For many of us, the 2016 presidential election is both never-ending and perpetually unsettling. As voting day draws near, it is not a stretch to say that the evangelical church is politically divided.
What follows is a Q&A to try and help believers navigate their role in the presidential election.
Is it a sin to vote for Donald Trump? It is the opinion of some that supporting Trump by way of a vote is effectively sinful. For my part, I think we should be careful here. To be sure, arguments can be made that supporting Trump is a poor choice, even a morally problematic one. But we want to do all we can to tie sin to biblical categories.
A good number of evangelicals support Trump because they perceive that he is the candidate who stands the best chance of preserving religious liberty, appointing pro-life justices, and restraining the growth of big government. These are not silly considerations. These are weighty matters.
Are the flaws of Trump of no account? Many Christians have been poleaxed by the reports of Trump’s sordid behavior. It is right that we should. Trump’s treatment of women, his seeming xenophobia, his ties to racists, and even his business dealings raise serious ethical issues for many of us. We should take care here. After all, a good number of believers spoke out against the immorality of President Clinton nearly twenty years ago, arguing that his behavior disqualified him for office. Evangelicals who made this argument then face a consistency test now.
What about supporting Hillary Clinton? It is unfortunate to some of us that Trump won the Republican nomination, because his baggage has overshadowed the moral failings and problematic policies of Clinton. There is much one could say about the Democratic nominee, but many evangelicals agree that her full-throated support for abortion, her support for homosexuality and transgender identity, her troublesome intertwining of her political career and personal interests, and her endorsement of a still-expanding government leave them unable to support her.
But if Trump and Clinton pose problems, what should evangelicals do? Some have argued that Christians must support Trump or else throw their vote away. This is a possible conclusion, and it’s not one that should sit lightly on the evangelical conscience. It is very hard to tell what precisely Trump would stand for in terms of pro-life advancement; at the very least, it is chilling to consider the fate of countless unborn children in the wake of a Clinton presidency. However, third-party voting is not necessarily a “throw-away” option. Two historical examples may suffice.
First, the 1964 presidential contest featured Barry Goldwater, a candidate who championed a brand of politics that many conservatives—and many Christians—liked in principle. But Goldwater was trounced in the general election by Lyndon Baines Johnson, losing more than 40 states. It was a historic defeat. But that is not the full story. Goldwater’s candidacy and advocacy of certain principles had a catalytic effect among conservatives. Among many others, Ronald Reagan was galvanized by Goldwater. Not twenty years after Goldwater’s loss seemed to herald a new obsolescence in politics, Reagan took office, and became one of America’s most popular and consequential presidents.
Second, we think of a more quixotic bid for office—that of William F. Buckley, Jr, in the 1965 race for New York City mayor. In the 1960s, Buckley was distressed by the drift toward progressivism he observed in New York Republican circles and decided to do something about it. A consummate showman—but one bristling with intelligence—Buckley ultimately lost big in the mayoral election, garnering around 13% of the vote. But his candidacy had a major effect. Not long after, his brother Jim was elected to the U. S. Senate, a feat that would not have been possible without Buckley’s run; future mayors of New York made good on certain of Buckley’s ambitions. Beyond his city, in the long term, Buckley’s efforts inspired many of his ilk to take action.
The point of these examples is straightforward: voting for a third-party candidate, or one who will not win a given election, is not necessarily a waste. In fact, supporting a candidate like Evan McMullin might light a signal fire to others. Perhaps our renewal will come through our defeat.
So is voting for a third-party candidate the right thing to do? The church must not make the name on the ballot the test of orthodoxy. It must also avoid doom-saying. Christians should think carefully about short-term prospects and long-term hopes. Some will conclude that it is best to go with a more short-term approach. But believers should balance this thinking with considerations about the future; we should play the long game, remembering historic precedents.
By the way, if supporting a third-party candidate, vote if you can for a viable one. In Missouri, for example, a vote for Ben Sasse—a popular write-in prospect among evangelicals due to his principled politics—will not count as he has not put his name on the ballot, where a vote for McMullin will, because he has consented to receiving votes.
So what action should I take? There is no perfect answer here. Good-hearted Christians will disagree over this issue. In such tough times, we should pray to be self-controlled and gracious to one another.
We should also be clear on this point: we’re not in optimal times right now, and we may be headed for tougher times yet. It may be that the church loses agency in days ahead. We might lose more than that, in fact. But if this is the case, we will not cease to be salt and light. We will act in love and hope wherever we are—whether walking the marbled halls of power, or the concrete floors of a prison. God will still rule this world. Christ will still build his kingdom.
We do well to remember that for all our modern focus on cultural influence, the church was rarely more influential than when it was an outlaw sect. This only makes sense for us as a movement. Our gains were never greater, our prospects never burned any brighter, after all, than when a rebel Galilean hung on a Roman cross.