It Is Not the Political Critic That Counts

January 11, 2016

Many politicians are some combination of the following: hypocritical, venal, self-interested, provincial, demagogic, too ideologically rigid, too easily manipulated, not close enough to the people, too susceptible to public whims, immoral, ignorant and arrogant. And so are many of the people they represent.

Many activists, Right and Left, are motivated by a confection of fear, outrage, anger, insensitivity, a sense of loss, and intellectual myopia, not to mention political unsophistication and a pattern of oversimplifying the complex.

Combined with the fact that the sun rises in the east and that water runs downhill, the above statements should be obvious to any reasonably close observer of the American political scene.

In other words: So what? Human moral and emotional frailties are not new, and that they are evident in the 240 year-long American effort to demonstrate that representative self-governance is not a farce should come neither as a surprise nor a source of contempt.

I am not talking about the excesses of human sin that blot the American political landscape. From marital infidelity to subsidization of abortion, the personal and public wrongs of those we allow to rule us stain the body politic, sometimes hidden beneath the heavy cloth of secrecy, at others as obvious as a rash on one's cheek.

Yet painting all office holders as contemptible because some fall greatly or because all are imperfect amounts to little more than snide carping and usually is the result of personal non-participation in the arena of public life. Armchair critics enjoy the comfort of indolence and the luxury of indecision. This is not to say their criticisms are always wrong. Rather, it's to note that their observations are made in the arid vacuum of passivity, preventing a fuller, deeper understanding of the tensions and difficulties found in writing a bill, taking a vote, electing a candidate, or marshalling a movement.

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure," said Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, "than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

A bit melodramatically stated, perhaps, but nonetheless a substantively accurate account of life generally and of politics in particular. Public action need not be perfect to be noble, permanent to be valuable, or complete to be worthy.

Cynicism is often tempered by engaging in the very activity condescending detachment sees as humorous or stupid. Tempered because in such engagement one comes to know the moral courage of one's fellow participants. Even if some of those who act are ill-informed or driven as much by pain as principle, working alongside them shears-off the coat of patronization whose thickness prevents experiencing the empathy, joy, and sadness—the richness—political life can produce.

Those are things worth knowing, and can only be known by those whose intellectual knowledge is augmented by human experience. That combination, founded upon a bedrock of moral conviction, can make involvement in the public life of one's country invigorating, honorable, and beneficial.

Christians know (or should) that until Christ's return, political success will always be partial, transient, and pock-marked by sin. They should also know that justice and human dignity call for their faithfulness not only in private endeavors but appropriate public ones, as well.

Armed with that knowledge and stirred by that duty, let the redeemed of the Lord seek to protect the innocent, defend the fatherless, strengthen families, and do justice to the poor and oppressed, at home and abroad. People of the Gospel must do no less.