Why this Christian Will Vote for Barack Obama (Part 3)

In Part 1, I laid out the negative case against Mitt Romney (the one who’s been campaigning since last year, not the one who suddenly showed up in Denver on Wednesday). In Part 2, I laid out the positive case for Barack Obama. Today, I want to address probably the strongest Christian argument against voting for Obama.

There are plenty of reasons various Christians have for voting against Obama, and many of them frankly are nonsensical. I simply have nothing to say if you believe, as many conservatives do, that Obama is a Muslim, or that he’s not an American, or that he’s a socialist. All of these things are blatantly and obviously untrue, but I’m not going to waste my time and yours trying to convince you out of something you are so deeply invested in believing.

I also find critiques of Obama’s presidency from the right generally to be baseless and unsupported by evidence. The most sweeping pieces of legislation Obama signed into law were based on ideas created and originally supported by Republicans, who then disowned them once they became associated with their political opponents.

The only persuasive argument from the right is about abortion, and I’ve covered in the past that simply stamping somebody “pro-choice” or “pro-life” is unhelpful if the actions they take belie the label. In short, Obama’s support of expanding access to contraception and encouraging steps to reduce unwanted pregnancies, which account for the plurality of abortions in America, will have far more success reducing the number of abortions than the typical conservative position of teaching abstinence only, defunding women’s-health providers and – in a rather bizarre twist – treating contraception as a product to be stigmatized rather than embraced.

Not surprising, I don’t really find any argument against Obama’s reelection to be terribly convincing. But there is one exception, and that is the argument from the left eloquently expressed by the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf.

Friedersdorf argues that Obama’s record on foreign policy is so abominable – and Mitt Romney’s promises no better – that it is better to vote for a third-party candidate or not at all than to support the practices put in place or continued by Obama’s administration.

I don’t see how anyone who confronts Obama’s record with clear eyes can enthusiastically support him. I do understand how they might concluded that he is the lesser of two evils, and back him reluctantly, but I’d have thought more people on the left would regard a sustained assault on civil liberties and the ongoing, needless killing of innocent kids as deal-breakers.

Friedersdorf makes three points, but the first two are more troubling to me:

1. Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. …

2. Obama established one of the most reckless precedents imaginable: that any president can secretly order and oversee the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Obama’s kill list transgresses against the Constitution as egregiously as anything George W. Bush ever did.

He concludes:

Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as “the lesser of two evils” is unacceptable. If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post-9/11 excesses will be reined in.

I’m not going to dismiss Friedersdorf’s arguments about the wrongness of these policies; I think they’re sound, and I agree with them. To dismiss the terror and loss of innocent life caused in Pakistan as somehow necessary to protect American lives from another potential terrorist attack is to argue the lives of Pakistanis are worth less than ours simply because they were unfortunate enough to be born in South Asia. That is a repugnant, immoral and deeply unChristian notion. If American Christians believe all life is valued equally – as they claim in dismissing the distinction between the born and the unborn – then the way we treat Pakistanis (and Afghans, and Iraqis, and Iranians, and Palestinians, etc.) is no less important than the way we treat Americans.

But Friedersdorf has two glaring omissions in his argument – rather, he has one omission and one dismissal, the effect of which is to present a skewed picture of the choice facing those of us who are both Christian and progressive.

Friedersdorf downplays the fact that Mitt Romney has shown no inclination of stopping any of these practices – indeed, he seems likely to intensify them and add to them a catastrophic war with Iran. That’s not a small difference between two otherwise-undistinguishable candidates. That’s a significant and troubling difference.

And he omits entirely the great good Obama has done both overseas and domestically to relieve suffering and save lives through policies that Romney promises to overturn as soon as he takes office.

Let me quote what I told my friend on Facebook when he posted Friedersdorf’s article:

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not interested in excusing the inexcusable – terrorizing Pakistanis through drone strikes and assassinating American citizens to prevent the repeat of a once-in-a-lifetime event are inexcusable – but Conor needs to better reckon with the reality that a vote for Gary Johnson (or whomever) is effectively a vote for a candidate who promises an even more aggressive, bellicose and tragic foreign policy than the one Obama has pursued. Sadly, Conor does not do this, and it’s a major hole in his argument.

And that’s before we get into the domestic side of the equation, where Romney and Ryan have proposed some of the most starkly immoral policies I’ve seen in my (admittedly short) time following politics and where Obama has done much to save and improve the lives of thousands of men, women and children. Those American lives aren’t worth more than the Pakistanis’, but they aren’t less important either.

That is perhaps a utilitarian argument – this guy’s policies hurt people, but this other guy’s policies would hurt more – but forgive me if I sound naive in what I’m about to say.

Obama’s domestic policies, along with what I know about his faith background, are incongruous with the policy of drone strikes, in particular, and that makes me believe that perhaps he will end them, especially as the study Friedersdorf cites – which is quite new – becomes more broadly known. Is this wishful thinking? Perhaps. But Obama is far more likely to end that policy than Romney.

Friedersdorf does not propose simply sitting out the election, however. And I believe he’s correct that Gary Johnson is far more likely to end policies like these than either of the major-party candidates. But this completely ignores that Johnson is also far more likely to unwind the domestic policies Obama has instituted that save and protect American lives, as well. Again, it’s not that American lives are important, but let’s not begin arguing they are less important either.

Finally, there’s this notion of the lesser of two evils. As my friend says, “Frankly, I’m sick of playing the ‘lesser of two evils’ game every four years.”

I’m not really a fan of the “lesser of two evils” phrase, as I think it overdramatizes the imperfect options we have in the political process and idealizes the imperfect options we have in all other phases of our lives. Is any choice perfect? Of course not. This is a broken world, with broken systems. Even the choices about which we are (hopefully!) the most satisfied – our spouses, churches, having children – are still imperfect. They could – crudely and perhaps not terribly accurately – be described as the lesser of two (or more) evils.

Likewise, politics. No candidate is perfect; therefore, we can caricature any political choice as the lesser of two evils, and certainly that can make us feel better about our decision to abdicate the power with which we have been vested. But, as I’ve argued, deciding not to vote at all is by default an exercise of power on behalf of the powerful and against the powerless.

So if calling Barack Obama the lesser of two evils works for you, that’s fine. Of the various evils with which Christians are confronted every day, I believe voting for Obama is pretty far down the list – well behind voting for Gary Johnson or Mitt Romney, or not voting at all.

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3 comments on “Why this Christian Will Vote for Barack Obama (Part 3)

  1. I really like your argument about the “lesser of two evils”. Refusing to choose between the realistically available options comes much too close to washing our hands of our responsibilities, and Christians should certainly know who, in all of history, is most famous for washing his hands and proclaiming his innocence.

  2. Matt says:

    Absolutely no denying the drone attacks have been morally reprehensible, but far and away the best argument for Obama over Romney in foreign policy is Obama’s bringing the Iraq war to a close, committing to a timetable for drawing down the war in Afghanistan (albeit far too slowly, in my view) and actually seeking a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue.

    Romney was against the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and, though he’s apparently got another secret plan for Afghanistan, it’s easy to guess what it might be from a man who wants to widen the already massive gap between US defense spending and any other nation on earth. Then there’s the possible Iran war you mention—this is where I think Netanyahu’s sketchy relationship with Obama actually is a plus for peace: he’d probably be able to push a more buddy-buddy president into armed conflict with Tehran. With Obama, he has to play it more carefully. Add in Romney’s apparent attitude toward the Obama administration’s (successful) policies of isolating the Iranians and you’ve got a recipe for yet another war.

  3. John Gragson says:

    Well put. While I’m not at all utilitarian when it comes to morality, I think there’s a place for it in trying to exercise the limited type of power we have as voters in a democracy. Romney’s foreign policy promises to be much, much worse than Obama’s. This is not about us doing the right thing, but preventing Romney from being able to do the wrong thing, and there the utilitarianism vanishes.

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