Tag Archives: responsibility

Are Christians morally obligated to vote only for candidates likely to win?

Are Christians morally obligated to vote for one of the top two candidates in an election? Is our choice necessarily binary? Are we required to do this to be responsible citizens and adults?

I’d like to examine those questions through the lens of what I’ll refer to as “Bounded Christian Utilitarianism.” This isn’t really a thing, but it wound up being a good description to how I approach the problem.

This approach will take the consequence of our political choices into account, but won’t make the consequences the end of our ethical responsibility.

First, a story:

I recently had a Twitter conversation with a thoughtful friend who was bothered that I would opt out of voting for reasons of principle:

“Isn’t there a responsibility to choose the best option? Weren’t you, like, 1% happier that [Candidate X] defeated [Candidate Y]? Isn’t the world, like, 1% better with [Candidate X] winning? Choosing the better of two sub-par options, isn’t that what we’re called to do, as adults? As citizens?”

I responded that I don’t believe I have an absolute moral obligation to vote for one of two options, though I do have a responsibility to love my neighbor.

He responded that voting was a tangible way to love your neighbor. I don’t disagree. In fact, I wrote a whole series of blog posts which made that exact argument. But voting is only one – very minor – way of loving my neighbor. It’s a piece, not the whole. And, as I will argue, it’s a piece with boundaries. This is what got me to bounded Christian utilitarianism. I’ll explain that one word at a time.

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism, put simply, is the premise that we have an ethical duty to increase the total amount of happiness in the world and decrease the amount of suffering.[1] An action is ethical if it increases the total happiness, and unethical if it adds to suffering. Since some actions might do both, you would subtract the suffering produced from the happiness produced to get an overall score. Applied to politics, you’d want to implement policies that increased overall happiness and reduced suffering. It’s a simple and elegant system.

What do I mean by Christian Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a secular system, but it could be expressed in Christian language as well, in terms of loving your neighbor. A Christian might observe that “happiness” is not the greatest of all goods. Loving someone doesn’t necessarily mean making someone happy (at least not in the immediate short-term). Instead, we speak of loving your neighbor as yourself.

If we define expressing love as “doing what is good for another person” then a Christian utilitarian might express it this way: My choice is moral if it maximizes the amount of good I am able to do to my neighbor while causing the minimal amount of harm.

When applied to politics, a Christian utilitarian votes for politicians and policies which do the most good to the greatest number of people, and minimize the amount of harm. Again, it’s a simple and understandable system. Generally, I am a Christian utilitarian in politics. Keeping important principles like freedom and wisdom in mind, I try to vote for politicians and policies which will do good to my neighbor without harming him.

What is Bounded Christian Utilitarianism?

While utilitarianism – whether expressed in its secular or religious forms – are simple and clear, they open the door for oppression and other evils. For instance, you could argue from a utilitarian perspective that it is okay to enslave a small group of people if it means great benefits for the mass of people. The math still works. The overall good outweighs the evil. But slavery is wrong all the time, regardless of whether it helps one or fifty or a thousand people. The math might work, but you still end up with injustice.

Utilitarianism can be used to justify tyranny and remove freedoms. It can justify doing evil for the sake of some greater good. It’s an ends-justify-the-means system. In fact, history is replete with people in power finding certain “sacrifices” acceptable to meet some desired, utopian, end.

So, while we should seek to do good to our neighbors, the utilitarian system must be bounded. A pure calculation like making the world 1% better isn’t the ethical choice if it means doing evil to get there.

What are the boundaries?

In politics, it can be hard to discern what those boundaries should be. Almost every policy potentially does some harm. An open trade policy will probably “lift all boats” but it will also inevitably lead to some level of job loss. A closed policy will help American workers but harm people in poverty overseas and probably also increase the cost of goods which will in turn “harm” consumers. It’s a no win. If we say that a policy or politician must do no harm, we would have to drop out of politics entirely. We would probably have to stop doing a lot of other things, too.

But there’s a difference of kind between the kind of harm done by a trade policy and the oppression or enslavement I referred to above. What’s that line? Maybe each person will draw different ones, but I have drawn two lines.

My first line is this: I will not participate in unjust systems. I’m using “unjust” as it relates to people being made in the image of God. Each person is given is endowed certain rights by God and justice upholds those rights. One of those rights is the right to life. Our abortion laws systematically rob the most vulnerable in our society of this right. It is an unjust system. So, I draw a line here. Another right I would recognize is the right to freedom. Slavery is another unjust system. So were the Jim Crow laws of the South. Thankfully, these have been done away with (though more work needs to be done to reduce racism and systems of racism).

My second line is this: I will not participate with a wicked person. Nobody is perfect. I get that. But there is a difference between an imperfect public servant and a person who is marked by a life of foolishness (in the biblical sense). My first reason for this is utilitarian: I don’t believe that private wickedness stays private. I believe that it will inevitably cause harm to others. My other reason relies on Scripture. Paul commands us not to be “partners” with those under God’s judgment because of wickedness. I interpret my vote as a partnership of sorts, and therefore a violation of God’s command.

I’m sure there are other ways to draw lines, and I know other people draw different ones than I do, but I am certain that utilitarianism needs lines. A pure consequentialist – someone who measures their actions, political or otherwise, by the outcome more than the act – will always be dangerous to justice, regardless of their good intentions. No matter how much good you want to do, if you’re okay with doing wrong to get there, you’re still doing wrong. The road to hell is well paved by the intentions of consequentialists.

In fact, while most people who object to the fact that I would choose not to vote for one of two major candidates express utilitarian arguments, I doubt most of them would refuse to draw any lines at all. Almost everyone will draw a line somewhere. (If your “choice” was between someone who wanted to bring back slavery and someone who murdered children, are you really morally obligated to vote for one or the other.) Instead, most people object to where I draw the line. Those on the Left either are not disturbed by abortion, or not as disturbed as I am, or they don’t think that a vote for a pro-choice candidate who could make an impact on abortion law is participation in the system. Those on the Right either thought the candidate was merely flawed or, if he was wicked, argued that character wasn’t really a disqualifying factor or that a vote for such a person didn’t constitute a “partnership” as I have described above. But most would have agreed that some line somewhere was necessary.

Here’s where the role of conscience comes into play. The lines I have formed have themselves been formed by my conscience. If I’ve done it right my conscience has been formed by the Word of God. But my conscience could be weak – I could have put the lines up too early. Or my conscience could be seared – I could have put them up too late. But, it is the role of the conscience to help determine where the lines need to be drawn to avoid sin.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Dilemma: The action of inaction

Those who choose not to vote, or to vote for a candidate very unlikely to win, face a dilemma. They might say that they are not acting, but in fact they are. Inaction is a form of action. More than one person said to me in 2016: “Not voting for Candidate A is a vote for Candidate B”. Or, “voting for Candidate C is really a vote for Candidate B.” While I wanted to dismiss this as linguistic and logical absurdity, there is a ring of truth to it. If I would have otherwise voted for Candidate A and choose not to, then I make a win for Candidate B a tiny bit more likely. In other words, my action – to vote for Candidate C – does have a consequence, one in which I would need to reckon.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 1: Act and Consequence

My first answer to this dilemma is theological. I separate act from consequence. I am responsible for my act. God is responsible for the result. The future is ultimately in God’s hands and He can intervene to bless or override my action as He wills.

There’s a danger in this distinction, of course. God has created an ordered world where act and consequence are linked in cause and effect. I am responsible for knowing the likely consequence of my action and so need to act in such a way to get the result that will do good form my neighbor. This is why I’m a Christian utilitarian. I am responsible for knowing the likely results of my actions, and acting accordingly. But, I’m a bounded Christian utilitarian because there are times when getting the result I want (doing good to my neighbor) would require me to act in a way contrary to God’s Word. In that instance I must act with faith, refusing to break God’s law and trust the future to God.

(As an aside, in big issues like politics people, even experts, can be pretty terrible at predicting the results of their actions. I’m not sure we should have a lot of faith in our ability to see the future even if God weren’t part of the equation!)

This is part of what it means to have faith and to act in faith, to do what you believe is right and trust that God will use that faithful action to do what is ultimately right.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 2: Aiming for a consequence

My second response is that in voting for Candidate C, I am also aiming for a consequence, for a result which I believe, in the long run, will bless my neighbor. If I believe that both parties have become corrupt, then I want to either prop up a party/candidate that is not corrupt, or at least send a message to the corrupt parties that I will not be complicit in their corruption. A few votes won’t make a difference, but a lot would. I think we suffer from a failure of the imagination. For the degree to which both major candidates in 2016 were reviled, it would have been an ideal time to send this message. But, people said, it just can’t happen and thus we shouldn’t try. But since we shouldn’t try, that’s exactly why it couldn’t happen. We’re somehow bound to a system that we all think is terrible. But we’re only bound to the system because we believe it’s the only way. We somehow think voting is the only thing that matters, but are unwilling to use our votes in a way that really would.

The Bounded Christian Utilitarian’s Response Part 3: Moving beyond voting

I said near the beginning that voting is one way to love your neighbor. It’s a part, but not the whole. In fact, it’s a very small part. A single individual can have much more impact doing other things. And, if you feel you cannot vote in a specific election don’t despair that you are failing your neighbor, and don’t let others convince you that you. Instead, get to work tangibly loving your neighbor.

This is the perfect time to reiterate something I’ve said before: The church is its own politic. It is a people with a purpose and a mission. It aims to love and glorify God and love and reach the world. The church can influence the nation politic in numerous and profound ways. We can pursue justice, speak up for the oppressed, provide for the poor, and work for justice. We can be a counter-politic within the broader politic, a counter-culture within the broader culture, acting as salt and light in the world. We shouldn’t downplay the potential role of the church within society.

But we can also work outside of the institutional church to love our neighbors, too. Get involved. Do good. Use your imagination. Don’t imagine that voting is more than it is. It’s a way, one way, to love your neighbor. Use it wisely, but remember that it is bound. Don’t let it bind you.

[1] One of the most important books I’ve read on competing theories of justice is Justice by Michael Sandel. My description of utilitarianism in this post relies on Sandel’s description of it.


Do we need to meet God half way?

“When Christians pray, isn’t it true that they need to meet God half way? I mean, you shouldn’t pray for those things which you can do for yourself, right?” These questions were asked by my friend as we drove to pick up pizza for a game night. I’m not entirely sure, still, if this was a question or an accusation.

His question gets at a deep misunderstanding of prayer and the human condition. He was trying to emphasize – or see if I emphasized to the same degree he did – the role of human responsibility. His charge might go something like this: If your kid is sick and you pray for him to get better but you don’t take him to the hospital, you’re not following God. Instead, you should just take him to the hospital, and not pray. Or in another example: If you have no money and no job, instead of asking God for money, you should just go get a job. Prayers should be reserved for those things which are outside of you control.

In all of these instances, the question was “should I take action or should I pray?” The “or” is the fundamental problem with this question.

We live in a world of sowing and reaping. In the world of farming the farmer must do the sowing and the reaping if he expects to get a harvest. He must plow the field, sow the seed, water the plants, dig up the weeds, and collect the fruit when it is ripe. He must tend his garden. If he fails to do these things, his ground will not produce a yield. However, what actually makes the plants grow, and what actually produces the fruit, are the underlying process that are outside of his control. It’s God. The farmer is in a state of absolute responsibility wherein he must put in the labor and he is also in a state of absolute dependence wherein no matter what he does, a crop will only grow if God makes it happen.

The same is true for us non-farmers. We, too, are in a place of absolute responsibility to put in the work that God calls us to – to get a job, manage our money, take our sick kids to the doctors when necessary, etc. But in all of those cases we are also in a state of absolute dependence. No matter the effort we put forth, if God doesn’t act on our behalf, we won’t get the results we desire.

One caution to the metaphor above: In the case of the farmer and the field, the produce of the field is dependent upon both the farmer who plants the seed and God who makes the plants grow. But in reality, results are not dependent upon human action. God can act completely apart from human interaction. He can make fruit grow where no one planted a tree. We are completely dependent on God, but he is in no way dependent on us.

If that’s true, though, then why should we act? If God can produce results apart from our action then why plant the field? Why go get a job? Why go to the doctor? In doing so, aren’t we undermining faith? There have always been a few fringe religious groups who have felt this way, but it’s not the Christian understanding. We act responsibly for at least two reasons. First, we do so out of obedience to God. God calls us to act wisely so we do so. Second, we act responsibly because it’s consistent with the world that God has put us in and the way that he made us. God can act apart from human action but he rarely does. Instead, he requires the farmer to plant the field, the able-bodied adult to get a job, and the parent to take their kid to the hospital. And, in requiring that action, he lets us live out what it means to be made in the image of God. We get to participate in the divine actions of creation and redemption and this, in turn, provides meaning to our lives.

So how does prayer fit into this? Prayer is one of the ways that we remind ourselves of our utter dependence on God in every area of life, all while understanding the sowing and reaping nature of our world. So I pray for my sick kid, knowing that I am fully dependent on God to bring healing to my child’s body, all the while taking the action to help him feel better. I act as a responsible individual because God calls me to be a responsible parent and I pray because I understand that I need God to act on my behalf. The question of prayer is never “do I pray or do I act.” In all things we pray as dependent creatures and in all things we act as responsible individuals.

My wife and I just participated in Financial Peace University and in the last session we talked about generosity. One of the questions was “has anyone ever blessed you with a major gift?” At first I had some trouble thinking of a one-time event but then I realized that my entire life is simply the product of countless major and minor gifts. My life is the product of the generosity of God and human agents – from my parents caring for me, to employers providing me with a job, to the delicious food I ate last night at our church’s Christmas party – I am the beneficiary of radical generosity. I hope that in all this I have acted responsibly, that I have sowed the seed and plowed the field and gathered the harvest. But I know none of this would be possible if not for the incredible provision of God. As Dave Ramsey is fond of stating, “I am better than I deserve!”


Inside-Out vs Outside-In thinking (from Stephen R. Covey)

My latest audio-book is the classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey. This book has already mercifully saved me from listening to the Detroit Tigers blow another game. So far I”m impressed. I love how Covey attacks the “Personality Ethic” of so much self-help literature and promotes, instead, a character ethic. Here’s one particularly good gem:

Inside-out means to start first with self, even more fundamentally to start with the most inside part of self, to start with your paradigms, your character, your assumptions, and your motives. It says that if you want to have a happy marriage, be the kind of person who generates positive energy and sidesteps negative energy rather than empowering it. If you want to have a more pleasant, cooperative teenager, be a more understanding, empathetic, consistent, loving parent. If you want to have more freedom, more latitude, in your job, be a more responsible, a more helpful, a more contributing employee. If you want to be trusted, be trustworthy. If you want to have the secondary greatness of recognized talent, focus first on the primary greatness of character. (Click to Tweet) The inside-out approach says that internal victories precede external victories. … In all of my experiences, I have never seen lasting solutions to problems, lasting happiness and success that came from the outside-in.



Book Recommendation

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Modesty, Responsibility, and True and False Guilt

I’m a bit late to this conversation but a couple of weeks ago several of my friends posted links on Facebook regarding the issue of modesty. Being a man, I shy away from these discussions so I didn’t read any of those articles until I saw one written by Rachel Held Evans. I am often frustrated with her position on a broad range of issues but her articles are always interesting so I read it.

RHE describes how she grew up in an environment where the issue of modesty was framed like this: (paraphrasing) “If you wear clothes that are immodest you are responsible for the lust you incite in your brother.” Based on her upbringing it sounds like her experience was filled with quite a bit of false shame and legalism. She has (rightly) rejected that argument and now argues: “It’s not your responsibility to please men with either your sex appeal or your modesty… Find something that makes you comfortable. Find something that is ethically made … and revel in this body and this world God gave you to enjoy. ”

I agree with RHE for rejecting the initial way the issue of modesty was framed. I disagree with her conclusion or, at least, I think it is incomplete.

RHE is right when she rejects the premise that a woman bears responsibility (directly anyway) for a man’s lust. Each man is responsible for his own sin. If I see a woman dressed immodestly, or modestly for that matter, and lust, I bear the guilt for my sin, the woman does not. We as men have to hold firmly to the idea of personal responsibility and reject any attempt to pass off the responsibility of our sin on other people.

However, while a woman who dresses immodestly does not bear the guilt of a man’s lust she might, nevertheless, be guilty of sin.

As Christians we have a responsibility to avoid inciting others to temptation. A woman who intentionally dresses to tantalize is guilty of sin, not the sin of lust but of inciting temptation in those around her. A person, man or woman, who does not even consider how their dress might affect other people, be it through immodesty or just inappropriate attire, might be guilty of neglect and we, as believers, are simply not given that luxury.

Let me illustrate this by showing how the same principle applies to other areas of life.

In Romans Paul tells us that we ought to live at peace with others, as far as we are able. I am not responsible for someone else’s attitude towards me but I am responsible, as far as I am able, to live at peace with. I’m guilty if I don’t consider my brother’s feelings.

Parents are not responsible for the decisions made by their children, the child bears the responsibility for that, but the parents are responsible for the training and teaching of their children. A father is guilty if he neglects that responsibility.

As a Pastor I am not responsible for how people in the congregation respond to God’s Word. I am responsible for presenting that Word to the best of my ability. I am guilty if I fail preach God’s Word faithfully.

Throughout the New Testament believers are encouraged to consider the needs of others above their own desires or ambition (Col 2:4). We might be completely justified in our actions, as stand-alone decisions, but we do not live in a vacuum. We’re not responsible for other people’s sins and we shouldn’t be saddled with false guilt. But, we are responsible, in all things, for considering those around us and how our decisions affect others.

Update (7/24/2013)

In the comments below it was suggested that I have only applied the issue of modesty to women. In fact, this is not the case. As I said above, “A person, man or woman, who does not even consider how their dress might affect other people, be it through immodesty or just inappropriate attire, might be guilty of neglect and we, as believers, are simply not given that luxury.” 

It’s true the post starts with the particular topic of female modesty. This is simply because I was addressing an ongoing conversation (see RHE’s post above) on that particular topic. I then took pains to show how the two general principles (1) we are responsible for our own thoughts and actions and (2) we should consider how our actions impact other people, apply across several areas of life, beyond issues related to gender or modesty.

However, just in case I have been unclear, allow me to state emphatically: The issue of modesty relates to both men and women equally. The same two principles of (1) taking responsibility and (2) considering others applies across genders.