Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

13 Oct 2016

Once More Unto the Breach: Electing a President and Selecting a Plumber


OK, so I told myself I was done talking about Christians and voting. But the events of the last week got to me. Not the Billy Bush video, but the evangelical reaction to it. Please don’t get me wrong—the video was awful and disgusting and demeaning and odious and everything else. But it changed nothing for me. Not least because I anticipated it (I mean, c’mon—somebody out there was seriously surprised by this? Really?), but mostly because the persistent Neo-Kuyperian doctrine that demands we may vote only for a “good” or “Christian” person is just plain wrong.

Being in the world but not of it means that all of the Christian’s existence is not an act of social transformation, but a paradox. Our civil sphere, over which God rules absolutely, is moving forward in perfect consonance with his eternal decree even though it is largely run by graceless derelicts, malefactors, and blasphemers. Most Christians learn to navigate this paradox in the basic issues of life pretty well: I choose to buy gas at certain stations because they are convenient and have low prices and high-volume pumps. I pick one checkout lane in the grocery store over another based on my statistical assessment of factors that suggest which cashier will get me out the door most quickly. I choose doctors based on their credentials and experience. Same with the backhoe operator I hired to install footers for my new garage, the guy I called to pump out the septic tank, and the salesperson from which I bought my last pair of hiking boots.

I don’t question (much less endorse!) the moral character of these people—it simply doesn’t come up and my conscience does not suffer in the least. I elect them (and sometimes even recommend them to others) based on the measure of common grace that they possess relative to the task I am electing them to perform.

But somehow, it seems, voting for a high-profile politician is different. Here I apparently can’t endorse a candidate unless I can also endorse him/her as a person—he/she is good, or even better, a particularly warm and gracious Christiany kind of good. Now this would be important if the candidate was running for pastor-in-chief. But that’s not the office under consideration. What I need to know is which is most likely to uphold the rule of law, punishing lawbreakers and praising law-keepers (Rom 13:4; 1 Pet 2:14), and which is more likely to be the kind of “king” who facilitates “peaceful and quiet lives” where “godliness,” “holiness,” and a robust gospel witness can flourish (1 Tim 2:2ff). That’s it.

At the end of the day, the decision (especially this year) is still not an easy one. That’s the paradox. No one is good. Still, objectively speaking, one of the credible options will rule God’s civil sphere better than the other(s). And so we vote for that person as well as our feeble analysis of the pertinent facts allows, irrespective of who is the better human.

A vote is not a referendum on a candidate’s moral character, an expression of ambivalence to a candidate’s vices, nor a participation in the candidate’s sin. Neither is it a pragmatic exercise in doing wrong in order that that right may prevail. It’s a simple statement that, among the credible options, one candidate is the most likely to rule the best.


20 Responses

  1. B e n W r i g h t

    1. It’s true that one of the two major party candidates will be better at governing. (I don’t like the word “rule” since I still like to think of this as a non-authoritarian nation.)

    2. It’s not at all unreasonable for one to conclude that it’s impossible to know at this moment which would be better. We know one will do severe damage to our republic. The other may or may not burn the whole thing to the ground, which, it seems to me, would not offer us hope of peaceable and quiet lives.

    3. Conflating voting with endorsing creates an imprecise argument. Voting silently for a not-good candidate who’s to some degree better than the other doesn’t undermine our witness in the way that public endorsement does. You may or may not think it’s a problem, but that’s a different argument.

    4. It’s entirely possible that voting for a not-credible option is the better alternative to voting for a more credible option, since voting for a more credible option reinforces the major party’s confidence that Christian conservatives will always be with them, no matter what. It reminds me of how Republicans have argued for years that African Americans harm themselves by by being such a reliably Democratic voting bloc.

    One question: Is there any immoral action a candidate could take that would be so far across the line that would keep you from voting from him, as long as you were convinced that he’d be measurably better than the other candidate at the task you’re electing him to perform?

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    Thanks, Ben, for your gracious reply. In quick response:

    1. Agreed.
    2. Very much agreed.
    3. I see your point and perhaps “endorse” is too strong. But this actually goes to my point. There is middle ground between (1) not voting/voting silently and (2) enthusiastically affirming the totality of a candidate’s platform and moral character. I can announce I am choosing a candidate–even recommend him/her as a capable governor (same as I might a plumber or a mechanic)–without making a total referendum on his character. That’s the via media that seems to be missing in many evangelical discussions.
    4. Agreed. If there is no one leastwise qualified for the job, it could in an extreme circumstance be appropriate to vote independent to inform one’s party that they need to come up with someone much better next time.
    5. Is there any moral deviance that would deter my vote? Yes. Two classes of these: (1) Wanton Illegal action that shows disdain toward the rule of law (goes to ability to rule) and (2) specific immoral activities that view human life and safety as unimportant (which also goes to ability to rule in the very most primary sense–Genesis 9:6).

  3. BE

    While I largely agree with your broader point (secular pursuits do not require Christian character), it seems you are missing some critical distinctions between the function of a president and that of a plumber, construction worker, or gas station owner. Namely, a person’s character seems to have much more bearing on his ability to govern than it does on his ability to fix a toilet.

    Perhaps a more apt comparison: If I am choosing someone to provide care for my children, I am going to want someone with good character, not just someone who can play fun games, make delicious snacks, and deal with scrapes and bruises. Their character has a direct bearing on their ability to properly care for my children (particularly if it is going to be in an ongoing basis). In a similar way, a person’s character has direct bearing on their ability to lead a nation. Their moral discernment is a factor we must consider in determining a person’s ability to properly govern.

    For example, if someone has no concern for the truth, it would make it less likely that he/she would have any real desire to uphold the rule of law. So, while a vote for a political leader is by no means an endorsement of everything that he is, if it is saying that a candidate is likely to rule the best it would at least have to include some consideration of a person’s character.

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    Ben, I concur…to a degree. That’s why I added the bit about pastor-in-chief. To be a pastor (or in your example, a baby-sitter) competency for the job involves a significant ethical dimension. The job requirement is more than a simple skill (preaching). It also involves being a shepherd, a counselor, a mentor/exemplar, etc. So, as 1 Timothy affirms, to be a good pastor you MUST be a good person. (Same with a baby sitter, though to a lesser degree.)

    The question, I suppose, is to what degree a person must be a good person to be a competent ruler. And while I’d like my rulers to be good people, moral rectitude is not nearly as important for a ruler as it is for a pastor. I won’t say that it is totally irrelevant (which is why I say I concur with you to a degree); but whether the president smokes or drinks or gambles or has some skeletons of immorality in his closet is not especially relevant to his competency to govern.

  5. BE

    Thanks for the reply. I read your post as essentially saying “character has no relevance for those who govern,” which seems prima facie false. I would agree it has less relevance for a political leader than for a pastor, but there’s quite a bit of space between the character needed to be a pastor and character having no relevance.

    And on a necessary character scale of zero to pastoral qualified, I’m inclined to put president closer to that of the pastor than zero, since it seems to me that one of the reasons a pastor needs good character is because he is called to lead (and one cannot lead well without good character.)

    Someone could have great character and not be qualified to be a political leader (or even a pastor) since there are other significant competencies at play. But I’m disinclined to think one can be qualified to be a great political leader while possessing the lowest of moral characters. And, in fact, one of the the primary purposes of government that you listed (punishing evil-doers and promoting righteousness) would seem to necessitate some measure of moral character in order to discern the difference between the two.

    So, it seems to me that the character of a political leader matters a good deal more than the character of my plumber, because of the very nature of the competencies required for each.


  6. Tad

    It would probably be a better to use the comparison of a university president with the US President instead of the comparison of a plumber or such. A person that clearly lacks moral character will probably not be chosen as the president of the University of Michigan. Should our standard be different for the US President? Unfortunately, we’ve come to the point that our expectations for a plumber are higher than for our president. Thanks for writing the article and always pushing us to think.

  7. B e n W r i g h t

    Mark, following up…

    3. Which Trump advocate is “affirming the totality of a candidate’s platform and moral character”? Even Jeffress and Falwell acknowledge flaws in character. I’m not sure how your position is a via media if there’s nobody on one side of it. But that’s a secondary issue. Ultimately what matters is whether the via media is the moral or at least wise/prudent option.

    5. Would sexual assault constitute “(1) Wanton Illegal action that shows disdain toward the rule of law (goes to ability to rule) [or] (2) specific immoral activities that view human life and safety as unimportant”?

    That question moves towards BE’s comment, and raises another question: Isn’t there some point when a candidate’s pattern of moral rectitude offers overwhelming evidence that he’s actually not competent to carry out the ethical component of governing—to praise good works and terrorize evil? (I almost wonder whether I don’t want a hypocrite over a Trump. Someone with a grounded moral compass, but who personally violates it, might be better than someone who consistently lives on the basis of a debased mind. I’d have to think more about that one.)

  8. BE


    Not to pile on the comments, but I would be interested to see how you relate your post here with you previous post on being conservative ( There you include a helpful chart on different spheres and their relation to the complexity of determining what God thinks on the matter and the amount of biblical revelation given. There, the Judicial sphere is third from the top, which would seem to indicate a greater need for discernment in knowing what is the proper way to function. I’m not sure where I’d place plumbers, gas stations, and construction workers, but my guess would be their jobs would fall more in the Physical or Spatial spheres, which are second and third from the bottom since they require some of the least levels of discernment.

    That’s why it makes sense to me that character matters less in fulfilling those jobs, because there is already greater levels of agreement due to common grace. However, in judicial matters that is not the case, which would also then correlate to a greater level of character required for that job. Does that make sense, or do you think I’m seeing a connection that does not exist (or is invalid)?


  9. Mark Snoeberger

    Ben & Ben,

    At the risk of trying to respond to disparate posts in a single one, yes, if a candidate is unequivocally guilty of criminal sexual assault and especially guilty of flouting the relevant law and placing himself/herself above it, he/she is unqualified to be the chief executive. Again, that speaks to the idea of the rule of law, one of the president’s primary competencies. However, a candidate’s engagement in behavior that is immoral but legal, while troubling, does not rise to the same level of relevance. Again, its not an irrelevant matter, but the relevance is reduced.

    Let me turn the discussion back, though, to the other half of my assessment. Even less relevant than whether a candidate is “good” is whether he/she reflects a “Christiany” sort of good. Circling back to Ben W.’s opening question, it seems to me that the “other side” of my via media is reflected in James Dobson’s ridiculous attempt to bring Trump into the Christian fold (and, interestingly, in the chatter that is suspicious of third-party candidate Evan McMullin because he is a Mormon). This is the kind of misguided and totally unnecessary of Neo-Kuyperian zeal that I am trying to address.

  10. Chad McCune

    As Ben and Ben have already commented, if lending one’s political support to a politician is actually analogous to hiring a plumber, I suppose this makes sense. If, however, lending one’s political support to a politician that will be governing the Executive Branch and directing the foreign policy of the most powerful nation in the world is substantively different from hiring someone for a menial task around one’s home, I think it breaks down. I contend that Christians should not hold presidents and plumbers to the same “hiring standards.”

    Assuming the presidency thrusts one into immense power (overseeing the IRS, FBI, CIA, and the entire military apparatus, for instance). Surely a presidential candidate’s character—how he would use that power, comport himself in foreign affairs, and make enormously important domestic decisions—should matter more to us than whether or not the guy hired to clean the gutters is a bit skeevy.

    But if, as you state, one’s vote matters only to the extent that it is advancing a governing agenda—i.e., it is not an endorsement of the candidate’s character (your straightforward comment: “…irrespective of who is the better human”)—that does little to resolve the bind many Christians find themselves in this year. For instance, we are being asked to choose between a candidate that is explicitly pro-abortion, and a candidate that used to be pro-abortion and still repeatedly says that the nation’s leading abortion provider does “wonderful things”; a candidate that is wrong on nearly every issue, and a candidate that is wrong on many issues and ignorant of nearly every issue; a corrupt, contemptuous crook, and a candidate that vows to use the power of the presidency to avenge personal slights; a candidate that viciously attacked women that accused her husband of sexual assault, and a candidate that admitted to and has been repeatedly accused of committing sexual assault.

    So, which candidate is more likely to “praise good and punish evil” and allow us to live “peaceful and quiet lives” is hardly cut and dry (I realize you said it is not, but I think the “president/plumber” tone suggests a simpler reading of the situation than is due). A more fruitful discussion, I think, is *how much* a candidate’s character should matter, not whether a candidate’s character should matter at all (again, I may be dwelling too much on your “…irrespective of who is the better human” comment).

  11. Mark Snoeberger

    Ben E., I think when Spier wrote of the juridical sphere as requiring substantial dependency on natural law and “loans” from the Christian worldview, he was not speaking so much to personal ethics, but to the rule of law. So, yes, since the execution of the law of the land is the president’s first Constitutional duty, I am very concerned that he have a high view of law and its sanctity. That’s different, though, from requiring him to have a Christian personal ethic–related, yes, but a bit ancillary to Spier’s point.

  12. Jeff Straub

    Ok. Mark, if you can actually tel who will rule better, I’d be interested in knowing who. We know what one will do, but we don not know what the other will do. There are other choices. Maybe if there is a loud enough protest movement, real change will occur.

    Don’t forget. Alvin’s famous dictum–que sera sera!

  13. Jeff Straub

    Mark, is there a flaw in your argument? It is true you do not consider the moral character of the cashier who checks you out at the grocery store unless the last three times she checked you out, she swore at you or was dressed so immodestly as to make you blush or some other factor that causes you to wait in the longer line just to avoid her. You don’t ask the plumber to tell you his spiritual condition when he comes to fix your faucet unless the last time he showed up at your house he hit on your wife. You don’t do business with the store owner who regularly lies to you about all kinds of things.

    It is one thing to do business with the world in the normal everyday flow of life. You expect that most of those with whom you deal ARE lost and hence do not have the same values you do. It is quite another to choose a person, male or female, whose public character is so reprehensible as to make you sick just thinking about them. Wouldn’t we generally avoid doing business with people we KNOW are untrustworthy?

    Would you buy a car or have your faucet fixed by either candidate? I’m betting you would avoid both, perhaps for different reasons. You might even choose a little known plumber just to avoid the guy likely to hit on your wife. I think your case is not as airtight as you suppose. In logic, the flaw here is the law of the excluded middle. Either we vote for A or we vote for B. There is no other choice. If that were true, then you might have a case. But since there are at least two other choices, not to vote at all or vote for a third candidate, then you have failed to make your case. Unless of course the election is solely about the SCOTUS. But this is another discussion. IMO, giving One guy the WH would be like giving a three year old a live hand grenade. I am afraid of the possible outcome.

  14. Mark Snoeberger

    At the risk of sounding dismissive, we seem to have strayed off topic. The point is not (1) that morality is totally irrelevant, (2) that there are only two credible options, or (3) that I’ve answered every question necessary to the correct decision.

    Rather, it is (to quote my conclusion again) that “a vote is not a referendum on a candidate’s moral character, an expression of ambivalence to a candidate’s vices, nor a participation in the candidate’s sin. Neither is it a pragmatic exercise in doing wrong in order that that right may prevail. It’s a simple statement that, among the credible options, one candidate is the most likely to rule the best.”

    It is possible to vote for someone, state that you will vote for someone, and even recommend that others vote for someone even if that someone is not a Christian or even a morally “good” person. And that is because it is a candidate’s relative competency for the task of governing (according to biblical standards) that is primarily at issue, not his morality or faith.

  15. Jeff Straub

    Of course! Now demonstrate that either one of the major candidates has “the relative competency” to govern. Perhaps you were speaking hypothetically and simply making the argument that a Christian can vote for either of the major choices irrespective of their morality. On the competency scale I am not sure either is more qualified than the other. Strictly on the competency scale. How many times have either gone bankrupt? Speaking of competency.

  16. 1. What definition of Neo-Kuyperianism is being used? I wouldn’t have guessed from reading Wolters, Koyzis, or Skillin that they would argue that a citizen needs to vote for the “Christian” candidate. Nor would I guess from reading David VanDrunen that the moral condition of the candidate is a non-issue. I would gather that morality is a concern in the common kingdom but that Christians should not claim that particular policy positions are Christian (a point on which I would agree with DVD).
    2. Have you listened to Ben Sasse’s Office Hours interview with R. Scot Clark? Any thoughts about how Sasse’s early opposition to Trump and Clinton is the same or different from the Neo-Kuyperian opposition that you critique?

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