Political Theater

All the world is a stage and all of us who strut upon it are actors after some fashion. And in the political arena, where men and women must gather coalitions and support from a myriad of diverse points of view, I suppose that success depends upon a high level of thespian skill.

But I am so put off by blatant political theater. And at this point I can’t determine whether that is because I am at heart self-righteous and able to see the sins of others so much better than I can see the same sin in myself, or whether I am attune to something rotten in American politics.

It may be both. When it is so clear that the act of an elected official is aimed not at accomplishing anything of public value, but simply at making political points, I think I am justified to be put off by the smell.

Recently, newly elected Republicans in the US House of Representatives pushed a measure to repeal the Obama health care plan passed by the previous Congress. They pushed this knowing that it was meaningless. It would not pass the Senate. That a bill was submitted which all knew would accomplish nothing more than gain supporters “I-stood-up-to-Obama” points seemed not to bother any of them. But it was pure theater designed to amuse, if not deceive.

Monday, in similar fashion, Rick Scott, the multi-millionaire governor of Florida, unveiled the parameters of his new state budget. I was hopeful, but I should have known better than to expect something serious when Gov. Scott chose a gathering of those living under the ‘tea party’ label as the place to reveal his plan. He was playing to the house. His budget has no chance of passing in its current form. It is not realistic. And yet he can stand with a straight face on that stage and enjoy the cheers of those he is duping into thinking he is actually doing something. It is all theater. Why do we buy it?

Of course, all leadership demands drama to some degree. Henry V’s “Band of Brothers” speech is of course all Shakespeare, but something like it needs to be delivered before men head into battle, or little leaguers head into their first game. At some level, of course, it is dramatic and needs to be. And sometimes symbolic acts need to be taken. That, too, I understand. But drama and symbol must be wed to integrity. Anything else is mere play-acting.

How SHOULD We Then Live?

I recently posted my frustration related to the way some DEMAND that others respond to the issue of abortion. I was disappointed that a particularly confrontational and uncharitable approach had been (apparently) sanctioned by The Gospel Coalition’s Justin Taylor.

My concern is somewhat ameliorated by Taylor’s subsequent post of an interview with Robert P. George on the subject of abortion. In that interview, Mr. Taylor asked Professor George how the church should respond to abortion. The heart of what he says is in stunning contrast to what Mr. Taylor’s previous post encouraged:

Let us treat everyone, even our opponents in this profound moral struggle, with respect, civility, and ungrudging love. Loving witness is something all of us can give. And lovingly witnessing in our churches and communities to the sanctity of human life is something all of us are called to do.

I reproduce his answer here in full, and with enthusiasm:

First and foremost: Pray. Pray for the unborn victims of abortion and for women who are, so often and in so many ways, truly abortion’s “secondary victims.” Do not judge them, but rather pray for them and love them. Pray for those who have dedicated themselves to working in politics and the culture for the pro-life cause. Pray for our leaders at the state and federal levels—including judges—whose actions will literally determine who lives and dies. Pray for those whose hearts have been hardened against the unborn, and who defend and even promote abortion. And pray for those who perform abortions. God has already turned the hearts of some such people. Bernard Nathanson, a prominent abortionist and one of the founders of the pro-abortion movement in the United States, was converted to the pro-life cause by the loving witness and prayers of pro-life people. Who knows how many other abortionists and defenders of abortion will follow his path? Let’s give up on no one. Let us treat everyone, even our opponents in this profound moral struggle, with respect, civility, and ungrudging love. Loving witness is something all of us can give. And lovingly witnessing in our churches and communities to the sanctity of human life is something all of us are called to do.

And there is more that we can do. Pro-lifers do a wonderful job in pregnancy centers around the country in reaching out in love and compassion to pregnant women in need. These pro-life heroes need our financial and moral support. Moreover, they can always use another pair of hands, so I hope that many people will join those volunteering in these efforts. They save lives, and they bring God’s healing and practical assistance to our sisters in distress. Politically, we need to use our clout as citizens of a democratic republic to influence policy in a pro-life direction. The fight against abortion and embryo-destructive research should be put at the top of the priority list in evaluating candidates for state and federal offices. We should support pro-life candidates with our money as well as our votes. Moreover, I hope that some who read these words will take the very practical step of running for office themselves. We need more people who are dedicated to the defense of human life to step forward as candidates for Congress, the state legislatures, and other public offices.

Abraham Lincoln and Effective Rhetoric

Charity in debate is something I long for. I’m not a good one to champion it, of course. I often find after a heated discussion with someone on some topic mattering to the two of us the need to go to that person and ask his forgiveness for my tone or for words carelessly spoken.

But this pot would still like to address the kettle so that we all might step away from our blackness, listen to how we sound, and ameliorate our rhetoric in such a way that we might be heard and be effective in our persuasion.

The concern for civility has entered the national debate recently as a result of the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. I’m not persuaded that this shooting was the result of uncivil discourse. My hope is not that Rush Limbaugh would tone down his rhetoric. He won’t, nor will others whose shrillness is a part of their entertainment schtick. My hope is that those of us concerned for persuasion and not entertainment would stop letting those voices be the ones which inform our content and style. My concern is ultimately that the church, first, would become a place where variant views can be heard, discussed, and even strongly disagreed with, in a context of mutual respect and understanding.

With this background, I am intrigued, therefore, to read how Abraham Lincoln framed his rhetoric regarding slavery prior to his election to the presidency. There is no question that Lincoln opposed slavery. He was realistic enough to know, though, that the most to be hoped for politically at the time was containment, not abolition. He pursued what was politically viable and for that, he is skewered. But should he be?

It is easy to embrace and speak moral absolutes. But to be politically persuasive is far more difficult. And being persuasive was Lincoln’s goal.

Lincoln knew that in any debate there are several groups. There are hardened partisans on both sides of the issue. In his case, these were the abolitionists on the one end and the defenders of slavery on the other. He could not hope to take ardent defenders of the Southern practice of enslavement and move them to the abolitionists’ side no matter how skilled his tongue or passionate his desire. What he could hope to do was to persuade a third group, those uncertain, those whose opinions were not yet hardened. And so at these he aimed his message.

Doris Kearns Goodwin provides a fascinating account of his approach in her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Lincoln appealed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, arguing that these principles alone forbid the right of one man to govern another without his consent. What was he trying to accomplish by so doing?

“By appealing to the moral and philosophical foundation work of the nation, Lincoln hoped to provide common ground on which good men in both the North and the South could stand.”

He knew that that common ground would not be embraced if he simply shouted angry slogans across the divide. His goal was not to shout and to alienate, but to reason and to draw together. His approach was radical for its time, and radical in our own. This observation is key:

“Unlike the majority of antislavery orators, who denounced the South and castigated slaveowners as corrupt and un-Christian, Lincoln pointedly denied fundamental differences between Northerners and Southerners. He argued that they ‘are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up…. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself.'”

He models for us something that our more passionate anti-abortion allies, and at times I, find very hard to comprehend:

“Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy.” (page page 167)

This is hard, and it seems pragmatic. And yes, it did not persuade the hardened. The country still went to war; Lincoln was still assassinated. But there is something fundamentally right in his approach, right and important for all our personal discussions, whether it be political or religious.

Everything said in these pages (I have quoted from pages 167-168) is helpful. The whole book is helpful. But I leave you with this:

“Though the cause be ‘naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel,’ the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker or the slaveowner than ‘penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.’ In order ‘to win a man to your causes,’ Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, ‘the great high road to his reason.’ This, he concluded, was the only road to victory — to that glorious day ‘when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth.'”

May God give us ears to hear.

Ineffective Shouting

No topic stirs emotion, and emotional rhetoric, like abortion. I understand the emotion. I have three children given life by three courageous women who suffered greatly in order to give life when the world around them, including their friends, was telling them to end their pregnancy.

I know the emotion.

I am, however, saddened, and at times angered, by the rhetoric that such emotion generates.

Justin Taylor’s blog Between Two Worlds is one of the most respected sources of insightful Christian reflection on the internet. He consistently points to good resources and interacts thoughtfully with contemporary issues. He cares deeply about the abortion issue, and I could learn something from his passion.

And yet in a recent post, he draws attention to some comments made on the subject of abortion by author Randy Alcorn. He quotes, I assume favorably, from a larger article written by Mr. Alcorn, which I subsequently tried to read. The article is a severe and uncharitable indictment leveled against Christians who differ with Mr. Alcorn on several points. I found it to be the kind of rhetoric that causes those who already agree to cheer, but changes the mind and heart of no one. He shouts at us, and most of us turn off shouting pretty quickly.

Its only impact is to cause one group within the church to mistrust, if not hate and despise, another group within the church. And that is wrong.

Several quotes will capture the essence of Alcorn’s charges against those whom he should consider his brothers and sisters in Christ:

“I think that every Christian who keeps voting for ‘prochoice’ candidates and who opposes showing the photos of dead babies, while defending what kills the babies in the photos, should question their faith (is it biblical, or does it merely mirror the current drift of our culture?).”

If I read this correctly, he is saying this:

If I find that there are compelling reasons for thinking that one candidate, who will do more for creating a just land, a peaceful future, and a society which cares deeply for the weak, but who is deluded or confused or just wrong about abortion, and I vote for him instead of the avowed pro-life candidate who has no political skills, no knowledge of how government works, and no possibility of doing anything positive in office, but simply is a puppet or tool of a conservative political agenda, then I am not a Christian?

Wow. Question my judgment. But don’t question my salvation.

Or, this:

“I think every church member who is against the observance of Sanctity of Human Life Sunday (this weekend in many churches) and thinks the church shouldn’t talk about abortion—and every pastor who refuses to speak about it from the pulpit—needs to be taken on a virtual tour of that Pennsylvania clinic and come to terms with what abortion really is.”

That is, if I conclude that the church should in its public worship only mark the redemptive events in the life of Christ, and should avoid marking political events (the Fourth of July), the anniversary dates of certain political persons (Martin Luther King), or particularly impact-laden judicial decisions (Roe v. Wade), then a confrontation with what I already know to be a horrific practice and a moral evil is supposed to change my fundamental view of the nature of Christian worship and how the church interfaces with the world?

Again, my judgment may be wrong. But it is judgment that needs to be argued on logic, not emotion.


“If you lack the conviction or the courage to stand up and say to your church, who you are accountable to lead, “It is wrong to kill unborn babies, God hates it and God will judge it,” then you should not be a pastor. If you don’t have the guts to say “These are children—we must stop killing them” then you need to do something that doesn’t even pretend to take on a biblical and prophetic mantle.”

That is, if I refuse to take a confrontational and judgmental and angry tone from the pulpit on this particular moral issue, then I am gutless pretender to the gospel ministry?

There are many reasons why I think myself unfit for ministry, but this is not one of them. My heart condemns me daily for presuming to step into the pulpit on any given Sunday. But don’t question my courage or my conviction or my fitness for ministry simply because I refuse to take the tack or tone that you think I must.

Believe me, I struggle with how to address this issue, and how to address it as a church in a way that is truly effective in broadening the base of those who share the conviction that abortion is wrong. I am constantly evaluating how to include this in my preaching.

But to be told that one needs to be removed from the pulpit and/or to be shown the door of the church because one’s methodology is judged wrong reveals a spirit that I think is poisonous to the church and poisonous to the worthy goal which, I think, Mr. Alcorn and I both desire to pursue. His words arise from an understandable frustration, and yet they are irresponsible nonetheless.

Mr. Alcorn, shouting at me, or to the world about me, will never change me.

But perhaps changing me is not really what this is all about.

Assassins and Rhetoric

In recent days, the most interesting and level headed report on the connection between political rhetoric and assassination suggests not only that there is no connection between the rhetoric and the violent response, but even more that the political position of the political target is not even a motive for the assassin. He is more likely to pick a target based upon the fame he will receive. In the report, Alix Spiegel revisits a study produced by the Secret Service in 1999.

What emerges from the study is that rather than being politically motivated, many of the assassins and would-be assassins simply felt invisible. In the year before their attacks, most struggled with acute reversals and disappointment in their lives. Which, the paper argues, was the true motive. They didn’t want to see themselves as non-entities.

She quotes the author of the story:

“They [the assassins] experienced failure after failure after failure, and decided that rather than being a ‘nobody,’ they wanted to be a ‘somebody.'”

You can read (and listen to) the whole report here.

That drive for fame seems counter-intuitive to most of us because we are able to find other, more socially acceptable, ways to satisfy that basic human drive to be someone.

Whether there is a connection between rhetoric and violence remains to be proven, though greater civility in our public, political, and, yes, ecclesiastical, discourse is always to be desired. I tend to agree with the Atlantic’s Megan McCardle’s assessment, addressing the most recent tragedy, that the only violent rhetoric this guy was listening to were the voices in his head. She concludes by saying:

A terrible thing happened. We live in a universe in which terrible things happen. That’s no one’s fault — or maybe, everyone’s fault. Either way, I don’t see much in the way of solutions coming out of this – only terrible, terrible sadness.

I could decorate this paragraph with theological garland linking it to the Biblical story. But it would say the same thing.

The Government Must Do Something

This will be my final post stimulated by my recent read of David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback.

At one point in his career as a New York Assemblyman, Roosevelt was impressed to lead the charge which would have removed the cigar making industry out of the homes in which it had become a massive business. To the conservative outside observer, this seemed like an anti-business, anti-family, government intrusion into the lives of citizens and the rights of business.

So it seemed to TR until Samuel Gompers prevailed upon him to actually tour the homes where this was going on. He found awful conditions, sweat shops, really, where great pressure  and little pay was given for labor that was unregulated and involved even the smallest of children.

The bill would move cigar making out of these homes and into a factory where those who did the labor could be well treated and well paid for what they did, and children enabled to be children. It became for him a matter of social justice. And for this, he was accused of being a socialist.

It’s a standard ad hominem against any act calling for social justice, but it was a necessary step for the government to take. We are often told that the free market will correct such ills, but it doesn’t. The market has a poor track record when it comes to issues of human rights or environmental concern. So it requires the power of those unassociated with dollars to act.

There are times that the government must act. And yet, always? That requires wisdom.

I remember a cartoon contrasting child rearing between now and a long time ago. In the one panel, a child falls from a tree, and the dad says to him, “C’mon. Shake it off. You’ll be alright.” In the other panel, the child falls, and the father says to the panicky mother, “The government should do something to make trees safer.”

And wisdom will always, it seems to me, move forward along two paths, two paths illustrated by the contrasting approaches of Roosevelt’s father and uncle. The uncle called for greater government involvement to solve the ills of the day. His father, in the meantime, established homes for indigent orphan boys, built museums, and helped widowed soldiers.

Both seem to be needed.

What Politicians Really Want

Politicians are really quite like us. They argue principle, but they are driven by deeper motives.

Conservatives say they are all about smaller government and LESS government intrusion. Until it comes to issues like defense and immigration. THEN it is okay to spend billions, create a larger bureaucracy, and increase the level of intrusion (as long as it is towards minorities).

Liberals say they are all about a greater role for government in creating the ideal society. Except, of course, in protecting the lives of the unborn or in giving resources and power to the military.

Conservatives and liberals clamor for fiscal responsibility in government. But I’ve not seen it from either party. Both tax and both spend. They only differ on where the taxes fall and where the expenditures are made as they try to reward their constituents with the only resources available to them.

My consolation in a now divided national government is that it will do less harm. But my sadness is that those things which could benefit from some kind of concerted attention will remain unaddressed.


I am never more cynical about politics than deep into the election season, something which, in our day, we never completely escape. In reading Mornings on Horseback I’ve been doubly captive, reading about politics while politics consumes center stage in our public life.

Early in his 20s, Theodore Roosevelt was elected a New York State Assemblyman and in that post began to learn the grittier side of political life. On one occasion, he supported a bill which, upon reflection, he later opposed coming to agree with others who argued that it was unconstitutional. In changing his mind and his vote, this is, in part, what he said:

“We have heard a great deal about the people demanding the passage of this bill. Now, anything the people demand that is right it is most clearly and most emphatically the duty of this Legislature to do; but we should never yield to what they demand if it is wrong…. If the people disapprove our conduct, let us make up our minds to retire to private life with the consciousness that we have acted as our better sense dictated; and I would rather go out of politics having the feeling that I had done what was right than stay in with the approval of all men, knowing in my heart that I had acted as I ought not to.” (page 269)

McCullough considered this ill-advised and politically naïve. And perhaps it was a foolish thing to verbally express, but it to me is something I long for in any leader. Leadership is not ignoring the people one leads, but it is not being chained to them either. We should elect people who think, consider, decide, and act based upon the best information available to them, and not according to the most powerful lobbyist or latest poll. God, give us such.

One More Nugget

One more morsel to chew on from Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life.

“By the 1930s the average American Fundamentalist was not, at least, a proponent of theocracy, but he did have a way of confusing America, the Republican Party and the capitalist system with the kingdom of God.”

I guess things don’t change much. Tim Keller makes this observation in the forward to a new book by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era:

“A very large number of young evangelicals believe that their churches have become as captured by the Right as mainline churches were captured by the Left.”

Be Careful What You Cheer

This article is one of this week’s most emailed stories from the pages of the NY Times. It tells of a woman who stormed a Loveland, Colorado art gallery and destroyed a painting reportedly portraying Jesus having sex with a male.

The artist says that it was a commentary on abuses in the Roman Catholic church. The iconoclast says that it desecrated her Lord.

So, do we cheer her? Or distance ourselves from her?

When we have read reports of Muslims getting all moody over cartoons depicting Mohammed, we wonder what the big deal is. “Chill,” we say. In a similar vein, in this case, I believe Christians need to chill.

Yes, from what I read of the image, it is offensive. But are we to destroy every offensive representation of Jesus? I find it particularly offensive that Jesus is seen as the champion of the Republican party. I find it offensive that He is preached as the one wanting to provide all my wealth and prosperity. These are desecrations of Jesus.

If we are to take on every offensive portrayal of Jesus, then we should be sending Christian SWAT teams into many churches where He is presented as a mere man whose body rotted in a Palestinian tomb. [Sadly, I’m afraid some might think this is a good idea.]

We should be saddened by such things, but not surprised or overwhelmed.

Paul did not take a hammer to the provocative and idolatrous images in Athens. Rather, the provocation they caused in his spirit led him to do what he could to bring the kingdom of Christ to bear upon the city. He preached.

We must ignore the taunts of the enemy. He wants a fight. What he does not want are faithful Christians living out a Christian life of love before and with their neighbors. And what he does not want is Gospel truth being faithfully proclaimed. But that is the very response we should bring.

So, please, step away from the crowbar.