When Compromising Is Not a Compromise


      Eight years ago an election-year slogan circulated among Christians that sparked considerable controversy:  "It's a sin to vote for Clinton."  The same slogan returned with vigor four years later.

      This year’s election slogan is different.  Bill Clinton is not on the ballot and his successor, Al Gore, offers little enticement to Evangelicals.  Something else is at stake, though, captured in a new slogan:  “It’s wrong to vote for anyone who is not consistently pro-life.”

      Instead, pro-lifers should stick by their principles and vote their conscience.  Withhold support from a front-runner who they think has a compromised pro-life view and cast their vote for a third-party candidate who is “consistently pro-life.”  As one Christian leader put it, “My principle is more important than getting the right man in the White House.” 

      Is this the right approach?


The Purpose of Government

      During the last campaign a headline  in the L.A. Times shocked a lot of Christians, including me.  It read "Clinton is Gaining Among Evangelical Christians."[1]  A farmer in Kingston Springs, Tennessee, gave the reason.  He didn’t agree with Mr. Clinton's support of abortion, but he liked Clinton's economic policies.   One poll showed that a third of those who claimed to be evangelicals were planning to vote for Clinton.

      Was this sin?  There’s a rather simple way to answer that question.  Find out God’s intention for government, and then determine which candidates appear intent on fulfilling that purpose.  If we choose a person who governs at odds with God, it’s fair to say we’ve made the wrong choice.  And whenever you oppose God’s purposes, that’s sin.

      The question hinges entirely on God’s purpose for government.  Why did God institute government and what does He intend it to accomplish?

      The biblical purpose of government is very limited, as far as I can tell.  Romans 13:3-4 states it clearly:

Rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.  Do you want to have no fear of authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same, for it is a minister of God to you for good.  But if you do what is evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword for nothing, for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.

      The Apostle Peter concurs:  “Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14).

      God gave government for one reason:  to restrain evil and to advance the good.  Though rulers may pursue other noble goals, if they do not ensure domestic tranquility (“that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity,” 1 Timothy 2:2), then they have  betrayed their trust.  In a word, the main duty of government is justice. 

      What about the poor?  Social programs?  The economy?  Aren’t they important?  These are not God’s mandates when it comes to government.  God cares about the poor, but has commissioned the church to meet that need.  It is not up to government to enhance our personal economics or to engineer a utopian society.  In the civic arena, one thing is preeminent to God:  justice. 

      During this election, the one issue that most directly relates to justice is abortion.  If you are a Christian, no other question should have more influence in your choice of candidates.  Which candidate offers the greatest chance of securing justice for humanity’s most defenseless members, the unborn?

      “That's one-issue voting,” you say.  Yes it is, the one issue God is most concerned with when it comes to government.  And on the issue of abortion there can be no compromise.


No Middle Ground

      In a recent interview, National Review publisher William F. Buckley explained why there can be no middle ground in the pro-life view.  Those in favor of abortion accord no intrinsic moral status to the unborn, he observed.  How one treats the fetus, therefore, is open to personal belief, preference, or even whim.

      Pro-lifers, on the other hand, understand that the unborn, though small, underdeveloped, and vulnerable, are still human beings worthy of protection.  If they’re right, then “choice” in any of its permutations  grants liberty to kill unwanted human children.  Therefore, any concession to choice undermines the moral logic of the entire pro-life position.  Gregg Cunningham, President of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, said, “A woman cannot be a little bit pregnant, and a baby cannot be a little bit dead.” 

      There are only two positions, no more.  Either you hold that the unborn are not due protection and the government should allow women the choice to take the life of the fetus, or you believe the unborn should not be killed, but rather protected like any other human being.  There is no middle ground.  All “centrist,” “moderate,” “balanced,” “accommodating,” “conciliatory,” or “middle” approaches affirm the first view.  They’re all pro-choice—every single one of them. 


All or Nothing?

      Since there is no middle ground on abortion—“choice” always means a dead child—then  it’s critically important we make decisions at the polls that go beyond token moral gestures (something that looks right, but has no impact).  We must make choices that have the greatest chance of actually saving children.

      The question we’re faced with is this:  If we were forced to choose between looking virtuous but having no further effect, or appearing ignoble but accomplishing some good, which path should we take?  When we must choose one or the other, are we obliged by God to make a moral statement or to have a moral impact?

      Here’s an example of what I mean.  Judie Brown has vigorously opposed legislation targeted narrowly at partial-birth abortion.  She’s against the prohibition not because she is pro-abortion, but because she is pro-life. As President of the American Life League, Brown asserts that such “incrementalist” solutions “set aside millions of children scheduled for death,” the 99% of abortions that don’t use that procedure.[2]

      As Brown sees it, this is an issue of conscience.  A mere ban on partial-birth abortion doesn’t go far enough.  She can’t get behind any legislation that allows a single child to be killed.  Anything short of the full pro-life position is an unacceptable compromise. 

      In this case, however, “voting one’s conscience” actually causes much more harm than good.  Instead of saving 1% of future victims of abortion, Judie Brown’s approach saves none.


Statements vs. Impact

      What’s happening here?  I respect those like Judie Brown driven by principle, but in this case her application of principle is mistaken.  Brown is right to vote her conscience, but her conscience is not properly informed in this case, so her decision is misdirected.  Brown’s error is misunderstanding what goodness—that which informs conscience—actually requires in this particular case.  Goodness requires more than making a moral statement.  Rather, it requires having a moral impact.

      Jesus condemned Jews who abused the practice of Corban (Mark 7:11), a pledge to God that appeared righteousness, but helped no one.  Admittedly, the motives of pro-lifers voting “consistently pro-life” are different from those who used the practice of Corban as a religious cloak for avarice, but the result is the same:  moral statements with no moral impact.

      In the last senatorial election in California, both front-runners were pro-abortion, but for the Republican candidate, Matt Fong, partial-birth abortion went too far.  His Democratic opponent, Barbara Boxer, had no such scruples.  It was a close race, with many pro-lifers abandoning Fong and instead casting their votes with unelectable candidates who were “consistently pro-life.”  Consequently, Boxer prevailed.

      Those whose “conscience vote” guaranteed that a hard-core pro-abortionist was re-elected could have benefited from the moral insight of Cardinal Ratzinger:


According to the principles of Catholic morality, an action can be considered licit [morally permissible] whose object and proximate effect consist in limiting an evil insofar as possible.  Thus, when one intervenes  in a situation judged evil in order to correct it for the better, and when the action is not evil in itself, such an action should be considered not as the voluntary acceptance of the lesser evil, but rather as the effective improvement of the existing situation, even though one remains aware that not all evil present is able to be eliminated for the moment.[3]


      In other words, it’s better to choose someone who is committed to eliminating some of the evil, than contributing to the victory of one who is not committed to eliminating any of the evil but, on the contrary, will promote it.  This is not a compromise.  This is good moral thinking.


      Father Peter West with Priests for Life adds this:

Before the Civil War, if your goal was racial equality, the most prudent thing to do would have been to vote for Lincoln even though he said he wouldn’t overturn slavery if that would save the Union.  He also held some racist views, but he was far better than the alternative.  Abolitionists kept pressure on Lincoln to free the slaves.  Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which freed only some slaves.  Later, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed to recognize the personhood of African-Americans.  The battle to achieve racial equality would go on, but the victory of Lincoln was a major step toward that goal despite his flaws.[4]

      In the same vein, Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa has said, "The wise statesman will act to achieve the greatest measure of justice that the world in which he is acting admits."[5]


Making Your Vote Count

      If you want to make your vote count for millions of unborn children, you have to face three very important facts.  First, in the next four years you'll be governed either by President Gore or President Bush.  Second, the power to destroy human life in the womb lies not with the legislature, but with the courts.  Third, one of these two men will appoint between three and five new justices to the Supreme Court and dozens of jurists to lesser posts. 

      Governor Bush is committed to appointing justices that respect the original intent of the Constitution.  He rejects the modern “living document” approach that has legitimized activist judges who usurp the role of Congress by legislating from the bench. 

      Al Gore, by contrast, is thoroughly post-modern.  “I would look for justices of the Supreme Court,” he said, “who understand that our Constitution is a living and breathing document, that it was intended by our Founders to be interpreted in the light of the constantly evolving experience of the American people.”[6] 

      Gore then acknowledged that the right to an abortion is not actually in the Constitution and instead was an invention of Justice Harry Blackmun.  The philosophy of a “living American Constitution” produces dead American children by the millions. 

      Let me state it plainly:  If you are pro-life and intend on casting a “conscience vote” for a third party candidate, you might as well be voting for Al Gore.  It will have the same ultimate impact on the safety of the unborn.

      If you sleep more comfortably at night because you’ve voted your principles, then I believe your conscience is misinformed.  You’ve chosen to make a moral statement instead of choosing to have a moral impact. 

      As one pundit put it, it's better to have a second class fireman than a first class arsonist.  There is no victory nor honor in voting for the first-class fireman who had no chance of winning when, in the end, your “conscience vote” actually counted for the arsonist.


[1] L.A. Times, 10/31/1996.

[2] First Things, March, 1996, correspondence between Judy Brown and Clark Forsythe.

[3] Taken from an open pro-life letter from Father Peter West, Priests for Life 5/31/2000. For more information go to www.priestsforlife.org.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quoted in Clarke D. Forsythe, “Doing What Can Be Done,”  First Things, December, 1995.

[6] Cal Thomas, “A ‘Living’ Constitution?” World, March 18. 2000, 18.

What's wrong with the "conscience vote?"

Greg Koukl