When I first came to Washington in 1991 and began working for Sen. Dan Coats, one of the more noteworthy aspects of my professional skill-set was inexperience. Although I had some modest political experience, I was unprepared for the maelstrom of Capitol Hill. The conflicting priorities, personality clashes, turf battles, and draining expenditures of time and energy were more than a bit of a shock.
Adding to this was the exhilaration of “being in the mix,” of being “on the inside” and attending the kinds of meetings reporters discuss in knowing terms on public radio. I also got to do a lot of fun things, and work with some people who remain friends to this day.
Yet apart from the stress and the rush, several things emerged pretty quickly as important lessons.
The Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Myth
First, I came to see I was not God’s unique gift to the American body politic. The government had been running for some time before I arrived, and I was not the first person to come to D.C. with ideas, convictions, or energy.
I quickly realized there were a lot of bright, talented, well-read people on Capitol Hill, some of whom actually had the audacity to disagree with me. Experiencing the reality that intelligent people could evaluate the same set of data and come to fundamentally different conclusions because of a moral and intellectual framework different than my own was something I knew, of course, but with which I had limited experience. That changed pretty quickly.
Second, the vision of “Mr. Smith Going to Washington” was just that—a parable, not a representation of daily reality. While James Stewart fought valiantly against corruption and, in one dramatic scene, triumphed, I came to see that at any given time there were a number of critical battles being fought . . . and those on opposing sides were unlikely to run into the Senate foyer and, like his cinematic nemesis, try to commit suicide.
The blur and intensity of legislative activity shook me. It wasn’t neat or systematic. On any given day, there could be a rider on funding for African drought relief attached to a major agriculture bill—an agriculture bill loaded with special deals for grain-state Members . . . a proposal to advance a major weapons system that would mean jobs for thousands but which, in tests, just didn’t work very well . . . and a federal grant to study train crossing signals in Indiana, which was far more important to the state media with whom I worked than issues of national or international moment. And all of that might be before noon.
There are rare moments of high drama in politics, to be sure, times and places when decisions are made that affect millions, born and unborn. We witnessed one earlier this year when the Supreme Court ruled on the President’s health care plan. But even in those infrequent moments, usually the decisions are made in the quiet of a small office by a few men and women around a table, not in epic speeches from the well of the Senate.
Disillusionment and Discouragement
Third, there was a pervasive sense of disillusionment among many of my colleagues, one that I began to share acutely. The discouragement and sense of moral compromise we felt was due to a startling and ongoing realization: philosophical and ideological purity and the formation of public policy often don’t mix.
Many of my colleagues had come to the nation’s capital to affect genuine, comprehensive, beneficial change. Instead, they were working late at night to insert highly technical legal language into a public housing bill or, worse, finding that they had to support legislation or policies with which they disagreed in order to advance the agenda of the Member for whom they worked or achieve a larger political or substantive purpose.
The Cost of Compromise
Principled compromise often is the coin of the Christian’s political realm. Of course, there are times when to compromise is to violate the Bible’s demands. This is never justified. Better to lose in time than in eternity, whatever the temporal cost.
Yet frequently, finding a course where principle can wed with effective if incomplete action is the holy grail of evangelical political engagement.
And this naturally leads to the question: for what purposes should evangelicals be engaged in the political marketplace?
Our American founders grasped that government was about recognizing human nature for what it is and protecting human interests in the context of ordered liberty. Thus, human life, human liberty, and the “pursuit of happiness”—a classical idea grounded in the belief that virtue created fulfillment—were their priorities. “We, the People” rested on the apex of their political and cultural priorities.
They also recognized government as the guardian, not the source, of our rights. If our rights derive from God, then government’s role is intrinsically limited since God is the ultimate authority and the Person to Whom we must give primary account.
In addition, the reality of human precedence in creation suggests, perhaps, that if some creatures have greater value than others—namely, us—then some things might be more important to our Creator with respect the attention we should pay them.
Jesus affirmed this view. Consider the severe judgment he pronounced on the Pharisees who, he said, tithed “mint and dill and cummin, and . . . neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23-25).
Again, in his interview with Pilate, the Lord said, referring to Caiaphas, “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11).
And in his commissioning sermon to his disciples, he assured them of his care by saying, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
“Weightier provisions.” “Greater sin.” “You are more valuable.” Not everything is equally important to God.
If, then, people are the most valuable of all of God’s creations, the defense of human dignity should be the core governmental occupation, and protecting it from those policies that endanger human dignity most immediately and profoundly should be the primary occupation of Christians in political life.
Our Biblical Duties
In practical terms, this means that the indisputably biblical duty to defend the right to life, defend the God-ordained social institution most at risk (marriage), and defend the religious liberty that is foundational to all other freedoms rank at the top of the believer’s civic duties.
The Manhattan Declaration puts it well:
While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.
These are matters of Christian obligation and clear Scriptural teaching—unlike, say, the federal system of Medicare, about whose merits honorable and clear-minded Christians can and should debate. This large latter category calls for the thoughtful application of biblical principles to issues whose ethical and practical resolution can be subject to honest debate. Prudence, humility, compassion, and study are the requisites in this kind of discussion and the decisions flowing from it.
Federal anti-poverty programs are a particular case in point. A number of Evangelical leaders have signed a document called “The Circle of Protection.” This statement essentially endorses federal “anti-poverty” programs. Ironically, a persuasive case can be made that many of the programs the “Circle” calls upon policymakers to sustain have created dependency, intergenerational poverty, inadequate housing, weak public education, and so on.
The Bible calls on believers to care for the poor but does not endorse the secular state as the means by which persons in need can most effectively be helped. The Bible indicates that the two causes of poverty—oppression and sloth—must be addressed by individual and philanthropic efforts and by public policies that strengthen, rather than weaken, initiative and self-reliance. Arguably, the “Circle” calls for the perpetuation of the very things its well-intended authors desire to eradicate.
Overstepping Our Prophetic Authority
When Christians step outside the Bible’s explicit moral teaching and advocate for laws, rules, or court outcomes whose ethical dimensions are at best ambiguous, they overstep their prophetic authority and become just another interest group in the cacophony of public voices.
Let me summarize with two examples:
- Should we fight poverty? Of course. Does this mean we should support specific federal or state programs whose efficacy is at best dubious, and do so under the rubric of Christian sanction? Much more debatable. Prudence, research, prayer, and caution are what each believer should apply to the myriad of similar policy matters.
- On the other hand: If a human being comes into existence at the fertilization of the egg by the sperm, that person—based on irrefutable biblical teaching—merits the right to life and, thus, the protection of law. Regarding this, we can proclaim, “Thus says the Lord” with confidence. Such matters are very few in number, however.
Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “Victory is never final. Defeat is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” Moral courage grounded in Scripture, combined with wisdom, diligence, and prayer, should be the integrating factor of the Christian’s political decision-making and action-taking.
Let us never forget that we are running for an eternal crown, a wreath of triumph that will never wilt. May we, by God’s enabling grace, run in such a way that whether temporal success is ours or not, we will one day hear the voice of the Master announce, “Well done.”