…rejecting the “dirty hands” thesis Jean Bethke Elshtain put forward a decade ago in defense of doing evil that good may come of it. It has placed Christian in the current bind they find themselves in and, like all Faustian Bargains, given them nothing in return. Bravo!
Elshtain’s thesis was that strong-minded leadership sometimes requires violating general moral norms against certain kinds of coercive interrogation techniques. These actions were not good, butnecessary evils that the effective leader must come to terms with. Humorously in an essay providing an elaborate justification of torture, Elshtain wrote that these leaders “should not write elaborate justifications of [torture].” The naiveté of this idea—that “dirty hands” thinking can be sequestered to the decision-making elite—has been demonstrated convincingly by the ubiquity of “dirty hands” thinking, whether about terrorism or politics, among otherwise levelheaded Christians.
The application to electoral politics is easy to see: In our democracy, the people are said to have the power. We are the leaders, and we have to get our hands dirty in the filth of modern secular politics. But in denuding our political witness of anything discernably Christian or even discernably moral, we simply participate with the secularists in the decline of liberal political norms. Liberal constitutional government, as John Adams so presciently wrote, requires Christians to act like Christians, not like secular liberals with cross necklaces tucked under our shirts.This doesn’t have to mean monkish quietism (though the prayers of holy monks would be much appreciated), but it certainly does mean that compromises of principle are unacceptable. Apologizing for an appalling nominee makes the authentic Christian faith—the faith that values meekness and detachment and suffering—more appealing to exactly zero people. We have other modes of political participation available to us: local and state campaigns, grassroots organizing, building intentional communities, and so on. This is an opportunity to think creatively and realistically about what Christian political witness will look like going forward.
Regardless of who wins this presidential election, we are embarking on a new and frightening time for Christians in America. But the appeal of holiness, conscience, and, yes, moral purity is timeless. In any political dispensation—even and especially amid the coming persecution—we can do nothing better for ourselves, for our society, and for the Body of Christ than to pursue relentlessly that which is true, good, and beautiful. This is Christian hope, and it is the antidote for political despair.