Many politicians, or at least the ones I’ve been lobbying lately, seem completely immune to moral persuasion.
These politicians lie routinely while claiming to be Christian. Virtually the entire field of national politicians (Trump chief among them) appear unaware lying is considered in Christian tradition one of the gravest sins of all.
Then as a pastor, I think to myself: How did we get here? How have these politicians drifted so far from any kind of moral center? Why won’t they operate with integrity?
This was my Aha! moment. Because honestly, most pastors in a way exactly like politicians find themselves compromising their integrity daily. Every day pastors make choices that chip away at their moral center, degrading them as they compromise over and over and over.
For the most part, pastors do this to survive. Like politicians, they need political cover. If they don’t have such cover, they choose not to speak a prophetic word from the pulpit for fear of losing their job. They choose not to volunteer with a worker justice organization for fear of losing parishioners. They avoid getting arrested for fear of frustrating their family.
Every single day, pastors like myself choose the political over the moral, doing the strategic thing rather than the right thing. Over time, this takes a toll. It chips away at the soul.
I’d guess that most pastors, like most politicians, are largely unaware this slow slide into insipid depravity is even taking place. We get so good at compromising in order to survive in the system it becomes second nature. We forget that failure to act is still to act, and we are as defined as much by what we don’t do as by what we do.
I imagine this is what happens to politicians. They compromise once to gain a few more votes, they compromise again to get a few more, they stay quiet about a glaring wrong strategically in order to not alienate the base of their party, then compromise again for that large campaign contribution, and the whole process of compromise becomes so natural they lose sight of themselves.
No, they actually lose themselves.
Until the pastor, having once again not preached the sermon they wanted to preach, or doing the thing they believed was right, is confronted with the stark question: When WILL you do that to which you are called?
Politicians stop living in reality and start dying in political reality. They die little daily deaths that leave them haggard, alone, and scared. So do pastors.
The politician might say: I can’t get elected if I appear to be X.
The pastor might say: I won’t be able to keep this call if I speak up about X.
The politician might then justify it: Well, overall I will vote for better policies than my rival.
The pastor might then justify it: Well, I do have to be the shepherd of all these different kinds of people.
Pastors and politicians share one other thing in common: they gain exposure to the breadth of the human experience in ways different from other vocations. A politician might meet with constituents concerned about global warming in the morning, and cattlemen concerned about midwest farm policy in the afternoon. Pastors might bless a newborn baby in the morning and pray with an elder in hospice in the afternoon.
One could reasonably conclude, then, that the political and the pastoral life both have much opportunity for the enlarging of the heart and the feeding of the soul.
But that all depends on whether at the crucial moment the politician (or pastor) chooses the right thing over the politically expedient thing. Because such compromising choices color everything else. They become the whole. It makes the difference between a politician as empty suit or pastor as empty collar, or an integral moment when the people and community can say: That pastor, that politician, they’re the real deal.