The heart of man plans his way,
but the Lord establishes his steps.
— Proverbs 16:9 —
So yesterday, one of my heroes, the pastor-theologian and prolific author, John Piper, posted a compelling argument for why he cannot vote for Trump or Biden. His words are worth reading, and they are worth responding to.
For as much as I agree that the morality of our leaders are of national importance and that the realities of Christ and his kingdom outstrip all earthly elections, I also believe Piper’s estimation of voting is mistaken. And so instead of addressing the sum of his argument, I want to highlight one point—namely, that voting is a strategy, not a sacrament, nor the tell-all signal of our eternal hope.
Voting as a Strategy, Not a Sacrament
The first point is made plainly by another pastor, Doug Wilson, who, as far as I can tell, is good friends with John Piper. In Wilson’s provocatively-titled, but eminently-wise essay, “7 Reasons Why It Is Possible for Christians to Vote for Trump in 2020 Without Getting a Defiled Conscience and/or Losing Their Soul,” Wilson explains how Christians have misunderstood what it means to vote.
Because Scripture speaks to all areas of life, including voting, I share his words here. I think Wilson’s understanding of Church and State relations are better than Piper’s, and that Wilson understands the magnitude of this election more than Piper. Whereas Piper is right to prepare Christians for persecution—all pastors must do this. Such persecution is not fate we must passively accept—especially, in a country that still has a vote. It may be that God is leading his Church into exile, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pray for peace (1 Tim. 2:1–4) and exercise our civic duties to extend the religious liberty that protects that peace.
Because there are enough policy differences between Trump and Biden, policies that will impact persons, it is worth considering our vote as a strategy for the Church of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, man’s plans, our strategies, will be confirmed or overruled by a sovereign God. But it seems presumptuous to move from the fact that both of these candidates are beasts (think Daniel 7:1–9) to the conclusion that we must not think strategically about these differences and how they will effect the Church.
Piper is right that personal character matters, but New Testament sins, what Piper lists as “unrepentant sexual immorality . . . boastfulness . . . vulgarity . . . factiousness,” does not say all that needs to be said about the two primary candidates and their respective administrative commitments.
Without defending our president in any way, his personal sins need to be distinguished from his policies and administrative appointments. As Bible-believing Christians we must denounce the former, while recognizing that between Biden and Trump there remains a sizable and significant difference. This difference leads us back to strategy—not political strategy; I’m not interested in that—but ecclesial strategy, strategy that considers the way State decisions impact how churches live, move, and have their gatherings—or don’t!
On this point, Wilson is extremely helpful. And I share his argument in full.
Let us hearken back to more stable and peaceful times. One of the problems with our older forms of civic responsibility back then was that, as the influence of robust Christianity in our nation began to wane, certain forms of civic religiosity began to take its place. In the United States, our liberal civic order, just fine as far as that went, began to assume some sacral functions, which was not fine. This meant that voting was transformed from a relatively fair way for a large population to make decisions, and was turned into a sacred privilege and duty. It became a secular sacrament.
Now when you are partaking of a sacrament, you are doing what the god of the system requires of you. You are submitting to an appointed ritual, and, as with all sacraments, it is important to be “pure” in your worship. So whatever you do with your vote, it is assumed that you are “all in,” because that is what a worshiper is supposed to be — all in. Thus when someone discovers that you are thinking about voting for Trump, they immediately assume that you make all your kids wear MAGA hats at the dinner table, you fully endorse any and all payouts to porn stars, that you give two thumbs up to all of the meanest tweets, and that you believe Trump is a genius who is always ahead of his opponents in those 17th dimension chess games he is always playing. This assessment of you is made because religious devotion must be total, and because you are going to use your “sacramental” vote in such an irreligious way, you are treated as the equivalent a sacrilegious devil worshiper.
But maybe you are just playing cards with the hand you were dealt. Maybe you are just making a decision between the two available options. A national election in the United States is like playing blob tag with tens of millions of people. It is a contest between the two largest sumo wrestlers the world has ever seen. And the primary system for selecting the two final candidates is like a demolition derby. The last two cars running are the only possible winners. It is no use sitting there at the demolition derby wishing you had gone to the tractor pull instead. That’s no longer one of your options.
Now if you were the one person in the world who had the archangel Gabriel assign to you the job of hiring the next president of the United States, then you should obviously hire the best person for the job. You would hunt for and find a godly, qualified man, one who hates socialism (Prov. 28:16), along with every other form of civic wickedness. You would hire that guy, and you would not hire some skeezefest.
“Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.”
Exodus 18:21 (KJV)
The only problem with this imaginary scenario is that you are telling us that you could be a perfect statesman if only you had a perfect society to be it in. But that is not where we are right now. That is not what is going on. Something else is going on.
Suppose you were not the guy that Moses (or Gabriel) agged to appoint rulers of tens, fifties, hundreds, and so on (Ex. 18:21). Suppose instead you were a Jew exiled in Babylon, and there is a great pending showdown and battle between Cyrus the Great and Croesus of Lydia. Do you support Cyrus? Do you hope Cyrus wins? Cyrus is the anointed one (Is. 45:1), the one who is going to issue the decree allowing the Jews to return to the promised land in 538 B.C. (2 Chron. 36:23). He is also a pagan who refurbished temples for lots of gods.
And suppose you lived in Susa in the time of Ahasuerus, and were opposed to the politics of Haman. What were your practical options?
So if Daniel and Esther and Mordecai and Hezekiah and Joseph could function as political players with true integrity within the framework of those various pagan establishments, how much more should it be possible for a Christian today to function within our quasi-Christian, semi-pagan system?From the way Scripture tells their stories, it is self-evident that they functioned within their settings without compromise. They did not bend when it came to their own personal dedication to the living God, and as far as the larger (compromised) system went, they did what they could as they pushed in the best direction possible, out of the available options.
But this is only possible if a voice in such affairs (like a vote) is not sacramental. If advising the king of Babylon were tantamount to eating the food of the king of Babylon, then Daniel wouldn’t have done it.
By way of echoing Wilson, I am arguing that Christians need to think about voting as strategizing ways for the Church to be the Church in a world hostile to God and his Word. I understand that different people will strategize differently and weigh matters in competing ways, but this freedom to make such decisions is what is at stake in this election. Trump, for all his sinful, polarizing, and reprehensible words and actions, offers in his administration a freedom for Christians to have freedom to decide. By contrast, all evidence points to the fact that Biden and his Democratic backers will not defend such freedoms—just look at the way the Democrats have painted Amy Coney-Barrett as evil because of her Catholic faith.
Back to Piper’s cry for Christians to get ready for persecution: perhaps he is prescient and we will soon see the Lord leading the Church into a season of sifting, judging, and purifying. If so, we can trust that God will sustain his Church and that many “God and Country” Christians will be shown to love country more than God. But we should not passively assume that we know the future, or that our decisions as citizens do not contribute to its end. We should pray for God’s mercy and strategize with our feeble knowledge ways, including votes, to promote liberty in our country for the sake of the Church. That’s the point that Wilson makes and the one Piper misses.
Voting as a Strategy, Not a Superior Sign of Virtue
One more thing. If voting is conceived of a strategy—a fallible, human, weak strategy—then it has the potential of lower the temperature in the room when we talk about voting. Since yesterday, countless Twitterati, including Matt Drudge himself (he linked to Piper’s article!), jumped up in support of Piper’s argument. Others, like myself here have jumped up to say, “Not so fast!” Such is the polarization that our national election brings.
To be sure, there is much to commend in Pipers’s Kingdom-first message. This Sunday I will echo that truth from Daniel 7. All Christians should seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt. 6:33) and not put our trust in princes (Ps. 146:3). This needs to be said again and again, especially for those who conflate patriotism and Christianity. Yet, keeping a heavenly perspective doesn’t mean that our voting is inconsequential for local churches or not a point of discipleship—i.e., something that pastors should address from the pulpit. Because all the earth is the Lord’s (Ps. 24:1), every part of creation matters—including our votes.
Thus, with our votes we should see them not as ultimate signs of virtue or sacraments of our faith, but as prudential decisions to pursue the best course for our country. As you can tell from what I’ve said here and in what I’ve preached here and here, I think that a vote for Joe Biden is not something a Christian should do. Biden’s Democratic policies towards life, sex, marriage, religious liberty, etc. have and will endanger the church. Strategically then, I believe it is wise to not only not vote for him, but to vote against him, and to do so in the most effective way possible, which is to vote for Trump. That’s my kingdom-first, political strategy for the sake of the Church.
In Piper’s political calculus, his strategy, if we can call it that, understands the immorality of Trump as having a negative effect on the nation. I agree. However, the mechanism of corruption is mostly by way of Trump’s example and the flurry of vitriol he’s stirred up through his endless rhetoric. (Also, let’s not forget how the media are co-belligerents in this war of words and the escalation of chaos in our country). With Trump, his corrupting influence is personal more than legislative. With Biden and the Democrats it is more legislative—and hence longer lasting—and no less personal.
Dividing things up between persons and policies, as Piper does, doesn’t quite account for the personal impact of policies—just count the number of lives lost through America’s abortion laws or the way embrace of homosexuality has increased since Obergefell (2015). Again, this is why I agree with Piper’s kingdom-first approach, but disagree with Piper’s overall strategy. It is strategically naive to single out personal sins—of which Trump and Biden have their fare share—without considering the personal effect of policies.
In 2016, I did not vote for Trump (or Hillary) for a myriad of reasons. In 2020, I think even less of our president than in 2016. And I continue to think Trump’s connection with evangelicals is harmful. Yet, in light of seeing how he has made judicial appointments and stood against the anti-Christian endeavors of the Left, I am persuaded that in America’s two-party system (which we cannot change in this moment as much as we might like), voting for him is a wiser strategy, for it continues to preserve space for the Church. Again, that’s my strategic understanding of why voting for him is better. Now back to the question of morality.
It is not, in my estimation, a sign of superior moral virtue (read: true Christian witness) to vote for Trump. It is not a sign of superior moral virtue to vote against him. Nor can I conclude that someone who disagrees with my assessment is my enemy. That person and I see the world differently and weigh issues with different scales. However, their vote and mine are not singularly determinative of how we might relate to one another.
In the abstract, I can disagree with my hero John Piper, and still give thanks to God for him and learn from him. Closer to home, I can disagree with members in my church who have voted for Biden, while still loving them and serving them as their pastor. I don’t think that how one votes should be a litmus test for Christian fellowship, but I do think it presses us back to consider: What is the best strategy for the sake of the gospel?
Seeing voting as a strategy more than a zero-sum game of moral virtue (i.e., “I am virtuous because I voted for X, and you are cancelled because you voted for Y!”) will does not appreciate the various reasons Christians come to disagreements on matters of policy and politics. Conversely, voting as a strategy doesn’t change the fact that voting (like social media sharing, personal spending, life style decisions, etc.) is a moral matter and one that reveals the passions of the heart. But seeing voting as a strategy more than a superior form of virtue might help us to have more constructive disagreements, especially with brothers and sisters in the church, when we frame the conversation in terms of strategy—strategy with real world, personal implications—and not signs of moral virtue.
That’s my main point in this post, even as I’ve divulged a few principles of my strategic thinking. But I share those to say that it’s a matter of strategy that is largely informing me as go to vote next week. Perhaps, seeing voting as a strategy will help you vote with a clear conscience too. After all, what man plans in his heart, God will confirm or deny for his purposes (Prov. 16:9). So take confidence in the Lord who reigns and vote with faith and wisdom that is informed by the wisdom of God.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds