Some evangelical Christians and black church leaders say we should not vote this election season because the choice is between a Mormon and a man who supports gay marriage. For them, “The lesser of two evils is still evil.” This saying implies that voting a candidate who is not Christian or moral enough would be sinful. This argument is straightforward, but it is also a modern version of the Manichean heresy.
Mani was a Persian religious leader who lived during the third century; he taught that the world was in a pitched battle between the forces of light and darkness. Evil and good are two opposites. One is a positive and the other is a negative. The early church rejected the teachings of Mani, in part, because he gave evil “substance.” Church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo represent the orthodox view when they say that evil does not actually exist. If evil has its own being then either it must have existed alongside God for all eternity, or God created it. In the first case, God is not God. In the second, God is not good.
Evil only exists in a kind of derivative way, like a parasite. Imagine a number line without negative integers. Our potential for goodness is as infinite as God. The opposite of God is not an infinite negative. It is zero. We experience evil as a negative when it subtracts from our growth in the good, but this makes evil, as Augustine said, a privation of the good.
This matters for Christian politics because it means that we are not actually voting for the lesser of two evils but the lesser of two goods. There are some reasonable arguments for not voting on November 6 (here and here), but a moral opposition to supporting evil is not one of them. Politics is always moral, always religious, but never absolute. The decisions we make about whom to vote for, or whether to vote at all, are not about cosmic battles between good and evil or light and darkness. We are just fallen people doing the best we can. How we vote is about tactics, because the outcome of our politics, this side of God’s kingdom, is relative.