Does character matter when it comes to voting for political candidates?

Yesterday, I read an interesting reflection from Themelios on whether believers can vote for “debauched pagans”. You can read the article here. The abstract says this:

Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:1–7 can be applied to Christian voting behavior in the West. Since Paul tells the Romans to honor debauched pagans, Christians can vote for similarly debauched political candidates with clear consciences. There are clear distinctions between Paul’s teaching and the Western political context. However, the underlying continuities are clear and they are based in God’s sovereignty, not political structure. Furthermore, the ancient Roman practice of giving honor to rulers only regarded the office, not the office holder’s morality.

There was much in the article with which I could agree. If the question is, can Christian people vote for sinful political candidates? the answer surely has to be yes. Even Christian political candidates will be sinful. Unless Jesus himself is standing for office, we are going to have to vote for a sinner. That question is particularly easy to answer.

Similarly, if the question is Can Christian people vote for sinful non-Christian candidates? Again, I think the answer has to be yes. If you think it is legitimate to vote at all, chances are you won’t have the luxury of believing candidates to vote for. Even if you do have the option of a believing candidate, it isn’t much good voting for a believer who is standing on a policy platform you inherently disagree with and ignoring the unbelieving candidate who will do the very things you would like to be done. Again, that is not a difficult question to answer.

But can Christians vote for “debauched pagans”? That is really the question in view in the article. That is, can a believer vote for a candidate of dubious morals? Certainly, if we are saying it is possible to vote for sinners generally, then it must be possible to vote for someone whose morality is not exactly in line with the law of Christ. For what is sin if it is not dubious morality?

The issue for most people boils down to a question of character. It is the age old ‘character matters’ mantra. The article argues, in effect, that character does not really matter. It insists what matters is whether the person in office is fulfilling their duty to society. What many believers argue, however, is that the character of those in office really matters. It doesn’t matter if a candidate will pursue excellent tax policies if they are known to be a liar and adulterer.

I am not sure the article quite makes a fully compelling case. That is not to say I necessarily disagree with it (a point I will come back to shortly). But I don’t think it makes the case it is trying to prove. Landing hard on Paul honouring those in office as a matter of recognising God’s sovereign authority, the article insists that it is legitimate for believers to vote for immoral candidates. The point that is overlooked is that Paul recognises and gives honour to authorities that are already instituted. That is, the Apostles insist that believers ought to honour the emperor who is in power – whoever it may be because of their office – but they do not insist that believers should, could or even can, vote for such a person if they are given the opportunity. These seem to me to be two entirely different questions.

If the question is, Do Christians have to honour “debauched pagans” who are in office? the answer is a resounding yes. The case the article makes, it seems to me, supports this question. But if the question is Should Christians actively endorse “debauched pagans” by voting them into office? The answer is a bit murkier. I don’t think the article goes nearly far enough in making that case. That isn’t to say the conclusion it draws is necessarily wrong, just that the article (in my opinion) does not get us there. That Paul had categories for honouring those in office who were morally debauched does not get us to the conclusion that the Apostles would be glad to vote for candidates and endorse those who are morally debauched.

The obvious issue here is how we distinguish between a morally debauched personal life and morally debauched policies. It strikes me as difficult to drive a moral wedge between public policy and private sin (if such a thing even exists). The fact is, some public policy is a matter of morality. You cannot talk about abortion apart from morality, and that is true regardless of where you land on the question. Both sides make moral arguments to advance their case because how else do you determine what is right? How (or even whether) you have policies that help the poor and marginalised are inevitably moral matters. The Law of Israel is instructive in this regard, with countless examples of laws that some might want to ascribe to the civil or ceremonial tables which are clearly made in moral terms. You cannot divorce public policy or private sin from the realm of what is morally right.

The distinction the Apostles seem to go for, as far as I can tell, is between honouring the office and endorsing the candidate. I can pray for and honour a Prime Minister whom I find deeply objectionable because of the office they hold without endorsing the man’s sin or his troubling public policy. Paul was able to honour the High Priest and the emperor because of their office without endorsing their behaviour, policy or application of the law (which he makes clear at various points he specifically disagrees with). I think the biblical data pushes us towards honouring “debauched pagans” who are in office; I am not quite sold on it giving us clear permission to vote them into office.

The Bible simply does not give us much in the way of instruction about who we should vote for. That is entirely unsurprising as it was written in a time, place and context where most people weren’t able to vote. I appreciate different eschatological tendencies will push us in various direction on this question, but I would venture scripture is not primarily concerned with national politics. Its main political statements are that God is sovereign over every ruler, Jesus is indeed King of kings and Lord of lords, and sin ruins everything so whoever you vote for (or, more accurately for most people throughout history, have imposed upon you) will come with some level of problems. But for the most part, it doesn’t seem to envisage us voting for anyone in particular whilst honouring whoever ends up in power nevertheless.

Which means the question of who to vote for must fall into the realm of wisdom. And there are all sorts of ways we can work that out. We could work on the lesser of two evils principle. That is, in a literal sense, which candidate do I think will do least evil? Conversely, we could work on a Christian-utilitarian basis. So, which candidate will do more of what I think is ultimately important for society? We could work on a character basis. That is, which candidate do I think will have more integrity and make it easier for me to honour them in office? We can also legitimately decide all the candidates are so bad that it is impossible for me to lend my vote to any of them. I don’t think any of these are specifically biblical principles nor are any unbiblical, sinful calculations to make. They are all, at the end of the day, questions of wisdom when faced with the choice before us.

Nevertheless, where I think the article errs, is in its suggestion that Christians can vote for “debauched pagans” with a clear conscience. The fact is, when we lend our vote to somebody, we are – to use the language of John – partaking in their deeds. Our vote is, after all, putting the person into office so that they can do these very things. We are not by-standers in the process, but we are making an active choice to lend somebody our support. We can’t be held responsible for stuff that we had no idea they would do (though we can’t claim ignorance when others warn of the likelihood and we reject their warnings). We can, of course, withdraw our support and make good on it at the next election by not voting for them again. But we must accept a level of responsibility for the actions of those we vote into office. We have a duty to inform ourselves as well as we can, decide wisely and then – on some credible grounds – make a decision to vote for one, or none, of the candidates on offer. Voter regret is real and its ramifications are serious.

However we work it out, we need to apply our criteria consistently. If we think character matters, we can’t use that as an argument against someone whose politics we generally don’t like and then blithely overlook it in someone whose public policy stances we prefer. Either you think character matters and you apply that across the board or you think the most debauched of pagans is perfectly acceptable and you overlook character flaws altogether. What you can’t legitimately do – indeed, hypocritically so – is insist that character matters when saying so suits your politics and that it doesn’t when it no longer serves your political ends. I have been most disheartened of all – especially given the variety of ways I think the Bible allows us to legitimately work out who to vote for – by Christians who have taken this openly hypocritical stance.

Which leads us to the question of character. Does character actually matter or can we overlook it? I think it is certainly consistent to take one of three positions: (1) character does not matter at all in any circumstances, only public policy stances matter; (2) character always matters irrespective of where a candidate stands on public policy; (3) character matters insofar as it is relevant to the assigned task.

If you take position 1, I would suggest you consistently vote according to manifesto pledges and public policy stances. You could be faced with a modern day Caligula, the most unpleasant and morally foul human being you have ever come across who lacks any sort of integrity, but if you like their public policy you vote them into office. They could be tax dodging, lying, affair mongers who only give jobs to their family and mates, but because you like their tax plans you have to vote for them to be consistent. This doesn’t give us much grounds to reject a candidate who is found to be up to all sorts of mischief.

If you take position 2, you will face one of two problems. Either, you will feel obliged to vote for one candidate over another because they have integrity whilst not really liking much of what they stand for publicly. That, I would suggest, is a bit of a nonsense. if you recognise that, the other issue you are likely to face is being able to vote for anyone at all. How much integrity is required? And if we consider that public policy comes with moral dimensions, there will inevitably be things you can’t stomach. You will be looking for the whitest of white people in a sin-stained world and unable to vote for anyone in particular.

It seems to me that the third option is the more credible. If I ask you whether you would happily fly in a plane flown by a “debauched pagan”, most of us (I suspect) would say yes so long as the matter of debauchery doesn’t interfere with his ability to fulfil that task. So, a skilled pilot who constantly swears like a docker isn’t going to stop you getting on his plane because it really isn’t related to his job and you probably won’t interact with him anyway. But a pilot with a drink problem might give you pause because it is going to impact on his ability to fulfil his function. The question boils down to whether this matter of morality impacts on the specific task at hand. Of course, if you take that view, it may mean you will vote for certain pagans some of the time and reject some pagans at other times. You will work out which issues of integrity matter in office. Even then, such positions should be applied consistently – we can’t just decide such matters are important when its someone whose politics we don’t like but they can be overlooked when we like the politics on display.

So, can Christians vote for “debauched pagans”? I would say so, but it rather depends on what the issues of debauchery are and whether they impact upon their ability to fulfil the functions of their office. Would I vote for a known serial liar or serial adulterer? Probably not. In a system that relies on promises being made and a high degree of trust when lending a vote such behaviour privately necessarily impacts on the office itself, on their ability to fulfil their functions and for anybody to have any confidence when lending their support. I think issues of trust in politics – which necessarily underpin the task – must have high value in the integrity stakes. But would I vote for a person with a foul mouth? Obviously not for that reason, but it wouldn’t stop me voting for them. That does not directly impact on their ability to fulfil their functions in office nor does it undermine whatever public policy stance they might take.

We may come to slightly different conclusions on which matters of integrity are most important. We may think different matters impact more heavily on the ability to fulfil one’s function. That’s okay – these things are wisdom matters after all. I am not convinced the Bible does give us grounds to simply ignore and vote for anybody regardless of integrity. I think Paul insists we are to honour those in office irrespective of their personal integrity for the sake of the office itself and the authority imbued it by God. But I find it a leap to suggest this gives us license to vote for anyone regardless of their personal moral integrity. The Bible does not make that case. What it does, however, is give us a large amount of room to wisely discern who we might vote for without instructing us on exactly who that should be or how to reach a certain conclusion. And I would suggest, outside of the USA, you would be hard-pressed to find any sort of Evangelical bloc vote as a result.