available, a Christian should always work to reduce the risk to the unborn. Then again, it would be entirely conscionable for a Christian to abstain entirely from voting altogether.
We need to wrestle with the moral terms of what’s before us: How would using one’s agency to knowingly promote pro-abortion candidates not be morally compromising, or at least giving untenable material support to a sinful outcome? Does the Sixth Commandment mean something less just because abortion is routine in our culture?
That this is controversial displays a massive failure in Christian ethical thinking. All throughout Scripture, the targeted killing of children is portrayed as a heinous evil. Whether it was Pharaoh or Herod, the seed of the serpent is always devouring the innocent. He does so because killing children is one way an already conquered enemy tries to stave off, however futilely, his coming demise. The presence of future generations means the continued operation of the church, which the Serpent seeks to destroy. Every child is a reminder of the impending doom of the Enemy. So let them live. That Christians can simultaneously champion social justice while ignoring the thread of Scripture’s defense of children’s welfare and believe that abortion is not a systemic evil is a pox on today’s evangelical mind.
If voting is not an issue of discipleship, we’ll have unintentionally slipped back into a false notion of the spirituality of the church that led to horrible outcomes and injustices in previous generations.
Voting cannot be just another way that Christians fall into the trap of expressive individualism. We should not defer to theological categories such as prudence to justify excusing unambiguous and intended moral evil. A line must be drawn somewhere. Appealing to soul competency or hyper-individualism to validate or appease political-ethical malfeasance will not end well. We cannot excuse immorality and ethics that are out of alignment with the gospel to gain favor with the world or with what other Christians think is excusable simply because it has become routine. That’s the heresy Paul confronted in Galatia. The gospel produces ethical righteousness (Titus 2:11-14; 3:3-8) and if we subordinate ethical clarity to a principle of political prudence, we can fail to see how the slow encroachment of sanctioning ungodliness will negatively leaven our theology proper. If not vigilantly guarded, sinful ethics will dictate theology.
I am not saying that pastors must inquire into the voting record of a prospective church member. I can foresee unnecessary awkwardness if a pastor asks how someone voted in the last election. I also have a category for the Christian who is simply not pursuing caution in how they vote, perhaps because of how one’s family influenced his or her political thinking. Or the undiscipled Christian who has no basic framework for thinking about the unborn child’s personhood. What I have in mind in the above consideration is the otherwise mature Christian who confidently asserts that abortion is “just one issue among many” or who offers equivocating excuses on how one party is more generous in establishing a social safety net. I can appreciate a concern for a holistic approach to care, but at the same time, concern for mothers does not mean giving support to the continued legality of abortion.
Am I saying that a Christian who votes for pro-abortion candidates is not a Christian? I can’t go that far because I am not God. I may not be able to question the status of faith in the inner recesses of their heart, but I can question their devotion to obeying Scripture and the Spirit’s influence over their life when clear principles that ought to guide every arena of a Christian’s life are stubbornly cast off.
Voting is a good thing to do as a citizen. But it’s good only insofar as the agency used in how one votes does not do any harm. Psalm 34:14 states, “Turn away from evil and go good; seek peace and pursue it.” Let us be Christians who turn away from evil, not work to install it into power.
EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker, Ph.D., researches and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public theology, and the moral principles that support civil society and sound government. A sought-after speaker and cultural commentator, Dr. Walker’s academic research interests and areas of expertise include natural law, human dignity, family stability, social conservatism, and church-state studies. The author or editor of more than ten books, he is passionate about helping Christians understand the moral demands of the gospel and their contributions to human flourishing and the common good. His most recent book, out in May 2021 from Brazos Press, is titled Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Secular Age.