“And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.” — Romans 3:8
In the months leading up to a presidential election, we hear it repeated over and over again: Neither candidate is perfect, but you have to vote for the lesser of two evils!
There’s certainly some truth to it. Because of our “first past the post” electoral system that awards victory to the first candidate garnering over 50% of the vote, various political groups are incentivized to coalesce around the candidate with the best chance of winning rather than the one that best represents them. Third parties are allowed to exist, but because of this electoral structure, they will always be just that — third parties in a dualistic system. If you want your vote to effectively make a difference in the race between the top two contenders, rather than merely registering a protest vote, you have to choose between the lesser of two evils.
From a strictly mathematical perspective, this line of reasoning holds. But from a distinctly Christian perspective, the “lesser of two evils” thinking is flawed, pernicious, and deeply tragic.
Search the Scriptures front and back, and you will find no reference to or justification for engaging in one evil in order to prevent another. Instead, you will find just the opposite. “Abstain from every form of evil,” writes Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Rather, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” says Jesus in Matthew 5:48. This injunction to be perfect does not assume that human nature can be trained to perfection in this life, but rather that moral perfection and purity should be our lifelong goal. We shouldn’t excuse bad behavior or coast on the thinking that we are “good enough.”
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” To my untrained eye, one meaning of this verse seems to be that there are no circumstances in which believers could possibly find themselves that would require choosing one sin or another. There are no traps set for us in life that require doing evil so that good might result.
A handful of verses later in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul writes, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake in the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (verse 21).
The root flaw of “lesser of two evils” thinking, whether one realizes it or not, is that we believers are citizens of our earthly nation first and only secondarily citizens of God’s Kingdom. Thus, it is our obligation, our duty, to exercise our influence in our earthly government. If we don’t exercise our political influence, we will have failed to prevent the evil that we deem “worse.” This thinking is backwards. We are citizens of heaven first (Phil. 3:20), and we should view ourselves as ambassadors for Christ in a foreign land (2 Cor. 5:20). Ambassadors may live in a foreign country, but they remain citizens of their home country and always give its goals and values highest priority.
“No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits,” writes Paul in 2 Timothy 2:4, “since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.”
Remember: the “shining city on a hill” that Jesus described (and Ronald Reagan cited) is not the United States or any other earthly nation. It is us — the church, the citizens of Heaven on earth. No amount of Christian political influence will ever transform an earthly nation into the “light of the world” of Matthew 5:14. When believers continually embrace “lesser of two evils” thinking, they instead hide their light under a basket.
The Pernicious Effects
How might “lesser of two evils” thinking hide the light of the church under a basket? In other words, how exactly can it be harmful and counterproductive for the Christian faith and the Kingdom of God?
The most obvious way is by ruining our witness. We do this, for instance, when we publicly engage in double standards and hypocrisy for the sake of political victory. We do this when we bend or change our principles to gain power. We do this when we focus so intensely on the evil we wish to avoid that we excuse or downplay the countervailing evil that we’ve embraced.
Let me give an example.
In the early summer of 2016, a photo emerged that illustrates the uncritical alliance with one evil for the sake of defeating another. Jerry Falwell, Jr., evangelical leader and former president of perhaps the most ardently conservative university in the nation (private Christian school, Liberty University), proudly posed for a picture with Trump in the latter’s NYC office. Just over Mrs. Falwell’s shoulder can be seen the framed cover of the March, 1990 edition of Playboy, with Trump smirking beside a Playmate wearing nothing but Trump’s suit jacket.
Needless to say, the picture evoked countless outcries of hypocrisy. Not just from the Left, either; right-wing sites critiqued it as well: “Jerry Falwell Jr. went to Trump’s offices to pick up his thirty pieces of silver and while he was there he got his wife to pose with Trump and his porno mag cover!!”
And, by the way, in that Playboy interview, Trump suggested that every successful person has a big ego, including none other than Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ, who have “far greater egos than you will ever understand.”
Trump is a man who has embodied the exact opposite of the Christian values and character that believers find important in a leader. He’s a serial philanderer who has cheated on all three of his wives. In the first instance, he was actually quite proud of his behavior and worked to make sure the story stayed in the tabloids for a while so that his name would gain notoriety. Most recently, he cheated on his current wife, Melania (about a year after they married), with a porn star named Stormy Daniels, later paying her $130,000 to keep her silent about it.
What’s more, according to his first wife, Ivana, Trump played little part in the actual raising of his kids—didn’t change diapers or play with them—until they became adults and could participate in the business. He once said that men who take care of their children are “acting like the wife.” His son, Don Jr., said once that he “got a lot of the paternal love and attention that a boy wants and needs” from his grandfather rather than his father, and Eric said that he almost felt as though Don Jr. raised him.
And then there were Trump’s extremely lewd comments about being able to take advantage of women as a famous person in the 2005 Access Hollywood recording. Moreover, the first strip club inside an Atlantic City casino was in Trump’s Taj Mahal — a casino that Trump played a large part in bankrupting twice.
What about abortion? It’s a seminal issue for many believers. Well, Trump always claimed to be pro-choice before he flirted with a Republican presidential run in 2012. In 2013, when he was on the Howard Stern radio show, the host grilled him, saying, “Are you really anti-abortion? You’re not. I know you’re not.” Trump sheepishly replied, “Well, it’s never been my big issue.”
Back in 2016, the argument from evangelicals (mainly white evangelicals, 81% of whom voted for Trump) was that Trump had promised to stand for religious liberty and against abortion, and supporting him was the lesser of two evils. They voted with confidence in that calculation, but in so doing they associated and aligned themselves with a man who embodies all of the behaviors they’ve warned and taught against for decades. The promiscuity that leads to a rise in the number of abortions, the eschewing of Judeo-Christian values that coarsens society, the haughtiness that disregards God, the personal pride that deceives oneself into thinking they have no need for forgiveness — these are all thoroughly manifest in Trump.
Conservative Christians set up a double standard — one for political leaders and another for any other kind of leader — in order to justify their votes. And that has led to perhaps the worst, most tragic effect of all.
Evangelicals know that Trump does not represent them or their values, but they willfully choose to ignore, downplay, or rationalize his evil in order to fight the evils represented by the Democrats. Worse, rather than live with this cognitive dissonance, many Christians have instead altered their moral principals to suit their politics.
For instance, in 2011, a PRRI/Brookings poll found that only 30% of white evangelicals thought “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” In October, 2016, that number had leaped to a whopping 72%, a far larger swing than any other religious or demographic group.
Our minds, as human beings, are not wired to maintain cognitive dissonances for a long time. We tend to look for the “tribe” where we belong and then gradually shape our lives and our thinking to fit in with that tribe. Conservative Christians could not handle the cognitive dissonance of supporting Trump as the lesser of two evils while simultaneously remaining critical of him when appropriate. So, over time, following the lead of Fox News and elected Republicans, they went all in on Trump, and Trump’s approval ratings among conservatives gradually rose.
Conservatives — including a great many Christians — lowered their standards in a political leader, ceased to care about fiscal deficits, completely flipped from free trade to protectionism, and suddenly viewed China as a grave threat while simultaneously losing interest in the formerly “grave threat” of Russia.
In our polarized political climate, voting for the “lesser of two evils” inevitably ends with a gradual loosening of one’s own values, a slow evolution away from the principles one once firmly held. It leads to rationalizing or downplaying things you would never have rationalized or downplayed if they’d come from the other side of the political aisle. It leads, eventually, to an embrace of that “evil” that you think of as “lesser” than the greater “evil” opposing it.
The values that Christians sacrifice in support of Trump are not trivial. They are the “city on a hill” that Jesus called us to exhibit. They are our witness in a lost world. They are the perfection that we’re called to pursue. They are a manifestation of the first fruits of God’s Kingdom. To sacrifice them for some temporary political gain will surely do more harm than good in the long run. It will strip us of moral consistency, erode our integrity, and further deprive us of cultural influence.
Worse still, continuously voting for the “lesser” evil resets the standards of “evil,” resulting in worse and worse candidates in the future. If evangelical Christians don’t draw the line at Trump, where would they draw that line? Would they vote for Adolf Hitler if he promised to support religious liberty and the pro-life cause? Before dismissing that question as ridiculous, consider that most Germans before WWII were Christians, and Nazi soldiers had the saying “gott mit uns” (which means, “God with us”) inscribed on the inside of their belts. Look how much they were willing to justify in order to make Germany great again!
Ultimately, we believers are not called to seek political power at all costs, or to attain political victory. We are called to be faithful — to our Heavenly Kingdom, to its values, and to our One True King. When those two conflict, it is clear which path we must choose. But do we have the strength and courage to choose it?