As Americans we aren’t accustomed to facing a lack of options. The home of the free and the land of the brave also happens to be the oasis of choice – everywhere you look in your average American town you find a flourishing of options for any given need or want. Later today, for example, I will visit a local grocery store where I will choose between numerous options for items as simple as milk. Shall I buy chocolate or plain? 1%, 2%, Vitamin D, or whole? Almond or dairy? Like every consumer I will decide this within seconds and move on to the next item. Of course an even greater diversity presents itself to me for bigger, more complex choices like investing in cars and homes. And in our society even relational choices are expansive -- popular dating websites like Match.com open one’s options well beyond those presented otherwise.
With so much choice, it is easy to see why most Americans are struggling over their limited options for the presidency. On the left, Democrats are trying to reconcile the fact that the party of change has now nominated a lifelong establishment candidate. They try not to consider the fact that the person President Obama called “the most qualified candidate in history” is someone beholden to the same banking system that Bernie Sanders railed against. Besides not sharing their ideology, progressives know that Clinton has overlooked egregious lapses in judgment in an effort to contort her political image. Her closest advisors’ “extremely careless” mishandling of classified information smacks of hypocrisy, as we all know she wouldn’t have excused such actions for Republicans. That she knowingly lied about this, and has since faced no punishment for it, badly blunts the purist progressive surge that Obama rode into the White House.
On the right, conservatives are trying to find ways to justify the candidacy of a man who seemingly shares none of their values. The same members of the once Moral Majority who decried Bill Clinton for his infidelity are now trying to excuse similar behavior, as they claim their own candidate just happens to be “a good man with flaws.” The irony is thick with Christian leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr. now arguing in favor of an unrepentant, promiscuous strip-club owner for America’s next president. Others like Wayne Grudem have performed rhetorical somersaults to try and convince readers that voting for Donald Trump is morally defensible. In his recent piece for Townhall.com, Grudem argues that “Trump’s character is far better than what is portrayed by much current mud-slinging” even as Grudem himself calls Trump “egotistical, bombastic, and brash.” Such advocates want conservatives to believe that Trump’s ignorant, racist, and juvenile statements are correctable mistakes while his red-meat politics are instead heartfelt and trustable.
When honest with themselves, however, conservatives know a true believer when they see one; and like the progressives they know that their current nominee isn’t anywhere close. And Christian leaders, despite what they may pretend, know that Donald Trump falls far more into the mold of a self-righteous, unrepentant Pharisee than a humble, penitent follower of Christ. The problem for many people isn’t discernment, ignorance, or corruption-- it’s a lack of options.
We as Americans desperately want an option we can rally behind; we crave it because we are a society of action and we must have something to do. Without a legitimate option we aren’t sure where to turn. We are completely unfamiliar with doing nothing; to us it smacks of little more than cowardice. The Trump and Clinton campaigns know this, and it is why they are almost exclusively making their case by smearing their opponent. Both campaigns are attempting to bypass the quite obvious flaws of their candidate and convince voters that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. You must choose, they say, between horrible and worse.
Grudem’s article, for example, argues for precisely this. While opening by giving ground on Trump’s flaws, he then proceeds to try and change the issue from “Can I as a Christian voter support Donald Trump for president?” to questions far more palatable for his readers to answer. Among these are “Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?” and “Can I in good conscience act in a way that helps a liberal like Hillary Clinton win the presidency?” Grudem goes on to delve into a particularly existentialist form of ethics (as opposed to the Christian form he claimed as his expertise), to say that making any choice besides voting for a major party amounts to “doing nothing.” He then declares a non-vote for Trump to be a “direct vote” for Clinton, and oddly misapplies scripture (Obadiah 1:11) to say that voting for anyone other than Trump is an abdication of Biblical moral responsibility.
But Grudem is wrong; a non-vote for Trump is by no means a vote for Clinton. An actual direct vote for Clinton, of course, involves walking into a voting booth and marking the box next to her name. To pretend anything else is to base our actions on predictive polling and the expected outcomes of others’ private choices. It is to delve into the indirect effectual nature of utilitarianism and take the focus away from the true basis of Christian ethics – the intentions of the heart. In so doing we fall into “ends justify the means” morality rather than doing what we know to be right and trusting God with the outcome. And it is ultimately to take a great leap down a very dark path. For where, I would ask Grudem, does such justification end? Imagine, for example, were the race solely between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Would not those same existentialist, calculating voices like Grudem’s be arguing on behalf of Clinton as the “good but flawed” life-long Methodist versus her atheist, socialist opponent?
Instead, Christians must make our choices on the basis of our conscience. In so doing we must have a threshold, or lines of integrity we will not cross no matter the outcome. What this means is that there must be a level at which our political options cease to exist and we exit or refuse to participate in the majority system. For myself, I came very close to this threshold in supporting Mitt Romney in 2012. His lack of understanding of conservatism, his personally lavish lifestyle, and his obvious flips on important issues like healthcare and abortion disturbed me greatly. Much like Grudem I made the practical decision to support him, but I resolutely told myself no further – to continue voting Republican I must have a candidate who better understood and respected our nation’s founding principles and shared my values. Mitt Romney was my threshold. The next candidate didn’t have to be perfect, but he or she needed a better record of adherence to sound principles and consistent moral discernment. I was delighted to find among the 2016 Republican primary field that all but one person met that criteria; yet, alas, it was precisely that one person who achieved victory.
And so like many voters in this election I have reached a political limit. I find that of the two most powerful nominees neither comes anywhere near having the moral integrity, commitment to principle, and devotion to public service that would qualify them for the American presidency. What am I to do? Of course, both of their campaigns and advocates are quick to dismiss the viability of a third party. They decry “writing in” a man or woman of noble character as cowardice and slam such a move as no better than not voting at all. But third parties, write-in options, and the long-established democratic practice of abstention were created for precisely the political quandary we face today.
To abstain, as defined by Webster’s dictionary, is “to hold oneself back voluntarily, especially from something regarded as improper or unhealthy.” An active abstention is that action in which a present voter takes a stand, not against one option or the other, but against the entire field. Unlike “staying home,” abstaining requires a presence and with it the devoted time and attention. It signals that the abstainer has the knowledge, presence, and capability to make a vote but is choosing not to for some larger reason. Historically, there are hundreds of examples of groups abstaining from electoral politics for the purposes of boycott or to make the point that their interests were not represented. And philosophers such as Jason Brennan have made compelling moral arguments for why an informed citizen should abstain rather than vote when a nomination process produces no viable options.
Abstaining, of course, can be an act of cowardice just as the major campaigns will claim. To abstain without reason is indeed worthless; the burden is squarely on the abstainer to articulate their moral imperative and make the purpose of their boycott clear. One must be adamant, resolute, and unequivocal in their abstention for it to have any effect. This in fact is what separates an active abstainer from the person who would hide behind the option or shirk civic responsibility by remaining idle.
Citizens who vote third party or write in names like Bernie Sanders or Marco Rubio will be called abstainers and boycotters in this election. And so we are, but cowards we are not. To make this point clear we must be resolute and explicit in our action. Active abstention signals that we respect the American system of government and its Constitutional electoral process, but we find no valid options among the leading nominees. It is a statement that we as informed American citizens believe that we deserve better candidates than what the Republican and Democratic nominations have produced. And given that neither of those party’s candidates meets the threshold of viability, our act of abstention is the only morally sound, defensible option we have left.