Can a Pro-Life Christian Vote for Joe Biden?

By Dwight Longenecker Published on September 14, 2020

All Christians should be grateful for the Catholics because we have an aspect of our religion that is more developed than most other Christian groups. It’s called “moral theology.” Moral theology (or Christian ethics) is the discipline of discussing and deciding about moral issues in the light of the Bible and church tradition.

There are good non-Catholic moral theologians, but the Catholics have a long history of puzzling over the application of God’s revelation to particular circumstances and issues. “Is the death penalty acceptable? If so, when and how?” “Was it sinful to drop the atom bomb to end World War II?” “Is slavery permissible?” “What about abortion? Artificial contraception? Same sex marriage?”

In our modern day the moral problems are increasingly complex and ordinary people are expected to decide on extraordinarily complicated moral issues. It sounds fine to ask, “What does the Bible say?” But in the case of issues of modern technology, science and medical advances, the Bible doesn’t tell us anything. We need moral theologians to help us ask the right questions so we can discern the right answers.

Never Trump?

How to vote in 2020 is an important moral decision for every Christian. Many Christians have jumped on the Trump bandwagon without pause. Others draw back. They dislike his playboy background, his shady business deals, his questionable friendships and multiple marriages. Some have held their nose and voted for Trump anyway saying, “I’m voting for a president not a pastor.”

Other Christians declined to vote for Trump last time, but believe he’s done a pretty good job so far. They like the judges he has appointed, think his foreign policy is going in the right direction, and they’re convinced he is “the most pro-life president we’ve every had.” They still don’t like him as a person, but they’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope for the best.

Other Christians are not going to vote for Donald J.Trump not now never no way. They may agree with some of his policies, but they not only don’t like him, they don’t trust him. They worry that if he is not already a tyrant and dictator, that he has the makings of one and they aren’t ready to give him an inch, much less their vote.

Is It the Kamala and Joe Show?

Those who can’t vote for Donald Trump are therefore confronted with the only other realistic choice: Biden and Harris. But how can a Christian vote for two candidates that are so openly pro-abortion? How can Catholics, for example, vote for Joe Biden, who claims to be a Catholic but is in favor of abortion and has officiated at same sex marriages?

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Father Thomas Reese SJ is a Catholic priest who has made a case for Christians casting their vote for Biden. In this article in America magazine he admits that politics is a messy business. A Christian may not agree with a candidate’s views or every item on a party platform, but Fr. Reese maintains that you can still vote for that person or party as long as you are not supporting whatever position they hold which is contrary to Christian teaching.

He quotes the advice given by the American Catholic bishops — advice which any Christian might want to heed:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.

Fr Reese comments on this saying:

First, it is noteworthy that besides abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and gay marriage, the bishops also list as “intrinsically evil,” policies “deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions” as well as policies promoting “racist behavior.” A liberal interpretation of this text opens the door to a wider range of Catholic social teaching than just abortion and gay marriage.

Second, the ‘if’ clause is very important. A Catholic is in trouble only ‘if the voter’s intent is to support that position.’”

So, a Catholic Republican can vote for Trump, even if his policies promote racism or subject immigrants to subhuman living conditions, as long as the voter’s intent is not to support those positions.

And a Catholic Democrat can vote for Biden, even if his policies promote abortions and gay marriage, as long as the voter’s intent is not to support those positions.

Three Problems

Fr Reese’s article sounds plausible, but we should think it through further. There are three problems with his analysis.

First is the definition of “intrinsic evil.” In moral theology something is an “intrinsic evil” if the action is evil in and of itself. In other words that action, standing alone, is objectively and indisputably evil. Abortion is the intentional taking of an innocent life. So is murder and euthanasia. Policies that deliberately subject the poor to subhuman living conditions and promote racist behavior are wrong and should be opposed, but those policies, in and of themselves are not evil. The consequences of those policies might be bad, but the policies themselves are not intrinsically evil.

Saying those policies are as intrinsically evil as abortion and euthanasia is a logical fallacy called “false equivalence” The Catholic bishops and Fr Reese should know better.

Pinning it Down

The second problem is one of vague and sentimental thinking. The bishops’ statement that Fr Reese quotes refers to “policies that [deliberately subject] workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions as well as policies [that promote] racist behavior.”

This sounds good at first, but for this to make any sense a political party or candidate would have to state openly, deliberately and specifically that they are in favor of subhuman living conditions for the poor and are openly, deliberately and specifically in favor of racism. That’s what “deliberately” means.

What candidate or party would do that? There are no policies promoted by either party or candidate that deliberately promote poverty and racism. All parties and candidates would promote exactly the opposite: concern for the poor and opposition to racism.

It is arguable that certain policies in both parties may, in some way or other, lead to increased poverty among the poor and increased racism, but that is not the point. We’re talking about deliberate, intentional policies in favor of subhuman living conditions and racism.

Certain policies may produce poverty and promote racism as a side effect but that is not their intention. However, when it comes to intrinsic evils, the Democratic policies specifically and pointedly support, promote and fund abortion up to the point of birth. This is not the side effect of one of their policies. It is their policy.

A Question of Degree

Finally, we need to ask whether abortion and euthanasia are of equal importance to poverty and racism. The bishops’ statement and Fr Reese put abortion and euthanasia on the same level as poverty and racism.

Poverty and racism are serious concerns, to be sure. We should do everything we can to eradicate these evils. However, these are questions of quality of life. Abortion and euthanasia are question of life and death itself.

It is shocking to find that leaders like Fr Reese and our Catholic bishops are unable to see that the taking of the innocent life of an unborn child by dismemberment in his mother’s womb is a greater moral obscenity than poor living conditions and racism.

Did I say Catholics were better at moral theology? Maybe I misspoke.


Fr Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest working in South Carolina. His new book is Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness.

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