Christians, Conscience, and the Looming 2020 Election

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
October 26, 2020

Samuel Johnson once quipped that when a man knows he is going to face the gallows, “it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The same concentration of mind often comes with the final days of an election. This election cycle is no exception. The campaigns now move into their final strategies and the candidates make whatever closing pitches can be made. In this odd year, more than 50 million Americans have already voted.

President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are, by now, wearingly well-known to the American people. Donald Trump made himself known through decades of hyperactive self-promotion and business—and now almost four tumultuous years in the White House—while Joe Biden is known for working his way through more than four decades of holding public office. Having run for president in 1988 and 2008, Biden wanted to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2016, but lacked adequate support. He is back and, if elected, would be the oldest individual ever elected President of the United States. Both candidates are over age 70. That makes the vice presidency all the more important. I do not have to blink in deciding between the prospect of a President Mike Pence versus a President Kamala Harris.

We know who Donald Trump and Joe Biden are, how they behave, the manner of their self-presentation, and the substance of their policies. The act of voting is before us, and for many of us is already done. What do Christians make of all this?

I will try to summarize how I see the issues, trying my best to think and act consistent with my own Christian convictions and worldview.

There is the question of character. I have had to struggle with this question through about a half-century of political engagement. In the case of Donald Trump, the reality is that he is sadly deficient in many of the most crucial issues of character and moral virtue. He has bragged about many of his vices, written books promoting them, and given full vent to some of the baser instincts of the body politic. He appears to be driven by a narcissistic impulse that overrides nearly every opportunity to demonstrate moral virtues in public. He has been married to three women and has bragged about infidelity. He is divisive, arrogant, vitriolic, and sometimes cruel.

Joe Biden is generally cooler in temperament, and, like Trump, he is also known to Americans. Biden is the essence of a career politician. He has survived this long by being a part of the system, including years of Democratic Party service as senator and vice president. His principles have been . . . flexible . . . but he has served his party dutifully. His commitment to a liberal direction of the country has been clear, even if sometimes calculated. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he personally oversaw the destruction of Judge Robert Bork in confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. He had to drop out of the 1988 race for the Democratic nomination when he was caught telling someone else’s stories as his own. He seems repeatedly to have trouble telling the truth and he surrenders to the rising leftist wing of his own party while claiming to be a moderate. More importantly, he is an enthusiastic champion of many of the most wretched policies that threaten the moral survival of our nation.

If I am electing a neighbor, it would be Biden hands down. Biden would always be ready for a hamburger with friends, and he would always be ready to entertain with a story, whether or not the story is true. Biden seems to think they are true at the time. I would not choose Donald Trump for a neighbor. I am just not up to the tumult. I like a quiet neighborhood.

But I am not voting for who will be my neighbor, I am voting for who will be President of the United States.

I am a Christian, Baptist by conviction. I am a Christian theologian who has addressed issues of public policy, political theory, history, and cultural analysis for decades. I stand solidly within the Augustinian tradition, and thus I see politics and culture as being of temporal but nonetheless very real significance for human beings and the communities we build. I believe that human dignity and human rights are grounded in the transcendent truths of God, who is the source of all being and truth. I cling to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the saving truths of redeeming grace, but I am also thankful for the common grace whereby all humanity, formed in the image of God, is accountable to universal truths embedded by the Creator in his creation—including the goods of marriage and family and community and economy and culture. I believe that denying these universal truths is destructive of civilization.

I believe that, in a fallen world, all politics is some mixture of good and evil, all political gains are partial, and the perfect is—often tragically—the enemy of the good. As a Christian, I believe that love is to be the animating motivation for political action, but I understand love as revealed in Scripture to be manifested in concrete actions that are measured in moral effect. In other words, love is not merely a mood or an emotion. Love leads to policies that have good moral effects, not necessarily to actions that earn the applause of the world.

Thus, I am also a classical conservative in the Western tradition. I stand solidly in the tradition of Edmund Burke, affirming the real but limited responsibilities of government, the importance of the rule of law, the classical defense of liberty, the vital importance of free associations, and the necessary alignment of human government with human nature.

In the structure of partisan politics in the United States during my adult lifetime, I have openly identified with the Republican Party. I worked as a teenage volunteer in the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1976 and, having reached voting age, my first vote was for Reagan in 1980. By that year, the divide in the nation over major moral issues—and abortion most urgently—was evident in the divide between the two major political parties. The Democratic Party became the party defending abortion rights and the Republican Party became the party opposing abortion rights. Over time, the divide has grown even more dramatic. By 2016, the Democratic Party had eliminated all meaningful opposition to unconditional abortion rights and demanded that taxpayers be coerced into paying for abortion. The Republican Party defined abortion as the killing of an unborn human being and called for an affirmation of the sanctity of human life. I have worked closely with Republican administrations on policies and legislative goals. I have not always been satisfied, but I never doubted which party would defend unborn life and which would embrace the Culture of Death.

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Repulsed by his character and unable to see him as a conservative, I voted for neither major party candidate. I made a symbolic vote. I had to hope that Hillary Clinton would not be elected president, but it seemed almost determined. As we know now, it was not. Having argued loudly for the resignation of President Bill Clinton on national television many times over in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair, I felt that I could not vote for Donald Trump without hypocrisy. I even went so far as to say that if I voted for Donald Trump I would have to apologize to Bill Clinton.

Well, I am voting for Donald Trump in 2020 and I make no apology to Bill Clinton. I do apologize, but my apology is for making a dumb statement that did not stand the test of time. I am not about to apologize to Bill Clinton, who stands guilty of having desecrated the presidency by his gross sexual immorality while in office. I still believe in the necessity of character for public office, but I have had to think more deeply about how character is evaluated in an historic context.

When it came to Donald Trump in 2016, I made note of his pro-life promises, especially with reference to the federal courts culminating in the Supreme Court. As a conservative Christian, I have lived through decades of frustration and heartbreak as the nation’s highest court transformed itself into a super-legislature inventing newly-declared “rights” at the expense of human dignity and ordered liberty. But I doubted that Donald Trump meant to fulfill his promises. I was wrong. As I told the New Yorker in an article that was just published, “He actually did what he said he’d do,” adding, “It’s the oddest thing.”

It is the oddest thing. The candidate who had been pro-abortion became pro-life. I have no means of reading Donald Trump’s heart on this issue, but I can easily evaluate his actions. In terms of presidential action, Donald Trump has been the most effective and consequential pro-life president of the modern age. Furthermore, in both executive actions and court appointments, President Trump has gone far beyond what would have been politically necessary to secure his base. He has staked his place in history and has defied the accommodationist temptation and has given pro-life Americans more than any other president. In April, I said in public what was implicit in my commentary and actions since January 2017—I would vote for Donald Trump in 2020. And I already have. I sincerely hope that Donald Trump—and not Joe Biden—will be elected President of the United States on November 3.

Just consider the fact that a Biden-Harris administration would be, by any honest account, the most pro-abortion political force in American history. Biden, who once bragged of supporting the Hyde Amendment for decades, abandoned it in haste earlier this year when required to gain the nomination. Hardly a profile in courage. Biden has tried for decades to follow in the line of Mario Cuomo, Ted Kennedy, and other Catholic Democrats, claiming to be personally opposed to abortion but unwilling to “enforce” their views on the nation. That is pathetic evasion in itself. But listen now to the major Democrats and you will find virtually none who will speak of abortion—the strategic destruction of unborn human life—as a moral evil. The Democratic Party is now so pro-abortion (and yes, that is the right term) that it has declared opposition to any restriction on abortion and demands tax-payer funding for abortion. Led by Democratic governors, states such as New York and Illinois have adopted new abortion legislation that effectively allows for abortion right up to the moment of birth. Those who deny this reality are dishonest. The mainstream media run cover for the Democrats, with “fact checker” columns claiming that the Democrats do not support abortion, right to the moment of birth. But the easily confirmed truth is that the Democratic Party is opposed to any restriction on abortion, up until the moment of birth. The party’s dogma would allow for unrestricted abortion in the case of Down syndrome diagnosis, for reasons of sex-selection, or for any other reason, or for no stated reason at all. The Democratic Party is linked hand-in-hand with Planned Parenthood, which is not only the nation’s largest abortion provider, but is also the engine for the Culture of Death, unmasked for having targeted unborn babies for the strategic removal of specific organs and tissues.

This tears at my heart like no other issue. I agree that there are many other issues that press on the Christian conscience—questions of economic policy and foreign affairs and energy and the stewardship of the earth. The searing pain of racial injustice and the unraveling of our social fabric demand Christian response and urgency. Christians must be concerned about questions of immigration policy and refugees—and these issues defy the simplifications of the sound-bite and tweet culture.

But human dignity and the sanctity of human life are even more basic truths, and I believe there is no hope for defending human dignity for all if it is denied in the womb. To be intellectually responsible is to recognize the array of issues confronting us, but the same intellectual responsibility demands that we know which questions are prior to others and on which truths the entire superstructure of human dignity and human rights depend.

We are tempted to separate personal character and political policies as if they can be cleanly divided, but character is policy and policy is character.

Let me be as clear as I know possible: President Trump’s behavior on Twitter and his divisive comments and sub-presidential behavior are an embarrassment to me. Constantly. His arrogance and ego and constant need for adulation drive me to distraction. But character is some strange combination of the personal, the principled, and the practical. Let me put it another way—I cannot accept the argument that a calm man who affirms the dismembering of babies in the womb has a superior character to a man who rants like Genghis Khan but acts to preserve that life. In my ideal world, I would vote for a candidate in whom the personal, the principled, and the practical earn my admiration. I do not live in that world. I live in this world, and I must act accordingly.

In the protection of liberty, religious liberty is fundamental. President Trump has corrected many of the infringements on religious liberty caused by the policy mandates of previous administrations. He has made religious liberty an American priority at home and abroad. Under his administration, the Department of Justice and the Attorney General have defended religious liberty. President Trump even extended conscience protection to those whose worldviews are not explicitly religious.

Biden, on the other hand, has already indicated that he would immediately put the Obama Administration contraception mandate back in place, stripped of the religious liberty protections President Trump has established. The Little Sisters of the Poor will find themselves once again under the gun, their conscience rights denied. They will not be alone. The Democratic Party has also decried other forms of conscience protection and would deny religious liberty to Christian cake-bakers, wedding photographers, and pharmacists. Christians in many medical fields will face the reduction or removal of conscience protections related to abortion. These are not idle threats. The legal establishment of the Democratic Party is eager to press these agendas. Mr. Biden has made clear that he would appoint judges to follow that party orthodoxy.

Furthermore, in another act of stunning cowardice, the former Vice President has refused to answer whether or not he would support calls for enlarging the Supreme Court to allow for the appointment of additional liberal justices. He actually said what I cannot recall any presidential nominee saying out loud—that he would answer the question only after the election. He eventually said that he would appoint a special commission to consider such options. Again, any sane person knows what he is saying. He will eventually argue for the expansion of the Court. After all, it is the left wing of his party, clearly in the ascent, which will control the debate and the outcome.

The primary front of religious liberty controversy is likely to be related to LGBTQ issues, and both Biden and Harris are eager to advance the sexual revolution on every front. Biden was Vice President under President Barack Obama, whose Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli, when asked about whether a Christian college would be forced to forfeit its Christian convictions in light of the legalization of same-sex marriage, told the Supreme Court of the United States, “it will be an issue.” In a Biden administration, count on it becoming “an issue” very quickly.

On issues such as the transgender revolution, which will reshape the entire society, Biden went so far in a recent town hall appearance that he said he would support transgender demands all the way to supporting gender transition among 8 and 10 year old children. “There should be zero discrimination,” Biden said. Keep in mind that “zero discrimination” in that context means enforced submission to transgender claims throughout society. That means your Christian college, adoption agency, mission board, or school. The Democratic administration will steamroll these issues through the entire society and leave no arena untouched. Just listen to them describe their policies, and then understand what is at stake. As a senator, Kamala Harris berated a nominee for having been a member of the Knights of Columbus, a venerable Catholic men’s organization. As a long-standing men’s organization, its membership is unsurprisingly limited to men (as is the Roman Catholic priesthood). In Senator Harris’s world, that is scandalous discrimination. Religious liberty means nothing if being a part of the most famous Catholic men’s organization is now a disqualification for federal office. As a boy, I was a proud member of the Royal Ambassadors, a Baptist organization for boys. If the Knights of Columbus are a scandalous organization, so are the Royal Ambassadors.

Evangelical Christians are almost certain to vote in overwhelming numbers for the re-election of President Trump. This is not a surprise to anyone who has been awake during the last 40 years of American life. Ever since 1980, the pattern has been very consistent. Evangelical Christians have voted, by large percentages, for the Republican ticket. Every four years, the mainstream media claim to be shocked by this pattern, which turns out to be the same pattern that supposedly shocked them four years previously. The basic partisan divide reveals an even more basic worldview divide, and the pattern shows no sign of changing. No one should be shocked. The majority of evangelicals continue to vote in a predictable pattern that reveals evangelical concerns.

Every cycle or so, a group claiming evangelical identity forms something like “Evangelicals for Biden” and the media swarm to suggest it is big news. This year, a group calls itself “Pro-life Evangelicals for Biden.” The insanity of endorsing a pro-abortion ticket of this magnitude while claiming to advance the pro-life cause is more than I can deal with here. But a look at the organizers reveals that many of the major figures are not exactly new to this kind of pattern. One actually established “Evangelicals for McGovern” in 1972. Seriously.

I quickly lose respect for those who now endorse Joe Biden while claiming to save the pro-life cause or the conservative movement. As a classical conservative, I do not believe that conservative policies and principles can long survive without conservative virtues. But I see some who claim to be conservative falsely ascribing virtue to a Democratic candidate and failing to concede that a Biden election would lead to direct threats to conscience and religious liberty among American Christians. Think tank Washington will, for the most part, find a way to get along and go along, whatever political winds may come. It always does.

There will be evangelicals who cannot in good conscience vote for Donald Trump. I understand their predicament. But not voting for Donald Trump, though a political decision in itself, is not the same as voting for Joe Biden. This is beyond my moral imagination.

I also recognize that I know brothers and sisters in Christ who see this differently. The vast majority of Black voters in America vote regularly and predictably for the Democratic ticket, and have since 1960. Like the pattern of white evangelical voting, this is not a surprise. There are long historical reasons why both are so. With my black brothers and sisters, I make my best case for how I see the issues. They have every right to do the same. We each have a vote. Both of us will answer to God for that vote. We earnestly seek to persuade the other. We will likely vote differently in the end. We remain brothers and sisters in Christ.

What does this mean for a local church or a denomination? I am thankful to be a Southern Baptist, and extremely thankful that Southern Baptists have for nearly four decades spoken clearly and courageously for the unborn, and just as clearly and courageously about marriage and sexuality and gender. The convictions of Southern Baptists are clear, and I am confident that the vast majority of Southern Baptists will vote according to those convictions. That pattern has been in place for many decades.

But Christian fellowship is based on shared convictions and common faith in Christ. In my denomination, that means shared passion for the gospel, shared commitment to cooperative ministry, and shared convictions about marriage, the sanctity of human life, human beings made male and female, and the wholeness of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

I know of no church or denomination that makes voting choices a matter of church discipline or church order. It is the convictions themselves that constitute grounds for church discipline and church order. On the other side of this election, brothers and sisters who share the same convictions will have to find a way to work together to forge a way forward. If politics becomes primary, the church is reduced to a political party. Politics is never off the horizon, but if it dominates the horizon, Christian fellowship is undermined.

At this stage in an election cycle, politics seems to dominate every horizon. Given the uncertainties of this pandemic election, the stresses will continue. Soon, we hope, we will know the reality we face. The Christian church cannot exist in a constant state of political fervor. Election by election, we debate, we organize, we advocate, we vote, and we pray. So much is on the line, but I thank God that the Kingdom of Christ is not up for a vote.

I truly believe that this presidential election, with the control of the Senate also clearly at stake, is likely to be transformational. The stakes just keep getting higher. The difference between a Trump administration and a Biden administration will shape a generation and have a very great deal to do with the future of our nation. My convictions lead me to a very clear conclusion in this election. I hope and vote for the election of Donald Trump and the Republican ticket for a second term and for a continued Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. I do so precisely because of my convictions. I am accountable to make those convictions and reasons clear. May God bless the United States of America, and may this nation bless the nations of the world.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).