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Voting for Immoral Candidates Isn’t Licensed by Romans 13

Can you justify voting with Romans 13?

There is a saying that was common among the earliest adherents of 19th-century Restorationism and still is notable in today’s Churches of Christ: “We speak where the Bible speaks, and we are silent where the Bible is silent.” 

Romans 13:1-7 is one of those passages where people try to make it speak to the desired preferences of power, where they should have just stayed silent. This happens from pundits upon occasion, and of course from the powerful as well, from Jeff Sessions to Zimbabwean dictators to Adolf Hitler.

Sometimes people attempt to take Romans 13 in awkward directions, making the passage speak in a way that may not be immediately awful but are still problematic applications to say the least. Such is the case with the recent Themelios article from August 2022 by Robert Golding, “Give Honor and Vote? A Reflection on the Christian’s Voting Conscience and Romans 13:1–7”. Golding asks: Is it justifiable to vote for an immoral candidate from a scriptural perspective? 

Now to be fair, I think Golding makes a number of good historical points in his article, and it is worth reading for your own education and edification. 

But there is a central thrust to his thesis that I think warrants some critique. We can reliably use Golding’s abstract as a summary of his primary argument:

“Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:1–7 can be applied to Christian voting behavior in the West. Since Paul tells the Romans to honor debauched pagans, Christians can vote for similarly debauched political candidates with clear consciences. There are clear distinctions between Paul’s teaching and the Western political context. However, the underlying continuities are clear and they are based in God’s sovereignty, not political structure. Furthermore, the ancient Roman practice of giving honor to rulers only regarded the office, not the office holder’s morality.”

Golding argues that Paul’s injunction to “give honor” to the Roman Emperor can be analogized to the voting practices of modern democracy. He says there is a “continuity” because God is the ultimate sovereign.

But how does one support such an argument? Golding makes a fair case that Paul really does mean “respect the powers that be” in his historical review and exegesis. A thusly fair conclusion would be that we can live similarly and “respect” officials on some level. If that’s all Golding were trying to say, then we wouldn’t need to have much of a problem with it.

However, going from such historical theological precedent to “this now means you can/should vote” needs a strong line of reasoning. After all, jumping from “honoring” to “voting” is a stretch on its own. Who decided that this is the case? What scripture principle gets us there? How does the logic proceed? Why is this a necessary inference at all?

Golding takes a while to present an additional premise to defend his thesis. Indeed, it isn’t until the second to last paragraph of the article when voting is mentioned again:

“To be sure, voting and democracy would be completely foreign concepts to Paul and the church in Rome. However, their capacity to give honor while simultaneously rejecting sin (or, a fortiori, character flaws) should free the American Christian’s conscience to vote for a political candidate that displays non-Christian actions, even sinful ones.”

Why should Romans 13 have this effect? On what grounds does it free the Christian’s conscience?

We finally get to his point: “There is nothing inherently contradictory with desiring a certain political candidate to take office, even though his scruples are far from exemplary… Honoring those [leaders] who are sinful unbinds the conscience of those Christians who seek to vote for various political candidates in order to promote social order and gospel proclamation by means of religious liberty.”

Aha, we discover the real premise! Simply put, he says that wanting one guy in power despite his faults is not a contradiction, especially if the goal is to “promote social order” and “gospel proclamation.” Okay, I cannot really say that is wholly false, but it is generally a fool’s errand to “put thy hope in princes” for the promotion of the gospel. 

However, there is a greater problem at hand: this argument is not really dependent on Romans 13 at all. In fact, what is being put forth is a strategy for achieving a political result. The premise does not lead to the conclusion, because Romans 13 is not a strategy for getting to social order. It is not a blueprint for political authority for Christians to implement. If you’re trying to understand better how individuals are to cooperate for social order, you can look all throughout the Old and New Testaments for more comprehensive ideas. And if you’re trying to understand the nature of government itself, leveraging Romans 13 as the primary passage to reference is gravely mistaken

Rather, Romans 13 is a prudential argument for how a Christian is to get along in the world they find themselves in, terrible leaders and all. It is prudent to “give honor” to the leader for the sake of your life, your family, your church, and the gospel. It is not an argument relating to voting at all.

Golding continues: “Of course, one could argue that voting for a candidate in a democratic system is de facto an endorsement of the individual’s behavior. The purpose of this paper is to show that such an argument—from a biblical perspective—is, at best, an uphill battle.” 

Indeed, I don’t really disagree with Golding on this point, albeit I do think one is much closer to a de facto endorsement of the candidate’s policies they choose to implement and such should give Christians pause for reflection. It is quite ironic, though, that evangelical Christians bought into the clearly debauched Donald Trump in 2016 to great degree but resisted the upright and lifelong Christian Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012 primarily because Dr. Paul didn’t want the United States in endless wars in the Middle East. 

Back to Golding’s last paragraph in the essay: “Paul clearly operated from a paradigm that had categories for honoring those who were morally debauched. This paradigm is analogous to the system of democratic voting. For Paul, one is able to acknowledge political good in a spiritually depraved individual.”

On the first point, sure, I can accept that. Golding explains that reasonably well. But the second point is simply not established by the presented logic. It doesn’t connect, it is orthogonal to Romans 13 to begin with. The fact that one has the possibility of acknowledging a “political good” from a depraved individual is not material to an argument connecting Romans 13 to voting. Joe Biden said he was going to mass pardon low-level marijuana offenders – a true political good! (Granted, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, but one can still hope for justice.) Acknowledging that political good does not mean there’s a reason to vote for him justified by Romans 13.

Finally: “For a citizen of a democracy, one is (or, at least, should be) capable of acknowledging potential political value while simultaneously rejecting spiritual and moral sinfulness. To a lesser extent, this is apparent in all sectors of theology. Theologians regularly acknowledge and reject moral failures of their forbearers who they nevertheless appropriate at a theological level.”

I don’t dispute this and, in fact, I think it’s a reasonable meta-point. He provides a few examples of this, and it is worthy to consider. But again, this doesn’t support a justified analogy of honoring=voting with scripture backing.

Ultimately, the morality of voting, whether good or bad, is not within the scope of Romans 13. One must evaluate elsewhere and under different reasoning, for this scripture is silent on the point.

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