Prudence, Courage, and Principled Compromise

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Today on November 8, 2013.

To believe in something is not to be an ideologue. It is to have conviction, to hold to a set of principles that cannot be reshaped based on the spirit of the times, polls, or the approval of the New York Times.

An ideologue is one whose conviction elides into rigidity. It is to make one's political decisions based not on a belief system but on personal frustration and the catharsis of remaining "pure" even as defeat becomes predictable, even comfortable.

Abraham Lincoln was a man of principle. His core beliefs defined his political career and conduct. His extraordinary explanations of the meaning of representative self-government and human equality are among the defining statements of American republicanism.

Lincoln also understood that he could not get everything he wanted all at once. He said abolitionists "seemed to think that the moment I was president, I had the power to abolish slavery, forgetting that before I could have any power whatsoever I had to take the oath to support the Constitution of the United States as I found them" (

His allegiance to the Constitution and recognition of achievable political ends tempered his expectations and enabled him to formulate strategies that produced the results his more impatient peers wanted immediately. Slavery is the defining example: He issued the Emancipation Proclamation under his unilateral authority as Commander in Chief; it was a war measure, designed to deny the South the military use of enslaved persons.

Of course, Lincoln knew (and intended) that the Proclamation put slavery on the path of extinction. He also knew that if he violated the Constitution to achieve a noble end (abolition), he would be undermining the very authority by which he achieved it. So, in 1864-65, he successfully pushed for the enactment of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.

His critics charged that the Proclamation was inadequate, that it didn't go far enough or fast enough. Lincoln knew better: He was eager to rid the nation of the scourge of what he later called "the bondsman's lash" but knew he would fail to do so if he tried to do too much, too soon.

If Lincoln could have waved some kind of constitutional wand and made slavery disappear, he would have. No such wand existed, so he first used the law to do what he could and then changed it, with public opinion's wind at his back, where it needed changing to complete his program of emancipation.

It was a question of means and timing: Lincoln knew that public opinion took time to shape and persuade. "Public sentiment is everything," said Lincoln in his Ottawa, Illinois debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858. "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."

Lincoln did not conform his opinions to the will of the 50 percent-plus-one. Rather he gauged where the people were and then artfully and persistently sought to move them, through engaging analogies, relentless logic, and simple humor to the place he believed they should go.

The sixteenth president "regarded prudence in all respect(s) as one of the cardinal virtues." At the same time, he never let prudential good judgment become an excuse for moral cowardice.

Lincoln's approach to public policy, whether it regarded something as momentous as ending slavery or something as economically transformative as the Homestead Act, was a blend of boldness and caution, taken in right measure and at the right time. His moral courage, which took the nation through four years of civil war, constitutional amendments, diplomatic crises, and industrial change, was unflagging. So was his discretion in obtaining his fixed purposes.

Ideologues are more concerned with the bracing feeling of moral immaculacy than they are with winning electoral, legislative, or judicial victories. This is, ultimately, a matter of deep selfishness; whether I feel ethically superior after a particular endeavor is insubstantial compared with the rightness of the endeavor itself, the means by which it was pursued, and the wisdom employed to attain its objectives.

Conscience, of course, counts - for a lot. I am not suggesting that maintaining Christian virtue in motivation, planning, and action is not critical; it is, if believers are to be faithful to the Holy One. Rather, like Lincoln and slavery, believers should consider carefully not just what we want but the means of getting there, politically and spiritually.

Brave action is imperative, but it should never be detached from wisdom. Prayer, wise counsel, studying God's Word, reviewing the lessons of history, and evaluating how great leaders (like David and Lincoln) fulfilled their aims will help give us insight into how most effectively, as well has how most faithfully, to do God's will in public life.