How Can an Evangelical Christian Vote for a Democrat?

Inside the Mind of One Who Has – And Will Probably Do It Again

I. Oil and Water

I became a Christian just over 10 years ago, in 2004. I was a graduate student in London, and I was taking a Bible study course at a church in the city. When the pastor, Rico, learned I was an American who was considering Christianity, he said something that has stayed with me ever since: “You know, Nick,” he said, “it seems to me that in America, to be a Christian, you have to be a Republican.”

That, in fact, was what had kept me from considering Christ seriously up to this point in my life. I had spent most of my youth as a center-left political liberal, and in the circles I ran in, Christianity was something the “other side” did. George W. Bush, the president we liberals loved to hate, was a Christian – so how much interest could that hold for me?

Fortunately, God had other plans for me. You might even say He brought me to England so that I could hear the gospel, shorn of its American political trappings. I was an unlikely convert – was there ever any other type? – but by God’s grace, in that place, I confessed my own sin, I threw myself upon Christ’s redeeming mercy, and my life was forever changed.

I’ve spent the 10 years since then reckoning with what my conversion means for my politics. I moved back to the States and worried what it would mean to be back in an environment where religion and politics seemed so intertwined. To put a finer point on the matter, I moved to Washington, DC and attended a church where many of my fellow congregants worked for the Bush administration or for Republicans on Capitol Hill. In the many conversations I had with these brothers and sisters in Christ, Rico’s question took on a new urgency for me: to be a Christian, do you have to be a Republican? Were my left-leaning tendencies incompatible with my new faith?

Over the years, my new friends helped me to think through my views, and a few of them changed as a result. Most importantly, I went from being pro-choice to being pro-life, because I believe the Bible clearly establishes that an unborn child is a person (Psalm 139:13-15) and that murder is forbidden (Mark 10:19, Exodus 20:13). But I kept voting Democratic because most of my other views – on taxes, education, the role of government in addressing racial and social justice, and so on – had not changed, and the Bible did not require them to change.

This year was going to be different. I had finally decided, with some reluctance, that the abortion issue outweighed all the others – that though it would mean voting for a candidate that I agreed with on 1% of the issues and disagreed with on 99%, I would need to pull the lever for the Republican this November.

Then along came Donald Trump.

For a whole bunch of reasons that have been exhaustively rehearsed elsewhere – his racism, his misogyny, and his advocacy of torture and war crimes, to name a few – I couldn’t vote for him. And in fact, stopping him became so important to me that the logical thing to do was to vote for the person most likely to beat him: Hillary Clinton.

So I published a piece encouraging my fellow Christians to do just that. I’d vote Republican in the next election, I said – but just this once, for the sake of the Republic, we should all take a deep breath and vote for Clinton. I had been about to ignore 99% of my own political preferences for the sake of a more important 1% – surely I could get some of my fellow Christians to do the same, if in the opposite direction?

II. The Assumption

I wasn’t entirely prepared for the reaction I received – though I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

There were some who were downright ungodly in their response – accusing me of being in sin for making this argument and calling on me to repent (for the record, I think it’s quite hard to make the case that you’re in sin for voting for any candidate, including the ones in this election). Others berated my pastor (who hosted my post) and the organization hosting his blog with similar invective – trouble which I regret causing to them. But the thing that struck me about nearly every reply to my argument was the near-unquestioned assumption that it was simply unthinkable for a confessing Christian to vote for Hillary Clinton (or any Democrat, for that matter) – under any circumstances, ever.

I realized that I’d made a mistake: I had made focused on making a case against Trump, casting Clinton as a normal if imperfect alternative, without realizing that this “unthinkability” assumption prevented many of my fellow Christians from even considering my argument.

I still believe what I did before: Trump is an existential threat to the Republic, and Clinton is not, so just this once, we should all vote for Clinton. So I want to try to unpack that assumption – that it’s unthinkable for a Christian to vote for a Democrat – and respond to it. It seems to rest on three propositions.

1. Your vote is a moral declaration.

There are two reasons we vote. The first is to send a message: to signal your moral approval of what a candidate stands for or does. The second is to achieve better results in government: to increase the likelihood of a desirable policy outcome as a consequence of your vote. Among those Christians who refuse to endorse him, Trump often fails both tests: he is morally unacceptable and his potential presidency would be an unpredictable disaster.

But when pushed, precious few of these leaders would consider supporting Clinton. The reasons they give reveal that the message sent by a vote seems to be more important than its consequences. Matthew Franck, Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute, captures the sentiment of many of these leaders well in a recent post:

For my part, my conscience is more important to me than the outcome of this presidential election. I cannot in good conscience vote for either Clinton or Trump. What matters for me is that I cannot bring myself to intend, to will the victory of either of these ludicrously unacceptable presidential candidates.

It’s not that consequences don’t matter to these leaders. But if your vote is a moral declaration, there is an absolute standard that any candidate must meet. And by that standard, these leaders argue, Hillary Clinton has disqualified herself from receiving their vote, either because of her support of legalized abortion, a record of dissembling that calls her character into question, or both. Even if you could prove that the consequences of a Donald Trump presidency would be so terrible that Clinton’s would be much better by default, many Christians would not be able to get around this barrier to voting for her.

2. Abortion is the most important issue.

That being said, it’s not clear to many Christians that the consequences of a Trump presidency would be objectively worse than those of a Clinton presidency. There’s a single reason why: abortion. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, just over a million abortions took place in the United States in 2011. If you believe, as I do, that abortion is murder, then every other public policy problem pales in comparison to this one. As John Piper famously put it, the sheer scale of the problem is enough to make a single-issue voter out of anyone.

It was under this logic that I was planning to vote Republican this November, despite agreeing with the party on little else. And under similar logic, some Christian leaders who endorse Trump are doing so not because they morally approve of him, but because he has promised to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court (a consequence that, for them, outweighs any of the risks of a Trump presidency). Never mind whether his pro-life stance is insincere; when push comes to shove, he’ll do the one thing we need him to do, goes the argument. Doesn’t the selection of staunch pro-lifer Mike Pence as VP prove it?

3. Republicans are more aligned with Biblical values on most other issues.

I was once teaching a Sunday school class on religion and politics, and explaining that the Bible allows Christians to disagree on a whole range of current political questions – but that on a few of these questions, Biblical guidance is clearer and more direct. After my session, I had a separate discussion with one of the participants in the class, and I was reiterating this point. “There are a few ‘straight-line’ issues where the Bible is clear about what we should believe,” I told him. “Like abortion…”

He finished my sentence for me: “And gun rights.”

For me, this moment typifies the current state of political Christianity and its relationship to political conservatism. There is no straight line between Scripture and the Second Amendment: the Bible says that we are to submit to our governing authorities (Romans 13:1), not to keep ourselves in a position of readiness to take up arms against them. But my friend had convinced himself that God’s Word protected his right to own a gun every bit as much as it protected the lives of the unborn.

Among politically active Christians, the same thinking is evident in issue after issue: many of them have come to believe that lowering taxes, denying the science behind climate change, and decrying “political correctness” are, if not Biblically required, then at least strongly advised. It’s the result of a decades-old alliance between Christians and Republicans in America: many evangelicals decided to support the Republican party for a good reason – defending the unborn – but in the process, they became Republicans. And all the standard rules of political tribalism seem to apply. As Russell Moore, one of the aforementioned leaders against Trump, puts it, politically active Christians tend to “baptize the entire agenda of our allies and ignore the entire agenda of everyone else.”

You can tell that I especially disagree with this third premise. But if you believe these three things together – your vote is a moral declaration, abortion matters more than any other issue, and by the way, the rest of the Republican agenda is also the Biblical agenda – then yes, it’s easy to see why it would seem crazy to ever even consider voting for a Democrat, much less a conservative bête noire as terrible as Hillary Clinton.

III. The Alternative

I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking about it. Specifically, I’d like to take Rico’s question – to be a Christian, do you have to be a Republican? – and invert it: how could a Christian ever vote for a Democrat? This is not a case for why you have to vote for a Democrat – to do that would be to repeat the error I worry that my friends on the right have made – but it’s a case for why you might. Specifically, you might vote for a Democrat if you believe three alternative premises.

1. Your vote is an instrument, not a wholesale endorsement.

The crudest version of this argument is to say that this election is a choice of the lesser of two evils – that you must vote strategically rather than on the basis of principle. But to those who believe that a vote is a moral proclamation first and foremost, that’s not enough: if both candidates are evil, they say, how can I vote for either of them?

This line of thinking tends to underplay a fundamental tenet of Christian theology: that every last human being, apart from Christ, is evil (Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:1). Every election – not just this one – is a choice between two or more depraved and awful sinners who desperately need to be rescued by God. We shouldn’t pretend that there’s such a thing as a candidate that we could wholeheartedly endorse.

In fact, the more we see our vote as a moral endorsement of most or all of what a leader believes or says, the more our witness will be tarred by every mistake that leader will inevitably make. A case in point: for better or for worse, conservative evangelical Christians share ownership of nearly every decision made by the George W. Bush administration in the public consciousness. This is not to say that all of these decisions were bad ones – only that, by “baptizing the entire agenda,” we robbed ourselves of the right to pick and choose the things we supported and opposed.

Instead, to put it bluntly, we should stop being so sanctimonious about what our votes mean. There’s no Biblical imperative that says that voting for someone means endorsing all, or even most, of what they believe in. There’s an obvious reason for this: there are no recorded instances of God’s people voting in the Bible. The closest guidance we have comes in three places:

  • The command, in Romans 13:1, to “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” This is applicable without exception, to good rulers and bad ones alike.
  • The servants, like Daniel, who followed this command as top aides to a number of pagan (and usually terrible) rulers. In many cases, their capable service may well have prolonged the rule of those they served – but it made things better for God’s people and for all people.
  • The prophets, like Jeremiah, who spoke out against the sins of the rulers that governed God’s people, usually at great personal risk. Jeremiah also urges us to “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).

Together, these examples paint a picture of civic participation that is realistic in its engagement with our rulers and potential rulers – seeking, by service and exhortation, marginal gains in the “welfare of the city” where we live, even when we cannot get everything we want – and prophetic and pure in its witness to those rulers. It is, dare I say, an argument for voting narrowly and strategically, Daniel-like, while reserving the right to hold the very rulers we vote for accountable, Jeremiah-like, for the bad decisions they will definitely make.

So when I vote for Hillary Clinton this November, I will not be giving my approval to everything she might or might not do in office. Instead, with my vote, I am judging that the collective set of things she will do as president (however bad some of them are) will be better than the collective set of things Donald Trump will do as president. I will effectively be saying: “I am voting for Hillary Clinton to stop Donald Trump because Donald Trump would be much, much worse. I do this even though I am opposed to her stance on abortion, and I will not hesitate to condemn the decisions she makes in this area. All other things being equal, I’d much rather vote for a pro-life candidate. But with Donald Trump, all things are not equal. So four years from now, if the Republicans nominate a pro-life candidate who is not Donald Trump, I will almost certainly vote for that person.”

2. Abortion is complicated – and it doesn’t always trump everything else.

I’ve already said that I’ve decided to vote pro-life in future elections. But I don’t think that all Christians are conscience-bound to feel the same way. Why?

Leaving aside the fact that I don’t trust Donald Trump to keep any of the promises he’s making, consider for a moment what would happen even if he followed through on all of his commitments to the pro-life movement. We appoint two or three new pro-life justices to the Supreme Court. They immediately overturn Roe v. Wade. A Republican Congress passes, and Donald Trump signs, a Federal ban on all or most abortions. For many pro-life activists, this is pretty much the best case scenario. In it, how many unborn lives will be saved?

The international evidence suggests that it will make little difference. A large number of countries around the world already have such bans in place, but their abortion rates per capita are the same or higher than in places with more liberal laws. More broadly, the evidence we have finds no correlation between abortion restrictions and abortion rates in countries around the world (if anything, the correlation runs in the opposite direction).

At the same time, abortion rates in the countries with the most liberal laws – particularly in North America and in Europe – are at 30-year lows. While the exact cause of this trend is difficult to prove, at least one factor is likely improved access to contraception, which some studies find can reduce abortion rates by 50% or more. But contraception is an issue that most pro-life conservatives pay little attention to (or actively oppose). The same goes for other areas of public policy that might reduce the number of abortions – including financial assistance to mothers and access to health care.

So do you want your pro-life vote to make a statement or a difference? The abortion issue forces you to choose. I ultimately decided to start voting Republican because I thought there was value in using my vote to voice my disapproval of abortion. But I have no illusions that my vote will actually have an impact on the issue. And this year, casting a message vote is a luxury that I can’t afford if it means that it will help Donald Trump become president.

More generally, though, I’m sympathetic to those Christians who have decided that they’d rather not waste their vote on a conservative movement that promises to accomplish very little for actual unborn children. If your vote is an instrument, why not allocate it based on issues where it might do some good?

3. The Democrats hold their fair share of Biblical positions

Which brings me to my third premise: there’s a lot for a Christian to like about the Democrats’ positions on other issues!

I want to be careful not to make too strong a claim here. Just as I was writing this, one of my theological heroes, Wayne Grudem, published a disappointing piece claiming that voting for Trump is the moral choice in this election. Beyond his stunning and casual dismissal of the candidate’s racism and misogyny, and his better-considered arguments about abortion and religious liberty, Grudem invokes a whole laundry list of Trump’s promises to make a positive case for him: lowering tax rates, supporting school vouchers, increasing military funding, securing our borders, being “tougher” with ISIS and China and Russia (whatever that means), supporting the state of Israel, approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, and repealing Obamacare and allowing health insurers to sell their products across state lines.

If you were reading along and missed the part of the Bible that tells us that each of these positions are the “moral” choices in this election, don’t worry: so did I, and so did everyone else. Likewise, if you thought the agenda sounded awfully familiar, that’s because it’s lifted, down to the level of rhetoric and phrasing, from the standard Republican talking points that so many conservative Christians have adopted wholesale. This is the mistake I want to avoid making: most Democrats do not share my worldview, and I would never suggest that any part of their agenda is Biblically required.

That being said, if you’ve followed me this far – if you believe your vote is an instrument, and that abortion may not always dictate how you vote – then you might find, in your exercise of Christian freedom, a number of positive reasons to vote Democratic. Here’s a sampling:

  • Caring for the poor: An overwhelmingly consistent theme in the Bible is the imperative to serve and protect the poor, needy, and disadvantaged. One representative verse of many is Proverbs 14:31: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” Democrats put this agenda front and center; you can see it in their commitment to strengthening the social safety net, providing access to health care, and improving the quality of public education. Many conservatives talk about caring for the poor as well, but they tend to be more skeptical that government can play a role. This is a debate worth having, but it’s an empirical question rather than a theological one. If you think, as I do, that the private market fails to provide for the poor in certain fundamental ways, and that the government can help correct this failure, then you might be inclined to vote Democratic.
  • Protecting the environment: Genesis 2:15 tells us that “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” From that beginning to now, the Bible casts humankind as stewards of God’s creation – including the land and all the creatures that populate it. Again, how to do this is an empirical question rather than a theological one. But in this area of public policy, it’s not even a close call: in the last several decades we’ve evolved from a relative balance between the parties (the EPA and the Clean Water Act were, after all, signed into law by Richard Nixon) to a world where the Republican party doesn’t even pretend to care about the issue. The Democrats are the only major party that has an agenda to protect the environment, and are likely to be for the foreseeable future. If you think, as I do, that the government has a role to play in helping us steward God’s creation, then you might find yourself voting Democratic.
  • Seeking racial justice: God created all of us in His image (Genesis 1:27), and this is the single most important Christian underpinning for universal human rights. Though sin has alienated us from each other, and though that alienation has led to the invention of racial caste systems around the world, the long arc of the Bible’s story of redemption is to restore us to that original state of equality: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The Republican party was born as the anti-slavery party, but for various historical reasons, it is no longer the champion of civil rights. Since 1964, the Democratic party has increasingly assumed that role. If you think, as I do, that racism remains a challenge in a fallen world, and that government action is often the only means for addressing aspects of this challenge, then you might feel compelled to vote Democratic.

IV. Conclusion

Add these premises together, and you can see how an evangelical Christian just might decide to vote for a Democrat rather than a Republican. Again, I’m not saying that the Bible requires you to do so. Reasonable Christians can disagree about these issues. But that’s the point: it’s possible to examine these questions and come out in favor of one side or the other. Wouldn’t that be something – if the two parties competed for evangelical votes because they were authentically up for grabs?

It’s sad that my British pastor came to the conclusion he did 10 years ago. But little has happened to change that perception since. For a generation, American evangelicals have slipped into something resembling false consciousness in their unquestioned devotion to the Republican Party. The fact that many are considering voting for Donald Trump lays this fact bare. It begs the question: just how terrible would the Republican candidate have to be in order for you to change your mind?

Hopefully, I’ve managed to make an argument of a different sort: not only is it permissible to vote Democratic, but it may sometimes even be the more moral choice. Christians don’t have to be Democrats, and they’re not wrong to be Republicans. But if you pull the lever for the former, you’re on more solid ground than your years of conditioning may lead you to believe.

I could be wrong about this. But that’s the most important thing we should all remember as Christians: we will make mistakes as we struggle to do the right thing in the public square, but God sacrificed His only Son so that those mistakes would be forgiven. The gospel of Christ is our only hope, and the world’s as well. May His will be done in this election, and may we trust that no matter the outcome, Christ remains on the throne.