Consequentialism, Christianity and Voting

I am dismayed by the number of evangelicals who publicly endorse a consequentialist approach to political participation—especially among pastors and those charged with supervising the theological training of pastors.

Consequentialism is vexed by the human inability to foreknow the consequences of our actions. For example, suppose that Christians were to adopt a consequentialist approach to voting. Over a period of about 40 years, let’s say, strictly as a means of achieving some policy objective, we might overlook or perhaps even encourage all manner of evil in voting for politicians who promise that if we’ll only give them more power, they’ll give us what we want. 

For all we know, once they finally have that power—once Christians have helped them take control of the House, the Senate, the White House, and appoint a majority of SCOTUS—these politicians will do exactly nothing to advance the promised policy objective. 

Where would we be then? Our identity fragmented, our witness in shambles, dwelling in an unjust society with iniquitous laws that we willingly embraced. All in service to a policy objective that these politicians never had any intention of delivering. (And why would they deliver? Then we’d have no reason to vote for them. By hypothesis, the only enticement they have is promising to deliver the one policy that we care most about.) 

Ultimately, we can’t know whether our actions will bring about the remote consequences that we intend, and it is foolish to suggest otherwise. Far too many evangelicals are engaging in exactly this kind of foolishness, to the moral and intellectual impoverishment of our witness. 

Consequentialism’s only guarantee is that its logic will require us to sacrifice our integrity on the altar of aspiration. Scripture commends integrity rather than utilitarian calculus—‘Thou shalt not lie’ rather than ‘Thou shalt lie only as a means to thine ends’.

CRT: conservative evangelicalism’s latest Marxist chimaera

Recent discussion of critical race theory (CRT) in conservative evangelical circles has become a distraction from substantive issues of real concern—a chimaera, invoked by culture warriors in a transparent effort to preempt serious conversations about systemic racism.

In point of fact, the concept of systemic racism is used across a number of disciplines to describe a variety of different phenomena. Two general fields of application stand out. One has to do with psychology—racist attitudes and so forth. The other has to do with institutions.

Yet some politically conservative evangelicals talk as though the concept of systemic racism owes its existence to CRT; and they define CRT strictly in terms of theorizing about racist attitudes. Consequently, the notion of systemic racism is merely a contrivance of critical race theorists who wish to assert the ubiquity of racial prejudice among white Americans—an assertion that rings false to white evangelicals who reflect on their own attitudes and think to themselves, “Well I’m not a racist, so systemic racism can’t be real.”

Finally, the culture warriors point out that CRT is vaguely related, in ways that they can’t quite explain, to Marxism. The Gestalt that emerges from all this noise is that systemic racism is a myth—perhaps even a conspiracy—originating in the minds of godless Marxists who say defamatory things about white people and America.

And the culture warriors manage to elicit this reaction without saying a single word about systemic racism qua institutional injustice—which has nothing at all to do with CRT, except insofar as some critical race theorists happen to comment on the racial inflection of institutional injustice in the U.S.

It’s really a remarkable sleight of hand. It allows white evangelicals to dismiss all claims to do with systemic racism qua institutional injustice, without saying the first thing about, e.g., the federal government’s discriminatory housing policies that remained officially in force until 1968: policies that wrought all manner of chronic social infirmity—from school segregation to racial disparities in wealth and income, incarceration, etc.—tangible effects of injustice that impact the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans, many of whom happen to be our brothers and sisters in Christ.


A lot of the same white evangelicals who reject the notion of systemic racism qua institutional injustice also claim they’re praying for some sort of national revival. I’m not sure whether a modern nation-state is the sort of thing that’s eligible for a spiritual revival. But let’s set that to one side.

The God that I read about in the Bible will have nothing whatsoever to do with people who store up harvests sown with the seeds of injustice.

In fact, God detests the supplications of such people:

Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 5:18-24

So as long as you persist in denying that systemic racism is a problem, don’t worry about whether the government permits you to go to church, with or without a mask. Don’t worry about what kind of music you sing or whether you sing at all. Because none of it matters.

As long as you refuse to address systemic injustice, and willingly continue to benefit from it, God simply doesn’t want to hear from you. Your church is just a building where you meet up with your friends.

When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 1:15-17

The Evangelical Allergy to Expertise

What do you think is going to happen when you tell three generations of Evangelicals that the scientists are lying to them?

This is the painfully foreseeable outcome of internalizing a false choice between faith and science. This is the fruit of decades spent browbeating congregants with the message that rejecting scientific consensus is an essential feature of their faith. This is the inevitable result of embracing the decadence of American consumerism and our society’s addiction to convenience—ironically, brought to us by the technological innovations of modern science.

We’ll take the magic cures—the meds for cholesterol, blood pressure and heartburn. We’ll gladly accept the gadgetry. We’ll be entertained instantly. We’ll ask Siri. But when Siri delivers unpleasant news and prescribes a remedy that involves mild inconvenience, the Evangelicals who believe that rejecting expertise is a legitimate option—and that immediate gratification is their God-given right—will simply refuse to be inconvenienced. Or, when finally forced to adopt practices designed to protect the vulnerable among us, the ones complaining the loudest will be Evangelicals.

Whether it’s COVID or climate, this is the legacy of the Culture War. Let’s hope that it won’t be the legacy of American Evangelicalism.

Man looking out at NYC from inside

COVID, courage and temperance

public health v. economy

The U.S. is dealing with two distinct but related crises. The first is a public health crisis: the spread of a pandemic virus. The second is an economic crisis precipitated by our efforts to mitigate the public health crisis. The public debate around these crises purports to be a debate about competing values: economics versus public health.

Some argue that the economic crisis has become so grave, with unemployment surpassing 20%, that governors should lift restrictions on businesses and accept the public health fallout as an unfortunate consequence of salvaging our economy. After all, they argue, we regularly sacrifice human life on the altar of economic gain. We don’t shut down the entire economy during flu season even though tens of thousands die from flu-related complications every year. We could reduce traffic fatalities to roughly zero if we lowered all speed limits to 15mph; but we don’t do that, either.

On the other hand, public health experts insist that resuming our economic activity now would be an unmitigated disaster. Without rigorous testing and contact tracing, the exponential spread of the virus would overwhelm our healthcare system. Hospitals would be flooded with COVID–19 patients, many of whom require intubation. Without adequate protective equipment, doctors and nurses would get sick (as many already have). Routine medical procedures like appendectomies and bypass surgeries would become increasingly difficult to manage. As local healthcare systems reach the limits of their capacity, doctors would be forced to deny treatment to those who are least likely to benefit from precious resources—gradually reducing the age at which patients are given access to ventilators and ICU beds, from 70 to 65, then 60, and so on.

dire warnings and bad science fiction

Public health experts are issuing dire warnings about the consequences of lifting social restrictions without a rigorous plan for testing and tracing. Meanwhile, some politicians and other non-experts regale the public with stories about a parallel dimension in which we all agree to put on our big-boy pants and go to work. As a cost of doing business, Grandma might be stricken with an exotic plague. These stories are pure science fiction—more precisely, bad science fiction, insofar as they are premised not on surpassing scientific consensus but completely rejecting it.

For the sake of discussion, suppose the experts are correct. (This supposition shouldn’t be too difficult to entertain—they are, after all, experts.) Within months of returning to work, there would be thousands more COVID-19 patients over the age of 60 slowly suffocating to death, without medical intervention, every single day. The death toll would grow exponentially, until either the virus runs its course—claiming somewhere between 1 and 2 million lives—or we relent and agree to start the process of social distancing all over again, at which point the number of COVID–19 deaths would continue to rise for at least a couple of weeks before receding.

Does anyone genuinely believe, even for a moment, that we would have a functioning economy in such a scenario? Of course not. It’s inconceivable. So the narrative about bravely risking our health for the sake of the economy is mere fantasy: there is no possible state of affairs in which our economy flourishes amidst the kind of devastation forecasted by experts.

the folly of “economics first”

The Chinese government learned this the hard way. They tried the “economics first” approach in Wuhan and it failed so spectacularly that COVID–19 is now a pandemic. Strangely, the most severe critics of China’s approach in Wuhan are among the loudest voices promoting the very same “economics first” strategy in the U.S. The economic lesson to be drawn from Wuhan is that the path to economic recovery runs inexorably through public health.

We will not be saved by showmanship or marketing gimmicks. The pandemic is indifferent to public opinion. And a miracle cure is not forthcoming. So, as we await the results of clinical drug trials, we need exactly what we needed a month ago and the month before that: testing and tracing. We must embrace the hard work of doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way—in a word, we need virtue.

wisdom, courage and temperance

Plato’s Republic addresses this matter at length. He divides the members of a political community into three estates: political leadership, soldiers, and everyone else. In a good republic, each of these classes exemplifies a cardinal virtue. For obvious reasons, the political class must have wisdom and warriors require courage. To the rest of us he assigns the virtue of temperance. For if the general public becomes addicted to the trappings of wealth, the wisdom of our leaders will be overtaken by the tyranny of collective appetite; and insatiable consumption will waste the courage of our soldiers on wars of conquest.

For present purposes, our political community can be usefully divided into three groups: political leadership, essential workers, and everyone else. Our lives depend on the courage of our essential workers—from doctors and nurses to deliverymen and grocery store clerks. And if we proceed with an intemperate “economics first” strategy, the courage of our medical professionals and other essential workers will be wasted on preventable waves of illness.


justice has nothing to do with charity

Within the evangelical community, discussions of “social justice” often emphasize charity and devote little attention to the moral significance of institutions. This paradigm allows evangelicals to advocate for political institutions that deprive the poor of their due, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

We need a new paradigm. Christ followers are required to advocate for public institutions that reflect the truth about what people deserve—not for the sake of charity, but because we are called to seek justice on behalf of those whose basic human needs are likely to be ignored by free enterprise in search of profit.


The distinction between charity and justice revolves around who owes what to whom—in a word, entitlement. For example, my giving you $20 constitutes an act of charity only if you’re not entitled to receive $20 from me (because I don’t owe you $20). By contrast, if you are entitled to receive $20 from me (because I owe you $20), my giving you $20 is precisely what justice demands. So justice depends on entitlement, while charity depends on the absence of entitlement.

In its narrowest sense, justice is a feature of individual conduct: I behave justly when I pay all of the taxes that I owe, or when I return my shopping cart to a designated shopping-cart-return area in the grocery store parking lot. And I behave unjustly when I deceive my golfing companions about the number of putts that I took on the 8th green, or when I decide not to inform my waiter that he omitted the extra side of French fries from my dinner bill. So, at the level of my own conduct, justice is achieved when I give all that I owe and take nothing beyond what I am owed.

In its broadest sense, justice is a feature of institutions. Specific examples of institutions include: the United States; families; contracts; the State of Missouri; Major League Baseball; the game of baseball; the U.S. Senate; the Constitution, and so forth. More generally, an institution is a system of rules or traditions that determine who deserves what: who deserves what honor; who deserves what paycheck; who deserves this authority; who is entitled to that opportunity; who is allowed to do this or to say that, and so on. In this way, institutions guide our understanding of what constitutes justice within a given sphere.

Conflicts arise when an institution’s rules are violated—when a spouse engages in an extramarital affair; when a Major League Baseball player uses a banned substance; or when a building contractor fails to complete a project by a given date. In extreme cases of institutional violations, an aggrieved party might appeal to a higher institution that has sovereign rules for deciding what justice requires. We call this higher institution a court. The rules that guide the decisions of our courts are laws; and our laws are sovereign insofar as there are no rules or institutions above our laws within our political community. Our courts also decide what justice demands in response to criminal conduct, such as fraud, burglary or murder—conduct so unjust that it is prohibited in all contexts, without regard to an individual’s status or institutional affiliation.

So our laws, as administered by our courts, are sovereign over all disputes about what is just, who is guilty of injustice, and what justice demands by way of compensation or punishment.[1] Our laws are authored by elected officials in Congress; and enforcement of the law is supervised by elected officials in the executive branch of government. So justice in our society is defined and administered by public institutions that are subject, ultimately, to the will of the electorate.


Here we confront an ancient question at the heart of Christian citizenship: what does it mean for our political institutions to administer justice?[2] Put another way: what does it mean to say that a law passed by Congress is a just law? Here’s one answer. “Since laws establish the rules about what is just, and Congress determines the law, it follows that Congress determines what is just. So a law passed by Congress is just by virtue of the fact that what is just is determined by the laws that Congress passes.” On this view, justice is whatever our political institutions say it is. Apart from the law, in other words, there is no objective truth about what justice is.

I disagree with that answer. In my view, there is objective truth about what people deserve and what we owe to each other. I have two sets of reasons for holding this view. One set of reasons derives from my faith: Scripture expresses pointed views about what justice is, and offers us a paradigm for political institutions that conform to the truth about justice. Since I affirm the truth of Scripture, I believe that there are objective truths about what is just; and I believe that those truths should be reflected in our own political institutions.

I also have philosophical reasons for believing that there is objective truth about justice. Here’s a concrete example. In 1919, our political institutions didn’t allow women to vote in federal elections. That was the law. So if justice were defined by our laws, then it wouldn’t have made any sense to claim, in 1919, that it is unjust to deny voting rights to women. But it did make sense. People said, “Look, contrary to what the law says, women deserve to have an official voice in how our political community is governed—justice demands that women be allowed to vote. Our laws are denying women that right. So the law should be changed, in order to give women this thing that they are due.”

Moreover, I don’t think that the truth about justice changed between 1919 and 1920, when our political institutions finally recognized women’s right to vote. Rather, I think that justice was the same in 1920 as it was in 1919; and by recognizing women’s right to vote in 1920, our political institutions became more just than they were in 1919. Similarly, I don’t believe that the truth about justice changed in 1954 when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in our public schools. Rather, it is objectively true that segregation is unjust; and in 1954, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education altered our political institutions to reflect that truth.

Because our political institutions answer to an electorate, advances like desegregation and women’s suffrage are the result of political negotiations about what is just. We all enter the public arena with concerns about what we are owed, and we defend our interests according to our vision of what justice demands. These negotiations are the point of contact between political institutions and every Christ follower’s sacred calling to seek justice.

When we, as Christians, enter into the political arena where rights are negotiated, we are called to use our influence to advocate for the rights of those who have no other advocate. We are not called to seek wealthy and powerful political allies who will help us defend our rights. God is our defender. And God calls us to defend the rights of orphans, widows, immigrants and all who are poor and oppressed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy or having powerful friends. But we dishonor our calling and misrepresent Christ to the world when we advocate for political institutions that serve the interests of wealth and power at the expense of the poor, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .


[1]Even when an arbitration agreement is in place, courts have the authority to rule on whether that agreement is legally binding.

[2]For an ancient, non-Christian treatment of this question, see Plato’s Republic, especially Books I-II.