Don’t get too excited yet. In the next article in this series, I will show that reputable theologians, medieval and modern, have rejected the use by Christians of the Lesser of Two Evils Principle. It might not be available for you in justifying your choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Election. Nonetheless, the term has made its way into teaching on Christian discernment, as I recently discovered in one of my wife’s spiritual direction texts:
Discernment in the biblical sense is not choosing between an action that is clearly of God and a direction that is clearly not of God. Rather, it involves choosing the better of two (or more) seemingly godly possibilities. If no such possibilities are available, it involves choosing the lesser of two apparent evils. When discerning a “lesser evil,” we are driven to trust that God calls us down that path and that it will work for our good (Ben Campbell Johnson, 99).
Don’t get too excited yet. In our first article (“The Lesser of Two Weevils,” LibToday 6/4/16), we said that the Lesser of Two Evils Principle is not for the frivolous. In this article, we say it is not for the lazy. The discipline of Christian discernment is hard work, at least as practiced by Ignatians, Quakers, or Benedictines, and there are numerous steps even before you get to the Lesser of Two Evils Principle. If you do end up there, you will find out that your most arduous work has only just begun. Some people as early as May were lightly tossing off the announcement, “Oh well (sigh), I guess I’ll just have to vote for the lesser of two evils, and vote for Trump [or for Hillary].” They may have engaged in some thought process, but it seems too early to qualify as Christian discernment. In fact, Ignatius of Loyola called the four movements of his Spiritual Exercises, “weeks.”
In Week One, you cultivate “a desire to discern.” “Do you truly desire to know the will of God, the direction that will ultimately be best for you?” Christian discernment is predicated on obedience.
Often the word “discernment” is used simply as a substitute for “making a decision.” But in the Christian tradition, the word is not to be taken so lightly. It involves more than collecting data and deciding according to which choice feels best or conforms to certain predetermined norms. Christian discernment seeks a sense of the presence of God in exploring alternatives. Prayer lies at the heart of Christian discernment (Johnson, 99).
Do you really want to complicate your life by inviting the Lord God Almighty into your decision-making? Here’s a good test: If you are a lifelong Republican voter, what if the Lord tells you to vote for Hillary? If you are a Bernie enthusiast, what if the Lord tells you to vote for Trump? If you respond, “No, God would never ask me to do that,” then you probably aren’t ready to use the 2016 Election as an exercise in Christian discernment.
The first paragraph quoted from Johnson above indicates that the Lesser of Two Evils Principle is only invoked at the very last, a step of last resort. As a first step, you must make sure that you are not blasting past a situation where one action is “clearly of God” and the other is “clearly not of God.” Such a decision presumably wouldn’t require any discernment at all, since the disciple is building his or her life around loving obedience to a loving God. This likely explains why the strongest reaction to the roll-out of our Bust the Ballot campaign came from those readers already planning on voting for Hillary Clinton in her own right, or planning on voting against Trump by voting for Hillary. It is ridiculous, they told me, to ever end up with Hillary included in a Lesser-of-Two-Evils binary conundrum with someone like Donald Trump. They have a point. I am not voting for Hillary Clinton, nor campaigning for her, yet I believe that she will be neither better nor worse a president than she was a US senator or a Secretary of State. We experienced one Clinton presidency, and catastrophizing about Hillary Clinton makes no sense to me whatsoever. I also welcome the chance for America to have a female president, however much I might wish it had been Elizabeth Dole’s honor. (Remember her?)
One of my conclusions in this first phase of Christian discernment should be obvious: I at least think that voting for Donald Trump is “clearly not of God.” Why I don’t think that we need to drag Hillary Clinton into a final Lesser-of-Two-Evils discernment phase has nothing to do with whether she is “clearly of God,” something about which I can’t imagine I would ever successfully convince my Republican friends. Instead, I seriously question the implied binary question. Johnson advises as step one:
Formulate as clearly and specifically as possible the question which you want to discern an answer: “Shall I do A or B?” For example, “Shall I move to Salem or stay in Columbus?” not “Shall I move?” Even in the process of clarifying the question, you begin to discern its answer. So spend time in conversation with God about the exact nature of your question (108).
I believe that we fully have the freedom in Christ to 1) vote for a third party candidate, or 2) write-in a candidate, or 3) not vote in 2016 at all. In other words, it’s not a Trump vs. Hillary conundrum. Consequently, a valid way to engage Christian discernment in the 2016 Election is to ask instead, “Shall I vote for Trump or not vote for Trump?” With such a question, I don’t understand why any Christian discerner has to end up at the Lesser of Two Evils Principle. Admittedly, some people feel so bound by the Two Party System, so bound by their lifelong loyalty to whomever the Republican Party nominates, that they remain bound to a notion like “Not voting, or voting for anyone other than Trump, is automatically a vote for Hillary.” I wholeheartedly believe this to be false. If however your conscience cannot be released from his notion, then I advise you to let that question be the question you finally bring down to the Lesser of Two Evils Principle. In other words:
- “What is the lesser of two evils, Trump winning or Hillary winning?” is nothing you have control over, and therefore doesn’t implicate you one way or the other, and thus is of no interest in Christian discernment. Don’t ask God this question.
- “Who is the lesser of two evils, Trump or Hillary?” is a question which God alone has reserved for his own judgment, and is thus of no interest in Christian discernment. Don’t ask God this question.
- “What is the lesser of two evils, voting for Trump (and thus affirming his character and agenda) or not voting for Trump (and thus according to your conscience, ‘automatically casting a vote for Hillary’)?” is a question which does implicate you, which you do have control over, and which opens your heart to the work that God wants to accomplish in Christian discernment. (More on this shortly.)
I truly believe that you don’t have to come down to this unfortunate last-resort phase of Christian discernment, but if you do, you will discover that only then does the true work of Christian discernment begin, because now you must trust a free God. When you embarked on Christian discernment, you yourself let God out of whatever man-made cage you had placed in. (Don’t feel insulted. This is what we humans naturally do, and it is what the parties with their vested interest encourage us to do. We can put God in a Progressive/Justice cage just as easily as we can put him in a Republican/Righteousness one.) God is free. So here are some possible outcomes to deal with:
- God may violently bust you out of your categories. He may give such an unexpected answer to your inquiry that your whole world is turned upside down. You may be called to a new stream of repentance, or to a new level of freedom. Both are scary.
- Or he may quietly bring your Christian discernment to a definitive conclusion, but then you are left with the bald fact that in the end, you chose an evil. The lesser of two evils is still an evil in itself. The fact that the other evil is worse doesn’t change the evilness of the choice you just made. The mystery you’ll have to learn to live with is that the holy God somehow led you to choose this evil, but that his leading does not automatically sacralize that evil. The only electioneering you’ll be able to do in 2016 will sound something like this: “Voting for Trump is evil. Not voting for Trump is evil. May God bless you as he leads you in what is right for you, as I believe he has led me in what is right for me.”
- Or you may encounter the fact that God has a whole different agenda in Christian discernment, and that it has nothing to do with who ought to win the 2016 election. In the Gospels, Jesus often answered a direct question with another question, or worse yet with a parable. In all things God’s purposes remain constant. He’ll even use the worst conundrum if it helps draw us closer to him. I’ll close out by letting Ben Campbell Johnson explain what he and his colleague, Elizabeth Liebert, mean by the statement: “the result of discernment is not certainty”:
Instead of engaging in the risky process of discernment, most of us would rather gaze into a crystal ball that reveals the consequences of our decisions before we make them. But if we were able to look through a crystal ball, there would be no reason for faith. If we could accurately forecast the future, faith would turn to knowledge, and no risk would be involved. But the Christian way is a way of faith, a way of implicit trust in God.
Perhaps it will also help us to acknowledge that objectively perfect discernment does not exist. We can never be sure in advance that we have it right. Only God knows whether or not we are right. The primary purpose of discernment is to make us increasingly available to God over the course of our lives as we deliberately submit our hard choices to God’s love. Like other spiritual practices, discernment results in an ever-deepening relationship with Christ and an ever-clearer understanding of who we are before God (99).
Wow! Now that seems like a worthy goal in any election year
Ben Campbell Johnson, “The Practice of Discernment,” Beyond the Ordinary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 99- 117.
What Happened When Conservative Humorist P.J. O’Rourke invoked the Lesser-of-Two-Evil Principle (though I doubt the former editor of National Lampoon bothered to pray first):
"I am endorsing Hillary, and all her lies and all her empty promises. It's the second-worst thing that can happen to this country, but she's way behind in second place. She's wrong about absolutely everything, but she's wrong within normal parameters."
Read the story at: Conservative Author P.J. O'Rourke Reluctantly Backs Clinton
I’m no longer going to be calling Trump a “fascist”; I’m going to start referring to him, more appropriately, as a “proto-fascist.” This is a term which I heard documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War) use of Trump in a commencement speech at Stanford University. See USA Today’s coverage with the Burns clip: “Ken Burns on Trump speech: 'My responsibility as a citizen.' The prefix proto- means “characterized by the beginning of [something.]” Trump’s campaign, as I tried to explain in LibToday 6/7/16: “We Might Be Bonhoeffer” represents the arrival of fascism, its beachhead, its foot-in-the door. Besides, Trump is more akin in his stage of evolution to Benito Mussolini than to Adolph Hitler. The nice thing about a proto-fascist movement as compared to a fascist one is that you can begin to dismantle it in its early stages. I don’t believe that America is going to hell in a Trumpbasket. Instead I think of 2016 as a grace-bestowed opportunity where dangerous undercurrents have been made manifest, so that our nation and her political parties and her traditional voters can make a midcourse correction. Meanwhile a new generation of voters like my son are inescapably confronted with the challenge: “What kind of country do you want to live in?”