Can You Really Vote Your Conscience?
They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. – Romans 2:15
In the 2016 election cycle that brimmed with slogans and soundbites, three words became one of the most memorable and controversial charges of the season. That’s saying something. And it wasn’t from the mouth of either Hillary or Donald.
On a warm July evening, at the Republican convention in Cleveland, long after the primaries had been decided and the most venomous words had flown, the distinctive drawl of a first-term Texas senator replaced his anticipated endorsement of the nominee with the surprising words: “Vote your conscience!”
Prior to revealing his own pick for president this past weekend, Ted Cruz famously charged voters from every party, race, religion, and persuasion to set aside social expectations pressing in from all sides and run into the approving arms of their conscience. “Vote your conscience” is not an unfamiliar phrase during election seasons. However, conscience is a biblical theme, and Christians should ask whether the common understanding of conscience in our society has become more in line with Disney’s Jiminy Cricket than with the word of God.
When we open the Bible and ask what God has to say about it, we’ll soon find that your conscience, in fact, does not have a vote in this election.
The way many of us understand the conscience is actually very close to a tiny cricket living inside our heads. The conscience is like an inner, speaking guide leading us through the blinding snow when we lose our way. Tapping into the wisdom of Seinfeld’s Kramer: “What does the little man inside you say? . . . The little man knows all.” In short, many people think of their conscience as the guiding voice inside them that speaks which direction to take at the fork in the road. When you don’t know what to do, let your conscience be your guide.
So, when we hear, “Vote your conscience,” we think, “Listen to the guiding voice inside you.” If you’re a registered Republican, but your conscience is leading you to vote third party, or not to vote at all, “You gotta listen to the little man!” Or, if you’re a first-time voter in a family of Democrats, but your conscience tells you to vote for the GOP front-runner, you need to listen to it.
Can’t Vote Your Conscience
This understanding of the conscience more closely resembles the Hindu idea of a guru counselor than the Bible’s explanation of the conscience. Biblically speaking, the conscience is less like a guide and more like a reporter. Your conscience is not like a crystal ball that tells you what choice to make going forward (whether this candidate or that one). It’s not a proactive voice that provides you with new information you do not know. Rather, it is a reactive voice that tells you whether your actions, thoughts, and beliefs conform to the law of God.
Biblically, your conscience doesn’t have a vote. To be precise, you don’t “vote your conscience” — but your conscience does have something to say about your vote, once you begin to formulate it.
Your conscience is the inward testimony of God’s law written on your heart (Romans 2:15); it is like a microphone to God’s law, so that no one can ever say before God, “I didn’t know I was sinning” (Romans 2:16). The unbelieving suppress the truth of God within them (Romans 1:18), but this is no excuse for not knowing God, because the conscience, more like an undying worm than a cricket, regularly reports to them that they are sinning against God’s law.
For the born again, who have been “redeemed from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13), the conscience is not a worm of condemnation, but ultimately, a reporter of peace with God (Romans 5:1). This does not mean that the conscience cannot convict us of sin. If a Christian sins against God’s law, the conscience will flare up — in fact, the Christian conscience is presumably more sensitive because of the Spirit’s work in us. However, the Christian’s conscience is not testifying to the wrath of an angry God but the loving discipline of a heavenly Father (Hebrews 12:6–7).
No Excuses for Bad Decisions
The distinction between conscience-as-guide and conscience-as-reporter becomes massively significant when we apply it to elections and other important decisions.
For one, understanding your conscience as a guide — as a kind of third-party counsel, other than your own heart and mind — can aid the effort to excuse oneself from moral accountability. It is an easy thing to play the conscience card: “I’m going to vote for Candidate X because my conscience told me to.” Well, who can argue with that? If your conscience told you so, no need for further thought or careful arguments.
In reality, what most people mean by “conscience” is “my gut feeling,” which is to say, the bottom level of a sometimes-sinful, sometimes-good, often-confused, sincere mess of emotions, opinions, and understandings of what’s right and wrong — not exactly a faithful guide. Thus, the conscience often becomes a moral scapegoat either for sinful choices, or for the sin of apathy, or for neglecting the hard work required to make tough decisions.
By pointing to the “conscience,” many expect to be let off the hook for their sinful or unexamined actions. But this is foolish, since what they really mean by conscience is not the unquestionable law of God, but the highly questionable human heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Essentially, this abused understanding of the conscience trades a deceptive excuse like “the devil made me do it” with “my conscience made me do it.”
For Love of God and Neighbor
A proper, biblical understanding of the conscience should lead Christians in the opposite direction. Instead of washing our hands of the hard work of making difficult decisions, we should be eager to give voting its due diligence and offer up our leanings against the law of God for evaluation. The Christian’s conscience is tethered to God’s law. That means that the conscience always speaks to the summary of God’s law: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37–40), which is a helpful grid to consciously consider for any election: Which vote (or no vote) will be the truest expression of my love for God and desire for my neighbor’s good?
In any given situation, your conscience — properly speaking — will not lead you. It’s not your guide. But it will evaluate your thoughts or actions based on whether they conform or transgress God’s command to love him and love your neighbor with all you are — heart, mind, soul, and strength. Your own God-given wisdom — your “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14) — will lead you to understand (and be accountable for) the best way to obey the obligations of love for God and neighbor by voting for this candidate or that (or whether to abstain, not from apathy, but from principle).
What your conscience will do is convict you if you are voting out of sinful comfort or greed or fear. Or it will minister God’s approval if you act, as well as you’re able, in an effort to obey the command to honor him and love your neighbor.
When this is done — when your vote is a positive expression of a heart that is earnestly “desiring to act honorably in all things” (Hebrews 13:18) — you will receive the testimony of a good conscience. Make that your goal this election season: not to hear crickets, but to receive the peace that comes from “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
So, don’t vote your conscience. Rather, in whatever electoral choice you make — hidden to the world, but in the full sight of God — seek to love him and love your neighbor with a good conscience.