Virtue ethics constitutes one of the major approaches to Christian ethics. Prominent Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, a virtue ethicist, even title one of his books on the church, A Community of Character.
Politicians are notorious for making campaign promises that they cannot fulfill, often promises that they do not intend to even attempt to fulfill. Furthermore, nobody knows the future. Changing circumstances may make a campaign promise made in good faith inadvisable or impossible to realize. Finally, a politician’s perspective once elected may appropriately change, e.g., the officeholder often has access to information that candidates do not have.
A virtue approach to voting thus focuses on a candidate’s character rather than campaign promises and platforms. A candidate’s education and experience can provide important windows into his/her character. In secular democracies, voters should seek to understand the candidate’s actual ethics (what are the principles or values that seem to shape actions) rather than espoused beliefs or theology.
The candidate’s theological beliefs – whether holds an atheist, Hindu, Mormon, Muslim, or Christian concept of the deity, for example – are unimportant because they have very little if any direct bearing on how the candidate will formulate her/his positions on public policy issues. Mitt Romney’s appeal to evangelical Christians, for example, exemplifies this: evangelicals widely reject his Mormon theology while supporting his views on abortion, marriage, etc.
This approach presumes either that God speaks to all, regardless of anyone’s personal theological beliefs, or that God is most safely heard within the context of community, i.e., voting based on ethics rather than theology means not seeking a political leader who believes that God will directly and personally guide him/her. History is replete with examples of national leaders who, believing that they had heard God speak, led their nation in a disastrous direction. A leader who believes that she/he routinely relies upon God for guidance verges on a highly individualized (often idiosyncratic) theocracy that is incompatible with the belief that God’s voice is best heard through democratic processes.
Instead of asking the generally hopelessly hypothetical question of what would Jesus do? virtue ethics asks which candidate most resembles Jesus. Key Christian character/virtue qualifications on which to assess candidates might include:
Evaluations of a candidate’s character should emphasize traits pertinent to performance of the duties of the office for which the candidate is running. I may deplore Bill Clinton’s adultery. I’m far from certain that his marital infidelity is relevant to being Governor of Arkansas or President of the United States.
Evaluations of a candidate’s character must also be realistic. Politicians are like the rest of us: they have clay feet, i.e., they are sinners. While I might prefer a president to be faithful to her/his spouse, Bill Clinton provided more effective leadership than did either Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.
Which candidate for each office has the preferable set of attributes – positive and negative? Voting in accordance with your answers to that question is one Christian approach to voting, an approach deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and one that honors the plural, manifold witness of that tradition.