None of the Above
None of the Above:
An Argument for Rejecting Pragmatism in the Voting Booth
It is that time again. Once again, “the most important election of our generation/era/lifetime” is upon us (until, that is, the next one comes along and then it will be the most important). “The stakes have never been higher” (until, that is, the next election). “We are at a critical juncture and if we do not vote for candidate X, the other guy, who is a known Plutocrat and whose wife is a closet thespian, will wreak havoc and destruction on us that has no parallel in the annals of this universe or any other” (OK, so you get the point). We are once again subjected to the kabuki theater that is the modern American political process. It is time to vote for national civil officers, the most important of which is the President. So I thought this would be as good a time as any for me to argue against the standard fair. This is to say, I thought I would explain why I will not be voting for “the lesser of two evils,” “the best candidate who actually has a chance to win,” or something similar. In short, I will not be voting according to the philosophy of pragmatism. This paper will make the case for why this is so.
To begin with, I think some definitions and distinctions are in order. I do not have a problem with pragmatic criteria as secondary considerations. Indeed, there are plenty of good ones out there to, well, consider. Such criteria should be applied – in the proper manner. Pragmatism, which goes heavy on the -ism, does not do this. So what's the difference? Pragmatism first asks “practical” questions like "Who has a chance to win?" The best candidate is then chosen from among those who "could win." Thus, the first and primary "weed-out" criterion is pragmatic or tactical. Those candidates who are left, however rotten, constitute the possible and only options from which one must choose. Sometimes, pragmatism is applied “more aggressively” so that the first weed-out criterion leads directly to the final choice (e.g., “Which candidate will most likely ensure or prevent consequence X?”) In opposition to this, my first weed-out question would be, "Regardless of what the competition might look like and regardless of my assessment as to which candidates ultimately have a decent chance of winning, does candidate X meet my principled and biblical criteria for office?" This question is put to each candidate and those who cannot meet these criteria are out of contention. Then, of those who are left, tactical questions such as "Who has the best chance to win?" may be asked. The first view is primarily pragmatic/tactical and is secondarily (if at all) ideological/principled while the second view is primarily principled and secondarily pragmatic.
Conservative Christians, by and large, hold to the first view – what I will call “the primacy of pragmatism” or simply “pragmatism” (with the “ism” part denoting that pragmatic criteria have been elevated to the first and primary concerns). This is evidenced by a number of common arguments and or views expressed by them. Obviously, it can be as straightforward as the positive claim that we need to vote for the best candidate who has a real/meaningful/significant chance to win. It often also takes the negative form, i.e., we need to vote so as to give us the best chance of avoiding wretched candidate so-and-so. Sometimes the view may appear fairly principled. The proponent will lay out various qualifications that he thinks candidate X has and the various deficits that he thinks candidate Y has. But throughout the comparison, only the two major party candidates are ever mentioned. Third-party candidates, write-in votes, and principled no-votes are never even mentioned much less considered. This is because the principles being used to compare the two major candidates are not the first and primary concern. Pragmatism has already been used to filter the field and the principled criteria are then applied to those who are left (and this usually means the two major party candidates). Moreover, when some Christians reject this method, the primacy of pragmatism is often evidenced by responses such as “you shouldn’t be a purist/perfectionist” or “one less vote for major party candidate X is one more vote for the other major party candidate Y.”
In contrast, I will refer to my view as “principled” for now (though I will tweak that name momentarily). This view says that when we vote for people to represent us in the crafting, interpreting, and/or enforcing of civil laws, we should do so in a principled fashion. Each candidate should be independently compared to a set of biblically derived, ethically based criteria to see whether or not he qualifies. If he does not, then he is unacceptable. It does not matter that he may compare favorably to one or more of the other candidates or even to the current office holder. If more than one of the candidates qualifies, then the choice between them is no longer an ethical question and tactical considerations may be entertained. On the other hand, the primacy of pragmatism is the view that such biblical/ethical criteria, to the extent that they are relevant at all, are secondary to pragmatic and tactical concerns. As mentioned above, the most common form this takes is to decide which candidates have a statistically meaningful change to win (based on past experience, current polling data, etc.) and then chose the best one. It does not matter whether any of these “viable” candidates can meet the principled criteria; the candidates are never actually compared to such criteria directly. They are always compared to one another in the governing context of certain desired “practical” ends. Thus, while a principled view can make use of pragmatic considerations in a secondary role, pragmatism puts those considerations first and foremost.
Before addressing pragmatism in detail, I would like to respond to perhaps the most common complaint leveled against a “principled” stance such as the one described above. It is often the case that when one learns that someone else has chosen not to vote pragmatically for one of the main party candidates because neither candidate is acceptable, the plea is made that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of some possible progress (even if it is small and even if the only “progress” consists of avoiding a much worse candidate). The perfect candidate, we are told, does not exist. No candidate will agree with you at every point. And so on and so forth.
Time and time again when a Christian advocates pragmatically voting for dubious candidate X (because candidate Y is Freddy Kruger on a bad day), the assumption is made that a rejection of this primarily pragmatic method is purist or perfectionistic. But while I am sure there are such “perfectionists” out there, such a dichotomy is false and this paper will not advocate perfectionism. This complaint is therefore inapplicable to my view. I think a biblically principled view is consistent with (and therefore I can accept) a fair amount of variation within the basic paradigm. I can distinguish between primary issues and secondary issues, I can see when someone is trying to be faithful to God’s word even if we disagree on what that requires in a certain case, etc. But what I do argue for is a Copernican shift that reverses the order and importance of that which is principled and that which is pragmatic.
I believe that candidates must stand or fall on their own merits, regardless of who the competition is and regardless of whether or not they have a chance to win. If a candidate's views and actions significantly depart from my understanding of the biblical view of the State’s proper role as it pertains to the sought-after office, then he is unacceptable. Who can and cannot win does not alter this fact. Thus, the label I would give to my view is “principled imperfectionism." It is principled because I judge candidates first and foremost based upon my understanding of the biblical criteria relevant for the office being sought and it is a form of “imperfectionism” because the biblical criteria do not require such candidates to be sinless or perfect. Thus, I think this view offers a real alternative to the perfectionism-pragmatism dichotomy.
Biblical Principled Imperfectionism
To get right to the heart of the issue, Christian pragmatists (saying “Christians who vote according to the primacy of pragmatism” is a bit too bulky for repeated use) often seem to operate as if the Bible were silent on the question of how leaders should be chosen. I have seen a number of informal debates of this topic and I have been involved in a few of them and I rarely see pragmatists argue biblically for their position. It is not just that biblical exegesis directly related to the topic forms a secondary part of their argument. I rarely see it form any part of their argument. This is rather odd because I am talking about “Conservative Christians,” those people who generally affirm at least something like sola Scriptura – the Bible is the sole infallible and ultimate epistemological standard (i.e., standard of knowledge). And it is not like the topic at hand can only be related to biblical instruction by subtle and complicated linguistic gymnastics. The Bible actually addresses the topic in several ways including the most direct one.
But before we get to the biblical principles for choosing leaders, it will help to set the stage by reviewing the nature of the topic we are discussing. For if we are discussing our selection of civil rulers, what is it that they are supposed to do? What is there basic job description? Simply put, these rulers are elected to define, execute, and adjudicate the laws of our various political units (e.g., state and federal governments). There are some amoral aspects to these activities as there are for all areas of life but it should be obvious that such activities are primarily and fundamentally about applying moral principles to the variegated instances of human interaction. The truly amoral aspects (e.g., some administrative rules) are secondary since they exist as support structure for the primary, moral aspect/purpose.
Thus, the job of civil rulers is to make and work with civil law (civil in the sense of the law of a city/state/nation) and that law ought to be thoroughly rooted in ethics. The chief purpose and goal of civil law is and ought to be justice. Because of this, the choice of those who fashion this law is fundamentally an ethical and not a pragmatic choice. Thus, the standards that we use to make such a choice should be principled, ethical criteria. Pragmatic considerations are secondary in importance and may only be made after the principled criteria have first been met.
Consider, as examples, the following general areas of law:
1. Criminal law (murder, violence)
2. Property law (theft, fraud, destruction of property, rightful ownership)
3. Contract law (failure to fulfill promises/obligations)
4. Liability/tort law (injury, damages, negligence)
5. Labor law (health and safety of working conditions, “fair” wages)
6. Environmental law (negative economic externalities, i.e., pollution)
7. Civil rights law (discrimination, civil liberties)
8. Family law (marriage, divorce, division of assets, child custody)
9. Competition/antitrust law (conspiracy to restrict trade, monopolies, “unfair” pricing)
10. Procedural law (chain of evidence must rule out errors/tampering, no secret evidence, judge must be impartial, both sides must get a full hearing)
For most of these areas, it is obvious that their content is heavily focused on moral issues/questions and the purpose of such content is justice. Words such as “justice,” “rights,” “duty,” “fair,” and “unfair” permeate their discussion. Whether or not any particular law within these general areas actually achieves its goal of justice is another matter. But the areas themselves, the subject matters of these areas, and the purpose of the various laws (or opposition to such laws) are at bottom meant to promote justice, defend rights, and punish certain forms of evil. And when we move to specific issues or topics, the fact that civil law is fundamentally an ethical endeavor (or at least an attempt at such) is just as clear. Think about the following examples:
1. Bribery of civil officials
2. Witness tampering
4. Use of the death penalty
5. Long term incarceration (at taxpayer expense) for property crimes
6. Due process
7. Foreign aid (i.e., international welfare)
8. Forced embargos of other nations (which affects everyone – men, women, children, the elderly, civilians – indiscriminately and affects the poor and/or unconnected much more so than the rich and/or politically connected)
9. When to go to war
10. How to fight a war (e.g., carpet bombing of civilians, use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons)
11. Torture of enemy combatants
12. Immigration and immigrants’ access to various taxpayer funded services
14. Pre-born baby stem cell research
16. Legitimization and normalization of homosexuality and homosexual marriage
17. Commercial discrimination based on some personal characteristic
18. War on drugs
19. Libel, slander, and defamation
20. Welfare and the war on poverty
21. Social security (i.e., forced, state-owned and administered retirement program)
22. Civil government’s role in forming the minds, desires, and character of children (a.k.a. education)
23. Civil government’s running sustained, intergenerational debts that must be serviced by people who did not help build the debt and who may not have even been alive at the time the debt was created (perhaps the most extreme form of taxation without representation)
24. Fractional reserve banking (whether applied to basic demand deposits or more esoteric financial instruments such as mortgage-backed securities or credit default swaps) that internalizes and privatizes all of the gains while it externalizes and socializes most of the risk and, when that risk is realized, losses
25. Civil government / Federal Reserve manipulation of the money supply (e.g., inflation, central bureau determined interest rates, Fed monetization of government debt)
26. Zoning laws (do they justly protect the property of some or violate the property rights of others?)
27. Eminent domain
28. Asset forfeiture laws
30. Climate change (which is really just a subcategory of pollution)
31. Fraud (in products or services for sale)
30. Subsidies, tariffs, and other devices that transfer business and profits from politically disliked groups to politically connected or approved ones
32. Minimum wage and other labor laws that control, restrict, and/or subsidize certain labor agreements
33. Civil government regulation and/or setting of consumer prices
34. Widely different tax brackets (i.e., the attempt, or failure, to get taxpayers to “pay their fair share”)
35. Tax deductions/loopholes for politically favored groups or ideas (thus, some groups are forced to subsidize the services of others)
This list could go on and on but I have tried to use examples from a variety of legal areas and that would resonate with people who hold a variety of political views. Once again, one does not have to hold a particular position on these issues to see that at least one side and usually more than one side of any particular issue understands it to be fundamentally ethical in nature. These are not topics of expediency, convenience, or personal taste. To summarize these areas of law in general and issues in particular, we are talking about human social interaction. We are talking about how one person treats another person. We are talking about justice. These are issues of ethics, not efficiency.
The Bible substantiates this understanding by teaching that concepts such as righteousness and justice are fundamental to and inherent in good civil law while, conversely, the law should proscribe acts of sin and evil. There should be two main goals of civil law. The first is retribution and justice so that the criminal “pays” the appropriate price for his crime (no more and no less). Thus, the Bible teaches the basic civil principle of the lex talionis, the law of proportionate retribution (i.e., “an eye for an eye”, Ex. 21:23-25; Deut. 19:21). The law is not to play favorites by taking three strands of hair for an eye but it must also avoid the emotional response of a blood vendetta that ends up taking two eyes, an arm, and a kidney for an eye. The criminal should pay the appropriate price whether he “deserves to be beaten… according to his guilt” (Deut. 25:2), is “not deserving of death” (Deut. 19:6), is “worthy of death” (Deut. 21:22), or is “deserving of death” (Acts 25:11). Civil law, according to the Bible, provides “a just recompense” to the guilty (Heb. 2:2).
The second main goal is the restoration of the victim (as much as is possible; obviously, for example, a murder victim cannot be restored). Various statutes therefore require the guilty to “make it good” (Ex. 21:33, 34), “pay ox for ox” (Ex. 21:36), and “make restitution” (Ex. 22:5, 6). Straightforward theft (as opposed, for example, to “ox for ox” negligence) without a voluntary confession requires double restitution to the victim (which amounts to one part restoration to the status quo ante and one part penalty for the crime, Ex. 22:4, 7, 9). Violence requires full restitution for healing and for lost productivity (which is not limited to productivity while “at work”, Ex. 21:18, 19).
In addition to the ethical nature of the basic goals of civil law, such law is often described in unambiguously moral terms/categories. So in general, civil judgment should be conducted in righteousness and not in unrighteousness (Lev. 19:15) and the statutes as a whole are righteous (Deut. 4:5-8). More specifically, witnesses testify in civil court about matters of iniquity and sin (Deut. 19:15). False witnessing is wicked precisely because it perverts justice (Ex. 23:1). Showing partiality in judgment or the taking of a bribe are perversions of justice (Deut. 16:19); judgment must be just (Deut. 16:20). Theft is trespass (Ex. 22:9), and employing fraudulent scales of measurement is an abomination (Deut. 25:13-16). Theft is a sin and a trespass against the Lord that incurs guilt (Lev. 6:1-5). A murderer is guilty of death and therefore, according to the lex talionis, must receive the death penalty (Num. 35:31). And negligence that results in death brings the guilt of bloodshed (Deut. 22:8).
Finally, we should note what civil punishment is for from the standpoint of morality. In general, civil punishment is designed to “put away the evil from among you” (Deut. 17:7; 19:18, 19; 21:18-21; 24:7). More specifically, a trespass offering is required in order to make atonement for theft (Lev. 6:1-7). Capital punishment applies to acts that are sin (Deut. 24:16). Additionally, we can compare all of the passages that impose the death penalty for a crime with the statement that we should “Keep [ourselves] far from a false matter; do not kill the innocent and righteous. For I will not justify the wicked” (Ex. 23:7).
In sum then, the often heard bumper sticker slogan that “you can’t legislate morality” is, in a very important sense, completely false. If all that is meant by this phrase is the idea that people cannot be made moral by imposing laws on them, this is true enough but probably goes without saying. It is doubtful that a significant number of people think that law has such a transformative effect. However this phrase (especially when uttered in a political context) usually means that one should not try to enact laws that are based on one’s moral code. It should be clear by now that the vast majority of the time, this is precisely what we either do or at least attempt to do. Whether or not we are legislating a good and true understanding of morality in any given instance is a separate question, but the fact that we are constantly working with questions and issues that are fundamentally ethical in nature and are trying to legislate some understanding of morality is abundantly clear. This is what we elect leaders to do. And since the job of civil rulers revolves around activities that are fundamentally about ethics and only secondarily about non-ethical qualities such as simple expediency, what sense would it make if those rulers were supposed to be chosen based on the primacy of pragmatism? Their job is fundamentally about working with something that has quality X but we should expect to choose them primarily based on a philosophy of not-X. This is hardly the basis of a coherent system of government.
On the other hand, if the job of civil rulers is fundamentally about ethics and requires them first of all to be principled, it makes perfect sense that they should be chosen based on principled criteria fundamentally based in ethics. And indeed, this is just what the Bible presents. The Bible gives us three categories of requirements that would-be leaders should meet before being chosen. The first category is one of ability; would-be leaders should have the general skills and understanding required for the sought-after position. So at a fundamental level, civil rulers should be able/capable (Ex. 18:21). To expand on this a little, we should “Choose wise, understanding, and knowledgeable men from among your tribes, and I will make them heads over you” (Deut. 1:13). Rulers need such wisdom, understanding, and discernment in order to properly do their jobs (I Kin. 3:7-12; Prov. 8:12-16; 28:16). They should therefore be able to make careful inquiries in order to resolve difficult issues (Deut. 19:16-18). Shifting institutions (but not the basic concept) from the civil to the ecclesiastical, a deacon must be wise (Acts 6:1-3). He must rule his own house well (I Tim. 3:8-12). Likewise, a bishop must be able to teach, he must be experienced, and he must rule his own house well and have submissive children (notice that the quality of his household rule is a proxy for how well he would be able to rule as a bishop, I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).
What we therefore see in the Bible for civil and ecclesiastical rulers alike is a requirement for competency that is tailored to the particular office being sought. So for example, a judge who would be deciding between people in court cases should be impartial. However a judge, if he were simply a judge in the judicial sense and not an executive leader as in the Book of Judges, would not need “executive” skill in order to be considered “capable.” On the other hand, a king would certainly need such executive wisdom and skill. Bishops should be able to teach, but this is not necessary for someone seeking office in a legislature.
But while there are areas of knowledge and many skills that are specific to individual positions, there are also aspects of the competency requirement that apply more or less the same for any prospective leader. Most of these aspects can probably be grouped under the term ‘wisdom.’ This is a critically important requirement for those who would be leaders of men and it generally requires a solid understanding of God’s word (which is the ultimate standard of wisdom, cf. Proverbs) and a life long enough to have seen many “situations” (using the word very broadly), both those that were handled well and those that were handled poorly. True wisdom is in fact the skilled application of God’s word to all areas of our lives and to all of the diverse situations that people manage to find/get themselves into. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (II Tim. 3:14-17) I will say more about wisdom shortly.
As important as basic ability and skill are, far more emphasis is given to the second requirement: the prospective leader must be someone of moral character and a pious disposition. Those who do not fear God or who are not clearly ethical (according to God’s law of course) simply do not qualify. “Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Ex. 18:21). They should be the kind of people who do not show partiality and who cannot be bought (Ex. 23:8; Deut. 1:16-18; 16:18-20). They must be just and they must rule in the fear of God (II Sam. 23:1-3; II Chr. 19:4-7). And they should be the kind of people who do not use their offices to collect graft (Deut. 17:14-17). Likewise in the ecclesiastical realm, a deacon must be honest, well-behaved, and he must not be greedy (I Tim. 3:8-12). Similarly, a bishop must be blameless, well-behaved, he must not be covetous, and he must have a good reputation (I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).
The importance of this second requirement is difficult to overstate. With any form or instantiation of government, it is not possible to write enough laws and to write them thoroughly and clearly enough to remove the necessity of personal judgment. This is not even possible in theory because at the hermeneutical level, all communication must be interpreted by the receiver(s). There is plenty of room during this interpretation process for mistakes, misunderstanding, and mischief. It is very important at this fundamental level of communication to have officials with strong integrity and with more loyalty to God than they have to themselves or to some other “earthly” cause.
But even when we communicate well, people have the ability to engage in a seemingly infinite variety of activities. No law code could possibly be big enough to cover all of the detailed situations and combinations of relevant factors that make up the full scope of human activity and interaction (though the 50 title, several hundred volume Code of Federal Regulations is clearly an attempt at such arrogant omnipresence). A well-organized code will therefore have general statements about a certain category of activity followed by some detailed applications of those statements to specific situations where the relevant activity is involved. The general statements give the rules associated with the area of activity and the applications demonstrate the logic or form of reasoning that is to be used to apply the rules to specific situations. This process of applying general rules to specific situations by means of a pre-supplied form of reasoning is called “casuistry,” and it is critically important that this process be conducted by people of integrity (as an example of evil, self-serving casuistry, see Matt. 15:1-7). The goal of the law is justice, so we obviously need those who would work with the law to value that goal well above all distorting and corrupting influences. Personal judgment is imbedded throughout the laws we make as well as throughout their application and interpretation. That personal judgment, consistent with the laws themselves, should therefore be God-centered and focused on justice.
The third principled requirement for prospective rulers is that they must have a biblical paradigm with respect to the position in question. They must realize that God’s word is the ultimate authority for all areas of life including their rule. This is first of all entailed by the requirements of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, because God’s word is the foundation of and ultimate standard for such things. After all, God is the God of knowledge and truth (I Sam. 2:3; Ps. 31:5; Is. 65:16), and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are to be found in Christ (Col. 2:2, 3). Thus, it is God that gives us knowledge, wisdom, and understanding (Ex. 35:30 - 36:1; I Kin. 3:6-12; 4:29-31; Prov. 2:6; Dan. 1:17-20; 2:20-22). Such understanding comes through His precepts (Ps. 119:104). Our wisdom and understanding are basically identified with God’s law and our observance of it (Deut. 4:5, 6). Through His word, we can have more understanding and wisdom than our teachers (Ps. 119:98-100). His word even gives wisdom and understanding to the simple (Ps. 19:7; 119:130). Thus, we should fully trust His word (Ps. 119:42), for it is His word in the Scriptures that is able to make us wise unto salvation (II Tim. 3:15). Blessed is the man whom God instructs from His law (Ps. 94:12).
Not only is the fear of the Lord itself wisdom (Job 28:28; Prov. 15:33), it is also the beginning (i.e., foundation) of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Such reverent fear is equal to the instruction of wisdom (Prov. 15:33). God is our epistemological starting point, and seeking Him is synonymous with understanding (Ps. 14:2). His word is the light for our path (Ps. 119:105, 130); it is in His light that we see light (Ps. 36:9). Thus, the law of God is synonymous with knowledge, and a lack of it destroys (Hos. 4:6). Therefore, we should not lean on our own understanding nor should we be wise in our own eyes (Prov. 3:5-7). Our faith should not stand in the wisdom of men (I Cor. 2:5). We should do what is right in God’s eyes (Ex. 15:26; Deut. 12:28; 13:17, 18; I Kin. 15:4, 5) and not our own. We should reform our minds to reflect God’s mind (Rom. 12:2; I Cor. 2:16; Eph. 4:23, 24). Thus, we must cast down anything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and all of our thoughts (even about standards for choosing civil rulers and for how they should rule) should be captive to the obedience of Christ (II Cor. 10:4, 5).
On the other hand, the consistent rebel/unbeliever has a very different standard for wisdom, understanding, and behavior. His only real delight is to express his own heart and he foolishly trusts in it (Prov. 18:2; 28:26). He therefore rushes to do his own will (Jer. 8:6). This is because he ultimately judges his actions with his own heart and will as the final standard for conduct (Deut. 12:8; Judg. 17:5, 6; Prov. 12:15; 21:2; Jer. 3:17; 7:23, 24; 16:12; 18:12; II Cor. 10:12). This means that he is an enemy of God in his mind (Rom. 8:5-8; Col. 1:21) and naturally, he despises God’s word (Ps. 50:16, 17; Is. 5:24; 30:8-10). His “wisdom” is diametrically opposed to godly wisdom (Jas. 3:13-17). Thus, he hates true knowledge, instruction, and wisdom (Prov. 1:7, 22, 29; 8:36; 18:2). His “wisdom” is actually foolishness (I Cor. 1:20; 3:19, 20). He has rejected the word of the Lord; he therefore has no wisdom (Jer. 8:8, 9). His mind is blind and corrupt (II Cor. 4:4; II Tim. 3:8). His reasoning is darkened and futile leading to self-deception and idolatry (Rom. 1:18-23; Eph. 4:17, 18). His philosophy and basic principles are empty deceit and his beliefs are pseudo-knowledge (Col. 2:8; I Tim. 6:20).
Of course, Christians are never fully consistent with Godly wisdom and unbelievers cannot be fully rebellious and live very long because, as personified Wisdom notes, “All who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:36). Consistent rebellion quickly leads to destruction and death, not only for all those around and near the perpetrators, but for the wicked themselves. And so unbelievers have generally learned that there are things you cannot do much of (or at all) without inviting unacceptable consequences. In addition, though the Western world is generally in what has been called a “post-Christian” age, it is still living off of a large amount of Christian intellectual and behavioral capital that it had built up over the centuries. So at least for the time being, the West is still a fairly long way from the kind of pagan, war-of-all-against-all culture that often existed in the ancient world and that still exists in places today. But as governing principles go, true wisdom and understanding are defined by God’s word and not by one’s own will so prospective rulers should be evaluated accordingly.
The third requirement is also entailed by the core aspect of a ruler’s job. He is supposed to decree justice, justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked according to a just judgment. These concepts are likewise defined by God’s law and not by man’s secular, philosophical speculations (e.g., “the people did what was right in their own eyes”). Thus, this can only be fulfilled by someone with a sound, biblical paradigm. For a civil ruler’s primary task is described as upholding good and punishing evil in the civil realm (Deut. 25:1, 2; Ps. 94:20-23; 101:6-8; Prov. 20:8, 26; Is. 10:1, 2; Rom. 13:3, 4; I Pet. 2:13, 14). Recall as well the passages previously mentioned in connection with the civil laws function to “put away the evil from among you” (Deut. 17:7; 19:18, 19; 21:18-21; 24:7). This distinction between good and evil is defined by God’s word/law (II Kin. 17:13; Neh. 9:28, 29; Prov. 28:4; Ps. 119:53, 115, 128, 150; Dan. 9:10, 11; Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 7:7, 16; I Tim. 1:8-10; I John 3:4). A civil ruler’s primary task is also described as upholding justice and righteousness (Deut. 1:16, 17; 16:18-20; 25:1; II Sam. 8:15; II Chr. 9:8; Ps. 72:1-4; Prov. 16:12; 29:4; Jer. 21:11, 12; 22:1-3). And once again, the concepts of justice and righteousness are ultimately defined by God’s law (Deut. 6:24, 25; Ps. 119:172; Is. 42:4; 48:18; 51:4, 7; Hab. 1:4; II Pet. 2:21).
So whether we are talking about the kind of laws that legislators make in the first place, the way they are executed, or the way they are interpreted and adjudicated by judges, the foundational task of civil rulers is to wisely justify the righteous and condemn the wicked (Deut. 25:1). “A wise king sifts out the wicked, and brings the threshing wheel over them.” (Prov. 20:26)
Moreover, civil rulers are God’s “deacons” (the Greek word is diakonos, deacon) and “ministers” (leitourgos) who are supposed to be a terror to evil doers by avenging God’s wrath upon them (Rom. 13:1-6). It is interesting to note here that Romans 13 was written originally about the pagan rulers of the Roman Empire (Nero was on the throne at the time though he had not yet gone homicidally insane). Even they were supposed to uphold justice as God understands it and dispense God’s wrath (not their own wrath). To the extent that they did not do this (and this was usually a big extent) and instead dispensed their own distorted understanding of justice, they were failing to live up to the requirements of their positions. All civil rulers (as well as those they oversee) have a moral responsibility to worship and serve the King of kings (Ps. 2; 72:8-11; Matt. 28:18-20; I Cor. 15:20-28; Eph. 1:19-22; Phil. 2:9-11). Civil rulers should therefore continually review and learn from God’s law, seek to uphold justice as He has defined it, and grow in the fear of the Lord (Deut. 17:18-20; Josh. 1:5-8 cf. II Kin. 22:8 - 23:15). They simply cannot be effective terrorizers of evil doers or avengers of God’s wrath if they are ignorant of true justice or if they arrogantly insist on “doing what is right in their own eyes” (cf. Deut. 12:8).
Not surprisingly then, when it comes to those who work with the law, the Bible praises and condemns these rulers because of principled/moral reasons, not pragmatic ones. Leaders were not praised because they were the lesser of two evils (or, we could say, the best of a bad lot) and they were not condemned for trying to be too faithful/ethical. They were praised when they ruled justly (e.g., I Kin. 15:9-15; II Kin. 18:1-6). Conversely, condemnation and judgment came to those rulers who were unjust (e.g., I Kin. 14:7-16; Neh. 9:32-38; Ps. 82; Is. 14:3-23; 24:1-6; Ezek. 28:1-10; Joel 3:1-8; Jon. 3; Mic. 3; 5:6-15; Zech. 9:1-8). This sort of principled, morality-based condemnation of rulers is all over the Bible but what is much harder to find are examples of praise for those who choose rulers according to pragmatism or praise of rulers who ruled according to a primarily pragmatic and secondarily ethical paradigm. In the Bible, good kings were loyal to God and ruled according to His definition of justice. They did not do this perfectly of course but this was their guiding motivation, they sought such an application in faith, and they were usually fairly successful in this effort. Bad rulers, on the other hand, were disloyal to God and unjust in their rule.
As a thought experiment, imagine that we were supposed to choose rulers based on the primacy of pragmatism. And let us further imagine that an election occurred which put Christians in the same position that they are often put in: neither candidate who could actually win is very good but one is decidedly less problematic than the other. So we do what we are supposed to do and choose the lesser of the two evils who could actually win. Now suppose that once in office, this ruler often acted/governed unjustly and in a pragmatic, Machiavellian manner. How could we criticize this ruler? We could hardly complain that he failed to live up to a standard that was not used to select him and that we already knew ahead of time he could not meet. Sure, he may have turned out to be worse than we thought he was when we voted but the best of bad lot is still bad (and we knew that going in).
Throughout the Bible, God told His people that rulers should be able to meet principled, ethically-based criteria. When rulers generally lived and governed according to the basic confines of such criteria, they were praised. When rulers generally failed to live and govern according to these criteria, they were condemned. And when the failure was great, the whole nation was condemned as well. Thus, there is perfect consistency between the requirements for leadership and the standards according to which leaders are held accountable. Rulers can be and are to be judged by the same standard that they should have met in order to be eligible to rule. But if we are supposed to choose rulers according to a primarily pragmatic, best-of-a-bad-lot methodology, we should hardly expect much sympathy from onlookers if those rulers turn out to be, well, bad.
In sum then, there are three categories of principled requirements for prospective rulers. These basic categories are the same whether we are talking about civil or ecclesiastical rulers (though specific application of the categories will vary). Such rulers must have the understanding, skills, and ability for the desired position, they must have a morally upright and pious/God-oriented character, and they must have a biblical paradigm with respect to the desired position (the heart of this requirement for civil rulers is the implementation of justice the way God defines it while for ecclesiastical rulers it is the proper understanding of God’s word so as to teach it and administer the sacraments). The primacy of pragmatism – reversing the order and importance of the ethical and the pragmatic – is simply not part of the biblical teaching here. We are not taught to choose leaders this way, leaders are not taught to govern this way, and leaders (along with the people) are not judged after the fact based on this methodology. The pragmatism half of the pragmatism-perfectionism dichotomy is therefore unbiblical.
On the other hand, these three categories do not require perfection in any of them (for civil or ecclesiastical candidates). The candidate for civil office does not have to know most everything related to the sought-after office, be sinless, or have perfect views on the proper role of the civil magistrate and the proper definition and application of justice. In other words, the candidate does not have to agree with me on everything. Seriously though, this means that the pragmatism-perfectionism dichotomy is just as false when talking about the choice of civil rulers as it is when talking about the choice of ecclesiastical rulers.
It would be well beyond the scope of this paper for me to go into detail regarding the principled criteria, how I would apply them in this or that case, or the like. Such an effort is also unnecessary for the defense of principled imperfectionism. It is enough for the argument I am making to see that there clearly are principled, non-pragmatic criteria that need to be met before a political candidate is acceptable.
If we shift the focus from biblical principles in order to look at pragmatism more closely, we find that pragmatism itself has numerous philosophical problems as well. To begin, we can let one of pragmatism’s standard bearers describe it for us.
"The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle." (William James, Pragmatism, Prometheus Books, 1991, pg. 23).
“It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence…. The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instances of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.” (Pragmatism, pg. 25)
Pragmatism is therefore known as a consequentialist theory. Ideas, claims, and actions get their justification from their consequences. This ultimately means, as James tell us, that pragmatism is only a method and is not concerned with proclaiming or denying any particular content.
“But, at the outset, at least, it stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms. No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means.” (Pragmatism, pp. 26-27)
Thus, pragmatism rejects fixed principles.
“A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency,… from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power…. It means the open air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretense of finality in truth.” (Pragmatism, pg. 25)
If this all sounds relativistic, it should. And if the ultimate focus is on consequences, then we may ask, “Consequences for whom?” James tells us.
“If there be any life that is it really better we should lead, and if there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really better for us to believe in that idea, unless, indeed, belief in it incidentally clashed with other greater vital benefits.” (Pragmatism, pp. 36-37, italics in the original)
Putting aside the precise scope of the word “us” (is it people grouped as individuals, family, friends, geopolitical entities, etc.?), the important consequences are the consequences for humans. And since the ideas/actions get their justification from such consequences, pragmatism is fundamentally man-centered. Man is the measure, so pragmatism is a form of humanism. Yet in true non-principled, non-committal fashion, pragmatism leaves room for religion as long as it is “helpful” to the individual.
“Interested in no conclusion but those which our minds and our experiences work out together, [pragmatism] has no a priori prejudices against theology. If theological ideas prove to have a value for concrete life, they will be true, for pragmatism, in the sense of being good for so much. For how much more they are true, will depend entirely on their relations to the other truths that also have to be acknowledged.” (Pragmatism, pg. 35, italics in the original)
“On pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true. Now whatever its residual difficulties may be, experience shows that it certainly does work… when I tell you that I have written a book on men’s religious experience, which on the whole has been regarded as making for the reality of God, you will perhaps exempt my own pragmatism from the charge of being an atheistic system.
“You see that pragmatism can be called religious, if you allow that religion can be pluralistic or merely melioristic in type. But whether you will finally put up with that type of religion or not is a question that only you yourself can decide. Pragmatism has to postpone dogmatic answer, for we do not yet know certainly which type of religion is going to work best in the long run. The various overbeliefs of men, their several faith-ventures, are in fact what are needed to bring the evidence in. You will probably make your own ventures severally. If radically tough, the hurly-burly of the sensible facts of nature will be enough for you, and you will need no religion at all. If radically tender, you will take up with the more monistic form of religion: the pluralistic form, with its reliance on possibilities that are not necessities, will not seem to afford you security enough.
“But if you are neither tough nor tender in an extreme and radical sense, but mixed as most of us are, it may seem to you that the type of pluralistic and moralistic religion that I have offered is as good a religious synthesis as you are likely to find. Between the two extremes of crude naturalism on the one hand and transcendental absolutism on the other, you may find that what I take the liberty of calling the pragmatistic or melioristic type of theism is exactly what you require.” (Pragmatism, pp. 131-132)
This, in sum, is pragmatism: a humanistic, relativistic venture that rejects fixed principles (except, inconsistently, for itself as a fixed principle that claims there are no fixed principles) in favor of beliefs and actions that have certain consequences “for us.” Of course this is in complete contrast to Christianity which is not man-centered and is obviously based on fixed principles. The Bible teaches that beliefs and actions are not justified by their consequences. Rather, some of our beliefs and actions are either good or evil because God has defined them as such, and He defines those as such because they either agree with His nature or are opposed to it. Good and evil are defined by God according to His nature quite independently of how an individual or group of individuals assesses consequences. So it should be readily apparent that Christians should reject pragmatism as just another variant of humanist philosophy.
And because pragmatism is such a variant, it suffers the same fate as all such philosophies: arbitrariness, incoherence, and self-refutation. For when you get right down to it, consistently applied pragmatism can be used to justify anything. To be blunt about it, for pragmatism, the ends justify the means. That which is right and true and good to choose is that which works (i.e., has certain desired consequences). The giant problem with this, however, is obvious. The definition of what "works" is completely arbitrary. Some may like consequence A while others may like consequence B. The definition of “works” is totally subjective. Thus, pragmatism can be used to justify anything. The only relevant question is, "What consequences would you like (or like to avoid in the case of candidate X)?" Therefore, pragmatism attempts to justifies actions by their consequences, but because people can and do evaluate such consequences very differently, William James’ “no fixed principles” becomes a truly arbitrary exercise of supporting that which helps me. Innumerable chambers indeed.
But even if two people seek the same basic consequences, they can legitimately differ on the right route to those consequences. In theory, there are multiple, incompatible ways that the primacy of pragmatism can be implemented and there are no objective criteria by which the differing ways may be compared. When the primacy of pragmatism is used to choose leaders for example, focusing only on the current election begs the question regarding our “time focus.” Why not pragmatically cast a none-of-the-above vote in order to send a message to the two major political parties for the next election? This would still be voting pragmatically in order to win as much as is practically possible but in this case, two consecutive elections (or maybe several consecutive elections) are viewed together instead of atomizing them into separate units. I could even be a pragmatist and say that we should vote for the worse of the two evils in this election in order to speed an “awakening” among the electorate. The populace has become ignorant and apathetic but if you turn the heat up fast enough (instead of increasing the heat slowly enough that the proverbial frog does not notice), the people may well cry out and begin to move back towards fiscal soundness, justice, etc.
This perspective also takes a longer perspective than just focusing on the current election. So should we vote for the lesser of two evils, the greater of two evils, or none of the above? In fact, all three of these can follow from the primacy of pragmatism. And why atomize elections and think only or primarily about the next one? Why not group elections together and lengthen our time horizon? One again, the choice is arbitrary. It wholly depends on the individual making the assessment.
But the problem gets even worse. Pragmatism is completely subjective from person to person at any given point in time and it does not escape arbitrariness even if two people happen to generally agree on the desired consequences. But it is also arbitrary when considering a single person at two different points in time. One of James’ “possibilities of nature” is actually quite common: namely, people change their minds (sometimes more than once). And so a certain group of consequences that were evaluated by some individual to be good when he applied his consequentialist calculus two years or even two months ago may be very differently evaluated by him today. And under pragmatism, the second evaluation is just as right as the first. As exemplified by James’ radically tough, radically tender, and mixed breed people who see religion very differently, people who assess such issues consequentially do so based on their own individual personalities, scales of likes/dislikes, and circumstances. All three of these can and do change.
And so pragmatism is not only “inter-subjective” and therefore arbitrary from person to person at any given point in time, it is also “intra-subjective” and therefore arbitrary for the same person from one point in time to another. So if we compare pragmatism to a sport like archery, it is not simply the case that it is difficult to “hit the bull’s eye” by perfectly applying the theory to some complicated situation. There literally is no target. And so any place that I shoot then becomes my “target.” Pragmatism is therefore a Rorschach plot; it means whatever the individual pragmatist wants it to mean at that particular point in time (but we only need wait a while, the possibilities of nature are vast and neurochemistry is a strange, variable brew).
In addition to being completely arbitrary, pragmatism would be operationally self-refuting if, in applying it consistently in election after election, you actually ended up with a bigger collective mess than any of the individual messes you sought to avoid. This is a specific instance of a larger critique that all consequentialist ethics fall prey to. It is not uncommon for some significant consequences to manifest only in the long run. It may even be the case that most of the consequences and/or the most important ones require months, years, or even decades to manifest (recall James’ non-commitment to the truth-value of religion because we do not know what will work best in the long run). Thus, even if one’s pragmatism “works” for the current election, the long term consequences of this election by itself and/or the cumulative effect of voting pragmatically for years may well lead to long term damage and failure that makes the short term “victories” pale in comparison. Thus, the primacy of pragmatism fails to even meet its own standard because it gets its justification from the outcome (i.e., what works) but most of the true outcome will be unknown at the time the vote is cast and for many moons afterwards. If the long term consequences are important and negative (and this is rather common in politics), then what was first thought of as the better choice will be exposed as the worse one.
As an application of this failure of pragmatism, consider the old political adage that says, "You get more of what you subsidize and less of what you tax." Well, there is a good reason why "politics as usual" is usual. We subsidize it heavily by the way we vote. The two consequentialist sides of this coin are as follows. First, the ubiquitous claim that good candidates have no chance of actually winning has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have no chance of winning precisely because of the systematic acceptance (including the large support from Christians) of the primacy of pragmatism. If dubious, pragmatic politicians win the majority of elections year after year, it is because we have collectively made that choice. And if we keep making that choice decade after decade, that kind of mentality becomes woven into the fabric of our society. And so fewer and fewer seriously qualified, principled people even run for office. Consistently voting according to the primacy of pragmatism may well have created a self-selection bias among those who would even consider running for office, and then pragmatic voting finishes off most of the good candidates who even bother to run.
Second, if we routinely vote pragmatically for slick, empty suits, Machiavellian sharks, hollow windsocks, bought-and-paid-for political harlots, ambitious power junkies, teleprompter jockeys, and assorted other characters, why should we be surprised when we get more of what we ask for? If we are slaves to the grind of the political machine, we have no right to complain about that machine or our slave status when we put the chains on ourselves.
Christians have consistently subsidized "politics as usual," so they continue to help secure and perpetuate a large number of significantly problematic political themes, ideas, candidates, and activities. As a general example, the "conservatives" of the current generation hold a number of the views that were held by the humanist "liberals" of a few generations ago. This seems to have been a steady theme in American politics for quite some time. And so we drift more and more toward secularism and liberalism. The primacy of pragmatism is bad enough, but there is something rather ironic and embarrassing about a pragmatism that just doesn't work.
But by arguing that our use of pragmatism has been merely self-contradictory because we cannot see into the future in order to know the very consequences on which our actions are supposed to be based, I’ve been much too generous. The real problem gets worse yet again. Hindsight is useless for making and/or justifying decisions, but at least it is a form of sight. At least at some point, we may begin to see the long term consequences with clear enough vision (if they are not too complicated, difficult to trace, or subtle) that we can recognize them as the consequences of our decisions. So maybe we will be able to learn something from the experience. But there is an entire category of consequences that we can never see. Economists refer to this category as “opportunity costs.” These are the options, possibilities, and/or things we give up because of the choices we make. If I spend $50 on a single meal at some overpriced restaurant, many would say that this meal cost me $50. This is true enough, but a more significant explanation is to ask what I could have done instead with that $50. And what would the consequences be if I had chosen a different route? The opportunity costs of my meal are the things I could have purchased instead but now cannot because the money is gone. And this ultimately leads back to the time that it took to earn that money. That time is an opportunity cost since it could have been used for something other than working for the money that was used to purchase the meal.
So what are the opportunity costs of voting pragmatically for eight years? What about for eighty years? Just how much have we given up, and what would the societal consequences have been had we taken a more principled route? How much have we denigrated respect for and interest in principled, ethical decision making and how much have we normalized pragmatic, Machiavellian decision making in our society by consistently arguing for and voting according to pragmatism? All we can do is speculate, because we have no way to track or measure such a comparison. The pesky thing about opportunity costs is that most of them are not just unknown the way the future is not yet known, they are unknowable. They are quite literally the roads not taken.
Recall again James’ general description of pragmatism. "The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true?” And again, “The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instances of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the true one.” Pragmatism requires us to trace the practical consequences of an option. And if there is more than one option, this becomes a comparison. When this is applied to the political arena, it becomes this: What difference will it make if candidate A or candidate B gets elected? But we cannot answer this question with any significant level of knowledge. If candidate A gets elected, all of the consequences of this choice will occur after the decision is made. Meanwhile, all of the consequences of candidate B’s election will be opportunity costs; we will never know what they are.
It is tempting here to say that we can surely get an accurate view of what will/would happen by relying on the candidates’ promises of what they will do. Yes, that was a joke. But more seriously and first of all, political campaign rhetoric and promises are not exactly known for a statistically high rate of fulfillment (a consequence of pragmatism, perhaps?). More to the point though is the rather finicky nature of the future: it often enough decides to zig when we expect it to zag. I believe some guys named Solomon and James had some pointed comments about confident predictions concerning the future (Prov. 27:1; Jas. 4:13-16).
In just the recent past of Presidential history, Bill Clinton was supposed to be a really scary option. There were jokes during the 1992 campaign about what his simplified 1040 tax form would look like. It had two lines: 1. How much money did you make last year? 2. Send it in. Yet he was hardly the economic disaster that many conservatives predicted, and when the Republicans won big in the 1994 elections, Clinton pivoted significantly to the right (his so-called “triangulation”) even implementing and taking credit for some of the Republicans’ ideas. (I hardly think Clinton was a good President but the point here is that rumors of his ability to perpetuate economic ruination were greatly exaggerated.)
The next President, George W. Bush, ran as a limited government conservative who promised a “more humble” foreign policy. But a funny thing happened on the way to the future, and eight years later, Bush had presided over a big increase in the size, scope, and intrusiveness of the federal government on the domestic front, a much more arrogant, aggressive, and violent foreign policy, and a big fat increase in the federal debt. And that increase in the debt came despite the fact that federal revenues were artificially juiced by our unsustainable, artificially low interest rate-driven, debt-fueled, fraudulent banking-based pseudo-economy. If we cannot even keep the debt from rising during a bubble economy, then what do we think will happen to the federal balance sheet when the economy (and thus, tax receipts) gets back to a more sustainable level? We are looking at the $16 trillion (and rising quickly) answer right now.
Some may be tempted to say of the foreign policy “shift” at least: you cannot criticize Bush because “9/11 changed everything.” Exactly. One (admittedly big) event changed everything. Prediction is tough, especially with regards to the very near future (9/11 occurred just eight months after Bush was inaugurated). Prediction with regards to the distant future is downright dicey. And what would have happened if George H. W. Bush would have won again or if Bob Dole, Al Gore, or John Kerry would have won? What would they have tried to do, what would they have actually been able to do, and what would the consequences of all of their actions have been? Moreover, what would be different both in the political arena (e.g., how would the major parties have been forced to change?) and in society if Christians had rejected the primacy of pragmatism beginning in, say, 1996? We should not even pretend that we have good answers to these questions.
And so at this point, it should be clear that the lofty theory of pragmatism’s consequentialist methodology has degenerated into one part attempted divination of the future (because we do not know what will happen tomorrow much less what candidate A will do years from now, what the consequences of those actions will be, or what the consequences of those consequences will be) and one part pointless speculation (because we will never know what consequences we gave up by denying candidate B the election). Pragmatism is therefore doubly incoherent: for the first part it requires a decision to be partially justified on what cannot be known in time, and for the second part it requires a decision to be partially justified on what cannot be known even in theory. It would be bad enough if we had to justify decisions based on actual consequences, but we are relegated here to guesswork about the consequences. Some future consequences may seem somewhat or even fairly predictable but the process is still guesswork, not knowledge. Trends hold until they don’t. Philosophically speaking, this methodology is not simply a train wreck; it is a train that wrecks into a train wreck.
In stark contrast, the Bible’s principled criteria require us to use actual knowledge to make our leadership choices. For the criteria of ability, we look at past and present education, subject knowledge, job history, major choices, and the like. For the criteria of character, we look at past and present behavior. And for the criteria of having a biblical worldview, we look at the candidate’s basic theology (or lack thereof), his basic philosophy regarding the State in general and the position he seeks in particular, and his specific views on a representative range of “big ticket” issues. We have ready access to this kind of information and it therefore qualifies as knowledge according to the Bible. But God’s word does not consider either amateur divination or unverifiable speculation about alternate universes to be sources of knowledge in any sense. And because they cannot provide knowledge, they cannot be used to make important ethical decisions.
Finally, consider the following dilemma that the political pragmatist has. How consistently would the pragmatic Christian carry this best-of-a-bad-lot philosophy out? Unless there is only one candidate in an election, there will always be a "lesser evil" (even if the differences between the candidates “who actually have a chance to win” are very small). If one major candidate were a consistent fascist while the other major candidate were a consistent communist, would the pragmatic Christian vote for one of them? What if both were consistently pro-death (i.e., pro- abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, etc.)? How evil is too evil for the pragmatic Christian to say that neither major party candidate can adequately represent him? Unless the Christian is willing to ride the pragmatic train to the end of the line and say that he would always vote for the lesser of the two evils no matter how wicked they both were (e.g., Caligula vs. Nero), then he must get off the train somewhere. And if there is a point where he would reject both major candidates (i.e., the ones “who actually have a chance to win”), then he will have abandoned the primacy of pragmatism and adopted my position. So it turns out that in yet another irony, the primacy of pragmatism only has a limited range in which it is useful. It only works as far as the Christian’s ability to ignore the stench. As soon as both major candidates stink too much for the Christian’s nose-holding to be effective, he will have to admit the bankruptcy of pragmatism.
Under the pretense that the best defense is a good offense, it might be tempting to try to reverse the dilemma. How consistently would I carry my principled imperfectionism out? What if there were two candidates who actually had a chance to win. One of them does not meet what I see as biblical, principled criteria but he is hardly the devil incarnate. To pick a completely random name, let us call him “Mitt Romney.” The other candidate is, literally, Satan. Let us say that Romney is running on some generic, big government, neoconservative, the-other-guy-stinks platform, and Satan is running on your standard helter skelter platform with the usual promises of demonic activity, mass leprosy, and lions for Christians. Let us further stipulate that poles show a very close race; “every vote counts” as they say. Surely in this case, I would abandon my principles in order to help avoid apocalypse now, right?
As tempting as this sounds from the standpoint of my own selfish interests, I would reject this option. Does it sound like I am willing to be disingenuous just to win an argument? Does is sound like I am willing to commit suicide for the sake of some abstract consistency? If so, then consider the scenario more closely. We are talking about a society that has gone so far beyond the moral event horizon that it is close to electing the actual Devil incarnate. In a society that far gone, it would be a gross understatement to say that Christian’s who obey God’s word when they vote are not the problem. It is also stunningly obvious that this kind of society – the kind that would wear “The Devil Is on the Level” campaign buttons – would be spreading mass quantities of destructive sin and mayhem through many means other than the ballot box. Even if Satan lost the election, that kind of society would still be doomed. And so in such a society, it would be ludicrous to complain about the Christians who vote by faith (i.e., according to God’s word) and not by “sight” (i.e., what one tries to see regarding the future consequences). They did not cause the problem and their votes are hardly going to fix it. Instead of such complaints, the pragmatic Christians (along with the principled ones) should either abandon the Titanic or brush up on early Church history. I would suggest texts such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp inasmuch as it has some things to say about being faithful to God in the face of torturous and deadly persecution.
In the end though, I do not believe we have an escape hatch that says we should be faithful to God’s word until things get too uncomfortable for us personally at which point we can switch to “more practical” options. Psychologically, I can certainly understand the desire to avoid what looks like scary consequences. I can understand that in extreme situations (e.g., torture, threat of death), Christians have even denied Christ to avoid serious threats. These are not high-handed sins and they can certainly be forgiven (e.g., Peter’s denial of Christ). But this hardly justifies a policy that says it is fine to run from faithful principles of behavior when times get tough.
Some Counter Arguments
A fairly common response (or perhaps more of a surprised exasperation) to the view presented above is something along the lines of “How do you ever expect to win, get anything done, or fix the system?” This question, when posed by Christians, exposes two significant errors.
The first problem is the pragmatic Christian’s assumption that even if unbelievers have turned politics into a swine trough, it is acceptable for Christians to get down there with them and roll around in the mud. After all, isn't that the only way the game can be played? But we are not supposed to “play the game” according to rules dreamed up by unbelievers. Would it be right for a good Christian girl to try to clean up a whore house by becoming a whore in order to reform things from the inside? Maybe it would be alright if she just did stripteases. Think of the good she could accomplish while she was there. In reality, the fact that some social institution may be significantly corrupt is no license for Christians to accept that corruption as normal or to abide by the corrupt paradigm of that institution in order to change it.
The second problem is the assumption that significant and lasting social change should come and can only really come from a-moral, power politics. If we can just get enough of “our guys” in office, they can force such change from the top down. But for the most part, this gets cause and effect backwards. Significant and lasting improvements in society and civil government will usually only come if they grow organically from widespread support. From a Christian perspective, this means significant conversion and spiritual growth among the populace with such conversion and growth coming as a result of the Church’s proclamation of the gospel and work within society. A (more or less) godly State will generally be the result of, not the cause of, a (more or less) godly society.
This point nearly becomes a law of physics in our form of civil government where the people directly choose all of the executives (including governors and mayors), legislators, and some of the judges (the rest of the judges being chosen indirectly via other offices). For better or worse, “we the people” ultimately decide what direction our culture and our governments will take. The direction of cause and effect is therefore overwhelming from the people to the State, not the other way around. Framed in a slightly different way, the problems in our society go much deeper than our politics, and our political/governmental situation looks the way it looks because of where our society is. Fighting such political symptoms is not going to fix the real problem. This should hardly be taken to mean that political activity is pointless, without value, or wrong. It is none of these things. Such activity is necessary and it is also good – in its proper place and conducted by proper means. But if my view seems hard to swallow because it seems like a recipe for lasting ineffectiveness and failure, then you are thinking very much like a pragmatist with mixed up priorities and a retrograde understanding of cause and effect.
If we really want to be “pragmatic” and focus our time, energy, and money where it will be most relevant and effective, we should put our focus on the real problem (the spiritual decay of the country) by employing the God-promised solution (the Church preaching the gospel and serving society). To the extent that such a focus can be seen as “practical,” it is that way because that is the way God has ordered things and that is the way Jesus has modeled such an order.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5-11)
“You say you want a revolution?” Jesus instigated a revolutionary way of doing revolution. He served humbly instead of grabbing aggressively, and in the ultimate example of cosmic judo, He defeated death by dying. True, lasting, effective, and righteous authority and power flows to those who serve, not to those who impatiently grab for it (relativizing their principles in the process). If this is true of Jesus and the authority that was His by (literal) divine right, then how much more is it true of pragmatic Christians and the political power they seek? Have this mind among your pragmatically-tempted selves.
Perhaps the most common argument made against voting for a third party candidate (or no one at all) is the “aiding the enemy” argument. In conservative Christian circles for example, it is usually taken for granted that a large majority of Democrats are completely unacceptable. If a particular Republican candidate is pretty bad, he is usually thought of as being a less offensive choice than the Democrat. And so it is common for Christians in such circles to hold their noses and vote for the Republican. If a principled Christian in such circles were to reject that pragmatic voting pattern, he would invariably be told that a vote for some third party candidate (or a principled no-vote) would be one less vote that the Democrat would need to overcome. A vote for a third party candidate is a vote for the Democrat (whom, we all agree, makes Freddy Kruger on his worst day look like Moses on his best).
The problem with this argument is that it contains an erroneous presupposition. It tacitly assumes that the principled Christian is ignoring some default responsibility that he has to vote for the Republican. But the existence or non-existence of such a responsibility is the very point in question (because pragmatism is the very method being disputed). Thus, this argument begs the entire question at issue. Consistent with my principled imperfectionism, no Republican candidate has a default claim on my vote. A candidate, any candidate, must earn my vote. No one has it by default. In other words, my default view of any given election at t = 0 seconds is “none of the above.” Each candidate is then compared to my principled criteria and either passes or fails that criteria. If more than one candidate passes, non-ethical criteria (e.g., tactical criteria) can then be used to further narrow the choices.
Moreover, the Republican candidate cannot lose something he never had. This argument assumes that there was a point in time, or at least some plausible scenario, in which the Democratic candidate would have to overcome my vote for the Republican candidate. But if the Republican is not acceptable based on my principled criteria, then he could never earn my vote and there is therefore no scenario in which the Democrat would have to overcome such a vote. It is only by first assuming that my position is wrong and that there is some pragmatic, default view in favor of the generic Republican candidate that this argument can even get posited. So this argument assumes the very position it was meant to prove and is therefore fallacious.
I will conclude by pointing out that my view is a specific application of the way we are to live all of life. In any given situation or in order to evaluate any given concept/view, we must first satisfy the moral requirements as revealed in the Bible. This is the hedge or boundary that we are obliged to stay inside of. All options that are inside the boundary are permissible options and we can choose among them based on non-ethical criteria such as efficiency, expediency, simple “personal taste”, etc. So whether we are contemplating what to believe about subject X or what to do in situation Y, we first figure out what is permissible according to biblical moral principles and we then choose among those options based on other criteria. Thus, principled imperfectionsim is nothing more than run-of-the-mill, faithful Christian living applied to the process of choosing leaders. Nothing special to see here. But the primacy of pragmatism turns basic Christian living quite literally on its head by claiming that the perceived and estimated consequences according to [insert pragmatic criterion here] make up the most important hedge setter. Biblical ethics are then left to clean up the details once we determine what is inside the hedge. And this special exception of reversed importance and the relativization of ethical principles supposedly exists for, of all things, the choice of those who make and work with the law!
In the words of the great philosopher Mel Brooks from his academic tome Blazing Saddles, “What in the Wide Wide World of Sports is a-goin’ on here?” This seems like the kind of “logic” that gives lawyers a bad name. What possible justification could there be for allowing this exception for this activity? Do we really want to argue that we should reverse our polarity here because the activity is so important and the potential consequences are so significant? Sure, biblical ethical principles are good enough to be the primary hedge setter for small to midsize matters. But do we really want to be seen in public claiming that the very point at which we need to relativize our moral principles so that pragmatism can do the primary and heavy lifting is the point where things really get important and where we are choosing people who make, execute, and adjudicate that which is (or at least is supposed to be) saturated in moral principles?
Pragmatism (i.e., the primacy of the pragmatic) is a secular philosophical theory that is arbitrary and question begging at the most fundamental definitional level, it can be applied in contradictory ways, it cannot meet its own standard, it leads to various absurdities, and it is unbiblical. But other than that, I suppose pragmatism itself could still be the best of a bad lot.
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