Hobson’s Choice: How Do Christians Choose Political Leaders?

Hobson’s Choice: How Do Christians Choose Political Leaders? January 4, 2018

Christians face a proverbial Hobson’s choice on whom to choose as political leaders: there are no good Christian options. A leader may be morally impeccable, but completely ineffective in advancing what they believe in. They may have huge moral strikes against them, and yet be able to accomplish tremendous good. This is probably why Martin Luther said he’d rather be ruled by a competent Turk than by an incompetent Christian. (Quite a wish for a sixteenth century German – to be ruled by a Muslim!)

We, the people of God, have been here before. Imagine if we lived in Judah in the late 600’s BCE. Whom should we support: the pro-Egypt faction, or the pro-Babylon faction? We may say, “Who cares?” The issues may seem pointless from where we sit today. But backing the wrong empire caused the godliest Judean king who ever lived (Josiah) to lose his life. And without a direct word from God to Jeremiah, how would anyone have known that submitting to Babylon was the faithful move to make?

Galba Politcal Leadership Vatican Museum
After Nero’s death, many Romans pinned their political hopes on Galba, hoping that he would restore the old Roman republic. By Rabax63 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45065501, cropped.

Or imagine if we had lived in the Roman Empire in 69 AD. Nero has just been assassinated. In less than two years, power was seized by three generals in rapid succession: Galba, then Otho, then Vitellius, until finally a fourth, Vespasian, prevails. Which emperor should Christians support? All four of them would have made both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump look like squeaky-clean Scouts. Should we support Galba, who greeted the news of Nero’s assassination by immediately having sex with the old (male) army buddy who brought him the news (Suetonius, Galba 22)? Or should we support Vespasian, who was busy destroying Jerusalem?

Both the Jewish historian Josephus and Rabbi Johanan ben-Zakkai backed Vespasian. He may have destroyed Jerusalem, and he was no faithful Jew, but these Jews saw this Roman leader as Luther’s “competent Turk.” Josephus claims to have prophesied to Vespasian that God had chosen him to be emperor, before Vespasian got the call from Rome.

Conservative Romans supported Galba, hoping for a return to the old Roman republic after years of dictatorship by the Caesars. When Galba was assassinated after only a few months in power, someone reacted by asking the philosopher Musonius Rufus, “Now, is the world (still) ruled by Providence?” To which Musonius replied, “Did I ever in any way stake my claim that the world is ruled by Providence, upon Galba?” (Musonius Rufus, fragment 47)  Musonius himself owed his release from exile to Galba, but he did not base his sense that Deity was in charge on the question of who held the imperial power. Indeed, Galba turned out to be a huge disappointment; as Tacitus puts it, “Capax imperii, nisi imperasset” (“Capable of rule, if only he had not ruled”).

When I first read the above story, I thought to myself, “How very familiar!” Here we see the danger of identifying God too closely with one particular political party or leader. We do Jesus a huge disservice when we make Jesus a partisan Republican or a Democrat. Such was the criticism leveled against defenders of Roy Moore recently in Alabama. Sadly, writers in Christianity Today have committed the same error in the degree to which they have recently attacked Moore’s supporters. (See Robert Gagnon’s analysis at https://stream.org/how-christianity-today-smeared-fellow-evangelicals/.) Not even Pope Francis has escaped this trap of partisan political pronouncements.

I am afraid we have gotten beyond where character can be used as a major determining factor for Christians in whom we vote for to be our leaders.  Too many “competent Turks” have had too many major moral blemishes.  And if moral blemishes become the standard criterion for discarding political leaders, then we would have to discard even Martin Luther King, according to both his best friend Ralph Abernathy and the FBI, both of whom report behavior far worse and more extensive than a few affairs (see William Raspberry, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1989-10-20/news/8901230874_1_ralph-david-abernathy-king-poor-people-s-campaign). By contrast, Jimmy Carter was a president of impeccable moral character, but he was unable to get the job done.

When judging character, truth-telling is not as much an issue as whether the leader can be trusted. In the last election, I chose the leader whom I trusted most, the one whom I believed would: 1. Lie to me the least. 2. Describe reality in a way that is consistent with what I see. 3. Do what they say they will do. These are three major ingredients of trust.

Aside from whether we can find candidates we can trust, for Christians, our choices all boil down to a leader’s positions on the issues, and their ability to deliver. Issues like the sanctity of life and sexual morality are important to me. How to properly care for the poor and immigration policy are also important to me. And while there are many leaders who have character and good positions on political issues, we need people who can effectively move the ball forward, a quality which has often been lacking in Christian leaders. (When there were demands for General Grant to be fired, Lincoln reportedly said, “I cannot spare this man. He fights!”)

Government spending is debatable as a Christian issue; it boils down to a practical issue. We were told not too long ago that the reason Roosevelt’s New Deal didn’t work was that we didn’t spend enough government money. To me, that philosophy resembles the old discredited practice of bleeding the patient; if the patient doesn’t get better, draw more blood (!).

One final issue: How do we support a leader whom we did not choose and with whom we may strenuously disagree? What do you do with Exodus 22:28 (“You shall not curse a ruler of your people”)? This is not a prohibition on criticism. In the Late Bronze Age, to pronounce a solemn curse on a leader was an attempt to assassinate that leader. We have seen many such wishes expressed lately. Indeed, President Carter has publicly declared that our current President has been subjected to more hatred than any other in recent memory. What is professed to be righteous indignation on one side looks to me like the epitome of hate.

Peter and Paul insisted that followers of Jesus must honor the emperor (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). In their case it was Nero, the slimy character who ended up putting both of them to death. Paul put more faith in Nero than he did in his own local justice system when he appealed his case to Caesar. (In that particular case, Nero appears to have set him free.)

So whom should Christians support in our leadership choices? It’s a Hobson’s choice: a choice with no real choice, or no good choices. As a probable descendant of Cambridge’s Thomas Hobson, for whom that choice is named, I know such a choice when I see one.

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