My favorite scene in Peter Weir’s memorable film adaptation of Patrick O’Brien’s classic series of Master and Commander novels (or if you like, a contemptibly non-inclusive scene between two privileged white men in authority) is between Captain Jack Aubrey and the ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin. Aubrey asks his friend to choose between one of two weevils inhabiting his piece of bread (sailors in the service regularly had to eat weevil-infested bread.) Maturin chooses the larger one, and Aubrey puns “But sir, in the service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils!”
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are weevils. The choice of which will nourish our nation over the next four years offers no pleasure to most reasonable and principled persons. I can’t think of any of my acquaintances who could vote for either without serious reservations. But it is no use pretending the stark choice is not there. Our nation will have to survive on one of the two for a time.
Nevertheless, I have perceived (from conversations with friends and reading many articles) a strong desire from many of my fellow Christians to place their heads firmly in the sand this year and refuse to vote. Russell Moore makes the case that “voting for evil” is never acceptable at Christianity Today. Jared C. Wilson makes essentially the same case on his blog at The Gospel Coalition. Paired with several conversations I have had with friends about the election, I cannot understand the case that they make or why I ought to respect it.
All of these arguments forget that we have a system of government. We are not merely voting in hopes that a candidate will do good in office, we are voting that the candidate uphold the overriding good of the Constitution of the United States and respect the helpful system of checks and balances it prescribes. To subscribe to this view, one needs to think that there is something laudable about the Constitution of the United States, and it’s more than a little concerning to me that so many Christians today (both conservatives and liberals) don’t seem to think there is. Instead, we get so many tiresome and misapplied metaphors about bowing to idols, rendering unto Caesar, and the like. These strike me as especially laughable and ironic since if we are voting for the candidate solely upon the hope that he or she will be personally righteous or benevolent to ourselves or others (it does not matter which) then we are actually behaving like plebeians supporting our choice for Caesar. These writers seem unaware that we do not live in Imperial Rome, and that the admonition to not bow to idols in the Old and New Testaments was quite literal. As citizens protected by the Constitution, our common good is not guaranteed or leveraged by one or another powerful person, but a list of inalienable rights, and so we are free to vote for one or another candidate based on our best judgment of how he or she would uphold those rights. Instead, we are suddenly admonished by these evangelical leaders to lock ourselves in the towers of principle, like Thomas More, cradling our votes as our oath.
But our votes are not proclamations of unqualified fealty to our leaders. We actually have the good fortune to have been born into one of the only nations on earth that does not ask that of us in our civic engagement (at least not yet.) To think that our entire political and spiritual credibility rests on which line we made our mark is to be so utterly misinformed about how the American system is supposed to work that one wonders whether our evangelical leaders remember anything from their eighth grade civics courses. A vote for President in the United States is not an oath of loyalty to a benefactor, it is an invitation to lay a bean on the scales of power. We are not “responsible” for the actions of the person we voted for in some direct way, as though our preferred candidate was some sort of soul-daemon to which our souls and wills are bound. They are supposed to act as a defender and caretaker of the system of government that we have for a little while. So a good part of our decision to vote should be in favor of preserving our system of government, not just endorsing the will of one or another candidate.
The articles of the Constitution separate powers and call for a spirit of restraint in government, and especially for executive power. The Constitution is a celebration of the diffusion of power between the branches of the federal government and mediated political authority of the people. Of course that system is imperfect and sometimes in need of revision, hence the amendments applied by our elected representatives from time to time. Pointing to the imperfections of our system is a favorite hobby of Christians, castigating allegiance to it as idolatry. But our political system does not need to be perfect to be better than the alternatives. That is most surely is, certainly today and perhaps throughout history. American politics is not a religion, nor is patriotism a faith. Pledging allegiance to the Flag is not, at bottom, a pledge to any man or woman, but an agreement to uphold the system of ordered liberty that is the political structure of the country.
But of course, it will be pointed out, that we are not living with leaders who respect the Constitution very much. This is no doubt true. Executive orders rain from the executive branch bypassing the legislative branch under the pretense of “getting something done.” The judiciary keeps discovering secret rights hidden within articles and amendments to the Constitution justifying whatever is perceived to be popular opinion by nine Ivy League graduates. Our legislators are so thoroughly subjected to careerism and party loyalty that it frequently neglects its duty to speak for the people who elected them. The Republic faces many challenges from within, as it always has, though perhaps today’s are more grave. But if we are voting at least in part to preserve our system of government, perhaps in a cryogenic deep freeze, Time Cop style, then we are always faced with a stark choice of which candidate’s administration we believe will succeed in keeping our country’s Constitution (and the attendant cultural spirit of constitutionalism) most intact; which will erode it the slowest. This year, astoundingly, that latter honor is Hillary Clinton’s due solely to the fact that Trump flouts it like a piece of toilet paper.
Clinton is a criminal and an oligarch, but she is at least capable of being shamed. She may not respect the Constitutional limits on her authority, but she is still vulnerable to them. She will do nothing to restore respect for the Constitution, but she won’t erode it as quickly as a President Trump would. She may masquerade as someone who has retained her dignity, but she at least must put up the facade. She may front as a strong, self-made woman, but she desperately needs the people’s approval. She is personally vicious to her enemies and friends alike, but she pretends (badly) that she is nice, constrained by politeness and social norms. Trump (as I have argued here) represents the sort of political nihilism that would encourage the American people to abandon any pretense of the idea that our system government is anything but a shell for the will of a president. He wears his viciousness on his shirtsleeve and admits of no abstract rule of law to inspire his respect. Everything is a deal, and therefore relative, entirely negotiable on the terms of his fickle will. Given the choice between rejection of the Constitution and the pretense of its importance, the choice is not a good one, but it is quite clear.
So what of voting “on the issues?” That is certainly a respectable way to vote if one believes that one or two issues override all other considerations in importance. But we must also take stock of the system of government is because it is the condition on which issues can be contended for. Only ever voting on the issues has its perils, chiefly because it leaves us susceptible to political and activist messaging about which crisis of the moment is of most fundamental importance. This is not to mention how unlikely it is that one single candidate’s stance on every issue will line up perfectly with our own moral vision. We can’t expect a candidacy that will cobble together every particular issue and consistently give us a package that we can feel confident in. Especially in cases when both candidates’ values do not align with our own, we ought to be thinking more about the long game: the candidacy that has the best chance (even if it is not a very good one) of maintaining the system of government that makes contending for the issues we care about possible.
What of voting for a third party candidate? This can also be an honorable way to cast a vote. Voting for a third party candidate can be a good way to play the long game as well, showing that one’s political perspective is shared by a sizable minority and can influence, down the road, the program of one or another political party. But of course the important thing to note is that third party candidates have a very outside chance of winning. In normal circumstances, when we can be reasonably confident that the republic will survive the administration of both major candidates, then voting third party would not be a problem. But I do not think we are in normal circumstances this year, and I think that it is more important for the country that Donald Trump lose. If a third party candidacy seems to be successfully contributing to his loss, then I will happily jump on the bandwagon.
Despite the above, I do not not think that it is dishonorable to withhold one’s vote, but I suspect many evangelicals today are doing so for unconsidered and shallow reasons. Evangelicals like to suppose that their principles and religion make them immune to political cults of personality, but they really ought to take stock of how susceptible they are to these things. I suspect that, more of the time than they would like to admit, evangelicals want to wear their vote like a kind of badge or tattoo, displaying what sort of persons they are for having supported whom they did. The choice not to vote is perhaps the most desirable badge of honor, giving the wearer a dissident veneer, and a pleasant distraction from the unpopular moral views Christians hold that often relegate us to the ranks of the lame and uncool. If I am right, then this is a profoundly dangerous impulse that ought to be resisted. What would it lead them to do if a likable Christian ran for President who would nonetheless do a terrible job of running the country? What if he gives a lot of quips to people that we wish we could say on national TV, that back up a biblical worldview but nonetheless support a kind of theocracy? Without a respect for our system as a good to be preserved, we are voting for our soma.
The second thing is that evangelicals seem to think that voting in a presidential election is the beginning and end of our civic engagement. In reality, it ought to be only tip of the iceberg. Local municipalities, school boards, local ordinances ought to command our attention more than who is going to Washington. It is true that our present cultural climate does not respect local politics much, but if we accept and understand our rights and responsibilities as American citizens then we darned well ought to. Obsessing over which rich person will occupy the Throne of Washington distracts us from more pressing concerns: involvement in the voluntary associations that have always (according to de Tocqueville at least) made our communities strong and vibrant. A challenge: regardless of who you vote for, (or don’t vote for) learn your state representatives’ names this fall. Maybe write them a letter about something you care about.
Is a vote to keep power diffuse a vote from principle? I think it ought to be the first principle of our civic life. Anything else risks pandering to Caesar. I find the American mistrust of power to be perfectly agreeable to my Christian faith which proclaims that all have sinned and fall short. That is why I hope we as a nation can rediscover it. Until then I will cast my vote for the person who I think will preserve it the longest and not feel a bit of guilt. I wish more evangelicals thought the same. For that, unpleasant as it will be this year, I’ll swallow the lesser of two weevils.