On Voting As Moral Endorsement

Stephen Wolfe has an excellent piece at Mere Orthodoxy on the consequentialist theory of voting. He challenges the assumption that voting for a candidate is an endorsement of their moral life, and that it is necessarily hypocritical to tolerate immorality for a candidate in a given situation, but not another. His demonstration that the assumption of endorsement is misplaced is strong, but ultimately fails to convince in his conclusion. His principle is,

Voting for a candidate is an endorsement of the candidate’s moral life as it pertains to his external conformity to civil righteousness sufficient to qualify the candidate for civil office, qualifications judged by the likely preponderance of good or bad in the long-term consequences of his term in office determined by his political actions after mediated through the institutional constraints of his office and the checks and balances of other institutions.

The candidate’s ability to enact policies, the details of those policies, and the bearing of the candidate’s morality on those policy enactments are the only endorsement of the candidate’s moral life made by voting. Wolfe in his conclusion states, “And as I argued above, a moral standard as a first condition for vote-worthiness is arbitrary, unless it is shown to be relevant to good civil outcomes resulting from civil actions in a particular time, place, and set of circumstances mediated through particular political institutions.”

But he did not show this. He argued that voting for a candidate endorses their moral life only insofar that their moral life effects policy enactments. This is different than using a moral standard for vote-worthiness. He follows this with, “One would have to prove that a particular standard of morality is universally necessary for good civil outcomes. I’ve never seen anyone even attempt to argue this.”

Well, he just did. Obedience to God’s moral law, summarized in the Decalogue, is necessary for good civil outcomes. Personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience to God’s moral law is not necessary to pass individual good policy, but it is necessary for a good civilization. “Good civil outcomes” is not limited to delivering the mail, collecting taxes, and functioning utilities, but includes a society that honors God. If the question Wolfe tackled was “Will God be pleased with this candidate representing/running the country/government,” perhaps he would have come to a different answer.

Wolfe’s approach acts as if the only societal role of politicians is the enactment of policy. However, politicians, such as the President, have influence far beyond that. To quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.” And a President has huge cultural power. The Obergefell ruling not only had seismic political effects, but cultural effects as well. The ruling was not only about policy, but civil life. It changed the rhetoric and posture of cultural leaders beyond the scope of its legal focus.

Now, God may be more honored through the postal service by an adulterous Postmaster General who is highly effective at his job than one who is chaste, but occupationally inept. But a postal worker is not a President or Senator, and does not influence the culture in the same way. Cultural influence is not something “mediated through the institutional constraints of his office and the checks and balances of other institutions.” No new policies on free speech, race, or protest have been enacted over the last year, but political changes (let the reader understand) have emboldened a resurgent racist class and neo-Nazism. Charlottesville and Richard Spencer did not occur in a vacuum.

The desperation for political victory has also transformed (or exposed) many evangelicals from those who believe that morality matters at all, to dismissing it when politically advantageous. Wolfe may argue that this would be a non-issue if his consequentialist model were embraced, but this itself is a consequence. And this is because voting for a candidate does endorse their moral life, not just in the way it affects policies, but in how their platform shapes the civil good.