A third option for president: Abstention

Campaign 2016 | Christians are not morally obligated to vote in this year’s presidential election
by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Friday, November 4, 2016, at 2:11 pm

Back in March, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, attempted to help Christians navigate the difficulties we now face in choosing between “two morally problematic” presidential candidates. Moore raised excellent questions for Christians to consider when voting for “the lesser of two evils.” While his commentary is helpful, the truth is that believers are not bound to settle for just one of the two options on the ballot.

There is a third option: Christians do not have to vote at all.

In fact, the Bible doesn’t instruct God’s people that they have an obligation, moral duty, or compulsion to vote in any particular election in a secular democratic republic like the United States. It is unhelpful, and potentially misleading, to bind the consciences of Christians to make them feel that they have such obligations or duties to participate in government activities not commanded in the Bible.

The Bible doesn’t instruct God’s people that they have an obligation, moral duty, or compulsion to vote in any particular election in a secular democratic republic like the United States.

When a person’s conscience is torn between two options, in American political thought and practice, voters have an opportunity to abstain. To abstain from choosing a presidential candidate in this year’s election is to fully participate in the process as one whose conscience is unsettled and conflicted. By contrast, it is profoundly unethical to use the power of the state—or the guilt manipulations of religious leaders—to compel anyone to participate in a political process against his or her will. Because Americans are not legally bound to vote in presidential elections, like North Koreans and Australians are, Christians, with a clear conscience, can make the willful choice to abstain.

Historically, Protestants have never compelled Christians to vote in democratic elections. In Chapter 23 of the Presbyterian tradition’s Westminster Confession of Faith, the Divines believed that Christians were obligated only to “pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake.” Article 37 of the 1801 edition of the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion urges Christians only to “pay respectful obedience to the Civil Authority.” Article 16 of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, teaches only that Christians have an obligation “to obey their own magistrates and laws save only when commanded to sin.” That is, unless Christians are commanded to vote for a president in the Bible or by law, those Christians whose consciences are torn between choosing either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are morally free to make the volitional, participatory decision to abstain from voting for a president at all.

Civic engagement does not mean that, as a Christian, I am compelled to vote in every election during my lifetime. Civic engagement means I am free to participate in making society better in ways I believe are most helpful. Voting, therefore, is not a moral ought, and we are sinning against people when we present it as if the Bible teaches this when it does not.

ADDENDUM (3:58 p.m.): Seeking the welfare of the city in the Jeremiah 29 sense suggests voting in local elections, and Christian are free and encouraged to participate in those ways to bring about effective change, although the Bible does not require it.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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  •  IronWoman's picture
    Posted: Tue, 11/08/2016 05:56 pm

    The problem with abstention is that often it is, in effect, a vote.  Some candidates--many whom Christians would not vote for-- benefit when Christians stay home.  If I don't feel I can vote FOR a candidate, there are times when I must vote AGAINST one. 

  • PaulaG
    Posted: Wed, 11/09/2016 03:25 am

    "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." -by Edmund Burke.  

  • Joe
    Posted: Wed, 11/09/2016 12:03 pm

    Bad argument.  Is not being complicit to the murder of unborn children in any stage of pregnancy sufficient to demand a moral imperative to vote for pro-life candidates?  To the extent that Trump has promised to nominate pro-life judges (which he has listed specifically), it seems this issue alone makes abstention rephrensible.

  • JeffD
    Posted: Wed, 11/09/2016 06:49 pm

    Actually the Bible says we are to be subject to the higher powers, or government.  The US is unique in that "we the people" are supposed to be the government.  Thus we are morally obligated to not only vote, but to be knowledgeable and involved.

    So, I disagree with the author that it is permissible for Christians to bury their heads in the sand and at the same time claim moral superiority.  Aren't we also to be setting an example for others?

    Jeff D.

  • JeffD
    Posted: Fri, 11/11/2016 01:27 am

    Thanks to all who believed it was better to do what they could, and voted, rather than pretending that the Bible excuses doing nothing.  I'm thankful there are still Christians who are committed enough to understand the issues and the consequences of allowing the most evil to get elected.  For instance, if you didn't vote in the last two elections, you effectively elected Mr. Obama, so you've got no excuse to brag about a clean conscience.

    Whether you voted or not, keep praying.  That is unless, of course, praying for less than perfect elected officials will make you feel unclean.

    Jeff D.

  • Carleton
    Posted: Fri, 11/11/2016 04:38 pm

    There is a solid Biblical principal of good stewardship. I am one of the very fortunate, very few Christians that in the world today, and in the world historically, can participate in determing the leaders of my country. I have been given a vote. Shouldn't I be just as good a steward of that vote as any other thing God has seen fit to place under my care?

  • JeffD
    Posted: Fri, 11/11/2016 09:01 pm

    We are greatly blessed to live when and where we do.  It does seem that not to vote is to despise the privilege we've been given.

    I think we've become kind of spoiled by the blessings we've received, and not voting is one way of throwing a temper tantrum.

  • Sir Stephen Kirk's picture
    Sir Stephen Kirk
    Posted: Sat, 11/19/2016 03:18 pm

    I have terminated my World subscription for their Pharisee attempts to politically murder my two favorite current day American heroes, Trump & D'Souza. I have written an open letter to all the faculties of three major Southern Baptist Seminaries recommending the resignation of Dr. Russell Moore, the instigator of this Bradley article. I have written four articles published in my local Christian newspaper providing scriptural jusification for voting Trump. I have a Masters in Christian Apologetics from New Orleans Baptist Theological seminary and I am wholly flabergasted at the Pharisaical naivete of World and other supposed Christian leaders during this election cycle.

    I do not believe this false leadership (at World and others) will go unpunished.

    "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!" says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel against the shepherds who feed My people: "You have scattered My flock, driven them away, and not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for the evil of your doings," says the LORD. (Jer. 23:1-2 NKJ)

  • JeffD
    Posted: Wed, 11/30/2016 08:09 pm

    Daughterbygrace, I'm not sure what the point of your Biblical reference is.

    I think you're way off base if you're comparing World mag and Dr. Bradley to Jesus because they don't respond to the comments here.  However I don't doubt that men like Dr. Bradley see themselves as intellectually superior and above the masses, just as secular journalists see themselves.  Given the time Dr. Bradley has to write essays and to tweet on Twitter and such in order to draw attention to himself, he no doubt has time to respond to comments here, but as a great scholar he most likely considers his blogs to be the final say, and the opinions of people like us to be meaningless babble.  Also, unlike Christ, Bradley may simply not have the courage to respond and to face the fact that he could possibly be wrong.

    While I disagree on points with World mag, I do appreciate that they stand for what they see as being right rather than what may be popular, even if their world view is distorted by Calvinism just as their Christian view is.  I'm not sure where Dr. Bradley stands on his doctrine, but it seems he may also be infected with Calvinism, as many Southern Baptists are being, which helps explain his attitude of do nothing but speechify and let God sort it out. 

    Anyway, Daughterbygrace, I hope you will continue to use the Bible to compare everything to, rather than just listening to the words of the religious elites today, with the titles of "journalists" and "doctors" in front of their names.  Continue to make your view conform to the Bible, rather than the Bible conform to your intellect as is common today.

  • JeffD
    Posted: Fri, 12/02/2016 01:52 pm

    Thanks for the explanation, Daughterbygrace.

    However, I do think it is misguided to compare the abstention that Dr. Bradley endorses to Christ remaining silent against His accusers during His trial.  Christ didn't remain silent about the issues of the day, nor should we. 

    For instance, Jesus spoke against the "fox" Herod (Luke 13:32).  John the Baptist, who Jesus testified that there was none greater born of women (Matt 11:11), risked his neck to speak out on the issues of the day to Herod.  Daniel didn't remain silent.  Joseph was politically involved. Then there's Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah...

     Paul was told that he would stand before kings (Acts 9:15).  He didn't stand before kings just to keep his mouth shut.

    Our political abstention has nothing to do with what Christ suffered for us.  We're not commanded to abstain, or to remain silent.

    [Matt 10:18] And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. 

    There is no way I can see abstention as a Biblical principle.

    Dr. Bradley may argue that he is a being a testimony by blogging against the leaders, but in reality he is just telling us not to use the voice we have by voting.  The politicians who support abortion, for example, aren't at all bothered by Bradley telling us not to vote.  Matter of fact, they would be plum happy about it, if they had any idea or cared who he is.  At the best, even if he was giving good advice, he would just be "preaching to the choir" and of no concern of those promoting bad policy.  He may tell us that Jesus didn't vote, so neither should we, but that would also ignore that the economy was different back then.  Jesus didn't live in the Constitutional Republic we're blessed to live in.  But to keep our Republic requires doing more than Bradley would have us to do.

    No need to apologize for having no formal theological training, it seems to be doing more harm than good nowadays.

  • Steve B
    Posted: Mon, 11/28/2016 09:10 pm

    Dr. Bradley, I disagree with your position, because not voting is not participating!  How can you call abstention "participation"??? Clearly it is NOT participation. Let's just admit it: it was a very difficult thing to vote for Trump for millions of believers, but they chose LIFE for the children. If Trump does not deliver on the SCOTUS appointments, it is not our fault for casting our lot with his presidency. Hillary was a slam dunk pro-abortion candidate, pro LGBT, anti-Christian freedom of conscience, etc. With Trump we have a hope and prayer that God will restrain him and use the influence of believers to get him to do the right thing on a host of issues. I expect some disappointments, but hey, voting is important in a land where the victor will heavily impact lives.....

  • JeffD
    Posted: Thu, 12/01/2016 01:24 pm

    Claiming that abstention is participating is rationalization, the mental gymnastics of an intellectual who makes the facts fit his imagination, rather than making his beliefs conform to the facts.  It's another reason I suspect he is a Calvinist.

    I also wonder about his charge that we're "sinning against people" if we see important principles in God's word that he's missing.  I'm more concerned about sinning against God, the One who determines what true sin is, and the One who sin is ultimately against.  But I guess maybe if you believe that man can define what sin is, then you can sin against man.  I believe I would be on more solid ground if I charge Bradley with sin for encouraging people not to vote, than he is in making up his own definition of sin and excusing inaction in encouraging people to do nothing.  Just as it appears Bradley didn't vote, you can be sure he also wasn't' involved in the processes that helped pick Trump and Hillary as candidates.  I don't see how Bradley has the right or authority to lecture others who are trying to do good by other means than his method of doing nothing.  Unfortunately, it's not just secular colleges that are corrupting the minds of students.

    I'm not advocating that everyone be encouraged to vote.  I have big problems with "get out the vote" campaigns by entities like MTV trying to get the most disinterested, unknowledgeable, and unprincipled people to vote.  Voting is a responsibility, and to be informed and to vote knowledgeably is part of that responsibility.  I believe not voting knowledgeably is a sin against God, it's not using the privilege He's blessed us with.  If I'm sinning against Dr. Bradley by voting and encouraging other Christians to vote...well, I'm more concerned about sinning against God.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Fri, 12/02/2016 12:58 pm

    Come now, get off your rant against Calvinists!  I am one and agree with you.  Already I have pointed out that he has interpreted the Westminster Confession of Faith incorrectly, where we are charged to protect innocent life in the Sixth Commandment. Not voting when one candidate clearly stands for abortion and the other doesn't would be a clear violation of this command - specifically if you look at the wording in your Westminster Confession of Faith.  So if he is a Calvinist, which I doubt, he is definitely misguided and not leading others in the right direction (pun intended). If Calvin were alive today, he would say it is sin to not vote when you have a chance to impact the moral outcome of your country. Rarely, if ever, would not voting be legitimate, especially if you weighed carefully the beliefs and policies of the candidates and the likely outcome of the vote. Now even if we are firmly against the writer's views, we should show grace and love.  Letting this be a source of division for the Christian community only plays in the hand of the devil!  Trump was elected so no we need to honor him as our president and pray for him and come together as believers without hard feelings. World Magazine is a quality publication which has helped develop my world view and many others, so we should seek to benefit the magazine and understand that they are not perfect, like us all. So please don't cancel your subscriptions and if you did, please renew them. Blessings to you all!

  • JeffD
    Posted: Fri, 12/02/2016 02:08 pm

    Point taken Cyborg. Calvinists haven't cornered the market on error.  However his appeal to Presbyterian Confessions and such is another reason to make me believe he's of the "Reformed" flavor.  (Maybe I shouldn't get into theological differences, but true Christianity never needed reforming.)  Too many people tend to use the writings of men to explain what they think the Bible means or should say rather than letting the Bible speak for itself.

    I'm not one who has cancelled my subscription.  While I have problems with certain points, I recognize that a less than perfect Christian viewpoint is superior to a definite anti-Christian viewpoint.  

    While I tend to be blunt, especially as it seems to come across over the internet, I don't forsake the fellowship of fellow believers, that I disagree with on some points, in favor of fellowship with the world.

  • Donald Osborne
    Posted: Fri, 12/02/2016 04:56 pm

    As a long-time subscriber and reader of World, I feel as if I have lost a wise and cherished Christian friend who used to give me solid, biblically based counsel and true information.  I am dumbfounded by World's position and pre-election coverage regarding now President elect Trump.  As a Bible based evangelical Christian, I cannot find find any biblical rationale which could justify refusing to act to restrain evil when it was possible to do so.  Thankfully, God ordains and establishes a nations leaders, despite the efforts of World Magazine to see Donald Trump defeated.  Now is the time for World to acknowledge that Donald Trump is your President also, and let your coverage reflect that.  Trump will not be a perfect President but He will be immensely better than the alternative would have been.