‘The Weightier Provisions of the Law’

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.

Weightier Provisions

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.”

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    Along these lines, we should recognize that the next president will likely have an opportunity to extend his influence (for better or worse) through one or two Supreme Court appointments. There are four Supreme Court justices in their 70s, so whoever wins the November election will likely give our country the gift that keeps on giving and one that profoundly affects us for generations to come.

    We haven’t heard much from the candidates about the kinds of Justices they would appoint but it doesn’t require much imagination. Given President Obama’s record and the pressure from his primary constituency, I prefer handing this task over to Governor Romney.

    On another level, it seems that an ancient parallel is becoming more applicable for believers today.

    “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. ‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare’” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

    What did this involve?

    Resisting postures of complacency toward the city
    Rejecting narratives of vindictiveness toward the city
    Pursuing the good of the city
    Praying “to the Lord on its behalf”
    Recognizing the connection: “In its welfare you will have welfare.”

    As an exiled people (Philippians 3:18-21; I Peter 2:11-12), it’s tempting for the Church to take a shelter mentality, to view this life as a hold-over to await the next. Instead, we must be deeply engaged for the common good of our fellow human beings (see: Matthew 5:13-16).

    Some seasoned wisdom from the late John R. W. Stott rings with clarity:

    “Our Christian habit is to bewail the world’s deteriorating standards with an air of rather self-righteous dismay. We criticize its violence, dishonesty, immorality, disregard for human life, and materialistic greed. ‘The world is going down the drain,’ we say with a shrug. But whose fault is it? Who is to blame?”

    “Let me put it like this. If the house is dark when night fall comes, there is no sense in blaming the house, for that is what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask is ‘Where is the light?’ If the meat goes bad and becomes inedible, there is no sense blaming the meat, for that is what happens when bacteria are left alone to breed. The question to ask is ‘Where is the salt?’”

    “Just so, if society deteriorates and its standards decline, till it becomes like a dark night or stinking fish, there is no sense in blaming society, for that is what happens when fallen men and women are left to themselves, and human selfishness is unchecked. The question to ask is ‘Where is the church? Why are the salt and light of Jesus Christ not permeating and changing our society?’”

    “It is sheer hypocrisy on our part to raise our eyebrows, shrug our shoulders or wring our hands. The Lord Jesus told us to be the world’s salt and light” (John Stott).

  • BobRoss

    Good article. I have also spent some time in DC involved in politics, and it is easy to lose sight of what is really important. Christians need to look at where compromise is morally acceptable and where it is not.
    There are definitely areas in politics where Christians can disagree, but there are other issues where we need to take a stand together.

  • brenbike

    The first half of this post had me hooked. I came to some of the same conclusions about clashing worldviews in college.

    But sadly, the second half delves into a spiel that we’ve all heard before- an affirmation that Scripture calls us to serve the poor and vulnerable but that the government should not help.

    The Family Research Council supposedly exists to fight for marriage and life, yet they invited a serial adulterer (Gingrich) and a convicted war criminal (North) to speak at the Values Voter Summit. That’s one way to do it…

    • Ralph Weitz

      I did not hear Mr. Schwarzwalder say, “government should not help.” What I did hear was this, “Prudence, humility, compassion, and study are the requisites in this kind of discussion and the decisions flowing from it.” “Prudence, research, prayer, and caution are what each believer should apply to the myriad of similar policy matters.” The test of policies and programs (government and non-government) which create dependence verses self-reliance or from my perspective inter-dependence constantly need to be evaluated.

      • brenbike

        Dude, he is quite clear in his opposition to anti-poverty programs, but does not cite a verse explicitly prohibiting them (of course, such programs did not exist in biblical times so no scripture explicitly addresses the issue). He criticized the pastors who want to protect them, including a program that provides health insurance for children who otherwise wouldn’t have it. It’s true that there’s plenty of room for improvement, but he does not leave the door open to reform. Abortion bans in many countries don’t work. Does that mean they should be abandoned?

        “Finding a course where principle can wed with effective yet incomplete action is the holy grail of evangelical political engagement.” Very true, but Schwarzwalder has brought us no closer to that holy grail.

  • Trevor Minyard

    Great, great, great article which I have already pointed people towards.

    However, I have one critique in regards to the following:

    “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.”

    The matter-of-factness you display in regards to the founders recognition of human nature and their protection of human interests is disturbing. The fact is that unfortunately our house of cards we all enjoy called liberty was founded on genocide and slavery.

    That said, yes we (Americans) enjoy a taste of those constituted liberties today, however those liberties were just that; constituted. Those liberties were not realized or honored when it came to our founders wanting to establish said liberties for themselves.

    So my question to you; how does one accurately define the intent of our founders to establish liberty in light of our founders disregard for the liberty of (many) others?

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  • Mandi

    Excellent Article! While I would certainly agree that philosophical and ideological purity and politics often don’t mix, I think that we can remain philosophically and ideologically pure in the creation of public policy. Whether that policy is considered favorably by enough Members to become a law is a different thing altogether.

    Additionally, I think people often confuse the jurisdiction of civil government and God. This isn’t just true with regard to where our rights are derived, but is also especially evident when discussing the poor. Civil government judges man based on his conduct whereas God judges man based on his heart. This is why civil government punishes those who don’t engage in mandatory giving (taxes). What matters to God is our heart’s desire to serve the widowed and the orphaned. This heart-attitude and the behavior that results is not something that can be mandated by or delegated to the government. Additionally, I don’t believe God asked us to care for the widows and orphans only for their benefits. There is beauty in helping others and as a result, in building community, which allows us to learn from people who have had different life experiences and struggles than our own. Throwing money at a problem, especially when that money is going through the hands of government bureaucrats, really never fully solves the problem.

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  • Jeffrey Powell

    Manhatten Declaration? “True reformation and revival within the church and the winning of our culture to Christ will come only through the power of the Holy Spirit and our clear, bold proclamation of the biblical gospel, not through joint ecumenical statements that equivocate on the most precious truths given to us. There is no other gospel than that which has already been given (Gal. 1:6–8).”

  • Robert Wallis

    I agree with most of what you say except I think you are not seeing the larger strategic picture. Here’s what I mean: Voting is an ethical choice as well as a pragmatic one. I am voting with enlightened self-interest: I analyze; I reason; I try to figure it out; but ultimately there are certain core values which will drive me. Many of my Republican friends, I think, are driven by fear in this election and have succumbed to “anyone but Obama” fever. This is their core motive. And they may be right to be so motivated. I have used the lesser of two evils argument many times in my over 30 years of voting.
    But I’ve changed. My “core values” (and those of a growing number of my former Republican friends) are a support for limited government and upholding the 1st Amendment. When both major parties give ample evidence that they not for limited government, and that they will support encroachments into our freedoms, what is a thoughtful person to do? Your comments subtly, in my opinion, tend toward acquiescence to the zero-sum game that is American politics. And you give very little room for other strategies besides voting Republican. Romney’s support of TARP, NDAA, and individual mandates for health care, to say nothing of his late conversion to pro-life, should trouble anyone genuinely concerned about our freedoms. To support him as a genuinely principled defender of freedom, based on his record, is wishful thinking. Obama has been a disaster in this area as well (his executive orders alone are frightening). I think your comments over-simplify the discussion. And it seems a little too convenient that your comments–as well as those of many prominent evangelical leaders–happen to be what many evangelical Republicans want to hear. I think you may be overstepping prophetic authority as well by your thinly-veiled support of that secular and arguably corrupt institution, the Republican Party.
    I will be voting for a third party and am therefore taking a longer view than who will win this election. I and many Christians are committed to a pro-life agenda above almost anything else politically, but we are now almost 40 years removed from Roe v Wade, and reasonable people can differ as to whether much has changed at all in those years. Abortion is still legal and many Christians vote Republican out of conscience because pro-life is part of the party platform. Apart from some victories in the funding of abortion, the fight over partial birth, and fulminating over Supreme Court appointments, what has been accomplished? No doubt, every victory in this fight is a legitimate win, but why don’t we change the discussion?
    As I see it, limiting the size and influence of the federal government (all three branches) and in some meaningful way returning the decision-making over abortion to the state level is a better and more principled long-term strategy. This is a discussion I wish leaders like you were having. Most Christian leaders, like yourself, are very cautious, but (in my opinion) come as close as they can to saying “vote Republican.” The subject of limited government or 1st Amendment issues you largely ignore as motivating factors. Practically, until the two parties give evidence that limiting government is core to their agenda, it seems that Americans–Christian and non-Christian–could significantly change the debate, over time, by voting for third parties. I have no illusions, by the way, that in supporting a third secular party, that I am supporting essentially more righteous people. As someone has wisely said, if we had three legitimate choices we would now be choosing the lesser of three evils. I think American Christians put too much hope in the political process and in human leaders.
    Finally, I only have one vote, not thousands, so pragmatism can only go so far. I will be voting for the man I believe would be the best president, period. It’s not that complicated. The “who will win” calculus I leave in the hands of Him who has already appointed who will be our president.

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