Vote your character and your conscience

Matthew J. Frank, Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute, and Andy Naselli, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary, have written the most clear-sighted reflections that I have read on the ethics of voting in the “electoral annus horribilis of 2016.”

Here are excerpts from Frank’s article in Pubic Discourse, A Vote’s Consequences and a Voter’s Conscience“:

The question—“If your vote were decisive, what would you do?”—invites us to think of the civic function of voting as though everything hung on that one vote each of us casts. This invitation, to vote as if the weight of the world were on my shoulders alone, is what I refuse to accept.

The reason I decline the invitation is not just that the weight is not on my shoulders. It is that this is really an invitation to a kind of consequentialism in the ethics of voting. I don’t intend to plunge into the philosophical debate between consequentialist and deontological ethics, which is not in my field anyway. I mean to make a much more informal and homely point: it is wrong to think of a vote not cast for Leading Contender A as a de facto vote cast for Leading Contender B.


We conservatives are not in an ordinary political situation. In past elections, some of us might not have had our first or even our second choice among Republican candidates on the November ballot for president. . . . This time is different. “Not making the perfect the enemy of the good” is not the right adage for calculating what to do in our present predicament. Nor is “choose the lesser of two evils” the right way to think. That way of thinking really only works when at least one of the choices is in fact not really evil.


Now, however, we really do have two evils to choose between—or to decline choosing. Neither Trump nor Clinton has a single redeeming characteristic that recommends him or her to the presidency of the United States—at least none that is not decisively outweighed by some other damning characteristic. Clinton’s much vaunted “experience” is a career record of ghastly misjudgments in foreign policy, paired with a consistently authoritarian and illiberal “progressivism” in domestic policy, seemingly intent on unraveling the social fabric that makes a decent society. And there is no need to rehearse her and her husband’s history of dishonesty, corruption, and irresponsibility, capped most recently by her obvious breach of the statutes protecting national security secrets.

As for Trump, was there ever a candidate more obviously unqualified for high public office, as measured by his dearth of relevant knowledge and experience, his willfulness and self-absorption, his compulsive lying and inconsistency, his manipulative using of other people, his smash-mouth rhetoric and low character? For anyone professing conservative principles, the first problem with Trump is that he is not one of us, has never been one of us, shows no sign or capacity of becoming one of us, and hardly cares to pretend to be one of us. Even “what about the Supreme Court?” has no grip on my conscience when I try to imagine Donald Trump in the Oval Office. I cannot trust him to choose judicial nominees wisely, and there are other things whose cumulative weight is greater even than this variable.

We haven’t even the consolation of thinking of Trump as a certain kind of Republican who is not actually conservative but who at least recognizes our vocabulary when he hears it. No, Trump would not know a conservative principle if it kicked him in the shins. This is a nominee who, in my estimation, cannot earn my vote even as a “lesser evil” or an “at least he’s not Hillary” candidate. I waver between believing that his defeat would be the worst thing to happen to our country and believing that his victory would be.


After a lifetime of studying politics, I have finally, thanks to the electoral annus horribilis of 2016, arrived at an ethic of voting that I can defend against all rival ethics. It is simply this: Vote as if your ballot determines nothing whatsoever—except the shape of your own character. Vote as if the public consequences of your action weigh nothing next to the private consequences. The country will go whither it will go, when all the votes are counted. What should matter the most to you is whither you will go, on and after this November’s election day.

Neselli organizes his blog post, “Can You Vote for Donald Trump With a Clear Conscience?“, around various questions:

  1. Does Donald Trump have good character and policies?
  2. What does voting entail?
  3. What is a clear conscience?
  4. So can you?

Here is an excerpt answering the third question:

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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)?
  3. Will your conscience condemn you for voting for Donald Trump—for supporting the person I describe in the first part of this essay?
  4. 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?


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