In recent weeks there have been numerous church leaders and pastors speaking out on their various views concerning the impending election day and the “Christian vote”. Some have seemed to straddle the middle, some have denounced the President for his failure to uphold Christian values in his character and demeanor; but most have predictably landed on the argument that has driven Christian politics for the last 50 decades: abortion. Out of a desire to remain true to biblical commands to care for the life of the vulnerable, Christians have repeatedly supported the Republican party over pro-life, anti-abortion policies. Many have even equated the Christian position on politics with a Republican vote, demanding that the only Christian option is a vote for Trump.
For nearly a dozen election years prior to 2016, the Christian position was assumed to be Republican. Not until the GOP presented a candidate so counter to Christian values did the Church in America have to even consider another option. Now, after four years of Trump’s administration, we are driven to think more critically than ever about how to cast our vote.
Despite growing unrest due to racial tensions, breakdowns in COVID-19 response, and a president who repeatedly displays fits of anger, immaturity, and pride, Christians are still settled on a Republican vote due to this single-issue of abortion. Citing Trump as the “lesser of two evils”, the only “pro-life candidate”, and Biden as the metaphorical “antichrist” in his policies concerning the unborn, conservative Christian leaders seem to think it obvious that a vote for Trump is a vote for Biblical ethics. This type of reasoning on how Christians should vote is not new or surprising; what is surprising is how divisive the Church in America has become over this single issue in the wake of Trump’s re-election.
Abortion and Biblical Priority?
As a conservative evangelical pastor myself, I understand the sentiment, and even agree with some of the preceding arguments. In 2016, I stood by conflicted, unsure of how to vote, and opted for a third-party write in. But the more I’ve listened to the prevailing conservative evangelical message, the more I’ve found myself questioning the rhetoric of the historic Right.
Abortion is an evil clearly condemned in Scripture (Exodus 21:22-24), and the Bible affirms life and personhood from the earliest stages of gestation (Psalm 139:13-16; Luke 1:39-45). I have preached against abortion in the past and continue to believe the fight against abortion must be part of our advocacy of Kingdom Justice. What I still struggle to understand, however, is how we’ve determined that fighting for the unborn is the single greatest issue Christians must fight for politically.
When I see Christians repeatedly advocating for the unborn over and against every other issue involved in American politics, I fail to see a clear correlation in Scripture. Biblically, what mandates us to uphold this issue in such regard that it trumps (no pun intended) every other issue collectively stacked against it? The argument is often founded upon the basis of human dignity, the murder of those so innocent and vulnerable being the greatest transgression against that principle inherent in the image of God. However, why is it that those same Christians seem to be silent and far less vehemently opposed to the unjust treatment and murder of other groups also made in the image of God?
The doctrine of the image of God necessitates that Christians care for and protect all life, including that of the unborn. Unfortunately, our political loyalties seem to send a message that we care only for one segment of the population verses others. Conservative Christians are well-versed in arguments for championing the cause of the unborn and are quick to stand their ground on this issue; but confront them with questions over immigration, racism, and the imbalance of criminal justice, and most seem either uneducated, uninterested, or even aggressively in denial. Perhaps the fact that one group is wholly without voice or choice seems to absolve us of any concern for those who have had their chance but seemingly squandered it. James 1:27 calls us to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction,” referencing the two most vulnerable and voiceless groups during James’ time; and who is more vulnerable and voiceless than the unborn?
Though we might agree without question that the unborn fall into this category of “vulnerable and voiceless”, to wholly throw out our obligation to other vulnerable and voiceless groups seems to be not a biblical distinction, but a human one. By our very own logic, the early Church should not have cared for the widows, but only the orphans. If James had room for more than one group whom the church was obligated to care for, then shouldn’t we? What justifies elevating one segment of our population over another, arguing for the protection and rights of one with overwhelming support, while another’s remains ignored by our political affiliations?
The Problem of Moral Proximity and Moral Obligation
The answer to me is quite plain: our failure to compassionately care for the plight of the vulnerable beyond the unborn is a sign not of our biblical convictions, but our own inability to identify with and extend Gospel love to those outside of our purview. The problem lies not with those other “undeserving” groups, but with us.
In ethics and moral philosophy, there is a common principle of moral proximity that leads to moral obligation: if I am relationally more proximate to one person or group over another, then I am more morally obligated to helping their cause than the other. This line of reasoning has also influenced how we think about social justice in the church (see DeYoung/Gilbert, What Is The Mission of the Church?, 183-186). As social justice is often upheld in the public realm, so this reasoning has also influenced how we vote and view priorities in policy making.
The problem with the principle of moral proximity, however, (as pointed out by many modern philosophers) is that it never leads us to care for those beyond our own confines. This means we would never feel obligated to care about those different from us – whether geographically, racially, socially, familial, and the like. By this logic, we should side with the Jewish lawyer over Jesus when defining “who is my neighbor.” When confronting an expert in the Law who asks Jesus this question, “Who is my neighbor?” – a question of moral proximity – Jesus responds with a parable defining neighborly love that extended across social, racial, economic, and geographical lines (Luke 10:29-37). The biblical view of moral proximity should completely disrupt the world’s way of defining moral obligation. And yet it is this very unwillingness to move beyond moral proximities that has led to increasing division and lack of concern for the American Church across tribal lines.
So, while the Bible repeatedly calls for the “dividing wall of hostility” to be broken down between racial divides (Eph. 2:14-17), our churches have remained largely segregated, both physically where we meet and spiritually in who we care for. Though God seems to call Israel to lovingly and sacrificially care for the foreigner and sojourner (Exo. 23:9; Lev. 19:9-10,33-34; Deut. 24:19), most White-American Christians have maintained a posture of fear and aggression towards immigrants. Though Jesus engages with and talks about the poor more than any other group in the Gospels, the middle-class majority of evangelicalism has remained distant and unconcerned with those who have “failed” under our free-market capitalistic society. The burden of moral obligation remains solely on the Self, and not on those of us who have chosen to stay morally distant from the underprivileged.
Making this single issue the crux for all of our voting, then, is not a sign of biblical faithfulness, but rather privilege. As someone who used to be a proponent of single-issue voting, I speak collectively with those who have perpetuated this dogmatic view of politics. We have waived the banner of “biblical fidelity” while failing to acknowledge that it is our privilege that has allowed us to vote with such a single-minded focus. This privilege has protected us from worrying about our next meal, the stability of our family, or the urgency of mortality due to the color of our skin.
It is our privilege that has caused us to see so clearly the commands to care for the unborn, while other biblical commands have conveniently shifted to our periphery. If someone has never identified with or been morally proximate to other vulnerable and voiceless groups like the impoverished, the immigrant, or the person of color, then it is no wonder why policies advocating for the rights of those groups would be of little concern for him. Without such moral proximity, there is little need for moral obligation.
Voting Beyond Our Privilege
As hard as it’s been for me to watch the drama of Christian voting unfold, I believe the last four years have had a silver lining of finally revealing just how married to politics Christians in America have become. For the first time we can remember, we as a Church have been forced to wrestle with politics without blindly throwing our vote in with the Republican Party. Perhaps the greater division is not a result of Trump’s election and re-election campaign, but rather a result of the division that always existed yet was not given a voice until the last four years. I believe this to be a good thing as God is chastening and refining His Church.
My point is not to advocate for the Left or a Democratic vote; rather, I hope to reveal as others have done so before me that just as there is no one “Christian vote,” neither is there “one Christian policy” that supersedes all others in such a way that it must dictate every Christian’s vote. To demand such an equation of Christianity to only one political policy or party would be to equate the Gospel with only one culture’s values. Just as the Global Church is a diverse body, so the Gospel is too diverse and multi-faceted to allow for only one culture to dictate how the rest must think about politics. Many will naturally disagree with the arguments laid out here and continue to advocate for a political position that protects their own privilege, Christian or not; but my desire is to show that there is more to our vote than one single issue, and that we can remain actively pro-life while voting in a seemingly contrarian way. Come election day, I believe Christian liberty should allow us greater discernment and critical thinking in how we vote, rather than an extra-biblical binding of our conscience.
We are earthly citizens, so we must engage in earthly politics; but we must not let our privileges lead us to claims that Jesus would never have made himself. Ultimately, we belong to an other-worldly Kingdom, so what matters most is how we live out the ethics of the Kingdom to come. While we may disagree in how that Kingdom should be displayed on earth, hopefully we can maintain the unity of agreement when it comes to what is truly necessary in being a Kingdom citizen – namely, adherence to our King Jesus through the path of the Cross.