Christmas is, “in the air,” for a longer period each year. This time around, I started hearing Christmas songs before Thanksgiving week! However, even Christmas cannot compare to the length of time we spend talking about politics, especially in a presidential election year.
Government’s basic job is to create a lawful and orderly society. However, laws and societal structures are imperfect, so people and their government are continually trying to figure out ways to solve the problems and imperfections. I want to describe for you the basic ways that is done, and then challenge you to think carefully about your contribution to that process.
To solve a societal problem, there are only two basic approaches. One is the top-down approach, and the other is the bottom-up approach. Each approach has strengths and weaknesses.
The bottom-up approach has to do with citizens trying to heal an area whose policies have failed, pragmatically or morally. So, an environmental group is a bottom-up approach to fixing environmental problems. Church-run addiction recovery organizations are a bottom-up approach to healing addictions in a better way than the government does.
Meanwhile, the top-down approaches to the same problems are environmental policies, addiction recovery programs, and the like.
Note here the interaction between the two groups. They need each other, but they fulfill different roles. The role of the top-down group is to set orderly policy. However, they are often somewhat deficient because they are beholden to a wider constituency. They are subject to state and federal laws, and must protect the rights of a wide array of groups with each of their policies.
Meanwhile, the bottom-up group is passionately committed to one point of view, and is always trying to sway public policy in its’ direction. The top-down group needs the bottom-up group, because it does research and advocacy and healing action that the government does not have the time or focus to do. Often, the best public policy comes from healthy interaction between the two groups, when each understands the other’s role and place in the process.
My soapbox is this; I think Christians have a problem with taking their passionate personal politics –things that can only be fixed in a bottom-up sort of way- and assuming that their vote can only go to a candidate who agrees with their bottom-up politics. This is a false construction, because a government official is elected to do a top-down job, not to advocate for a bottom-up group.
So, when a politician asks for votes, Christians often ask the following questions: Is he a Christian? Where does he stand on abortion? Where does he stand on illegal immigration? Where does he stand on homosexual marriage? Where does he stand on the war? Where does he stand on use of the Confederate flag? Where does he stand on gun control? And so it goes.
I do not think those are the healthiest questions. I think the standards we should have for our top-down officials are these: Is this candidate likely to make societal order healthier? Do they have experience and a good track record in that area? Can my bottom-up advocacy interests interact well with this candidate? Will the candidate make good policy decisions? Do they understand good governmental policy?
Now, here is where I get controversial.
From a top-down perspective, to me, the abortion battle is over. The toothpaste is out of the tube, and no government official can push it back in. We will not end abortion without a massively scaled reformation in the moral structure of the United States.
Hear me out on this. I am not suggesting that we stop supporting pro-life causes, or staffing Crisis Pregnancy Centers, or advocating required ultrasound machines in abortion clinics. Those are all valuable bottom-up approaches, and I think we should increase those things.
However, I do think we should stop saying we will not support a candidate (or an entire political party!) on the basis of their perspective on a small number of moral issues, rather than on their effectiveness as an administrator. Instead, we should use the election period to be discerning about which candidate will most effectively administer an orderly society with good policy choices.
The powerful thing about this understanding is that it gives a healthy forum for policy debate. If an administrator is committed, first and foremost, to good policy, then they will hear both sides of an issue. When he does, the two sides know that they have to focus on why their perspective is healthiest from a societal perspective, rather than arguing about whose moral worldview is better.
So on abortion, as I mentioned, I do not think that voting into office dozens of yes-men who are pro-life is a good approach, because pretty soon they screw up various other policy areas, the public gets sick of them, and they get kicked out. And the abortion problem remains.
Instead, we need officials who realize that abortion is not a legal problem you can solve through changes in the law. It is a moral problem that can only be solved by bottom-up groups proclaiming a different moral perspective.
However, if those groups can show that abortion creates serious detriments to societal health (a case that can easily be made), then a government official can create an environment for those groups to work in. He can see the importance of requiring free use of ultrasound machines in abortion clinics (which statistically does far more to reduce abortion than electing a pro-life president ever has!). He can support the legitimate mission of Crisis Pregnancy Centers. He is, in essence, working in tandem with the bottom-up groups- he works for a healthy society, and they work for their individual issues. And he can do all those things without being a committed pro-life candidate.
Christians need to stop pretending that a foolish administrator who agrees with their moral system is the best thing for society. Instead, they should use their votes to support someone who will make the legal order stronger and wiser, so that there is a safer environment in which to address societal ills.
The great Augustine of Hippo once wrote to a judge named Macedonius regarding some criminals. Augustine’s goal was to advocate against a penalty of death, even though he acknowledged that Macedonius had the right to give the death penalty. He said this:
“Your strictness is, therefore, beneficial. Its exercise assists even our peace. But our intercession is beneficial as well. Its exercise modified even your strictness. You should not object to being petitioned by the good, because the good do not object to your being feared by the bad.”
Augustine understood the separate roles of the judges (government officials) and the intercessors (interest groups). The one has a role of enabling a lawful and orderly society; the other has a role of advocating and healing. For Christians to have true value in whatever free society we inhabit (oppressive societies are another discussion), it is imperative that they seek wise administration and openness to advocacy from government officials, rather than dogmatic commitment to specific moral perspectives.