Why You Mustn’t Not Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils

By Calvin Beisner Published on October 23, 2016

Millions of conscientious, God-honoring Christians all over America face an anguishing choice: Do I vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, both with despicable moral character, or do I vote for some other candidate, or not at all?

Let’s try to untangle this knotty problem.

First, not voting at all, or voting for a third candidate with no (non-miraculous) chance of winning, harms one of two (or more) candidates who could win. Not voting at all, or voting for a third-party or independent candidate, in November means harming either Clinton or Trump.

Some will object, “A non-vote for A is not a vote for B any more than a non-vote for B is a vote for A.”

On the contrary: Assume a voting population of 20. If 10 vote for A and 10 for B, neither wins and there’s a runoff. If 10 vote for A and 9 for B and 1 for a third-party candidate or nobody, A wins; or vice versa.

But some will reply, “Then my non-votes for both of them cancel each other out.”

Wrong. You cannot deprive both, because you cannot vote for both. Voting for neither deprives one of a vote he or she might otherwise have. Hence, your non-vote is a vote lost from the one you could have chosen over the other, had you shouldered the responsibility to determine, to the best of your ability, which would do more, and which less, harm.

Our responsibility is to make the wisest choice we can between real options (i.e., those with a non-miraculous prospect of winning). Not voting, or voting for someone with no real chance of winning, shirks that responsibility.

Lesser of Two Evils

Still, some will respond, “If I would never have voted for Clinton or Trump to begin with, how is my not voting, or voting for another candidate, giving a vote to, or taking one away from, either?”

When only two candidates have a real chance of winning, a vote for anyone else, or a decision not to vote, deprives whichever one the voter would have chosen as the lesser of two evils of a vote. That could cause a tie or a loss instead of a victory.

“But doesn’t 1 Corinthians 10:13 say we never face a situation in which it is impossible for us not to sin?”

It does, but the choice is not between one and another sin, such as between murdering and bearing false witness, or between stealing and committing adultery. In such a choice, both are always wrong, and the right choice is neither.

The choice in an election is instead one between two evils external to oneself but that one has the possibility of preventing, e.g., dying soon from cancer versus suffering the amputation of a cancerous limb or the ravages of chemotherapy, or preventing murderer A from killing one person versus preventing murderer B from killing twenty, when one can prevent one but not both.

I have no objection to voting for a third candidate if that candidate actually has a (non-miraculous) chance of winning, or voting for a third candidate or not at all if only one candidate has a real chance of winning. (Some may think that’s the case this year, but some such predictions have turned out wrong.) When one is incapable of preventing either of the two evils, one does not sin by not doing what one cannot do.

But when one is capable of preventing the greater of two evils yet chooses not to, then, I believe, he is irresponsible. Proverbs 24:10-12 applies: “If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small. Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?”

Sin and Voting

“Are you saying not merely that it is not sinful to vote for the candidate one perceives as the lesser of two evils, but that it is sinful not to?”

It depends on one’s knowledge, intent and the extent to which one has been responsible about gaining the knowledge needed for a wise choice.

I think it’s sinful for a voting-age citizen of a country in which citizens have the privilege of voting to fail to take reasonable steps to make a well-informed choice. (It’s also sinful to vote without taking those steps — but that’s a different subject.) This doesn’t mean everyone must become an expert. We all have different callings. But irresponsibility is sin.

I think it’s sinful knowingly to cast a vote the consequence of which one expects to be the occurrence of a greater rather than a lesser evil.

And I think it’s possible to commit sins of ignorance, unintentional sins — i.e., acts done in ignorance that are sinful, though the degree of sinfulness is diminished by ignorance or lack of intent (Leviticus 5:15-19).

On the basis of Romans 14:23, “Whatever is not of faith is sin,” it’s always sinful to act against conscience. But that doesn’t mean it’s never sinful to act according to conscience. Conscience can be misinformed, leading to unintentional sins, even sins we aren’t aware of though God is (1 Corinthians 4:4-5).

Thus, one whose conscience told him he couldn’t vote for A would sin by voting for A. But he might still sin by not voting for A if his conscience were misinformed, especially due to laziness.

But if someone has sought responsibly to know and understand the facts in the choice and the applicable Biblical principles and then has voted according to conscience, I would be loath to accuse him of sin. If indeed he has sinned, that’s not for me to judge, but for God, and I am confident God will make him aware of it.

The Holy Spirit comes to convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:8). Romans 14 teaches that there are difficult moral issues on which people’s consciences can differ and neither should condemn the other.

“Ending Evil” is Not on the Ballot

Yet some will insist, “By picking the lesser of the two evils, you condone a party’s downward spiral. We need to choose to end evil.”

I understand and sympathize, but the time to turn a party around is in the local and state party functions and elections and primaries. In the general election, the choice isn’t between trying to straighten out the party and not trying, it’s between candidate A of one party and all the appointees and policies that are part of his or her package, and candidate B of another party and all the appointees and policies that are part of her or his package.

Equally important, “End Evil” isn’t on the ballot. All candidates are sinners. None will conduct himself flawlessly. Consequently every choice between candidates is a choice between two (or more) evils, and thus a choice in which one is responsible to choose the lesser (or least).

In short, faced with the responsibility of doing what one can to prevent the greater of two evils, the refusal to vote for the lesser is a vote to permit the greater.

So vote. Vote for the candidate and accompanying policies and appointees you think will do more good and less harm. Any other choice is a choice to permit the victory of the candidate, policies and appointees you think will do more harm and less good.

 

Calvin Beisner, Ph.D. (Scottish History/History of Political Thought) is former Associate Professor of Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary and Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

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  • Dean Bruckner

    Well written, sir!

  • I agree, a vote for Trump is stealing a vote for Castle. Vote Castle 2016!

    • E. Calvin Beisner

      Then either you don’t understand what I said, or you don’t really agree. Though I personally would prefer Castle to either of the two candidates with a (non-miraculous) chance to win, I also know a vote for him will be wasted and will only deprive the one of those other two candidates whom I would prefer (whether as the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils–two ways of saying the same thing) of a vote, and thus possibly of a victory.

      • Lonnie Didden

        How a 3rd party vote counts…
        3rd party votes represent dissent in the popular vote. They let Congress, the parties, the media and the people know that there are voters (who actually vote) that don’t approve of the candidates that were selected by the main parties. In addition to this they can help start the political careers of the 3rd party candidates. The more dissenting votes the greater the impact. So no matter what partisans tell you, 3rd party votes do count.

        • bob levine

          They don’t care. Trump loves America and Americans. Natural law pragmatist. You’re equivocating between third parties and babies. Only the unborn are innocent and only the innocent can judge.
          Trump (and especially) Pence

        • im4truth4all

          Do you really think the Congress, etc. parties, really care?

        • shawn mathis

          They only count if the party is listening. The party has not been listening for 25 years.

      • William Diemler

        Then I have to say that I don’t really agree.
        What about principles? Do we really abandon them so easily for pragmatism?
        Your argument reminds me of the Duke of Norfolk in “A Man for All Seasons” when he asks Sir Thomas More “Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship?” to which Thomas More replies, “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
        My personal opinion: we should be careful about surrendering our own principles and especially wary of counseling others to abandon theirs.
        I think I’ll vote for the person I believe to be the best candidate; not for a lesser evil.

        • E. Calvin Beisner

          Then you’ll be voting against what you perceive the greater of two evils, and for what you perceive the lesser.

        • shawn mathis

          William: For twenty-five years I voted as you articled: as an idealist voter. But idealist voting–voting for the best man/law *regardless* of the circumstances or consequences–is not biblical. Consider the following (condensed from my eleven-part Sunday school series on voting):

          1. Where is it forbidden in the Word of God to vote for an unbeliever (who by definition sins)? The writer admitted that this does not exist.
          2. Since those we vote for can be unbelieving sinners, does voting for one *based on polic* necessarily entail endorsing their unbelieving sinning conduct? (Hint: if 1 is true the answer here is self-evident).
          3. If the persons character is not as important as his policies he promises, then is there truly a choice between evils?
          4. Were Joseph, Ester and Daniel in sin for cooperating with evil men that make Clinton and Trump look like saints? Is voting for a sinful candidate more of a sin than cooperating with a tyrant like Pharaoh?
          5. When Christ tells us to “count the cost” *just like* we do when building a tower or going to war, is Christ a consequentialist/pragmatist?

          Maybe perfectionism has blinded our eyes, forgetting our Forefather’s admonition: James Madison: “the purist of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them…[and] the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT good.” (qtd. The Founders on God and Government, p.102)

      • I stand for Castle because I believe Trump is a walking disaster. While I am not 100% not voting for Trump, I will be hoping he wins. I think the media will eviscerate him and make sure he is a single-term president, though. It will invent and push scandal after scandal.

        I won’t promote him, but I can promote Castle. My vote come November 8th is still in the air. Trump might just have a secret voter in me.

  • Lonnie Didden

    If our Holy Faith were all about winning at any cost in the way of the world then there wouldn’t have been a crucifixion. Neither Clinton not Trump are even remotely acceptable candidates. Repeatedly choosing the “lesser evil” in successive elections as the quality of candidates does not improve and often gets worse makes us complicit in that trend. As we make more and more excuses for supporting truly awful candidates, our habitual compromises tempt us to think more like consequentialists / relativists.

    • Lee Gilbert

      Regarding our presidential options, the rhetorical even-handedness of “two flawed candidates” is very deceptive.

      Only one candidate is for legal abortion, taxpayer funding of abortion, and supports LGBT activism, including same-sex “marriage.” Moreover, her husband would carry into the White House as “first gentleman” guilt for far more serious offenses against women than Trump has even been accused of, accusations that I for one do not credit. Trump’s “locker room talk” is reprehensible surely, but in the moral calculus of this moment weighs nothing. Anyone who has spent any time in a locker room, a caddy yard, or an army barracks would have heard as bad, and I have heard worse.

      Weighed against Hilary Clinton’s policy of keeping the entire nation accessory to the mass murder of babies, Donald Trump comes off splendidly, a comparative innocent. Moreover, in the third debate he made a very strong pro-life commitment and expressed the hope that with the Supreme Court justices he would appoint Roe vs Wade could be overturned.

      Yes, both are flawed—as are we all — but only one is fatally flawed. Her opponent deserves our full support if for no other reason than that he is her opponent. Not only that, but in my opinion we are completely mad not to get behind him en masse and make him the Christian candidate. How? By praying for his conversion and working for his massive victory. Looking at it from a purely political standpoint, even without conversion, if he wins because of Christian and Catholic backing will he not be more apt to give us a hearing, to support our issues?

      In other words, we have the possibility of making him our guy, and putting our guy in the White House. Of course, if we do not believe in the power of prayer, then we are no longer having a conversation among Christians.

      • bob levine

        When Trump said what he said, he was a Democrat. His conversion is sincere. Why else”punish” aborting mothers.

  • JBRoux

    I am over the anguish, I have made the decision to do what I said I’d do during the primaries. I will vote for the Republican nominee. Not too much anguish, not more than I felt voting for Romney nor McCain. We seldom get to vote for someone we really feel meets most of the requirements of candidacy. I was fortunate to be able to vote for Mr. Cruz in the Louisiana Primary, and was unhappy about the “torpedo Job” he got, but we win and sort the rest out later. That’s what we do in a war. We win, then we have the opportunity to “fine tune” the rest after. If we don’t win, there is no later.

  • Bungo Baggins

    Agreed

  • bob levine

    Only the unborn are innocent and
    only the innocent can judge.
    Trump (and especially) Pence!
    Throw the money changers out of the Temple…

  • texasknight

    We vote to stop the greater evil. In doing so, we are not voting for the “lesser” evil. We are not responsible for any “lesser” evil that may be committed by the candidate we vote for to stop the greater evil. In this election our choice is clear. We must vote to stop the atheistic party of death and moral relativism.

    “There are no ‘truly grave moral’ or ‘proportionate’ reasons, singularly or combined that could outweigh the millions of innocent human lives that are directly killed by abortion each year.” Bishops Farrell & Vann

    Ask yourself, how do we know the party of death is full of evil-doers? Jesus says, “By their fruits you will know them.” Their party platform supports the murder of innocence by abortion (Gn 4:10), sodomy (Gn 18:20; 19:13), oppression of the poor by enslaving generations on entitlement programs (Ex 3:7-10), unjust treatment of the foreigner, widow and orphan by creating a fatherless society through the spread of the contraceptive mentality (Ex 22:20-24), and defrauding workers of their just wages through selective taxation, wealth redistribution and crony capitalism (Deut 24:14-15; Jas 5:4). They are guilty of all five sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance. They are also guilty of perpetrating many other grave and intrinsic evils on our society: contraception, no-fault divorce, redefinition of marriage, pornography, abstinence plus sex ed, IVF, embryonic stem cell research, the use of fetal body parts in research, human cloning, euthanasia and degrading religious freedom when it comes to all of these evils. But their most evil act is their attempt to replace God with our government. Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” #neverpartyofdeath

  • im4truth4all

    Archbishop Fulton Sheen made the perfect distinction between someone who is bad, and someone who is evil. A bad person does bad things — steals, lies, cheats. An evil person seeks to destroy goodness, virtue, honor, decency, morality and truth.

    Like goodness, there is a hierarchy to evil as well. Not all evil is equally malicious, just as all good is not equally sublime.

    By this Saintly Archbishop’s definition Tim Kaine can be defined as evil. Of course, by extension, Hillary Clinton is the same. Mr. Trump has a long way to go to come close to these two. A Catholic who practices their Faith has no other option but to vote to limit evil.

    A Catholic individual has basically three realistic choices in the election. You can refrain from voting committing the sin of omission which due to the gravity of this election would mean objective mortal sin. You could vote Democratic which would obviously be objective mortal sin. You can vote Republican which would leave you with a free conscience.

    “If abortion is not wrong then nothing is wrong.” – Mother Teresa

  • GotFreedom?

    Sir, your logic is consistent, but flawed. First, you are assuming that my vote automatically belongs to one of those two candidates, and by not giving it up to one of them, someone loses. This is a negative and incorrect way of viewing the situation. I am not obligated to vote for anyone or join this game or participate in this party at all. This is like having a horse race where the spectators vote for their favorite jockey and somehow figuring in the votes of people who are walking around outside who don’t like sports, horses, or gambling!

    Second, in your analogy of 20 voters, and I don’t vote, leaving 19 to vote for the winner, I don’t have any control over the 19 who do vote, so how are their choices somehow my fault? Ridiculous. Your logic depends on “you (could have) voted”, but in cognitive psychology they teach people not to think in “coulda”, “shoulda”, “woulda’s”. Lots of people “could have” done lots of things in your little thought experiment here. People change their vote at the last second. People commit voter fraud. People deceive other people into winning votes.

    Third, my responsibility is NOT to vote between “real options that could win”. Who says!? Who says what that the only “real options” are to vote for the D or R!? Who says that the only reason to vote is to even put someone into office!? This political contest has varying, changing rules, with favored and dis-favored candidates by the media, is susceptible to fraud, and has behind-the-scene financial dealings that affect who has a fighting chance. Most people don’t know about those factors, let alone have a say in the way they play out! Political elections are a complicated game, and not everyone has a taste for it. If you want to make your neighbor a fan of your favorite sports team, the burden is on you to convince them, because they have NO obligation to be a fan of your cruddy team! Besides, this is a close-minded view that has decided that the “game” must have one and only one strategy. There are third and fourth and fifth strategies out there that don’t include winning the nearest election. To not consider this is like only seeing the move right in front of you in chess. If your opponent knows you think this way, and knows you’re unwilling to get outside that box, they will use it to their advantage, and that is exactly how we got into this mess we call the two party system.

    Fourth, your primary technique here is guilt-tripping. A poor parenting technique, and a worse campaign recruiting technique. If there are good reasons to vote, state the reasons clearly, without guile. Simply saying it’s your fault if ‘A’ or ‘B’ loses is junk logic. And as for “sin”, God hasn’t put a voters guidelines into the Bible, and you shouldn’t preach that there is one. God gave us principles to guide us, and each person has the freedom to follow what they believe is their conscience on who to support and what to do regarding their civic duty. Gods commandments are what they are and I warn you against making them into something they’re not.

    Finally, regarding supporting a downward spiral is for early on in the primaries, this is not just for the primaries, but for always. There are consequences to letting our party take the blame for poor laws to be enacted or for foolish policies to be engaged in. What happens when your candidate goes in and does something remarkably unwise? For one, this provides debate fuel for the contending party. To treat such consequences lightly is again not looking at the whole picture and the long-term strategy.

    We, conservative Christians have compromised too many times already. It’s precisely because the stakes are so high that we must not take one more step towards that cliff. The breaks must be put on now or never. Doing what has always been done will not get different results. It’s time to do something dramatically different. We left the constitution behind a hundred years ago, so this is what we must return to.

  • Daddio

    I’m going to vote for the candidate that I agree with most; The one I want to win.
    Anything else would be hypocrisy and disingenuous and self-betrayal.

  • Michael Peters

    Excuse the ignorance – if you live in a state that will cast its electoral vote for Hilary Clinton regardless of your vote, what difference does it make if you vote for Trump, Castle, or Spongebob?

    • shawn mathis

      From Wayne’s recent essay at Townhall:

      “”(10) “My vote doesn’t really matter. I don’t even live in a battleground state.”
      Answer: This election is unlike any other in our lifetimes, and it is possible that the polls are more wrong than they have ever been. Individual votes matter. George W. Bush became president because of only 537 votes in Florida in 2000.
      In addition, your vote sends a signal. Every vote in every state affects the margin of victory for the winning candidate. A large nationwide victory gives a strong political mandate and a lot of political clout going forward. A small victory gives a weak mandate and less political clout going forward.”

  • shawn mathis

    Excellent. What would make it the best essay on this issue would be this: voting is sharing political power with someone who promises to use it for certain (righteous) ends, if possible. Voting for character is a luxury only in a Christian society.

  • Mark A. Kozak

    Romans 14:23 along with II Tim 1:7 disallow / remove the MAIN reason to vote for Trump – fear of Hillary.

    Beyond that, Daniel 2:21…. Prov 14:23….Hosea 8:7 and Eph 5:11 explain why I won’t be supporting ANY “evil” – defined as “open, rash, belligerent willful sin, for which the offender does not seek repentance nor think they require God’s forgiveness.” We would logically expect such a person to repeat the offensive behavior.

    Six months ago Trump said he’s never done anything he needs to ask God’s forgivenes for. He did NOT recant that in his recent “apology.”

    The recent revelation of him boasting (or equally bad, fantasizing ) about grabbing female genetali in what can only be described as sexual assault, he (1) made excuses calling it “locker room talk” (2) blame shifted, pointing to others who did something worse, and (3) “aplogized if you were offended.” That’s essentially blaming us for being prudish. None of those are fruits of repentance, or in any way mirror David in Ps 51. I would expect Trump to keep fantasizing or worse, committing such sexual assault..

    All these suggest to me Trump is not at all repentant and falls into the category of “evil” (defined above) No….we’re not electing a pastor. But sin is still a reproach to any nation. Including the reproach of Christians appearing to excuse Trumps repeated, confessed, gross sexual abuse (whether committed or fantasized) all for personal political gain.

    Mark Kozak

    • shawn mathis

      Fear of a dark alleyway at night or petting a wild bear is not wrong, your misapplication of those verses notwithstanding. Rom. 14:23 can be fulfilled in voting for Trump–as in “I believe God allows me to vote for the candidate that will do some good, all things considered.”

      And to vote for Trump is not the same as to excuse his sins anymore than Joseph, Ester or Daniel excused the sins of the murdering, woman-abusing tyrants they willingly worked for.

      For twenty-five years I voted as you articulated: as an idealist voter. But idealist voting–voting for the best man/law *regardless* of the circumstances or consequences–is not biblical. Please consider the following (condensed from my eleven-part Sunday school series on voting):

      1. Where is it forbidden in the Word of God to vote for an unbeliever (who by definition sins)? The writer admitted that this does not exist.
      2. Since those we vote for can be unbelieving sinners, does voting for one *based on policy* necessarily entail endorsing their unbelieving sinning conduct? (Hint: if 1 is true the answer here is self-evident).
      3. If the persons character is not as important as his policies he promises, then is there truly a choice between evils?
      4. Were Joseph, Ester and Daniel in sin for cooperating with evil men that make Clinton and Trump look like saints? They could have said “no” and trusted God. Is voting for a sinful candidate more of a sin than cooperating with a tyrant like Pharaoh?
      5. When Christ tells us to “count the cost” *just like* we do when building a tower or going to war, is Christ a consequentialist/pragmatist?

      Maybe perfectionism has blinded our eyes, forgetting our Forefather’s admonition: James Madison: “the purist of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them…[and] the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT good.” (qtd. The Founders on God and Government, p.102)

      • Mark A. Kozak

        See above.

        11 part SS series on voting…wow.

        I covered voting in SS also. in a single sentence. I said “Obey God with your vote.”

        Then I went back to expositionally teaching thru the Lord’s Prayer. 🙂

        • shawn mathis

          Impressive. I know lots of people who beg the question, load the question and poison the well, but never in one sentence. Sorry I cannot help you. Peace.

          • Mark A. Kozak

            So…. Obey God = “poisoning the well.” No wonder it took you 11 lessons. 🙂

  • “I think it’s sinful for a voting-age citizen of a country in which citizens have the privilege of voting to fail to take reasonable steps to make a well-informed choice.: It is just this kind of religious sophistry that has really aggravated me this election season. After doing due diligence on both candidates, my informed choice is that there is no choice. I feel that Trump or Clinton are not fit for office and both would be a disaster for this country if elected. The American people, largely the so-called “evangelical” community, gave us Donald Trump. I am not responsible for the choices that were foisted upon us. If I choose to sit this presidential election out, which I am choosing to do so, I am doing so on moral grounds. Standing with the lesser of two evils is still evil to me, and i will not do it. I won’t be guilt tripped into voting for anyone.I don;t care how much educated, degreed, famous, religious teachers, pastors or whoever cavil against this choice. Job 32:9 said is best “Great men are not always wise…” To make a statement like it is “sinful” not to make a “well informed choice,” is a very unwise statement. And that is putting it mildly.

    • Mark A. Kozak

      I agree. Daniel 2:21… Prov 14:34… Eph 5:11… Hosea 8:7.

      I’ll likely write in a candidate I can support.

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