John Piper’s recent explanation for why he chose to write-in his vote rather than choose one of the two main presidential candidates has resulted in a whole host of responses. Some partially seem to misunderstand Piper, while others have expressed well-reasoned counter-arguments.
In today’s politically charged climate, I think we can appreciate the differences of opinions. That said, I am not here interested in defining who Americans should vote for. I am entirely interested in pursuing the question of why Christians have agreed or disagreed with Piper. I think the answer to that question reveals quite a surprising set of undergirding differences.
The responses to John Piper’s article reveal deeper oppositions of:
1. Utilitarian consequentialism and virtue ethics (which one takes priority)
2. Pietism and theonomistic reasoning (of a sort)
3. Metaphysics/real natures and nominalism
In this article, I want to briefly explain what I mean and why it matters.
Utilitarian consequentialism and virtue ethics
By utilitarian consequentialism and virtue ethics, I am referring to whether we think the consequences of an action are more important than the character of a person or the opposite.
If virtue ethics constitute the primary way we make decisions, then our choices will revolve around whether or not a decision will advance virtue or vice. A good choice involves one that is by its very definition good or just. In this sense, the possible effect of one’s choice or the predicative good that a choice might make plays a role—but not a definitive one.
In utilitarian consequentialism, it makes sense to vote for a candidate who promises to do the most good or whose presidency may seem to accomplish the best goals. It basically makes moral decisions on the basis of an expected good or bad result.
In the past, everyone in the West assumed virtue ethics. Today, we assume consequentialism. It’s now common sense to us.
Piper, who lives deep in history and Christian theology, seems to believe that voting for either the democratic or republican candidate would promote or support present evils in both candidates. He sees both major candidates as egregiously immoral in respective ways. He seems to agree with, at least in this case, virtue ethics.
A consequentialist on the other hand will vote for someone who promises the best results, once that may fit into whatever moral or ethical goals that a person has. This explains why someone may dislike the republican candidate, admitting his imperfections or evils, yet still vote for him because of the prospective good that will come from that vote.
These two ethical reasoning categories play a major role in why someone may agree or disagree with Piper. It becomes pretty obvious when one observes the explicit reasons given for voting or not voting for the republican candidate.
In sum, some argue for character (virtue) over policies (ends); while others vote for policies (ends) and not the person (virtue).
Pietism and theonomistic reasoning (of a sort)
Under this opposition, I am referring to how some pietists take an intentionally disinterested approach to politics, whereas others tend to see a more active approach to politics as important for the Christian life.
By theonomistic reasoning, I am not talking about theocracy exactly. I am speaking of the kind of reasoning that hopes for biblical law to become civil law.
While I cannot claim to define all the causes behind this mode of reasoning, one might think of the encouragement to enter into law or politics to be a champion for Christ; or sometimes people desire to enter into public office to reorganize society around biblical principles. These two examples explain the kind of reasoning process that I am thinking of.
Under these two oppositions or sliding scales, John Piper and those who agree with him tend towards disinterested pietism (not that this title necessarily applies to them). On the other hand, those more attuned to theonomistic reasoning find it strategic and important for someone like the current POTUS to preside over the USA. He appoints judges and makes policies that fit Judeo-Christian values, they say. And many desire that greatly, and so they vote for and sometimes publicly support him.
Metaphysics/real natures and nominalism
Of the oppositions given so far, I think this is the most important. This opposition refers to the complicated idea of whether we think people have human natures that are real; if they are real and sin corrupts them, then bad character can actually destroy a nature and so nation.
If natures do not really exist except as a category (nominalism), then a bad man can have good policies and so benefit a nation. If natures do exist, then a bad leader can corrupt souls and destroy a nation.
Put more simply, as a human, do I have a real human nature? Am I really made up of intellect, will, and affections which are not biologically defined? Do I have a metaphysically real nature that invisibly yet really is mine? If so, what does sin and corruption do to my nature? And is my nature porous and open to influencing and being influenced by others deeply and profoundly?
Many today would affirm human natures as a helpful category or as a term without much meaning. To be over-simplistic, this view is nominalism. In contrast, realists affirm that human natures really exist.
I find the best way to illustrate the difference is through considering the Lord of the Rings. The power of the ring or of evil corrupts Middle Earth. The leader of Gondor, the king of Rohan, and others become less than what they should be: the nation suffers for it. The nine ringwraiths live in evil for so long that they become metaphysically non-being—whisps. They mostly lose their substance since substance flows from goodness.
Consider how that works in this world and in the next life. If we have human natures that can be corrupted, it makes sense that charismatic leaders could lead a people to commit genocide or begin a world war. Leaders corrupt.
Secondly, the immaterial part of a person, the soul, will not only be corrupted in this life but forever. The consequences of evil, if it dampens one’s soul, means that a bad person’s corrupting influence not only relates to this life but to eternity. Bad company corrupts good morals in this life and has eternal consequences.
The above reasoning used to be common sense for everyone. Christians in particular believed in invisible things (Heb 11:1). And we believed that invisible causes truly and really changed the world. Hence, choosing to support evil, even if the ends justify the means, would not have been a widely affirmed view.
Corrupting natures leads to genocide and shepherds to eternal death. Hence, someone like Piper who believes in the invisible realities of which I have spoken cannot vote for either the republican or democratic party. He feels that both will encourage untold corruption and degradation.
Others see the republican candidate as the best of two options, one which will lead to a better result. Yes, many affirm the impropriety or evil of the candidate, but they will say that this does not matter as much as his policies. The character and implicitly the corrupting influence of that character do not seem to play a primary role in this form of reasoning.
The divide over John Piper’s recent article reveals three deeper conflicts. These conflicts, I submit, will prove much more important in the long run to consider than who the next president will be.
The doctrine of original sin (and more besides) relies entirely on metaphysical reasoning. This doctrine involves our invisible yet real intellect, will, and affections. Original sin corrupts our natures, beclouding our intellect, misdirecting our will, and confounding our affections. Without these in order, we are slaves to chaos.
The Gospel sets you free. You will be free to finally and truly choose what is good for you because you will be reordered. Yet if we do not believe in real natures, then what does this doctrine or others mean?
If we do not believe that evil people can corrupt natures, destroying the most real part of a person, then what happens to original sin? What happens to imputation? What is left is mere words, notions, nominalism.
More could be said here, but I am deeply worried about the underlying causes of why Christians have disagreed over Piper’s article. I care little about one’s vote (though I admit it is important still to vote). I care more about the lamentable loss of virtue ethics and the lack of a metaphysically robust understanding of human nature.