Which Should Weigh More, Character or Abortion Policy?

Which Should Weigh More, Character or Abortion Policy? October 26, 2020


Most of us conservative Christians are reasoning this way:  Yes, Donald Trump has character flaws.  But he opposes abortion and this is reflected in his policies and judicial nominations.  Being effectively pro-life outweighs his personal faults, so I’m voting for Trump.

Not so fast, says the highly-respected evangelical pastor and author John Piper.  He argues that considerations of character are more important in a leader than policy positions, including those regarding abortion.

In Policies, Persons, and the Paths to Ruin, Dr. Piper makes some fresh and provocative arguments.  He begins,

I remain baffled that so many Christians consider the sins of unrepentant sexual immorality (porneia), unrepentant boastfulness (alazoneia), unrepentant vulgarity (aischrologia), unrepentant factiousness (dichostasiai), and the like, to be only toxic for our nation, while policies that endorse baby-killing, sex-switching, freedom-limiting, and socialistic overreach are viewed as deadly.

He says that the sins he cites are described in the Bible as deadly and soul-destroying.  Christians can retain their faith if the government turns socialist or restricts freedom or takes away life.  But faith cannot co-exist with those personal sins.

Furthermore, Dr. Piper says that the acceptance of abortion, which he agrees is heinous, is caused by character flaws.  Therefore, issues of character must be considered more fundamental than immoral actions.

He also says that, according to Scripture, leaders exercise a unique influence over the nations they govern:

There is a character connection between rulers and subjects. When the Bible describes a king by saying, “He sinned and made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 14:16), it does not mean he twisted their arm. It means his influence shaped the people. That’s the calling of a leader. Take the lead in giving shape to the character of your people. So it happens. For good or for ill.

Read Dr. Piper’s entire argument.  But also read the contrary argument by my fellow Patheos blogger Grayson Gilbert, You Can’t Be a Christian and Support the Democratic Party.  He makes the case, also using fresh and provocative arguments, that the  abortion issue has to trump (sorry) every other consideration.  Read the two articles.  Both authors, by the way, share an adherence to Reformed theology.  Which one do you think makes the better case?

Here are some of my thoughts about what Dr. Piper says. . . .

First of all, it seems to me that assaults against one’s neighbor should weigh heavier in temporal affairs than the conditions of a person’s heart.  Temporal government is designed to implement the first use of the Law–that is, to curb external sins, so as to protect human beings so as to make societies possible.  While it is true that such external law-abiding enforced from the outside cannot save us and that internal sins are damnable, only the Holy Spirit, working through the second use of the Law, not the power of the state, can bring us to repentance and to the inner transformation brought by faith in the Gospel.  Furthermore, character flaws continue to dwell within us, in our old sinful nature, so that we must always struggle against them.

But our moral action in the temporal realm should not be primarily focused on our interior self-improvement but should be directed outside ourselves to benefit our neighbor.  That would include unborn children.  When the Bible enjoins us to care for the poor, the oppressed, and other people in need, that too includes unborn children.  Such matters of justice are the task not only of our personal relationships but are specifically the duty of the state and its vocations, which would include elected officials.

Secondly, if bad character produces abortion, what should we think about the character of those who advocate abortion?  Joe Biden, like many other liberal Democrats, used to be pro-life.  Now he wants to make Roe v. Wade the law of the land.  He has been a strong supporter of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents government funding for abortion, until just a few months ago.  Why has he changed his position?  Apparently, because of political expediency.  Wouldn’t surrendering one’s convictions for worldly considerations constitute the sin of worldliness (kosmikos)?

Joe Biden is a professing Christian, a practicing Catholic, who has placed himself under the authority of a church that strongly condemns abortion.  Wouldn’t that constitute the sin of disobedience (apeitheia)?  And faithlessness (apistia)?

So how do we weigh different kinds of bad character?

Donald Trump used to be pro-abortion, but he is now pro-life.  Joe Biden used to be pro-life, but he is now pro-abortion.

Perhaps both changed their positions because of political expediency:  Biden needed the feminist vote, and Trump needed the conservative Christian vote.  We don’t know that, but assume it is the case.  One can change towards the good, for whatever motive, or one can change towards the bad.  The ending position is what matters most.  One’s motive in quitting smoking might  be a craven fear of death, not to one’s credit, perhaps, but, nevertheless, the end result is a good thing.

But let’s stipulate a further possibility.  Let’s make up hypothetical candidates.  Say that one personally believes in abortion, but nevertheless supports pro-life policies.  The other personally is pro-life, but supports policies that promote abortion.  Doesn’t this call to mind the Parable of the Two Sons?

A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went.  And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”  (Matthew 21:28-31).

To be sure, there can be lots of motives and considerations in choosing one candidate over another.  Some may choose what they consider the lesser of two evils.  Or, when faced with two evils, choose neither of them.  Some of us are single issue candidates.  Character is, indeed, important.  But I can’t agree with Dr. Piper’s analysis.


Photo:  John Piper, from Desiring God, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


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