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‘Lesser evil,’ or ‘lesser good’?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Pastors and Christian leaders have a responsibility to teach the whole counsel of God, as the Apostle Paul says in taking leave of the Ephesian pastors: “Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:26-27).

This responsibility certainly would include talking about what it means to be “salt” and “light” in the culture and about where the Bible stands on issues challenging our society, such as contending for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death and everywhere between, the sanctity of marriage as being only between one man and one woman, racial equality and racial reconciliation, and the perversion and degradation of human sexuality.

Those in pastoral leadership in the church must make sure God’s people understand what the Bible has to say about these issues in season and out of season. The church is not to crank up some grand information machine just during an election cycle. A maturing, healthy Christian faith weds personal confession with personal convictions played out in the culture — all rooted in Scripture.

As Christians, we have no excuse for remaining silent when God’s Word has spoken. God has preserved His Word for our sake — that we would know of His enduring love for us through Jesus Christ and also know of His righteousness and that we have a duty to seek after that righteousness.

Encouraging members to register to vote and then urging them to become informed voters is clearly within the purview of the faith community. A Christian voter, just like every other voter, should ascertain where all the various candidates stand on the issues.

Determining candidates’ stances on moral issues should be a primary consideration; determining how the candidates’ policy positions will benefit an individual personally (e.g., tax policies) should always be a secondary consideration.

Christians don’t have the choice of sitting on their hands in an election season. They are to vote their values, their beliefs and their convictions, while taking into account the candidates’ positions on non-negotiables, such as the life issue.

Yet even with all this preparation, Christian voters may face an extremely difficult ethical dilemma: What if the candidates do not present clear and complete distinctions among themselves, and what if the choices voters make may have unintended consequences?

In most ethical systems, if voters have to choose between a candidate they agreed with on moral issues 20 percent of the time and a candidate with whom they have no agreement on those same issues, they could choose not to vote (conflicting absolutist system) or they could choose to support the lesser of two evils (hierarchical system).

But consider a much more complicated scenario in which voters with a particular worldview are facing a decision about which candidate to support in a field where there is Candidate Baker, with whom the voters have 100 percent agreement on moral issues; Candidate Jones, with whom the voters have 80 percent agreement on moral issues; and Candidate Smith, with whom the voters have 10 percent agreement on moral issues.

This slate of candidates does not provide a clear choice between two starkly contrasting candidates. Instead, the voters are faced with a more complex choice among several candidates. In fact, the candidate the voter has the most in common with (Candidate Baker), may be the weakest candidate across all voting blocs.

Thus, you have a scenario in which the voters are faced with supporting a candidate they agree with 100 percent of the time while fully recognizing the fact that in supporting Candidate Baker, they will help ensure the success of another candidate they agree with on moral issues only 10 percent of the time (Candidate Smith), and the defeat of a candidate they agree with 80 percent of the time (Candidate Jones), as well as their “first choice” (Candidate Baker).

However, if they choose to vote prudentially for Candidate Jones (80 percent agreement), there is a very good chance that their support might ensure the defeat of Candidate Smith (10 percent agreement) and the victory of Candidate Jones (80 percent agreement).

If they know this and still vote for Candidate Baker, do they become morally responsible, at least in part, for Candidate Smith’s win? Also, in the general election that follows, voters would be faced with the grim choice of not voting, voting for Candidate Smith (10% agreement), or voting for a candidate 100 percent opposed to their values.

In such a hypothetical scenario, if they choose to vote for candidate Jones in the primary, are they choosing the lesser evil — or the lesser good?

Is it more moral to choose prudentially to vote for the candidate who agrees with them 80 percent of the time on moral issues (Candidate Jones), knowing their support will ensure that candidate’s victory, thus giving the nation a choice between someone they agree with 80 percent of the time and a person they don’t agree with at all?

Most ethical systems contend that a person has a responsibility to take expected, even if unintended, consequences into account in their decision-making process.

Here is THE question: Borrowing from the philosopher Voltaire, does a person make the perfect (Candidate Baker) the enemy of the good (Candidate Jones), and thus help ensure the least desirable outcome (the victory of Candidate Smith)?

This is an ethical exercise that may or may not find real application in the lives of evangelical voters during the upcoming primary and general election cycles.

Do we choose the “best” candidate (Baker), knowing this may result in the ultimate triumph of the greater evil (the candidate you agree with 10 percent of the time)? Or do we choose the lesser evil — or lesser good — of supporting the more viable candidacy of the person we agree with 80 percent of the time (Candidate Jones)?

Most religious, and many secular, ethicists would say that one should at least take such questions into consideration before making a final decision.

This is clearly a question of individual conscience. Each person must make this decision for himself or herself, praying for God’s guidance and direction.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

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  • Richard Land