Characteristics of a Christian Politician
The People's Politics or God's Politics?
The “right” way to practice politics has been debated for centuries. It is not a new topic, and is one that never will come to a resolve. Many factors shape the ideals of those who propose to say, “This is the right way to govern.” The arguments from the left side of politics seem to be more compassionate and for the people. The arguments from the right side seem to be more rigid and for the upholding of the country. Ironically enough, the compassionate left argues for the most part, that religion should be left out of politics, but on the right, morale and belief should be the governing scepter. One must wonder what exactly it is that should lead a Christian politician in serving one's country.
Being a politician in today’s government can be a tricky task; throw in the “Christian” factor and it becomes a tangled web. Ultimately and ideally the goal of the politician is to take the people to a greater and more efficient state of functioning. But in between Egypt and the Promised Land, so to speak, lie a multitude and myriad of hard decisions to make and issues to be addressed. Moral and ethical dilemmas arise in politics more than in any other professional arena. In fact, since it is all about people, their problems, and their opinions of those problems, the practice of politics is a constant and never ending dilemma. In the midst of all the dilemmas that just come with the job, the governing office is also consistently confronted with fact that they will be judged by the people to see if he or she represented them accurately. And based on these judgments, the people will decide to re-elect the official or not. Politicians are faced with the fact that based on the decisions they make today, their office could be gone tomorrow. Therefore, decision-making and vote casting can be overwhelming and agonizing tasks. What is even more of a struggle is when the beliefs of the politician and the majority opinion of his or her constituents conflict. Dr. Charla Long, professor over Lipscomb University’s Law, Justice, and Society program agrees, “The biggest dilemma a politician will face is how to cast their vote-to give the people what they want or to make a difference with their beliefs.”
Hopefully, the official was elected by the people because they do agree with their beliefs and values, but there may come a day when they greatly conflict such was in the case of Mary Landrieu. When the occasion arises that the politician’s beliefs conflict with the opinions of the constituents that they represent, it is vital that the politician chooses to vote his or her beliefs on what is best for the people whether they agree or not. What Mary Landrieu did by adding $300 million provisions for health care for the state of Louisiana to the proposed health care bill was to be admired, not criticized. The fact that the bill also included abortion provisions should be of little significance when such a great need has been fulfilled. Roe v. Wade was not going to be overturned by Mary Landrieu voting against the healthcare bill. She was a leader with vision and was able to be creative in accomplishing that vision. She saw through long-term lenses for her constituents and met their needs.
Scripture states in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Holy Bible, as quoted in Jesus CEO, version unknown) In order for politicians to lead effectively, they must have vision for where they want to take the people they have been chosen to serve. Then, they should make decisions and cast votes based upon the vision they have constructed. During their campaign, they articulate this vision and give the voters a chance to decide if this is where they would like to go. In construction of the vision, people’s opinions do matter. They should be considered and weighed, used not as the source for the vision, but as a resource. In execution of the vision, however, opinions will differ on how this should be done and not everyone’s opinion can be taken into account. This is why it is important for the politician not to make decisions based on opinion polls, but on what they see as the next best step to further the people. There is an old saying that says, “Opinions are like arm pits. Everyone has them and some of them stink.” If the politician takes on the role of people-pleaser rather than civil servant, nothing will ever be accomplished. In her book, Jesus CEO, Laurie Beth Jones states, “Politicians who rely on opinion polls to determine their actions do not last very long as leaders…opinion polls are a very poor source of vision” (25-26). One can see the potential for anarchy if the politician allows everyone else to dictate his or her actions. He risks becoming a puppet of the people, instead of a servant of the people.
Jesus knew about this. Many times, he had to do what people did not want nor did they understand, especially when it came to sacrificing himself on the cross. Peter tried to stop Jesus from going into Jerusalem before the crucifixion, and Peter was heavily rebuked. Many times Jesus spoke in metaphors of his destiny on the cross and left the disciples confused. What if Jesus had said to his disciples, “I see that you do not understand what I am talking about and that you don’t want me to go to the cross. Since I am here to serve you, you must be right. I won’t go.” No, Jesus knew he had to do whatever it took to fulfill the vision that would benefit all mankind for the rest of the time earth exists and into eternity. If Jesus had been a people-pleaser, the world would have been in trouble. In John 12:42-43 Jesus says, “Why do you seek after people’s approval but do not seek the approval that comes from God?” (Holy Bible, as quoted in Jesus CEO, version unknown) Yes, Jesus was sent to serve the people as are Christian politicians, but He served the people God’s way, not their way. People may know what they want, but what they want is not always what they need nor is it the best for them. The politician’s job is to see beyond the want and into the need of the issue. Jones quotes Aldous Huxley as saying, “The tendency of the masses is toward mediocrity.” (Jesus CEO, 26) This could not be more true, and mediocrity never brings change.
It is precisely the people that despise mediocrity that will bring change, and if the tendency of the masses is toward mediocrity, that means politicians who push for true change will have a tendency to be in the minority and risk being despised them selves. Our first obvious example is Jesus. Although not a politician, but definitely a revolutionary, He came to his own people as a healer, deliver, teacher, restorer, but he ended up being rejected by many. He did not come as they thought he would. He was a revolutionary capable of bringing great change to all who believed, but many chose not to simply because he did not come as they wanted or expected. This is the tendency of people-to want what they want, but also to want it how they want it. This attitude keeps them from seeing the big picture. That is why our world is endowed with a small percentage of people who are natural born visionaries. According to the Myers Briggs personality assessment, there is a certain personality type who are these born visionaries. They have characteristics of fierce independent minds and being able to strategically implement visions and understand the inter-relatedness of the different components. Another strong characteristic of this personality type is that they absolutely could care less what you think about them. They are not concerned with other people’s opinions, but more importantly concerned with how to execute the vision in the most efficient and effective way possible. According to Myers Briggs, it is estimated that these people make up one percent of the American population. Among these people are, Susan B. Anthony, Augustus Caesar, C.S. Lewis, John F. Kennedy, and Thomas Jefferson. In order to be an effective politician, Dr. Long says, “You must have a backbone and be willing to make tough choices.” When a politician does make these tough choices that conflict with the majority opinion in godly wisdom and knowledge, hopefully, the end will justify the means.
In order for the end to justify the means though, the process must be done in a moral fashion. In Tadeusz Buksinksi’s book Liberalization and Transformation of Morality in Postcommunist Countries, politicians are described to be torn between two codes of ethics-the ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility. The ethics of conviction, Buksinksi’s says, is doing good irrespective of the consequences as described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For example, “Love your enemy” and “Do not commit adultery.” Buksinki’s says this type of politics is ineffective and must not be used because,
support of voters would decrease and as a result a politician loses popularity and power.
A politician would not be able to safeguard the well-being of the community.
He would provoke ideological or religious conflicts because of convictions and attempts to put them into practice.”(28)
He instead prescribes the ethics of responsibility which is doing whatever is necessary, good or bad, moral or immoral in order to achieve the greater good for the people. It takes an approach of “whatever makes the people happy do it, because later you will need their votes.” It is utilitarianism gone bad. While utilitarianism does promote sacrifice for the greater good, Buksinki's ethics of responsibility promotes evil and immorality. What Buksinki fails to acknowledge in his assessment of the ethics of conviction, is that Jesus never told us to do good for the mere fact of doing good. Doing good, in fact, contrary to Buskinski’s opinion, is consequential in many positive ways. Jesus had not only the individual in mind, but also the community. How could each individual doing good not benefit the community? This is the perfect communal effort and safe guard of community. If there were more people forgiving debt and less people murdering, the world would be a better place. The ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility (exempting the immorality factor) are two puzzle pieces of the same puzzle. The ethics of conviction fuels the individual to contribute to the community in a positive way. Therefore, if a politician was to govern by the ethics of conviction, it would not be ineffective at all, but the most effective way of governing possible. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus promises us blessings from obeying these attitudes and principles. A Christian politician who desires to serve God in his or her office should never deviate from their beliefs in the principles and values that Jesus has taught us. In his book God’s Politics: Why the Left Gets it Wrong and the Right Doesn’t Get it, Harvard professor and evangelical Christian, Jim Wallis declares, “…to influence a democratic society, you must win the public debate about why the policies you advocate are better for the common good. That’s the democratic discipline religion has to be under when it brings its faith to the public square.”(71)
Essentially, what the Christian politician is called to is servant-leadership. Servant-leadership, more than anything else, is a motivation of the heart to do what is best for the people without self-interest, even the preservation of reputation. But good politics requires more than just a good heart. It also requires a strong mind exercised in social responsibility. Jim Wallis says of reaching for the common good, “That common good should always be constructed from the deepest wells of our personal and social responsibility and the absolute insistence to never separate the two.” (6) Notice that personal responsibility comes before social. The servant-leader must be responsible to God and himself first and foremost. Otherwise, good actions of advocacy become soulless politics. Christian politicians should always stay true to their God and their beliefs that are motivated by God. After all, at the end of the day, it is ultimately yourself who you answer to and who worse to betray than your own conscience? One must not sacrifice conscience in order to please someone else.
Let it be known that there are those rare situations where the politician does need the public opinion in order to move forward in the vision. In these instances, when the public opinion is incongruent with the agenda of the vision, it is a time for ingenious creativity to come forth. Sway the public opinion. Without manipulation, without force or control, but in expressing the vision in the most articulate way possible. At the same time bearing the heart, that you have the constituent’s best interest in mind. An incredible example of this is one America’s greatest modern revolutionaries.Dr. Martin Luther King was pushing President Lyndon B. Johnson for a Voting Rights Act for African Americans. President Johnson regretfully told King that this would only be possible in 5-10 years because the majority of southern senators were against any civil rights movements and Johnson had already pushed for enough. King joined with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery. Hundreds of clergy from across the nation joined King, and in five months the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
What if all these leaders that have been mentioned listened to the majority opinion? The change that has shaped and made this nation what it is today would have never happened. If Queen Esther, against all advice (except Mordecai) and looking death in the face, had never thrown herself at the mercy of great King Xerxes in petition for an entire race, the lineage of Christ may have been cut off. This type of boldness and audacity are required for an effective Christian politician, but also must be tempered with humility. In replies to the thank you(s) for his service, Nashville’s fifth district Congressman Jim Cooper stated, “No, thank you. It is your office. You just let me occupy it for a little bit.” A political office is to serve the people, but a Christian politician must be wise and prudent in exactly how to serve without compromising his or her values or beliefs.
Buksiński, Tadeusz. Liberalization and Transformation of Morality in Postcommunist Countries.Washington, D.C. 2003
Cooper, Jim. Personal Interview. February 23, 2010
Jones, Laurie Beth. Jesus CEO. New York, New York, 1995
Long, Dr. Charla. Personal Interview. February 8, 2010
Wallis, Jim. God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it. NewYork, New York. 2005