An Evangelical Voter Guide

A VOTERS GUIDE FOR THINKING EVANGELICALS

A lot of heat, and very little light is about to be shed in the next eight weeks when it comes to political races, and we have already seen some truly surprising things happen. Who would every have believed Mitt Romney, a Mormon, would be the candidate of the Evangelical Religious Right and the Tea Party? Not me. And now that we have Presidential debates starting soon, its time once more to trot out my voter guide– with some revisions

Our current national economic situation gives us an opportunity to reassess the whole issue of Christian aligning themselves with a particular political party, rather than evaluating candidates on an issue by issue, or candidate by candidate basis. We ought to be evaluating each candidate on their own merits, not on the basis of their current party affiliation. This of course requires more thought, instead of just pushing the straight party ticket button in the polling booth. Christians should be good citizens and be more thoughtful about who they vote for. They shouldn’t just listen to this or that Evangelical leader’s endorsements, even if it is someone like James Dobson or Pat Robertson who have considerable political clout.

In this particular post I want to suggest a series of steps Evangelicals should take in approaching November’s elections. Some have to do with basic Christian obligation as a citizen of this country who appreciates the freedom and democracy we have, and then some of them have to do with critical thinking about issues and candidates.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK—There is really no excuse for laziness when it comes to being an informed voter, especially when we now have such a wealth of information online, and through other viable sources of news about candidates. Do not use the ‘cop out’ of ‘they’re all just the same’, or ‘no politicians are trustworthy’ or ‘I don’t have time for this’. If you have time to enjoy the freedoms you have in this country, then you certainly have time to become an informed voter. Period.

PLAN ON VOTING, EVEN IF YOU ARE FRUSTRATED—The percentage of Christians who could vote but don’t is high, much too high, and the end result of such bad behavior is that we often get exactly what we’ve voted for— Nothing! Or at least, nothing good. Do not let the fact that at this juncture there may seem to be no obvious candidate for a truly conservative Christian to vote for, for this office or that, deter you. There is better and there is worse, and you’d better figure out which is which, or what we will get is worse. This is particularly an urgent matter since in terms of our relationships both with our allies and enemies things seem to have gotten worse. The politics of fear is trumping the politics of faith and sound reasoning repeatedly, and this leads to disastrous results in the long run for our country– both economically and militarily.

DO NOT BE A ONE ISSUE VOTER– However passionate you may be about a particular issue, lets say abortion, you should never, never vote for someone simply on the basis of a single ethical issue. Never. Did, I mention not ever. Why not?

Because there are a plethora of inter-related important issues that affect our lives, and our Christian existence, and if you privilege only one such issue, you are likely to make a mistake in evaluating candidates. It is fine to allow a stance on one issue to be the tipping point such that you favor candidate A over candidate B, when otherwise it’s pretty much of a wash, but there should be no shibboleth. One illustration will have to do.

In a crucial election during the time of the cold war, and with heightened tensions with Cuba. Kennedy ran vs. Nixon. Many people did not vote for Kennedy, simply because he was a Catholic, and we had not had a Catholic President previously. There were even stupid and ill-considered inflammatory remarks made about how if Kennedy got elected, the country would be subject to the influence of the Pope in some objectionable ways. Thank goodness such benighted ideas did not determine the outcome of the election. Kennedy was the right man at the time, and he helped diffuse the Cuban missile crisis. We need to learn some lessons from the political past lest we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

From here on, in this post, I will be talking about matters that pertain to critical thinking on the issues.

THINK ABOUT HOW MUCH CHARACTER SHOULD WEIGH IN WHO YOU VOTE FOR—

Life is complex, and so are ethical issues. One of the things you need to decide is whether it is more important to you what kind of person you vote for, in terms of character, or what the stances are of the person you are voting for. Sometimes we have elected well-meaning good Christian folks who couldn’t govern their way out of a paper bag. Sometimes we have elected very effective politicians, who nevertheless raised some issues for us because of their stances on particular issues. In a perfect world we could wish for candidates who are both skilled as public servants and have impeccable character.

Unfortunately, this all too often not the case, especially because of the way our political process now works with PAC money and lobbyists and numerous other unhealthy factors determining who actually can be viable candidates for a major office. In the situation we are in, how much should the candidate’s agreement with me on my list of hot button issues weigh in my decision? How much should their apparent character weigh? What do you do if it’s hard to tell? These are important questions. Personally I would rather have a politician skilled in the art of compromise (which is of the essence of modern democracy and policy making) who is of generally good character, but with whom I may disagree on this issue or another, than a devout but unexperienced and unskilled Christian person. Let me use an analogy.

Would you rather have a surgeon operating on you in a life threatening situation who is a devout Christian, but not all that skillful and experienced in getting the job done right, or would you rather have a surgeon who has an impeccable record in regard to doing his job well, a stellar record of good outcomes when he applied his skills but with whom you had some ethical disagreements? I personally would want surgeon B, if there had to be a choice.

PRIORITIZE WHAT YOU IN GOOD CONSCIENCE THINK ARE THE MOST CRUCIAL ISSUES—AND EVALUATE THE CANDIDATES ON THE BASIS OF THOSE PRIORITIES.—

Obviously, this list of vital issues is a moving target which will change in some cases, as our country’s situation changes. I wouldn’t think anyone would be weighing where the current crop of candidates stand on the Spanish-American war many moons ago! I would strongly urge Evangelicals not to limit their list to just personal ethical issues, such as matters of sexual ethics, abortion, and the like. These are very important, but as thinking Evangelicals you also need to weigh where candidates stand on various aspects of foreign policy—the trade deficit, the war in Afghanistan, or economic relationships with China and other third world countries, the position of the candidate on Darfur, the issue of nuclear regulation (in North Korea, Iran etc.), our relationship with crucial Muslim countries where we have a stake but are not embroiled in military action currently—Turkey, Pakistan, etc. In other words, we need to be global Christians, and think globally, especially if our first commitment is, as it should be, to the worldwide body of Christ and the worldwide spread of the Gospel.

BE SMART ENOUGH TO SEE WHEN A CANDIDATE IS NOT BEING HONEST OR FORTH-RIGHT ABOUT HIS OR HER VIEWS

Obfuscation and fuzziness has of course become a political art form, and sometimes this is because the potential emperor has no clothes, or hasn’t thought through the issues himself. The last thing we need in our current situation is politicians who make it up as they go along, or show signs of constantly shifting their views, depending on which way the political wind blows. A candidate who refuses to give you specifics of what they will do if elected, say for example, on the issue of the economy, does not deserve your vote.

DON’T JUST VOTE ON GUT INSTINCT. THINK, EVALUATE, DISCUSS, PRAY BEFORE PULLING THE LEVER.

I wish I could tell you that the above outlined process of discernment was easy, but it is not. And there will be ambiguities, and you will have to make some judgment calls. You have to accept that you may well make some mistakes, and all the more is this likely to be the case when there is no clear front-runner that an Evangelical Christian of any stripe might think was someone one ought obviously to vote for.

Over the course of the coming eight weeks, pay attention to the ads, watch a few of the debates, read up on the candidates web sites, and be prepared. It would be a great tragedy if only a minority of Christians voted in the next election who are eligible, and the country continued its downward slide as a result. The old saying ‘you get what you pay for’ could be changed to ‘you get what you do or don’t vote for’.

Remember the old adage—all it takes for something bad to happen, or continue happening, is for good people to stand idly by and let that transpire.

  • Curtis

    Hi Ben,
    I highly respect your work and am thankful for it.

    I am one who has considered not voting, on purpose.

    I have a question about your encouragement that people vote even if they are frustrated. Is there ever an appropriate time for Christians to say, “We won’t settle for the candidates the system is providing?” At what point does intentional non-participation become a greater witness than voting for a “lesser-of-two evils?”

    I also wonder if it is appropriate for Christians who aren’t involved in politics at the local level to vote for the President. This becomes our token political engagement and we are placated in our belief that we have made a difference, but then we have no investment in what is happening where we actually live.

    Thanks for your insights,
    Curtis

  • Charles Cherry

    Your point about single-issue voting is well taken, but certain bellwether issues such as abortion are usually quite indicative of how a person will vote on other issues, and so should be given top priority when evaluating a candidate.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Charles: I don’t agree. The people that tend to be most pro-choice also tend, inconsistently I would say, to be most anti-war. What we need is people with a more consistent life ethic across the board. BW3

  • Ben Witherington

    Curtis: I would say that passively not voting is a non-witness. Now campaigning against voting on the premise that both candidates for a particular office are rogues, is a different matter, and is a witness of a sort. BW3

  • Taylor

    Dr. Witherington,

    I’ll level with you for a moment. I’m 20 and I’ve recently identified myself as a Wesleyan evangelical. I’ve just recently (the past five years) developed as a Christian and have been seeking to deepen my faith as much as I can. Because of this, I listen to Christian talk radio a lot, watch podcasts and also read a lot of books and blogs (including this one; excellent if I do say so myself). I’m attempting to understand what it means to be a devoted Christian in this world and how I can act out my faith the way God wants me to.

    With this upcoming political campaign, I’ve gotten a little thrown off. It’s as if the word Christian or Evangelical is synonymous with Republican and to be a “good” Christian, one has to vote Republican. While I have opinions on abortion that line up with Republican views, I don’t see why if I were to disagree with the party I should essentially throw everything else out the window for the hope that perhaps abortion will be made illegal. Sometimes it feels as though people think a republican would just accomplish that one thing and coast for four years. I’m not saying Republican candidates couldn’t govern well, but can’t I be a Christian and agree with a democrat?

    Thanks for writing this post as it does assure me that, contrary to popular belief, I can be a Christian and support a non-republican ticket (or vice versa).

  • Patrick

    With me, both sides have “killer negatives” that make me almost prepared not to vote. I like one domestic and the other foreign policy.

  • Ben Witherington

    Thanks for the candor Taylor. I think you can make a case for an Evangelical Christian voting either way in this election. Different people will weigh different parts of the two candidate views differently.

    BW3

  • JamesT

    Dr BW3,
    All things benefiting a certain candidate, could you vote for him if he believed in slavery?

  • Ben Witherington

    Depends on what you mean by slavery. We have candidates in my lifetime who have had no problem with economic slavery imposed on poor people conscripted into out sourced jobs in the gulags of China, Malaysia and elsewhere. Compared to that, slavery in the Greco-Roman world, if we are talking about some cases of domestic servants who were tutors for example, looks good. BW3

  • Oscar

    Ben, I appreciate your even handedness in your arguments, but I have one thing in contradiction to not voting for a party. When two candidates have competing views that , in the voter’s mind, cancel each other out, or pros and cons that are interchangeable, then a voter must look at the benefits of party affiliation.

    For instance, if the legislative bodies have one party in the majority it might be wise to vote the executive in the other direction to avoid a legislative stampede. Case in point was the Affordable Care Act. Polls showed that a majority of the population (a LARGE majority) were NOT in favor of the Act, but because the legislative and executive offices held majorities the minority party became irrelevant and the Act was passed. This is not to gainsay the Act itself, but just an example of power politics.

    Another reason to vote party, at least in the presidential election, is the nominees for the Supreme Court. If a voter is dismayed at how the Court has been interpreting the law then it is important to elect an executive who, hopefully, will appoint people who will rule more to what the voter considers best for the country. This is not a “slam dunk”, for past presidents have been rudely surprised by their nominee morphing in a different direction once confirmed to the court. Never the less, it IS something to consider when voting.

    Thanks again for your guide.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben Witherington

    As usual Oscar you make good sense but the flip side of what you say is: 1) gridlock in Congress, and who needs more of that Isn’t better when something crucial needs done that the President and Congress be able to work together? I think this out weighs the checks and balances argument; 2) as for Supreme Court nominees, they mostly don’t vote ideology, they vote legal viability, which is a different matter. Witness how Roberts came down on the review of Obamcare this past year. Most people don’t understand the strictures facing, and the mindset of, judges who’s job is to interpret the law, uphold the Constitution, not support our pet moral hobby horses.

  • David Capp

    I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Robert Linder, history professor at Kansas State several years ago, shortly after Bill Clinton became president, and the Democrats had the Presidency and both houses of congress. He made a comment that has stuck with me… “I thought gridlock was a good thing,” in reference to the Clinton/Gore comment that “Gridlock was over.”

    As I thought through and mulled over what he said, I really appreciated it, and I think he had some good wisdom in that comment. When we have a divided legislative and executive branches, it tends to keep both parties in check, something I believe was the intention of the founders.

  • Ben Witherington

    Actually David, the Founding Fathers did not have to deal with polarized party politics as we do, and they certainly didn’t set up the checks between Congress as a whole and the executive branch as a whole to balance party politics. There were no democrats or republicans in the beginning. No, the idea was the Congress acting in concert would balance the executive, and each would make sure the other did not abuse power. That’s all. And though I know and like Professor Linder (at that former Methodist college), he was hardly prophetic or right. During the Clinton administration many good things were accomplished, and he left office with a surplus in our treasury. He reached across the aisle and worked with Republicans on a whole variety of things. He was a much better President than Bush, judged simply on results, for Bush left us with an economic crisis, 10 trillion dollars in debt due to two unnecessary wars, a Wall Street crisis caused in part by deregulation during the Bush years, and I could go on. Judged on the basis of pure political accomplishments, Bush was a better Christian in his personal life, and a much worse President than Clinton. BW3

  • Curtis

    Ben, thanks for responding to my question. I agree with you that silently non-voting is a non-witness. Would you extend the idea of non-witness to secret-ballot voting in general? The sheer act of voting doesn’t appear to be a distinctly “Christian” behavior. Your thought has led me to wonder if a Christian vote functions as witness only if it is publicly shared and explained. Many of the Christians I know think voting is a private matter though. Do you have any thoughts to add to this?

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Curtis: It is certainly a personal matter, but for a Christian I don’t think it is a private matter. So, I agree with your reflections. BW3

  • David Capp

    While the founding fathers did not necessarily have the party concept that we have today, I find it hard to imagine that they didn’t have the idea of checks and balances in place.

    It seems to me that the first two years of the Clinton administration, President Clinton didn’t have to reach across the aisle, and was a very partisan president. After the 1994 election, President Clinton was forced to move to the right by the Newt Gingrich congress, but Clinton had the political smarts to do it.

    I think that was exactly what Dr. Linder was talking about, that gridlock was a good thing. It forced President Clinton to move to the center, gave us a balanced economic approach, thus making President Clinton a good President on economic issues.

  • Chris

    Oscar, that’s a very poor example. Obviously republicans were unhappy with the health care act. What you miss is that many democrats were unhappy with the law because they felt it didn’t go far enough. As a result a large % were unhappy with the law, but for VASTLY different reasons. You suggest that a vast majority of people didn’t want it passed which is not true.

  • John Mark

    Two comments: I think David Capp is right. And though social conservatives are often called ‘single issue’ voters, and perhaps some are, many are deeper and more reflective in their approach to national politics than this. The majority of voters tend to be ‘single issue’ and the issue is our personal financial well being, however we define this.

  • ryan

    Ben,
    I am not here to defend W Bush in any way, but some of your facts about him seem a bit short sighted historically speaking. If you want to talk about deregulation that led to the economic crisis of 2008, you need to look back to two other Presidents; Pres. Carter, and Pres. Clinton. It was Pres. Carter, who desired the poor to gain homeownership who lowered lending standards that led to sub prime lending in the first place. Look no further than the oft revised, Community Reinvestment Act, originally passed and signed by Carter in 1977. The idea was a noble one. The idea was for more poor and minority folks to gain homeownership. What it achieved was not so great; subprime lending that started with Freddie and Fannie, and then bled over to the private banking world competing against quasi governmental agencies.
    Next came the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act signed by President Clinton. To be VERY honest it’s repeal was pushed largely by Republicans, so I am not trying to blame just one party. What this repeal did was allow the merging of commercial and investment banking in a very dangerous way.
    The only real regulation action passed and signed by W Bush was Sarbanes-Oxley which, while maybe not a good law, it wasn’t what led to the economic crisis of 2008. Now, W Bush didn’t do anything to stop the coming freight train, but the blame can’t be lain totally at him feet.

    Also, with regards to what you call ‘unnecessary wars.’ I can say I am glad that Iraq no longer has weapons of mass destruction. There were found and were destroyed, contrary to reports in mainstream media. Much of this is semi classified information, but well known throughout the military. Many of whom I have personally talked with about their very existence. We continue to wage a war against Islam, which should best be waged in the area of hearts and minds, than blood and guts war, but it is a war none the less. Islam is in direct opposition to the US Constitution for instance, because it is secular law, which is not recognised by Islam. Sharia is the only law that is law in Islam. This worldview is radically different than Christianity or Judaism where religious law, or theology can peacefully co-exist with secular or civil law. This very idea is untenable to Islam.
    I would say these things coupled with the fact that Obama is on the public voting record as being an infanticidalist should mean a great deal. I just don’t see how someone with a Biblical worldview could vote for someone who believes it is ok to murder a child after he or she has been born. That is a bridge too far for me.

  • http://www.adammosley.com/podcast Adam Mosley

    Great insight. I think so many people are scared off by the complexity or turned off by the pandering that they choose to either disengage completely, oversimplify to the point of becoming one issue voters or turn to TV and radio personalities to make up their mind for them. Thanks for reminding us that in this incredibly polarizing culture, Christians actually have the opportunity to be the voice of reason, rather than just pawns in the political game.

  • Ben Witherington

    Ryan…. I am talking about the deregulation of Wall Street and investors etc. not the loan issue. And secondly, Iraq had exactly no weapons of mass destruction— ever, of any kind. That’s a total myth. And no, Obama is not in any way an infanticidist. And it doesn’t help the discussion of issues to use inflammatory language. If a fetus is not viable outside of the womb and is dying in considerable pain, do you want the doctor to sit there and say ‘this is too bad’ and do nothing? BW3

  • Jason Colberg

    BW3, I have been thinking a bit lately about Clinton, Reaganomics, trickle-down theory, time & the likes. I find it unrealistic to think that we can expect a president to make a decision, possibly pass legislation and expect that there will be immediate results from that legislation. Yes, sometimes, obviously, this is true. However, other times it may take a while for policy change to have a desired effect. One example of this, at least in my opinion, is Reaganomics, and most specifically trickle-down theory. I believe the budget surpluses you mentioned being left in the treasury by Clinton were the results of action taken by Reagan. I think trickle-down theory worked and Clinton was the one who got to bask in the glory of the success of Reaganomics. As a Christian, I have liked Reagan, George W. (no opinion of George Bush) and Clinton. Each has made mistakes. But each has also made significant contributions to the success of our country, and I love to focus on how our country has had a GRAND positive affect on the world. I do believe this is true (despite the negatives which I won’t deny exist). That said, and not to knock Clinton, another GRAND positive, which I don’t believe is currently viewed as a positive, is NAFTA (which was signed in to law by Clinton) was problably the greatest contributor to outsourcing. Once again, we have policy/law put in place by a president which has consequences within the term(s) of future presidents. I would expect outsourcing has been good for other non-American economies & families. I think we should have expected NAFTA to have a negative effect on the American middle class because we were opening the doors and allowing the playing field to be leveled. What else should we have expected??? At any rate, George W. Bush and Republicans have been criticized for the outcomes of this decision made before his first term. I am sure there are measures which can be taken to help American families get back on track. As is one of the tenets of this discussion, Christians need to study the Bible, pray, learn from our fellow Christians and vote for a president God wants to lead our great nation.

  • Josiah

    G’day, I’m from New Zealand, and right now our parliamentarians are in the process of re-defining ‘marriage’; apparently they have nothing better to do.

    Consequently, I have an obscure question related to American politics. Hypothetically speaking, if a president were to use his executive powers to appease Muslim/Mormon sentiments by changing the definition of ‘marriage’ to allow polygamous relationships (assume that each man could have up to four wives), would that be a sufficient reason to dissuade Christian Republicans from voting for such a candidate?
    Cheers

  • ryan

    Ben,
    If you notice my comments about Glass-Steagall being repealed under Clinton, then you will know that Glass-Steagall is about banking deregulation. I know you didn’t specifically mention the housing crisis, but I believe that is part of the ongoing economic crisis and important to point out. If as you say W. Bush deregulated Wall St., then please name one bill or Act that he signed that did this.
    Also, you are being misleading about the debt under W. Bush. You stated he left office with over $10 trillion in federal debt. That is true, but there was a federal debt of $5.7 trillion when he took office. It was about $10.6 when he left office, so he did add a TON of debt, but not $10 trillion as your words intimate.
    As far as WMD being found in Iraq, here are links about the finding or WMD in Iraq. The first is from a major news outlet in the US, the second from the DOD.

    http://www.nypost.com/p/news/international/us_did_find_iraq_wmd_AYiLgNbw7pDf7AZ3RO9qnM

    http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=15918

    So believe the government or believe the mass media, but the fact is that while not talked about often, WMD were found. Now, they were not found in the levels we thought they might have been, but 500 chemical weapons munitions are significant to me at least.

    As far as Obama being an infanticidalist, then here is proof enough to me. When you believe law should not protect babies born alive during attempted abortions, then to me you are saying let babies who are born die. This law was not about only babies that were not considered viable. This was a law that was not about viability, but rather about care.

    http://www.jillstanek.com/2008/02/links-to-barack-obamas-votes-on-illinois-born-alive-infant-protection-act/

    If a man votes to not protect the lives of babies born alive, then to me, they are saying it is ok to let babies die. If the word infanticide is too strong, then my apologies. I believe it fits, but will not use the term if I am misappropriating it. Perhaps it would be best to just say he believes it is ok to let babies born alive die, when the intent of the mother was to kill their baby, rather than to give birth.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Ryan: I’m headed to the airport, so just one brief comment. Infanticide means someone who directly and intentionally kills infants. It is totally unfair to use that rhetoric of the President, who has never harmed a child directly in his life. Very unfair, but typical of the rhetoric that prevents real discussion. As for the chemical weapons found—- they were INERT! So no, no WMDs thank you very much. And I am afraid you are just wrong about Clinton leaving us with a federal deficit. Not according to the governmental numbers I saw…… but it’s been awhile.

    Blessings,

    Ben

  • ryan

    Ben,
    I feel like I sound like I am defending the GOP, when that is not my intent at all. The bottom line comes down to character, and my voting third party due to the character of both major candidates. That is a common theme with me. I don’t feel like in Christian conscience I can vote for either Obama or Romney. So I will again try to speak to the matter and voice my vote through a different option. I am voting for a man who runs a local homeless ministry. He is the type of guy I want elected, so I will pencil in the bubble for him.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben Witherington

    Ryan good for you. I admire you for this. BW3


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