What I mean when I say that I will “vote my conscience”

It is true that “conscience” can be invoked in all sorts of inappropriate ways. It can be nothing more than a cop-out, or code for “how could you vote for a candidate that supports X!” It can be used to bully someone into a vote (or a non-vote) just as much as party loyalty can. And so, I want to explain what I mean when I invoke the word “conscience” in regards to voting and political engagement.

Simply put, I do not want my vote to be, in any way, a participation in evil. Or, to frame it in the context of “love of neighbor”, I do not want my vote to be a participation in harm done to my neighbor.

To that end, there are two main criteria which any candidate must pass. These criteria are, in the language of politics, “litmus tests.” Candidates may fall anywhere along the spectrum from “good” to “bad” but at some point they cross a line wherein a vote for them would constitute my participation in injustice. This is my attempt to draw those lines.

Disqualification #1: The candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy.

If a candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy, then my vote for them is, at best, tacit approval of that policy. At worst, it is participation in the furtherance of that policy. By voting for them I become a willing participant in unjust laws.

I use the word “unjust” in a fairly precise way. I am not simply referring here to policies which I think are unwise, or which I personally disagree with, or even which I find somewhat morally objectionable. I am referring to policies which deny people of basic justice. The role of the government is not necessarily to promote my particular Christian view of morality and I don’t expect it to. But it is to provide basic justice. Any candidate who espouses and promotes a set of laws which break that basic level of justice will lose my vote.

Disqualification #2: The candidate is, themselves, wicked or personally unjust.

If a candidate is, in their personal character, wicked or unjust, then regardless of their personal policies, their leadership endangers my neighbor. We are right to expect an unjust person to act unjustly. And, if we learn from the history of Israel, so goes the leader of the nation, there goes the nation.

Again, I use the words “wicked” and “unjust” in precise ways. I do not mean that the candidate is not “flawed”. I do not mean that the candidate must be a Christian. I do not mean that a candidate cannot have made mistakes in life. I mean that the character of the man/woman is bent towards wickedness.

Application to this election

There is a strong case to be made that our two top candidates in 2016 fail one or both of these criteria. I have already expressed my opinion in relation to the topic of abortion in this post and I won’t belabor it again here.

If you don’t believe that the candidate you support breaks one of those qualifications (for instance, Wayne Grudem argues that Trump is merely “flawed” and not “wicked” and he finds his policies appealing – see response) then you will be able to vote for that candidate with a clean conscience. If, however, you believe that a candidate is disqualified based on one or the other of the criteria above, and you agree that a vote can represent a participation in the evil which will be the result of their presidency, then it is better to retain a clean conscience and put your trust in God, who has all authority, and who grants it for his own purposes, and either abstain from voting or vote for a different candidate.

A few final note on the conscience

Our consciences are not the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong, but merely a witness to right and wrong. A conscience can be overly sensitive. It can be seared. It can be twisted. A conscience must be formed by the Word of God. I must not assume that my conscience is perfectly formed, nor that the information which I use to feed into my conscience is always correct or complete.

We must, then, be careful of how we judge another person’s conscience. Paul’s words in Romans 14 are important to remember. We ought to act in accordance with our conscience, as one who stands before God, to do otherwise is a sin (Rom 14:23). But for the same reason we ought to be cautious about how we judge someone else’s conscience, since they too will stand before the same judge that we do (Rom 14:10).

This doesn’t mean that we can’t speak out with moral authority. Indeed, love for our neighbors sometimes necessitates public advocacy on their behalf. But we need to be cautious that we’re making the proper distinction between “thus saith the Lord” and “this is my personal opinion.” Be bold and terrified when speaking with moral authority. Be humble and gracious when speaking about a personal opinion. Knowing the difference requires a lot of wisdom.

This is the main body of the post. I have addressed to related questions in the comments below: What if the election of the other candidate would have catastrophic results? Are pro-lifers justified in voting for Hillary Clinton? This second question is a specific response to a recent article by Rachel Held Evans.

2 thoughts on “What I mean when I say that I will “vote my conscience”

  1. stevenkopp Post author

    [Postscript 1] What about the Apocalypse?

    I have found that those people most likely to gloss over or justify the flaws of their own candidate are also the most likely to believe that a vote for the other candidate would result in of America as we know it – or worse. To put if bluntly, they tend to have an apocalyptic view of this election. The election of the other candidate would be catastrophic and so doing just about anything to avoid that scenario is justified.

    This sort of reminds me of the “would you kill baby Hitler” question. Of course it is wrong to kill an innocent baby, but if you know that doing so would save countless lives, it might still be justified.

    I would respond to this in the following ways. First, I’m not sure such an apocalyptic view is justified for either candidate. My reason for this is fairly simple: Our government limits the powers of the presidency. Terrible presidents will likely be largely ineffective in bringing about their terrible policies. For that reason we can be thankful that our government is so slow moving. For what it’s worth, I do have a pessimistic view of our future, but that is primarily based on the direction of our culture, not in who holds the highest office.

    Second, I would reiterate the principle that it is not right to do wrong. The view that we can do wrong to prevent an evil result is a utilitarian ethic and it can get you into all kinds of problems.

    Third, we need to have a big view of God. He is able to save us from a terrible president. Conversely, he could use a terrible president to bring judgment on our nation.

  2. stevenkopp Post author

    Rachel Held Evans’ original post:

    My response:
    There’s a lot I can agree with in this article. I think Trump would do serious long-term cause to the pro-life cause. I think pro-lifers should support care for young mothers, including government supports, which are typically considered “progressive”. A lot of Republican positions are counter-productive from a pro-life perspective. I agree that cultural issues are more fundamental than political issues. This article is probably the best defense of a pro-lifer voting for HRC that I have seen.

    With that said, I can’t vote for Clinton in good conscience. Here’s why:

    First, while perhaps some aspects of when exactly life begins are debate-able (fertilization/implantation) I think science and common sense, apart even from theology/revelation, puts it before the baby actually exits the womb. And yet, Clinton doesn’t even oppose these late term abortions. The DNCs shift left this year demonstrated that they are moving away from an “abortion should be legal but rare” position. This is disturbing.

    Second, and related, while not every moral issue is a political issue, this one is. The fundamental role of government is to protect and promote basic human justice – including and especially the right to life. Abortion, then, falls into the scope of what governments are supposed to address. It also falls into the realm of what Christians should care about – concern for the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

    Third, since abortion ends a human life, and since it is accepted culturally and protected politically, it falls into the realm of a systematic evil – much like slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism. It therefore needs to be opposed at the systematic, including the political, level. The laws surrounding abortion are unjust. We should advocate for the government to replace unjust laws with just ones, all while working the cultural and economic issues as well.

    Fourth, in voting for a pro-choice candidate – especially one as extreme as Clinton – is to offer at least my tacit assent to her approval. I become a participant in the systematic evil. To do that, even if it serves some practical purpose, is dangerous and, for me at least, would not be done “in faith.”

    Fifth, if my third point holds any water and abortion can compared with slavery or institutional racism, then to argue that we should focus on the cultural/economic issues which make abortion in-demand is sadly comical. Can you imagine turning the same argument on slavery? (Well, since some Christians disagree about whether slavery is wrong – which they did at the time, shouldn’t we just focus on reducing the “economic necessity” of slavery? After all, racism is a cultural/moral issue and changing laws won’t “change hearts”).

    As we see with this final example, and what I contend, is that when it comes to abortion, the issue is both cultural/economic/moral and political. Both are important. Trump rules himself out on the economic/cultural/moral side of the equation. Clinton rules herself out on the political side.

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