Honesty in Politics – an Opportunity for Christian Leadership

Honesty in Politics – an Opportunity for Christian Leadership September 20, 2010

Douglas Schoen and Heather Higgins have an excellent piece of demographic diagnostics in The Wall Street Journal this morning.  The survey they conducted in late August reveals a strong movement amongst independents toward the Republicans.  This is not because they have great respect for Republican leadership — they do not — but because they find themselves aligned with Republican principles and priorities.  Independents lean toward the Republican party 50% to 25%, and report that the Republican Party is closer to their views by 52% to 30%.  Independents who say they will certainly vote in the upcoming elections are 42% to 20% for the Republican candidates, and overall amongst independents their lead is 37% to 23%.  Yet 54% say that they view the Republican Party unfavorably.

This is consistent with a general sense of dissatisfaction with both political parties.  As Schoen and Higgins write:

Similarly, 81% say the federal government and the political leadership in Washington are out of touch with Americans like themselves. Our country may have a representative government, but independents feel that they don’t have any representation at all, which may be why 68% say they want a major third party in our country.

That bears repeating: Nearly seven out of ten Americans want a viable third party.  Americans are weary of “politics as usual” and would like to see a different way of doing politics.  Perhaps this is why 48% of independents are “sympathetic to or supporters of the tea party” movement.

Each of our last three Presidents excited the American public — or at least a large enough percentage of the public to be elected — by promising a new way of doing politics.  The “third way” of President Clinton, the “compassionate conservatism” of President Bush, and the even-less-defined “change you can believe in” and an “end to politics as usual” of now-President Obama.  Some of my liberal friends will scoff, but I do believe that Bush came the closest to delivering.  For all the hatred he aroused from the Left, Bush was actually a fairly centrist politician who far preferred to build coalitions and work cooperatively, and who favored many positions that hard-right conservatives found distasteful.  But rightly or wrongly, the American public concluded that these Presidents did not really represent a new way of doing politics.

Americans yearn for politicians who pursue a different way.  This is an opportunity for Christian leadership.

I would like to see a renewed commitment amongst Christian politicians to truth-telling.  Be forthright about the problems facing the country, and forthright about your own positions on what should be done.  The true test of political honesty, however, comes not in the way you represent what you believe but in the way you represent the beliefs of the opposition.  There are many reasons why politicians (and political commentators) caricature the opposition and what the opposition believes — ranging from an ends-justify-the-means commitment to one’s own cause to basic self-interest and antipathy for the other side.  But misrepresenting the opposition degrades the character of our political discourse, misleads the electorate and obscures the true nature of the problems we face.

A deeply Christian way of engaging in political discourse would be relentlessly honest, painfully honest, honest even when it hurts one’s self-interest.  It would not exaggerate the strengths of its own position nor the faults of the opposition; it would not understate its own weaknesses and the opposition’s strengths; it would not promise more than it could deliver; it would frankly present the problems we face; and it would confess what it does not know.  Unfortunately, the path of political advancement is one of slandering the opposition as foolish and bigoted and incompetent, pretending to know the solution to everything, and promising to put a unicorn in every backyard when the truth is we can’t even afford a pony.

It’s time to stop excusing exaggeration, caricature and slander as typical political rhetoric.  It’s not just rhetoric.  It’s dishonest.

I will judge politicians by how they speak of the opposition.

Christians can and should lead the way.  If they represent the other guy and what he believes honestly, then they will have passed my honesty test.  Christians should not only advocate the policies that are consistent with their faith; they should advocate them in a way that honors Christ.  Christ is, among other things, “the Truth.”  Christian politicians dishonor Christ when they speak anything less than the truth in full.

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