Politics, Ethics, and Compromise.

I’ll start by saying… I really enjoy politics.  I’ve been studying it for 11 years; the philosophical underpinnings, the history, the institutions, the policies, and the backroom dealings.  I’ve worked for two election campaigns, two lobbyist organizations, a state senator, and a U.S. Congressman.  I follow political news closely.  For whatever reason, I just think it’s extremely fun.

However, the first thing you lose when you study a subject is any pristine sense of idealism about what it can be.  You realize that your superior problem solving and leadership skills (or what you regard as such) are of little value in a world built on money and favors and loyalty.  You stop listening to detailed policy discussions in campaigns, because you know they bear no relation to actual policies later on.  And when a politician changes his mind, you know it’s because somehow, somewhere, it benefits him to do so.

And so you forget what it is to be shocked by what “normal” politics tends to involve.

In a recent podcast, Rich and I discussed the scandal surrounding Gov. Blagojevich, executive of Illinois.  Revelations concerning illegal backroom wheeling and dealing were nothing surprising to those of us who follow politics- the state (especially Chicago) is famously corrupt.  After all, probably the number one thing that got Blagojevich elected in the first place is the fact that the last governor (from the other party) was thrown in jail for racketeering!

But Rich reacted a little differently.  He was disappointed at the corruption in the political system, and he quickly and correctly jumped to a tough question: should Christians even enter politics?

This question is valid because politics is full of compromise.  Some compromise is a simple matter of a, “meeting of the minds,” so legislation acceptable to both sides can move forward.  However, much involves moral compromise- voting against personal beliefs to maintain standing in the party, staying silent when your leaders or colleagues are doing something wrong, or looking the other way when your staff steals opponents’ campaign signs.  Failure to compromise in these areas has a tendency to make you an outsider, a loser, and a job hunter (in pretty much that order).

Meanwhile, the Christian life ought have high ethical standards.  Ethics is the working out of our theology, where we apply God’s truth to everyday situations.  When we choose a vocation, we ought always to do so believing the job will allow us to keep those standards, so any failings that DO happen are our own.

Can compromise and ethics coexist?  Can a Christian be a politician?

My own personal answer is no.  Had I not been called to the ministry, I would have turned to law or business (though both are fraught with their own ethical challenges, to be sure).  I did not have the patience to be continually passed over or left out of political decisions that required moral compromise.  I grew to disdain party hierarchy, and the ridiculous amount of power given to men too old and tired to pursue robustly ethical standards.  In fact, that is much of the reason I was willing to vote for Obama – I no longer believe the leadership of either party speaks for Christians in a realistic way.

However, I do think it is possible.  People like William Wilberforce of yesterday and Bobby Jindal or Mike Huckabee of today seem to maintain very healthy ethical standards amidst tremendous political success.  And I’m sure there are thousands of thoughtful, moral  local leaders across the country.  Though it takes great discipline, lots of people step into the political fray and emerge on the other side relatively unscathed.

But the job is definitely fraught with ethical danger.  A Christian entering politics needs to clearly establish what lines they will and will not cross.  They should only do what is legal, pray about their decisions carefully, have other Christians in governance keep them accountable, and share major concerns with mentors in the faith for help in making wise decisions.

Further, they must be patient.  It is very unlikely they will rocket up through the party, no matter their talent, because they will struggle to get funding, will be less able to display loyalty to the party thanks to ethical inflexibility, and will have a harder time achieving, “landmark victories,” if they aren’t willing to trade illegal favors or make moral compromises.  All those things will slow their upward progress.

Meanwhile, we as the church should find creative ways to support them.  This may include helping give them accountability, prayer support, and open ears.  It may mean showing grace when they have to give up on good legislation for the sake of something else.  It also means being aware of the precariousness of their position (financial, job security, etc.) and offering various types of assistance to give them confidence to act rightly.  Even Wilberforce would have struggled to succeed without the family fortune to support him.

Perhaps most importantly, Christians need to see governance as valuable, but not redemptive.  Government cannot save, and does not provide hope for a utopian future.  Only perfect moral uprightness in the hearts of all people will do that.  It is good for Christians to bring the only entirely Truthful perspective to governance, and it is good to bring about a better society in which the gospel can move freely to all corners of the state.  But it is not good to think that Christian leaders and their political battles are the hinge on which our fate swings.

The heaving lungs of history will wheeze on, but perfection will continue to elude until the Day of the Lord.  Until then, we must call people to salvation, and then to faithfulness.  We must hold high ethical standards for ourselves and our politicians without placing faith in ourselves or our politicians.  And we must look to Christ as the highest authority, an authority who will never be embarrassed by a wiretap or be voted out of office.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • Carissa

    Hey, look, there are two Arkansans in the photo! Both of them have accomplished good things. Both of them also have some moral failings. (In regard to your comment about Huckabee’s ethics, Ben, Arkansans are quite suspicious about why he ordered a bunch of hard drives destroyed before leaving office . . . in addition to some other possible abuses of power for personal gain.)

    Most Christians I know who have studied politics have ended up in some career other than elected office, for the very reasons you mention.

    By the way, a great book that touches on this topic–but more, significantly, I think, focuses on whether Christians ought to try to dominate any public arena–is John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. An oldie, but a goodie. Skip the footnotes, though.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Even in 1939, the idea of a Jefferson Smith was quaint. For this reason, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has always been seen as being more fantasy than political thriller.

    I wouldn’t personally be able to enter enter into American politics for the reason you mention. I could be a monarch or dictator, sure. But the politics of America’s brand of politics would render me powerless. Or corrupted.

    As far as whether a Christian can, in good conscience enter politics in America? I think it’s probably only possible with those of our brethren with more, uhm, liquid morals. The kinds of people who can justify pirating software, bribes, being respectors of persons, glad-handing, sycophancy, etc. I know Christians who might make good politicians.

    We don’t talk much anymore.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Marguerita Stuckman

    I love those phrase that “Help them Learn”; this is indeed very helpful, It is not easy to have toddler or babies at home, at any time, we parents must be totally aware of the hourly task of the toddler or what are there plan which is sometimes could be harm for them. A total awareness is badly needed.


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