If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President of the United States, can you vote for him with a clear conscience? This election cycle may force conservatives—especially religious, social conservatives—to answer that question.
Here’s how I am currently thinking through that question as an evangelical theology professor who just coauthored a book on the conscience and the Christian. To answer the question, you first need to consider three other questions.
1. Does Donald Trump have good character and policies?
I get it that the United States of America is not electing a “pastor-in-chief” but a commander-in-chief. A presidential candidate does not need to sign off on my church’s doctrinal statement to earn my vote. But character matters immensely for leaders. If a presidential candidate is not trustworthy in other areas, how can we entrust him with the most influential governmental position in the world? That is why it is relevant to consider Trump’s character.
- Trump publicly brags about committing adultery.
- Trump mocks and disrespects people—women, the disabled, even prisoners of war.
- Trump lacks a pro-life record. He is not a pro-lifer. He can’t even defend the pro-life position.
- Trump is a con artist (e.g., Trump University).
- Trump is a demagogue. He appeals to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.
- Trump is shamelessly proud. He recently boasted, “Nobody reads the Bible more than me.” Yet he says that he has never asked God or others to forgive him for anything.
Trump is not morally qualified to lead a Boy Scout troop.
- Kevin DeYoung describes Trump as “an honor warrior without any real honor.”
- “My main problem,” explains Randy Alcorn, “is not that Donald Trump says what he thinks …. My problem is with what he actually thinks: especially his obsession with outward appearance, sexiness, superficiality, wealth, his own status and accomplishments, and his quickness to berate and insult people and seek revenge on his critics.”
Regarding Trump’s policies:
- It is virtually impossible to discern what they are because (a) he repeatedly changes his opinions about policies, (b) he has only vaguely presented what his policies would be as president, and (c) we cannot trust what he says because of his character.
- He lacks sound principles and judgment. The only principle that Trump seems to follow is self-interest. Like the dwarves in The Last Battle, Trump is for Trump.
- His rhetoric sounds more like a third-world strongman who claims only he can single-handedly fix everything that’s broken in Washington D.C. But would he stand under, uphold, and defend the U.S. Constitution? He gives us absolutely no reason to think so.
2. What does voting entail?
If you vote for a presidential candidate in America’s democratic republic, it does not mean that you fully endorse all of that person’s policies or that you think that person’s character is stellar. Here are two basic voting strategies:
- Vote for the least bad candidate who has the best chance of winning. The way you feel about this candidate can fall anywhere on a spectrum from enthusiasm to indifference to revulsion. For example, you may vote against a front runner by choosing the lesser of two evils.
- Vote for the best (or least bad) candidate, even if that person has a low chance of winning.
The first strategy is what I have employed up to this election cycle. As a political conservative, I have followed William F. Buckley Jr.’s famous utilitarian rule of thumb: vote for the rightward-most viable candidate.
But what if the two most viable candidates are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? This is the first election cycle where I have questioned Buckley’s rule. Is there some point at which Buckley’s rule no longer applies? Can the most viable candidates be so bad that you cannot dignify either of them with your vote? It’s like that episode from The Simpsons twenty years ago in which the two main presidential candidates were actually aliens:
If the two most viable candidates were Hitler and Stalin, would you feel obligated to vote for the lesser evil? The strategy to vote for the lesser of two evils breaks down at some point. You must draw the line somewhere. The question is where to draw that line.
(I doubt Buckley himself would vote for Trump because Trump is not a true conservative. That is why Buckley ran as a viable but unelectable third-party candidate in 1965.)
“There are numerous single issues that disqualify a person from public office,” explains John Piper, such as endorsing racism or child-killing. Does knowingly voting for an egregiously immoral candidate ever make you complicit with that person’s evil once they take office? Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore argues, “If a Christian doctor were forced to choose between performing abortions or assisting suicides, she could not choose the lesser of these two evils but must conscientiously object. … This side of the New Jerusalem, we will never have a perfect candidate. But we cannot vote for evil, even if it’s our only option.”
If the general election features Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, then you will probably have four basic options (compare Tony Reinke’s more nuanced list):
- Don’t vote.
- Vote for Hillary Clinton.
- Vote for Donald Trump.
- Vote for someone else who has no chance to win.
This fall’s election may have huge consequences for abortion, religious liberty, the free market, gender issues, and more. That is why some political conservatives will argue, “Hold your nose if you have to, but vote for Donald Trump because Hillary Clinton will be worse. We don’t know what sort of policies Trump would adopt or what sort of Supreme Court justices he would appoint, but we do know what to expect from Hillary Clinton.” I get the logic, but there is one more factor to consider—your conscience.
3. What is a clear conscience?
Your conscience is your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong. You have a clear conscience when your conscience does not accuse or condemn you for doing “wrong” but instead commends and defends you for doing “right.”
I placed quotation marks around “wrong” and “right” because your conscience could be wrong. Conscience is not infallible. It operates according to your moral standard, and your moral standard could be wrong. Some people support and practice abortion with a clear conscience, but their conscience is based on an immoral standard, namely, that it is not wrong to kill a baby in a mother’s womb if that baby’s mother so chooses. It is possible to sin with a clear conscience.
So can a person vote for Donald Trump with a clear conscience? Yes. But that doesn’t make the action right in God’s sight. Your conscience may tell you that voting for Trump is right while another person’s conscience may tell them that voting for Trump is wrong.
Sometimes you need to calibrate your conscience. Just like you need to calibrate a scale if it registers 150 pounds when you actually weigh only 145, sometimes you need to adjust or train your conscience to function according to God’s moral standards. You do this primarily by educating your conscience with truth. Some people may support and practice abortion with a clear conscience because they don’t understand scientifically that human life begins at conception.
But abortion is a relatively easy issue. It’s like the big E on the eye chart. Many ethical issues are more complex, such as whether and how to practice capital punishment or just war. Or whether to vote for Donald Trump if his opponent is Hillary Clinton.
People may reasonably disagree about how to strategically vote in America’s democratic republic:
- Will your conscience condemn you for not voting—for failing to act as a responsible citizen for the good of your family, community, and country?
- Will your conscience condemn you for voting for Hillary Clinton—for supporting someone who is arguably worse than Donald Trump (e.g., enthusiastically pro-abortion)?
- Will your conscience condemn you for voting for Donald Trump—for supporting the person I describe in the first part of this essay?
- Will your conscience condemn you for voting for someone else—for essentially “wasting” your vote on someone who has no chance to win?
There isn’t a good option. That’s what makes this a quandary. But is there a least bad option? Some conservatives will argue that we must choose the lesser of two evils. Others will argue that they can’t vote for Trump based on principle (we must not vote for evil, even if one candidate is not quite as evil as the other) and strategy (take a long-term view and rebuild the conservative movement rather than let Trump destroy it under the banner of the GOP).
What should you do? It’s in a theological category called “disputable matters.” Disputable matters aren’t unimportant, but fellow Christians who are members of the same church should be able to disagree on these issues and still have close fellowship with each other.
But remember: It is a sin to violate your conscience—even if your conscience is mistaken. If your conscience tells you that it is wrong to vote for Donald Trump and you vote for him anyway, then you sinned. So unless you can vote for Donald Trump without your conscience condemning you, then you should not vote for him.
It’s also worth thinking about how your conscience has worked in the past. Many conservatives argued in 1998 that the Lewinsky scandal disqualified Bill Clinton as president, but some of those same people are planning to vote for Trump. What changed?
So can you?
Back to the title of this essay: Can you vote for Donald Trump with a clear conscience? A handful of friends who gave me feedback on this essay told me that although they agree with what I write about Trump’s character and policies, they could still vote for Trump with a clear conscience. If the two main candidates were Trump and Hillary Clinton, they couldn’t vote for anyone other than Trump with a clear conscience because they would feel complicit in allowing Clinton to become president. They are intelligent conservatives for whom I have the highest respect.
But if I had to vote today, I could not vote for Donald Trump with a clear conscience. Perhaps others will persuade me to calibrate my conscience on this issue, but I doubt it. Maybe I’ll be able to think of voting as voting “against” and not voting “for” and thus agree with “the lesser of two evils” argument in order to mitigate greater evil. (One of my friends says that he would vote for “the Joker” as a way of voting against “Jezebel.”) Maybe Trump will turn from his ways and surround himself with a genuinely conservative team that he humbly listens to. But at this point, I can’t get around the obstacle that I would be enabling a destructive, grossly immoral candidate.
Update on 7/29/2016: Reply to Wayne Grudem’s “Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice”
Townhall just published an opinion piece by theologian Wayne Grudem: “Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.” [Update: On 10/9/2016, Townhall took down Grudem’s article at his request. The previous hyperlink uses the Wayback Machine on Archive.org.] Grudem’s target audience in that essay is fellow Christian conservatives who can’t vote for Trump with a clear conscience.
- He opens the essay like this: “Some of my Christian friends tell me they can’t in good conscience vote for Donald Trump because, when faced with a choice between ‘the lesser of two evils,’ the morally right thing is to choose neither one. They recommend voting for a third-party or write-in candidate.”
- And later he writes, “‘But my conscience won’t let me vote for Donald Trump,’ some have told me. But I wonder if their consciences have considered the gravity of these destructive consequences that would come from a Clinton presidency.”
- He concludes, “When I look at it this way, my conscience, and my considered moral judgment tell me that I must vote for Donald Trump as the candidate who is most likely to do the most good for the United States of America.”
- I love and respect Wayne Grudem, and I stand by my (mostly positive) review of his book Politics that I coauthored with my Dad in 2010. Grudem kindly shared critical feedback on a draft of my above essay in March 2016. He is one of the people I had in mind when I wrote this at the end of my essay: “A handful of friends who gave me feedback on this essay told me that although they agree with what I write about Trump’s character and policies, they could still vote for Trump with a clear conscience. If the two main candidates were Trump and Hillary Clinton, they couldn’t vote for anyone other than Trump with a clear conscience because they would feel complicit in allowing Clinton to become president. They are intelligent conservatives for whom I have the highest respect.”
- I agree with Justin Taylor: “This is anecdotal, but I’ll say it again: in my neck of the Reformed-evangelical world, there is a marked divergence between the #NeverHillary crowd (usually over 50) and the #NeverTrumpOrHillary folks (usually under 50). Certainly there are exceptions, but I’m struck by how both sides find their position to be morally clear, and not even a difficult position to hold.”
- I respect a kind of reasoning that says, “Trump has poor character, but he’s the lesser of two evils,” etc. There is a big difference between that stance and Jerry Falwell Jr.’s enthusiastically endorsing Trump as an outstanding candidate who models Christian character.
- So I respect Grudem’s view (though I think he is too generous to Trump re his character and competence), but I wish Grudem would frame the issue in a way that does not imply that Christians who cannot vote for Trump in good conscience are sinful and/or foolish.
- My main goal is not (a) to persuade people not to vote for Trump but instead (b) to encourage people not to sin against their conscience.
Further reply on 7/30/2016:
- I agree with the reasons some people gave for not finding Grudem’s essay persuasive:
- J. D. Crowley, who coauthored Conscience with me, wrote this in a Facebook comment yesterday: “I was disappointed with Grudem as well, especially when he said that it is immoral not to vote for Trump. This sums up my feeling: I would love to see Hillary lose, and I would hate to see Trump win.”
- Pastor John Starke asserts, “Complementarians who care about the honor of women should never justify voting for a sexist as a morally good choice.”
- Philosopher John Mark Reynolds argues, “I will not vote for a man who bought and owns a strip club. This is not a ‘high standard.’ So far every nominee of a major party, but one, could pass it. … If we back the man who is proud, sexist, racist, libertine, a lover a money, then we will lose the right to say ‘character counts’ forever.”
- It is important for Christians not simply what view you take but how you take it. Both your position and disposition matter.
- Yesterday a thoughtful pastor friend of mine asked me this question: “I have read your article and Grudem’s and your response to Grudem. However, your writing has raised a question in my mind. If my conscience leads me not to vote for Trump today, is it possible that I have capitulated to an unwise conscience that has not been properly trained? In other words, could it be that my conscience needs to be recalibrated during this election cycle? Couldn’t, for example, Grudem’s article be used as a conscience recalibration and isn’t that what he is really arguing for?”
- My reply: “Yes! But that’s how we should articulate the strategy. E.g., ‘Let me share how the following reasons inform my conscience.’ Etc. Not, ‘This is the one right way, and if you differ from me, then you are sinful/foolish.’ Christians (and especially fellow church members) really need to learn how to obey Romans 14, and this is a great practical way for church leaders [and members] to encourage that. I tried to do that recently in a Bethlehem sermon: “How Should You Relate to Fellow Christians When Your Consciences Disagree About Disputable Matters?” [It condenses ch. 5 in Conscience.]
Update on 8/1/2016:
- Townhall just published a response to Wayne Grudem’s essay by my friend Alex Chediak.
- David French responds to Wayne Grudem’s essay.
Update on 10/19/2016:
- Grudem updates his initial article: “If You Don’t Like Either Candidate, Then Vote for Trump’s Policies.” He no longer calls Trump “a good candidate with flaws,” but he affirms, “I overwhelmingly support Trump’s policies and believe that Clinton’s policies will seriously damage the nation, perhaps forever.”
- Related Resources:
- John Piper, tweet on 10/11/2016: “Of course, Trump should step down as Olasky and Grudem say. So should Hillary. That is what ‘unqualified’ means. It’s never been a question.”
- Kevin DeYoung, “Seeking Clarity in This Confusing Election Season: Ten Thoughts,” 10/13/2016.
- Jonah Goldberg, “Vote God-Trump 2016,” 10/17/2016.
- David French, “No, God Doesn’t Want You to Vote for Donald Trump,” 10/18/2016.
- On 10/17/2016, I participated in a panel with some of my colleagues on glorifying God amid election angst:
Update on 10/24/2016:
Some more related resources:
- R. Albert Mohler Jr., “For Christians, credibility at stake in election,” 10/23/2016. Money line: “Conscience … is the central issue in the present crisis.”
- Alan Noble, “I’m an evangelical. The religious right leaders who support Trump don’t speak for me,” 10/24/2016.
Update on 10/27/2016: David French, “Trump Has Blown the Evangelical Age Gap Wide Open”
Update on 1/20/2017: John Piper explains how to live under an unqualified president.