More on Putting Politics in its Place
Religion & Liberty Online

More on Putting Politics in its Place

Last week Jordan Ballor and I offered short addresses to the crowd that gathered for Acton on Tap in Grand Rapids. This is an essay that closely mirrors my comments from the event. It’s a sermon of sorts, and a personal testimonial too.

— — — — — —
Remarks on the “Limit of Politics” for Acton on Tap:

I love elections. Elections produce drama, conflict, and intrigue. It produces statements like this by the former Louisiana governor and federal convict Edwin Edwards: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

When I was in high school and college my biggest dream besides being a Congressman with an office full of young SEC cheerleader interns, was to be a campaign super consultant, just like two heroes of mine Ed Rollins and Lee Atwater. I idolized them through books and television. You should read Bareknuckles and Backrooms by Ed Rollins and the bio of Lee Atwater titled Bad Boy to get some of the behind the scenes ugliness, conflict, and humor of American politics.

As my parents could tell you I could name all the candidates who were running for president in 1988. I knew what they stood for, where they were from, and what scandals were attributed to them. I knew what Gary Hart was doing with Donna Rice. In kindergarten I advocated for Ronald Reagan in the classroom and even remember kicking over a Walter Mondale sign.

When I was wrapping up with college the dream never died. I had worked in campaigns and I decided to intern in a Washington congressional office after interning in my congressman’s district office. Well, when I got up to D.C. it wasn’t that awesome. There was one particular nasty woman who gave me hell. I saw a lot of back stabbing and bitterness. I saw first hand some of my heroes were lushes who walked around the capital with bourbon on their breath and bloodshot eyes. And that was at 10 a.m.

My best friend that summer was 15 years older than me and a former Air Force navigator who was in law school and also my roommate. And that’s because growing up as a military brat I could relate to him and simply because he wasn’t a jerk. Washington is a lonely place. Harry Truman once quipped, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

I remember feeling very heart broken and discouraged that summer. I think one day I got yelled at over something trivial and inconsequential, and, while walking through the famed Statuary Hall in the Capital Rotunda, I saw the statue of Father Damien of Molokai who literally gave his life for the lepers on the island of Molokai. My eyes welled with tears and I was once again reminded there are servants who greatly contrast other servants. The statue was recognizable to me because I use to live in Hawaii and a bigger statue is at the Capital Building in Honolulu. It was a reminder that there was shallowness within our political system and the country – and really the redemptive promise of the work of the Lord and our faith is the only thing that can transcend that.

Soon after that I met a family from a rural South Georgia on the metro. And I said I would give them a tour of the Capital and it was a breath of fresh air. These were real Americans, kind, considerate, faithful Christians, not drunk on the orb of power and treachery.

The congressman I worked for, Gene Taylor (D-Miss) did help to reinforce something timeless and virtuous.

One day I was dispatched with the duty of locating him in the Rayburn House office building. The reason was simple; the Secretary of the Navy was waiting for him in his office. Some of the staff was panic stricken and mildly embarrassed because they could not ascertain his whereabouts and he was terribly late for the meeting. Congressman Taylor was not frequently attached at the hip with his cellular phone or pager. I remember looking in all the places you would look for a House member in the Rayburn building and not being able to locate him. After I had given up, I preceded to walk up the stairs and found him talking with a maintenance worker in the stairwell.

I told him that the Secretary of the Navy was in his office and he nodded his head and introduced me to his friend, whom he treated like a celebrity, bragging up the individual’s fishing skills. While I did not always agree with the positions or votes he recorded on issues, Gene Taylor always reinforced the significance of treating people the same. He also taught me a valuable life lesson when he told me:

You know why I’m friends with the capital police, the maintenance workers, and the common fisherman down at the harbor? It’s because they will continue to be my friends when I am no longer a congressman.

I think that’s an important reminder that the Church should not give up its witness during this hour. And I think the Church can actually learn something from tea parties too. I see a lot of tea party members and groups engaged in this critical election hour. I don’t see the same kind of urgency from the Church. Where is the urgency for lost souls, for the unborn, for the marginalized and hurting? Why should we cede so many problems to Caesar?

I say this to the orthodox believing Christians, with no disrespect to anybody who might be a Latter Day Saint. But I think in many ways it’s almost appropriate that the spiritual leader of tea parties and really just a de facto spiritual leader at this time is a Mormon, because the Christian Church in a lot of ways is sleeping as I see it.

One of the great heritages of John Wesley and Methodism, which was in many ways a movement based on broader social change, is that within any first step of social change, whether it was abolition, reforming drunkenness, prison reform, or helping the poor, was conversion. In historical Methodism the change of heart was primary. And that is not the case anymore with a lot of Methodism today, which is truly sad. Methodism proves as a classic example because the bureaucracy (not the laity) has lost a lot of its witness because it has become too politicized. Bishops and agencies advocate for progressive policies above all else, and even create idols out of their political witness.

Transitioning back to Washington, I think ultimately what we see out of Washington is a call and a warning for us to be energized by the hour. And that’s why grassroots activism is so important. It starts in the home; it starts in the family, and in the community. The family is the primary inculcator of the moral culture in a society.

I remember seeing a clip on one of the 24 hour news channels poking fun at a tea party rally in Mississippi, because it was wholly religious. Tea parties are obviously different in different parts of the country, but what I saw in large part was sort of a mix between a Baptist revival with sermons and praise and worship music and a call for everybody to repent for national sins, not just Republican and Democrats. By making fun of it, the talking heads thought they were making fun of more simple minded people who dreamed of theocracy. But I saw it primarily as a deep recognition that our problems transcend the political and are entrenched in the very social fabric of the nation.

Because if you have a debt problem, why are you going to demand fiscal sanity from your leaders? If you don’t have a problem with infidelity, why would you care if your leaders could care less either?

The Civil Rights leader and former politician Andrew Young gives us guidance here. His book Uneasy Burden is a big reason for my calling to seminary and served as an inspiration to serving in ministry. The theme of his book and his work in the civil rights movement was from Luke 12: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” What witness do you want to give wherever God places you and whatever circumstances arise? How can you contrast your witness with the lowest forms of gutter politics?

So it is natural that a hedonistic culture is going to chase after quick fix political solutions to problems that plague them. The Church can respond because it does have answers to the deeper problems that plaque our nation and plague our soul. And it is up to all of you to stand up and offer a witness this day. If the people are virtuous, government can do some good things, but the people will do more good.

Ray Nothstine

Ray Nothstine is editor at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.