The Surprising Evangelical Switch from Virtue to Consequences

The Surprising Evangelical Switch from Virtue to Consequences November 21, 2016

White evangelicals used to care a lot about whether political candidates’ moral character matched their own values.

CC0 Public Domain, via
CC0 Public Domain, via

Now, apparently, they don’t. Or most of them, anyway.

Robert P. Jones, in a Time piece from a few days ago, brings attention to exit polls which reveal a stunning switch in (white) evangelicals’ attitudes about the personal morality of their preferred political candidates:

He writes,

In 2011 and again just ahead of the election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. Back in 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand’s insistence on the importance of personal character, only 30% of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But this year, 72% of white evangelicals now say they believe a candidate can build a kind of moral wall between his private and public life. In a shocking reversal, white evangelicals have gone from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office. Today, in fact, they are more likely than Americans who claim no religious affiliation at all to say such a moral bifurcation is possible.

That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround.

Read that last sentence again: “Today, in fact, they are more likely than Americans who claim no religious affiliation at all to say such a moral bifurcation is possible.”

In drawing the distinction between private morality and public service, evangelicals are not without theological ammunition. The Lutheran “two kingdom’s doctrine,” has long provided a kind of rationale (whether appropriately employed or not) for distinguishing between the “private” sphere of life, one which is governed by one’s relation to Christ and the kingdom of God, and the “public” sphere of life, one which is governed by worldly rulers (kings, governors, or other political leaders).

In this schema, the personal morality of a political leader could be perceived to be of relatively little interest, compared to the responsibility of Christians to live out the gospel in their everydays, or the spiritual realm.

But it would be a very gracious interpretation to suggest that the switch in stated concern about a political leader’s morality is due to an interpretation or application, however faulty, of an influential theological framework for delineating spheres of church and culture.

If we go with Occam’s Razor and look for the simplest explanation, it’s more likely the result of the desire to take back the cultural ground they knew they were losing.

Jones puts it well:

Amid this identity crisis, fears about cultural change and nostalgia for a lost era — bound together with the ties of partisan identity — combined to overwhelm the once confident logic of moral values.

In the language of ethical theory, Evangelicals set aside a virtue ethic as applied to their assessment of candidates, and copted for a teleological or consequentlalist ethic, one which assesses the merit of a present decision (a vote) on the basis of supposed future outcomes.

In other words, the ends justify the means. As exhibit A, this was precisely the approach famously taken by evangelical theologian/ethicist Wayne Grudem when he encouraged evangelicals vote for Trump, because of the consequences in terms of policies.

Granted, in that sense, most political voting is consequentially-oriented, since the concerns at stake are policies and their potential impact on me, or on us, or the nation, or the world.

But it is interesting nonetheless, to observe the switch in evangelicals who have previously aligned more explicitly with either a virtue ethic or a deontological (rule, or duty based) ethics, now clearly and unabashedly advocating a consequentialist approach.

The problem with consequentialist ethics, though, is that future outcomes are impossible to predict with certainty. Time will tell if the consequences that white evangelicals voted for, when they set aside concerns about their preferred candidate’s morality, will come to pass.

If they don’t, I wonder if they’ll start talking about virtue again. But the question, as always, is which virtues?



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