Politicians, Public Service and Faithfulness to Christ

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Today on August 22, 2013.

Writing about the constitutional convention, Thomas Jefferson referred to the group of statesmen gathered to re-write the Articles of Confederation as "an assembly of demi-gods."

The Founders of our country were remarkable men, and we have been blessed by their courage, conviction, and wisdom for centuries. Yet they, too, were sons and daughters of Adam. They needed a Redeemer just as do all of us. Rather than demi-gods, they were just people.

And that's what all politicians are: people. This means they wrestle with all the same things everyone else does, only they often wrestle with them under the glare of the public spotlight.

This can be particularly disillusioning to younger Christian men and women for whom some political leaders (e.g., Wilberforce or Reagan) retain a heroic glow. They read biographies of great leaders of the past, or glowing profiles of current leaders, and join an office-holder's staff believing that moral grandeur will emanate from him as do rays from the sun. As the humanity of the politician surfaces in ways small and large, the stars in the eyes of his aides can begin to dim and cynicism take their place.

If a politician has serious moral failings or personal flaws - for example, if he is unfaithful to his wife, or if he takes money for political favors, as did former U.S. Representative and convicted criminal Duke Cunningham (R-CA) - cynicism and disappointment are inevitable. Someone pretending to be something he is not is wearing two faces or what the New Testament calls being a hypocrite. Hypocrisy and heroism can never coincide.

However, imperfection and ignobility are two different things. A politician can be a person of high character, personal kindness, great vision and deep principle, but as a son or daughter of Adam will still sin. If your standard for political leadership is unchanging perfection, you are too naïve not just for politics, but life itself.

Christians in politics should only work for men and women whose ethics, character, beliefs, judgments, and temperament demonstrate personal virtue. If you are running for, or in, office, aim to be the man or woman God wants you to be, not only in order to fulfill your public duties well but also to be a testimony to those around you.

Moral courage counts for a great deal. A politician can believe in what is true and even "vote right," yet never make an impact on public policy because she is too embarrassed of her core convictions to articulate them publicly, too afraid of political fallout for taking a principled stand, or too complacent to seize opportunities to advance the right and the good.

By the way, most politicians, whether Right, Left, or Center, are "nice." They know how to show friendliness, even to those with whom they disagree sharply. Often they have the confident patter of small talk down to a science, and are able to make even their enemies be at peace with them on a private level.

However, because someone is nice doesn't mean he's honorable. Politics is full of "nice" but corrupt and untrustworthy individuals. Don't be snowed-over by a nice smile and mellifluous voice.

On the other hand, don't equate genuine personal decency and sound conviction with wise political judgment. I have known many politicians who obey the law, are patient and energetic, love their families, and yet believe in wrong things and support evil policies. I've also met some who are unpleasant, taciturn, and secretive, but who in addition to being persons of honorable character are also champions for the good and right in public policy.

If you are working for someone in the latter category, you have to gauge how much you can take: His soul and behavior might be pure and his beliefs in sync with yours, but if he is unsupportive personally, apathetic about using his office wisely, a crummy manager, has a peevish spirit or another non-moral deficiency that drives you crazy, you have to evaluate whether working for him is sufficiently emotionally and professionally gratifying to put up with his eccentricities.

When you go to work for a candidate or office holder, bear all of this in mind. If you don't, you will become too jaded and both your walk with the Lord and your vision of how He might use you in politics will be placed at risk. You will also put yourself in jeopardy of becoming what you once disdained: A compromised political hack who, while perhaps doing nothing overtly wrong, settles for mediocrity and a "get-along, go-along" attitude.

"If anyone serves Me," Jesus promised, "the Father will honor him" (John 12:26). It's only by remembering and practicing service to our Master that we can serve the public or any employer, including any politician, well.

Never forget that, as a believer, you serve a King Whose rule is eternal and truth is immutable. Loyalty to no one, including even the most dynamic of political leaders, should ever dull that commitment.