Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and the Moral Philosophy of Jack Bauer

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The 2016 election of President Donald Trump created significant conversations, not just about policies as in previous years, but about moral philosophy. Our social media feeds were filled with moral philosophers who contemplated whether we should be consequentialists or espouse an ethics of non-conflicting absolutes.

Many Christians have never had to confront the ethical dilemmas presented by these last two elections. For some of you there was no dilemma at all. The answers in these past four years have been so clear. But others, especially those who have always aligned with one party, discovered that they were genuinely conflicted about how they should vote.

The following is a list of questions that I have had to consider and help the people I pastor navigate as we desired to faithfully love God and neighbor with our vote.

“IS THERE ANYTHING MORE IMPORTANT THAN PROTECTING THE UNBORN IN AN ELECTION?”

I can understand why pro-life single-issue voters are baffled by our desensitization to abortion. If we are a society who values the vulnerable, then why doesn’t the staggering number of abortions shock us into action? This is why so many believe the legality of abortion is what gives it its legitimacy. And therefore, they fight for the illegality of abortion as a means of delegitimizing it as an acceptable practice in the American conscience.

It would be one thing if pro-choice politicians still believed that abortion should be safe, rare, and legal. But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. And if we are consistent about where life begins, then why wouldn’t this be the most pressing issue?

This is a legitimate concern. But before we consider why others don’t share our outrage, some self-reflection is needed. Are we using statistics and language about abortion — “the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of babies” — because we are genuinely outraged or because it is politically expedient to do so?

Here is a confession. I am pro-life. And I have had to ask myself why I haven’t done more to help young mothers who are contemplating abortion. Why the abortion statistics that I used haven’t led me to save a single child from being aborted.

Passion is more than mere enthusiasm. The original word implies suffering (the passion of Christ is about the suffering of Christ). That means that the measure of our passion is not our enthusiasm but our willingness to sacrifice for what we love. Now imagine if you met someone who is passionate about saving the lives of unborn babies but has not made any sacrifices to save a single child in the past four years.

I know people who are pro-life that have fostered and adopted children, prayerfully and peacefully stood in front of abortion clinics to speak to women who are considering abortion, mentored young pregnant women, and donated to pro-life organizations. Genuine sacrifices have been made. I also know people who are ostensibly pro-life and yet have done none of those things. There has been no meaningful sacrifice. This does not mean that they aren’t truly pro-life. But it is worth asking if our outrage is in proportion to our actions. If the most meaningful action we have taken in the last four years to save the “slaughter of hundreds of thousands of babies” is stand in line to vote, and nothing else in between, then let us be honest about how disturbed we are about abortion. We are disturbed enough to act once every four years.

Our comparisons to other historical atrocities may not help us either. If we are going to compare the advocacy of abortion to the advocacy of slavery, then we must ask if our actions reflect that of a true abolitionist. If we are going to compare aborted babies to the millions who died in the holocaust, have our actions in these past four years reflected that of Oskar Schindler or the Germans who stood by while it happened?

Maybe we are somewhere in between.

The point is that we may rightfully use these comparisons but simultaneously implicate ourselves if our relief efforts do not reflect the sacrifices of those who fought such injustices, whose passion for justice manifested itself in meaningful sacrifice.

This leads back to the original question of how anything could be more pressing than protecting unborn children. The truth is that most people are overwhelmed by the sheer number of injustices and tragedies that exist in the world today. It could be that, as James Davison Hunter observes in To Change the World, the sensationalization, compression, and presentation of news desensitizes us to respond appropriately. He writes,

“…a news report on a famine in Africa is followed by an advertisement offering pharmaceutical help for erectile dysfunction, which is then followed by the latest results of the NCAA basketball tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina; the stock market news from New York, London, Frankfurt, and Tokyo; a murder trial in Los Angeles; a trailer for a new coming-of-age movie; and so on…The fictional and the real, the comical and the serious, the insignificant and the significant, all blend together flattening out the distinctions among them. The net effect is that all content is trivialized.”

This may explain why statistics and language about abortion do not move people to action even if they are pro-life. Social media posts about abortion statistics will undoubtedly be followed by news of some other tragedy or advertisements that flattens it all. As a result, we are more likely to gravitate towards the injustices that are in closest proximity to us. For some of you, that means helping victims of human trafficking. For others, it means helping the immigrant who is seeking asylum in your neighborhood. For some it could mean helping the child down the street, and others the child recently conceived.

So when we ask, “How can anything be more important than protecting unborn children?” the answer is not that other things are more pressing, but just more present to us. God has strategically positioned every one of us to love Him, love our neighbors, and do the work of justice in a way that if we all faithfully did, there would be a global collaborative work of justice. And therefore, it is perfectly loving, moral, and just for us to vote in a way that will maximize the good of our neighbors, especially those in closest proximity to us.

“HOW CAN ANYONE VOTE FOR…?”

I encourage my congregation to honor Christ in their politics while fully aware that doing so may lead them to vote differently than I do. Not because I don’t honor Jesus, but because our votes can be both loving and God-honoring and yet different because we disagree about the stakes.

The stakes are high for every voter. And if we are bewildered by someone’s vote, it is likely because we don’t understand why they would prioritize the stakes differently than us.

For example:

  • Some may believe that the only thing standing between the life and death of unborn children is Donald Trump and the justices he appoints.
  • Others believe that electing a president with the maturity to unify and stabilize a nation in civil unrest is most pressing.
  • Some rightfully laud Joe Biden’s effort to grant protections to LGBTQ neighbors who face discrimination and are prevented from something as basic as housing, while others are rightfully concerned that the clause against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act may adversely affect religious liberty in the country.
  • Some have read that the COVID-19 death toll may reach 500,000 by February and are convinced that the most pressing need is to have a leader with the competence to lead us through this crisis while providing economic stability.
  • Others believe that having an immigration policy that loves the asylum seeker is the most pressing concern.
  • And you don’t have to be 50 cent to want a leader whose economic policies enable you to provide for your loved ones.

The list certainly goes on.

We often ask, “How can you vote for…?” because we want people to draw the lines where we have. As I noted earlier, what if they define the stakes differently because of their proximity to it? What if we philosophize things like environmental issues when it is the lived reality of others?

We may think that a person’s vote is injudicious, but it doesn’t mean that it is immoral. If love is their motivation, their vote could be an act of love for God and neighbor even if it would be different than ours.

“WHAT IF THE CANDIDATE WHOSE POLICIES MAXIMIZE THE GOOD OF OUR NEIGHBORS ALSO ADVOCATES HARMFUL POLICIES?”

There are three common approaches to this question. Jack Bauer is helpful here.

Some are consequentialists. They believe an act is moral based on its consequences. The ends justifies the means. In other words, their political strategies reflect Jack Bauer. Torture is a small price to pay to save millions of lives.

In 2016, the consequentialists said that they would rather vote for a historically immoral, crass, and narcissistic man if it meant that they could get more conservative Supreme Court Justices.

But consequentialists aren’t only on the right.

There are people who are not thrilled about Joe Biden, and may even find some of his policies to be harmful, but are nevertheless voting for him because they find another Trump presidency to be catastrophic for the country.

In both cases, the ends justify the means. And these consequentialists are unapologetic about the means.

But some are regretful consequentialists. They believe in a form of lesser evil or greater good ethics. They hate that Jack Bauer has to torture people to save lives, but they consider torture to be the lesser evil than the massacre of millions. Or, to put it positively, they believe in the greater good of saving millions of lives than saving the life of a person who was intent on killing them.

Here, the ends still justify the means. The difference, however, is in the attitude about the means. They are regretful that this is what it takes to advance their cause. They wish President Trump measured his words, did more to unify the country, and hate that he rage tweets. But it is a lesser evil or greater good than what Joe Biden might propose.

Similarly, there are some who wish Joe Biden was more progressive. Or, they may find some of his policies to be harmful. But nevertheless, voting for Biden, while regretful, would would be the lesser evil or accomplish a greater good than another Trump presidency.

This leads to those who believe in non-conflicting absolutes. They believe that torturing an individual is wrong no matter what is at stake. They would stand between Jack Bauer and the alleged terrorist and implore him, “Please don’t do this. We will find another way.”

There are two ideals that they want to uphold. And whenever there appears to be a conflict, they act in a way to uphold both. They are pro-life but also see how President Trump’s administration has made it incredibly difficult for immigrants seeking asylum. Like Joe Biden, they want to end discrimination against their LGBTQ neighbors, but also want the promise of religious liberty. So what do they do? They uphold all of their values by writing in a candidate.

But will we ever find a candidate who endorses all our values? This seems to be increasingly unlikely. If you are pro-life, pro-immigration, desire racial reconciliation, are concerned about climate change, and believe in religious liberty, you may be waiting for a while before there is a candidate who represents all your values.

At the same time, those who risk being idealistic and vote for the person representing their vision for government and leadership knows that if a critical mass of people did the same, we would have candidates that adjust to us, as opposed to having to always adjust our values to endorse the candidate.

So how do we ultimately answer the question about whether we should vote for a candidate that endorses policies that help our neighbors but are harmful to others?

In general, consequentialism is a bad moral philosophy for life. People can use all kinds of justifications for bad behavior if it brings about a desired end. Regretful consequentialists would at least be wise to be vocal about where you disagree with your candidate and volunteer and vote locally to advocate for the values that your candidate may not share or even oppose. Finally, you can avoid all this by simply voting for the person who represents all of your values, but you won’t be able to avoid the amount of time and critical mass required for someone like that to actually be on the ticket.

“IF ALL CANDIDATES ARE FLAWED, DOES CHARACTER EVEN MATTER ANYMORE?”

Something happened in the aftermath of the 2016 election. People began to reconsider the importance of a leader’s character. Some outright denied it’s significance altogether.

The Pragmatist: “Everyone sins. Therefore, everyone is immoral. Finding a moral candidate these days is idealistic.”

The Pragmatist does not realize just how much of Christianity is idealistic to others, and even rejected on those grounds. We believe in a returning King. That the lion will one day lay down with the lamb in peace. We believe in a high sexual ethic, that we are to love our enemies, that we are to walk two miles when asked to walk one, that we must bless when cursed. But are these things also idealistic? Have we defined idealism as the things that are too difficult for us to achieve? And would we say that our sexual ethics for society are just as idealistic as our desire for a moral leader in society?

The Equalizer: “Aren’t all sinners equal God’s eyes? Let God judge them. We will vote for the person who advances the policies that we value and gets the job done.”

It is true that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). It is true that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Therefore, every person who breaks God’s moral law — one of them or all of them — will ultimately face physical and spiritual death apart from the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ. But just because all sins are immoral doesn’t mean that all sinners are morally the same. Jesus admits this much.

This is what Jesus said to Pilate in John 19:11: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of the greater sin.”

Regarding those who sin by tempting others to fall away, in Matthew 18:6, Jesus said, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away — it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!

Teachers are told in James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

The pattern here is that all sins lead to death, but not all sins are judged as being qualitatively the same. God differentiates between them and it appears that some will face greater punishment as evidenced by the fact that some people have “the greater sin” and therefore greater judgement.

Interestingly, in the examples that I have cited, it appears that these people are also in positions of influence — leaders who handed Jesus over to Pilate, teachers who have the incredible responsibility to explain the Scriptures, people whose influence can cause others to fall away. As a result, we have historically said that to whom much is given, much more is required (Luke 12:48). With great power comes great responsibility (Ben Parker). But instead of acknowledging the moral character needed for the presidency, we have ultimately denied it’s significance altogether.

Character is not all that matters. Jimmy Carter is often cited as a man of exceptional character but had largely failed policies. But it’s one thing to go from “character is all that matters and policy does not” to “policy is all that matters and character does not.” We forgot that there is another option in the middle. We need a person with good character to shape the culture of the country, and with sensible policies that will work for the good of all Americans.

We all know the catastrophic effects of bad policy. But the effects of a leader’s moral character on a country is neither immediately seen nor easily measured.

Anyone who has led anything — a soccer team, an organization, a church, a business, a home — all know that one of the unseen and yet most important aspects of leadership is the culture that we create. Getting to call the plays is the most superficial part of leadership. That’s what people in the stands talk about. But getting the team to work together? Creating a culture of mutual respect? Helping them resolve conflict and unifying them to move forward with a shared vision? That’s leadership. Now think about what you have just read and ask yourself why the president is the only leader that is exempt from this task?

Imagine living in a society where Republicans and Democrats are increasingly hostile to one another. Conservatives and Liberals believe that the other side has nothing valuable to add to the country. Their language is increasingly divisive, hostile, and lacking in basic decency. They stigmatize the people they don’t understand. Now ask yourself if the current president has perpetuated this culture or modeled a different way for us.

To be sure, President Trump is not responsible for the culture of polarization in our country. It existed before he arrived. He simply exploited and legitimized it. There is a constant comparison of red states vs blue states. He threatens to withhold taxpayer funds to states that are blue for the simple fact that they are blue. When he uses divisive words on twitter or at his rallies he legitimizes it as an acceptable form of political discourse. In his promise to protect suburban women from the low-income housing, he further stigmatizes the poor who have elected him.

At this point, some of you may wonder, “But what about Joe Biden? What about his character flaws? Is he less of a sinner than Donald Trump? And what if I think his policies would be just as damaging to the culture of America?”

These are valid questions that are worth our consideration. Three things come to mind:

  • In a pluralistic society with diverse religions, cultures, and ideologies, Christians must at the very minimum require the moral compass that is available to all people by God’s common grace. If we support a candidate who lacks this character — decency, civility, respect, maturity, honesty, humility — those who do not share our faith may rightly question our moral compass. They may wonder why we contend for values in society that require explanation —such as our sexual ethic, identity, beliefs about meaning and purpose — when we don’t even contend for the basic moral values that require no explanation at all.
  • We must be careful not to flatten morality and make it meaningless when we compare two candidates. It is easy to find an example of incivility, disrespect, or dishonesty in the candidate we oppose. But is it an honest assessment to find an example and therefore conclude, “See! They are both equally immoral!” This may be true, but let’s be honest about our analysis. Are their public offenses qualitatively and quantitatively the same? How have they both responded to the common grace given to us all?
  • Finally, it is true that the candidate’s policies could be damaging to American culture. This cannot be minimized nor overstated. This is why I wrote earlier that someone’s vote can be moral and just, expressing love for God and neighbor, and yet be different than another’s simply because they disagree about the policies at stake. However, it is still worth noting that the hope in the midst of such disagreement is the ability to discuss our perspectives and find consensus. This is why we must fight against the legitimacy of hostility in today’s political discourse, and be wary of any politicians who encourage it.

In other words, it is why character still matters.

Written by

Lead Pastor of New Hope Church in Harlem, NY. I write about faith, politics, and culture.

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