Conscience and the 2016 Election

relligious-freedomThe 2016 presidential election in America is a mess.  I have never witnessed an election where the top two candidates were so thoroughly disliked by the electorate.  Conversations regarding this election, verbal and written, casual and formal, struggle to maintain calmness and civility.  The stakes are high and passions are even higher.  I know people who are voting for Donald Trump; I know people who are voting for Hillary Clinton; and I know others who are giving Gary Johnson a serious look.  I talked with another person who is contemplating writing in a name on their ballot.  Still others I know are seriously thinking about not voting for any candidate for President.  Few people are asking for voting advice in this election; everyone seems to be justifying their choice.  I think I have had one individual ask me, and that was several months ago.  I have struggled with this as a pastor wondering what guidance I should give as a shepherd of God’s people.  I am certain that whatever I might say would have no effect on those whose minds are already made up.  I have reminded the congregation I serve that Christ’s mission always takes priority over any political party’s agenda.  I have also reminded them that our ultimate hope is in Christ, not man, because man cannot solve the real problems in this world.  The promises any candidate offers are nothing more than attempts to mitigate the consequences of human sinfulness.  To some, those statements sound like pious platitudes disconnected from the everyday stuff of life.  “Yeah, Pastor, I get it, but what does that have to do with how to vote?”  I believe those statements very strongly.  However, there is an election coming which we, as Christians, have the right to participate.  The major candidates are seriously flawed individuals.  Some would go so far as to say they are both unqualified to serve as President of the United States.  So, how should a Christian vote in this election?

The answer I have come to, and I’m sticking with it, is this — vote your conscience.  When you mark your ballot, follow your conscience.  The conscience is given by God and every person has one.  It is one of the things that guards humanity against universal moral anarchy.  The conscience is that inner voice that says, “Do it!” or “Don’t!”  When you act consistently with your true beliefs, your conscience commends you.  When you act inconsistently with your true beliefs, your conscience condemns you.  Violating your conscience is like trying to pound a square peg through a round hole.  You can get it through the round hole, but you will have to pound it hard enough to scrape the edges off the square.  In other words, to not violate your conscience you either have to conform your actions to your conscience, or you have to conform your conscience to your actions, which can be done.  Violating your conscience is one way to do that; do it enough times and your conscience won’t condemn you anymore.  Reeducating your conscious is another way.

The Bible affirms the existence and positive role of the conscience.  For example, when Paul makes his case for the universal guilt of mankind, he observes that

“Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it.  They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:14-15). 

Another example comes later in Romans, when Paul takes up the subject of disputable issues over which believers disagree (Rom. 14).  He talks about differences of opinion regarding eating or abstaining from certain foods and observing or not observing certain holy days (we call them holidays).  It is not a stretch to apply the principles of this passage to the political quandary of this election.  Christians are going to come to different conclusions.  One may feel strongly about voting for one candidate while another Christian feels just as strongly about voting for the other candidate.  Yet, another may feel strongly about sitting out this presidential election.  All of these Christians may have well-reasoned arguments for their decisions.  Paul admonishes the believers not to pass judgment on each other over these matters.  That does not mean it is wrong to hold a strong position or that it is wrong to debate the issues; it’s just that, in the circumstances cited in this passage, passing judgment on one another is rebuked.  Just because the reasons a person gives to support their choice do not convince me does not mean I have the right to pronounce judgment upon that individual, like accusing them of being godless, unchristian, or an irresponsible Christian.  And certainly no can claim to know how Jesus would vote if he were voting in this election.  Listen to what Paul writes:

 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”  So then each of us will give account of himself to God. (Rom. 14:10-12)

Paul goes on to instruct believers on the importance of acting on the basis of conscience.  He strongly warns against violating one’s conscience and or encouraging others to violate their consciences.

The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.  Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.  But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:22-23)

God has not designated me to be anyone’s Jiminy Cricket, nor has he designated any person to be mine.  If, after careful thought guided by biblical truth and prayer, I choose to vote for Clinton in spite of her flaws, or Trump in spite of his flaws, or Johnson in spite of his flaws or the accusation of wasting a vote, or to write in a name knowing the person will not be elected, or to sit it out realizing that voting is a great privilege, and my conscience commends me in my decision, then so be it.  Who should you vote for?  Let your conscience guide you.  Ultimately, as a believer, how you vote is between you and God.

Oh, by way, the conscience is not infallible.  While there is an inherent sense of right and wrong in the human soul embedded by God, the conscience can be deadened and it can be misinformed.  A deadened and desensitized conscience will offer no guidance.  A weak conscience should not be ignored, but a weak conscience does not necessarily offer the best guidance.  One with a weak conscience is wise to be open to instruction because the conscience can be reeducated by Scripture.  What a believer needs is a strong conscience that is shaped by the truth of God’s Word and guided by the Holy Spirit.  Having that kind of conscience, follow it.

It is rightfully said that elections have consequences.  But consequentialism does not nullify the responsibility to act according to personal conscience (read a helpful article on the limits of consequentialism here).  As you make your decision regarding what you will do this election, act according to your conscience, but take some time to evaluate if your conscience is, in fact, “captive to the Word of God” (as Martin Luther put it), or whether it is bound to some other dream.  Ask yourself, “Can I, in good conscience, vote for this person, or not vote at all?”  If you can honestly answer, “Yes,” then you will have fulfilled your Christian responsibility.  And remember, if your Christian brother or sister can say they same, they too will have fulfilled their responsibility whether or not you both agree.

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