Transforming the Political Culture

In a previous blog post, I lamented the current state of the republic, and the complicity of many Christians in the debasing of the political culture. The tone of that piece might be described as pessimistic, expressing my frustration in where we currently are and how we got here.

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In general, however, I am a “silver lining” kind of person, finding possibility in the face of frustration, and glimmers of hope when hope is in ill-supply. In that vein, I would like to offer my thoughts as to how Christians can actually reclaim their role as salt and light in the culture. The following saws are intended to form a framework in which Christians of varying opinions and ideologies can actively and effectively use to engage the broader society. They are not a list of specific issues or causes on which Christians should rally. Rather, they should be seen as a sort of prerequisite—a self-searching of attitudes and beliefs that should color our conversations and debates, both in matters of policy and beyond.

1.  God neither needs nor desires to use the state as a means to accomplish his ends. We live in a culture where governmental authority is too often seen as supreme. When we seek to bring about change, our first thought is to storm the corridors of power in Washington. And while there is definitely value in the modern government’s ability to, in a Hobbesian sense, constrain evil, it is important to recognize the state for what it is, a man-made body meant to regulate human interaction. The modern democracy derives its authority from the voice of the people, not from some divine mandate.

God’s purposes are quite different than those of government, so it shouldn’t surprise us that his methods of accomplishing his will on Earth are different than those we use for our human affairs. We get ourselves in trouble when we mix the Kingdoms of Left and Right, attempting to use political means to accomplish a spiritual end. Instead, we should approach any governmental interaction with the perspective that even the most powerful human institution is temporary, and has only the authority that God has allowed it to have. (Truth be known, most of the biblical examples of God using a nation for his purposes show Him using a corrupt and immoral culture to punish His chosen people.)

As Christians, we have a direct line to the One who holds all nations in His hands. As such, our first and primary response to any issue should be to approach God in prayer. While this does not exclude other actions of a more political nature, we need to recognize that prayer is the most potent weapon in our arsenal, and should be our first course of action. As Oswald Chambers so aptly put it, “Prayer is not preparation for a greater work—it is the greater work.”

2.  The body politic is not God’s chosen instrument for bringing forth His Kingdom. There is only one body on earth that is divinely appointed and created for truly eternal purposes—the Body of Christ. As God’s emissaries here on Earth, Christians alone hold the divine mandate to produce disciples, glorifying God as we serve Him in both word and deed. While leaders and governments all rise and fall, the Church will endure forever. Thus, we should not become overly discouraged when government stumbles or interferes in matters of faith, for we know that God himself will sustain His people, and that ultimately His will will prevail.

Our first affiliation is not with this or that political party. It is not with this or that government or nation. It is not even with our own human relations. We must not let temporal matters separate and divide that which is eternal. It is in Him that we “live and move and have our being.” The call to be the Church should not be subject to any outside authority, no matter how powerful it might be. Kingdoms rise and fall, but “the Word of the Lord endures forever.”

3.  For Christians in the political arena, the ultimate goal is not to enact policy, but to glorify God. For government, enacting legislation is currency. It is how things get done, and it is the primary measurement of accomplishment. The more rules and policies enacted determines how effective one has been as a legislator, staffer, or lobbyist.

The Christian, however, answers to a higher standard. Every policy must be evaluated, not only for effectiveness, but whether that policy is in fact keeping with the moral and ethical standards established by God. Moreover, it informs how policies are pursued and the manner in which they are presented. There is no “ends justifies the means” in God’s economy—both must be measured and prayerfully considered and thoughtfully pursued. Even the best of policies can bring disrepute if accomplished in a less-than-ethical manner, and likely will have ramifications that long exceed the original legislation. To put the “ends” ahead of all other considerations effectively proclaims that policy is supreme, which is the idolatry of state.

4.  How something is said is as important as what is being said. Tone matters. Even when what is being said is right and good, an abusive or uncharitable manner of transmitting that truth can have long-lasting effects. Potential alliances can be destroyed, and moral authority is ceded for the sake of making a rhetorical point.

How we speak reflects on our motivations. Speaking in a way that belittles others takes the emphasis off the actual policy and instead makes it a matter of personal conflict. It not only displays a lack of faith that the argument itself is sufficient, it shows a lack of charity toward those to whom we should be ministering.

5. Personal behavior trumps all. Many a politician has sacrificed the effectiveness of a good and moral position by living or behaving in a way that contradicts their stated values. Nothing is viewed worse in modern society as hypocrisy, and when a reformer is unveiled as a hypocrite, the consequences—both for the perpetrator and the cause—are usually severe and long-lasting. (Remember Gary Hart’s platform as a presidential candidate in 1988? No? Remember Donna Rice and “Monkey Business“? Probably.)

If we are truly known by our fruit, then we should be especially cautious to make sure our actions reflect what we know to be right and good. Those in positions of authority should be extra diligent in rooting out any tendencies that might bring their policies or faith into question. And we should be careful with whom we align ourselves, knowing that the bad behavior of others can corrupt an otherwise noble pursuit.

6.  “Opposition” and “Enemy” are not synonymous. In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul reminds his audience that they “do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The battles we face are not against individuals, but are rather a spiritual fight against evil itself.

Identifying someone who holds an opposing opinion—even one which might rightfully be called “evil”—as an “enemy” does not get at the root of the problem. It merely allows policymakers to demonize the person without requiring them to get at the essence of the issue. There is no need to persuade by promoting one’s own beliefs, discounting those who disagree purely by labeling them as the “enemy” is sufficient.

Christians should always strive to see the humanity in those with whom they disagree. Even those who believe and support policies that are in stark contrast to Christian values are known and loved by God. We must stand on principle, supporting the good and opposing the bad, but always with the knowledge that the battle is much bigger than the humans that wage them.

7.  Lasting change is the result of the strength of one’s argument, not political skill. There is something to be said for political acumen—for knowing how things are accomplished in government, and what channels need to be utilized for policies to get enacted.

But even policy victories can be short lived if they are unable win the hearts and minds of those whom the policies affect. More often than not, successes won by “working the system” only lead to future conflicts on the same matter.

Effective policy makers know not only how to win, but remember why winning is important in the first place. They are able to communicate this belief to their constituency, having a ready answer for those who might oppose them. And they choose their battles knowing what is ultimately a cause worth fighting for, and what is not.

8.  Meaningful change does not occur overnight. In an age of instant, multimedia analysis of every minor element of public policy, it is tempting to fight the battles right in front of us, rather than taking a long-term view of where the nation is headed, and what needs to be done to solve the problems we face.

In reality, there need to be both short-term and long-term strategies to social engagement. There needs to be an awareness of what can be done right now to bring about change, but there also needs to be a broader vision to change the culture. The latter involves being able to persuade large groups of people, which can only occur over time.

Elections are important—some are more important than others—but none of them are definitive. It is irresponsible to sacrifice larger principles for short-term victories. Such a selling of our collective birthright for immediate success will only serve to make those bigger ideas harder to achieve going forward.

9.  Our personal opinions need to be constantly reviewed in the light of Scripture. It should go without saying, but Christians need to be reminded at times—the Bible alone is the standard and norm for all we say and do. Our behavior in both Kingdoms should be measured by fidelity to God’s Word and the example presented to us there in Jesus Christ.

It is not enough to examine our motivations at the outset of any endeavor. We must continually go back to the Bible to make sure we are still seeking His will and behaving in a manner that pleases Him. Many a leader has failed to do this kind of regular inventory, and as a result, what once might have been a fine and God-pleasing effort ultimately became an exercise in vanity. Subjecting oneself to such a regular evaluation produces a measure of humility, which is in short supply in Washington, even among Christian leaders.

10.  Politics can be a noble calling, and should be approached as such by Christians who are so called.  In Gallup’s newest report on the most and least ethical professions, the three lowest positions were held by members of Congress, car salespersons, and lobbyists. And of those three, members of Congress had the highest number of “low” or “very low” responses (60 percent), with lobbyists just behind (58 percent).

With what gets presented on the news regularly about this or that political scandal, and taking into account Lord Acton’s famous axiom that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” it is understandable that people take a dim view on what happens in the halls of government. A lack of transparency and a generally condescending attitude from many politicians contributes to this perception.

And yet, it needn’t be this way. Elected officials represent their constituencies in democratic governments, making sure their concerns are heard. They work to protect citizens, and to defend the immutable principles on which this nation was founded. It is a valuable, noble service. And while statesmanship may be seen by some to be an antiquated idea, there will always be room for politicians who handle themselves with honor. Such should be the goal of any Christian in the political arena—to reclaim virtue as an aspect of their calling, and to raise the level of behavior among their colleagues.

11.  Policies affect people. For many in government, there is a tendency to over-intellectualize policies and programs. Many of these people have advanced degrees in the social sciences, and can get bogged down in this or that political theory or school of thought without stopping to think very long about those who will be affected by laws passed and programs implemented.

Government is not merely an intellectual exercise. It has real, tangible impacts on people. And while there is a danger to getting bogged down in overanalyzing every anecdotal repercussion of this or that policy, there needs to be a sense that what is being accomplished is helping people. There will, of course, be philosophical differences in what is the best way to serve the citizenry, but when discussion on the matter begins with all sides genuinely wanting to improve the lives of others, there is room for progress.

12.  Compromise in public policy is not a bad thing, unless it comes at the cost of values or virtues. A democratic republic requires compromise. It’s encoded right in the system’s DNA. And while there are certain issues on which Christians should remain steadfast and resolute, there will always be opportunities to work with others of differing beliefs and values to come up with policies that are good and effective.

Good ideas can and do come from both sides of the aisle. If a policy maker is able to take the good from a colleague’s proposal, and can offer amendments to it to make it more palatable to others and help bring more people into the coalition, then the dreaded Washington gridlock can be avoided, and government is able to accomplish its purposes. And by so doing, there are openings for other partnerships moving forward.

13.  Listening to all sides is essential to good policy.  Politicians are, by their very nature, specialists in speaking. For most, they were elected because they were able to express themselves and their policies in a clearer and more concise manner than their opposition. The ability to listen to other opinions, however, seems to be a rarer commodity in government.

There is little doubt in my mind that if strawmen were counted in the census, Washington, DC, would be the largest city in the nation. There is a lot of retelling of what other policymakers believe or propose, and much of that is, at best, inaccurate.

Giving an opponent a proper hearing is not only fair, it is the best way to really understand what motivates them. It shows respect for your colleagues by allowing them to put their arguments in their words, rather than putting the words in their mouth yourself. And by better understanding the opposition, a better response can be crafted.

14. “Micro-engagement” is at least as important as what is done in the public eye. Christians like to imagine themselves doing great things for the kingdom of God. And government does provide a big stage for high profile change—both for good and ill.

But God is a God of the small things as much as he is of the big and mighty ones. The Christian politician holds many callings, only one of which is his role in government. How one handles the less obvious (but no less important) vocations—as spouse, parent, child, neighbor, Church member—speaks to their motivations and objectives, not to mention their character.

If one wants to change the world, they should first start with their home, their community, and those in which they come in contact. These callings do not disappear upon taking office. Indeed, in light of eternity, these are the callings that will continue to engage us, even when our political careers come to an end.

To be sure, the above proposed principles still leave a lot of room for disagreement, conflict, and debate—and so it should be in a representative republic. But embracing these ideas will open the door for those debates to take place. It places ideas in the center of the discussion. And while it won’t eliminate entirely the polarity that currently exists in Washington, it would go a long way to opening channels of communication that have long been closed.

I suspect some who read this will find the suggestions here a bit pollyannish. Politics is, after all, a lot like making sausage, so the analogy goes—accept the results, and try not to look too closely at the process. It’s a dirty business, and if you don’t have the stomach to do what has to be done, you won’t last long in government.

Such a position effectively claims that government is irredeemable, and that the only way to make progress is to sacrifice larger principles for policies we deem favorable. If such is true, we as a people are in much worse shape than even the direst doomsayers have asserted. I reject the premise, if for no other reason than my belief that the Holy Spirit is able to move in the hearts and minds of those in positions of power. One only need look to the examples of William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and others who—through persistence and the strength of their arguments—were able to transform the prevailing culture for the better.

And yes, it is true that there will be many that hate us because we are Christians, regardless of how we engage in politics and culture. Jesus tells his disciples exactly that in John’s Gospel. But we are beholden to make sure we are being hated for the right reason. Too many Christians take undue satisfaction in being attacked by their opponents, thinking it underscores the virtue of their position. It is worth considering that any hatred we face might be due, not to our identification with Christ, but simply because we are acting as asses. Only when our behavior mirrors that of Jesus can we take comfort that any opposition is against Him and His kingdom and not just us.

There is hope for transformation, but it must begin with us as Christians living out our faith in real and tangible ways, both in our private and public spheres of influence. As we live out our dual citizenship in the Kingdoms of Left and Right, may we never lose sight of our eternal calling, nor of the immediate ways we can make a difference for those around us.


Author: Steve Rempe

Christian. Husband. Dad. Bengal fan. (Pretty much in that order.)

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