A New Paradigm for Christian Politics
Christmas is, “in the air,” for a longer period each year. This time around, I started hearing Christmas songs before Thanksgiving week! However, even Christmas cannot compare to the length of time we spend talking about politics, especially in a presidential election year.
Government’s basic job is to create a lawful and orderly society. However, laws and societal structures are imperfect, so people and their government are continually trying to figure out ways to solve the problems and imperfections. I want to describe for you the basic ways that is done, and then challenge you to think carefully about your contribution to that process.
To solve a societal problem, there are only two basic approaches. One is the top-down approach, and the other is the bottom-up approach. Each approach has strengths and weaknesses.
The bottom-up approach has to do with citizens trying to heal an area whose policies have failed, pragmatically or morally. So, an environmental group is a bottom-up approach to fixing environmental problems. Church-run addiction recovery organizations are a bottom-up approach to healing addictions in a better way than the government does.
Meanwhile, the top-down approaches to the same problems are environmental policies, addiction recovery programs, and the like.
Note here the interaction between the two groups. They need each other, but they fulfill different roles. The role of the top-down group is to set orderly policy. However, they are often somewhat deficient because they are beholden to a wider constituency. They are subject to state and federal laws, and must protect the rights of a wide array of groups with each of their policies.
Meanwhile, the bottom-up group is passionately committed to one point of view, and is always trying to sway public policy in its’ direction. The top-down group needs the bottom-up group, because it does research and advocacy and healing action that the government does not have the time or focus to do. Often, the best public policy comes from healthy interaction between the two groups, when each understands the other’s role and place in the process.
My soapbox is this; I think Christians have a problem with taking their passionate personal politics –things that can only be fixed in a bottom-up sort of way- and assuming that their vote can only go to a candidate who agrees with their bottom-up politics. This is a false construction, because a government official is elected to do a top-down job, not to advocate for a bottom-up group.
So, when a politician asks for votes, Christians often ask the following questions: Is he a Christian? Where does he stand on abortion? Where does he stand on illegal immigration? Where does he stand on homosexual marriage? Where does he stand on the war? Where does he stand on use of the Confederate flag? Where does he stand on gun control? And so it goes.
I do not think those are the healthiest questions. I think the standards we should have for our top-down officials are these: Is this candidate likely to make societal order healthier? Do they have experience and a good track record in that area? Can my bottom-up advocacy interests interact well with this candidate? Will the candidate make good policy decisions? Do they understand good governmental policy?
Now, here is where I get controversial.
From a top-down perspective, to me, the abortion battle is over. The toothpaste is out of the tube, and no government official can push it back in. We will not end abortion without a massively scaled reformation in the moral structure of the United States.
As a result, I do not think it is wise for Christians to be single-issue voters. We should not make abortion a litmus test for our vote.
Hear me out on this. I am not suggesting that we stop supporting pro-life causes, or staffing Crisis Pregnancy Centers, or advocating required ultrasound machines in abortion clinics. Those are all valuable bottom-up approaches, and I think we should increase those things.
However, I do think we should stop saying we will not support a candidate (or an entire political party!) on the basis of their perspective on a small number of moral issues, rather than on their effectiveness as an administrator. Instead, we should use the election period to be discerning about which candidate will most effectively administer an orderly society with good policy choices.
The powerful thing about this understanding is that it gives a healthy forum for policy debate. If an administrator is committed, first and foremost, to good policy, then they will hear both sides of an issue. When he does, the two sides know that they have to focus on why their perspective is healthiest from a societal perspective, rather than arguing about whose moral worldview is better.
So on abortion, as I mentioned, I do not think that voting into office dozens of yes-men who are pro-life is a good approach, because pretty soon they screw up various other policy areas, the public gets sick of them, and they get kicked out. And the abortion problem remains.
Instead, we need officials who realize that abortion is not a legal problem you can solve through changes in the law. It is a moral problem that can only be solved by bottom-up groups proclaiming a different moral perspective.
However, if those groups can show that abortion creates serious detriments to societal health (a case that can easily be made), then a government official can create an environment for those groups to work in. He can see the importance of requiring free use of ultrasound machines in abortion clinics (which statistically does far more to reduce abortion than electing a pro-life president ever has!). He can support the legitimate mission of Crisis Pregnancy Centers. He is, in essence, working in tandem with the bottom-up groups- he works for a healthy society, and they work for their individual issues. And he can do all those things without being a committed pro-life candidate.
Christians need to stop pretending that a foolish administrator who agrees with their moral system is the best thing for society. Instead, they should use their votes to support someone who will make the legal order stronger and wiser, so that there is a safer environment in which to address societal ills.
The great Augustine of Hippo once wrote to a judge named Macedonius regarding some criminals. Augustine’s goal was to advocate against a penalty of death, even though he acknowledged that Macedonius had the right to give the death penalty. He said this:
“Your strictness is, therefore, beneficial. Its exercise assists even our peace. But our intercession is beneficial as well. Its exercise modified even your strictness. You should not object to being petitioned by the good, because the good do not object to your being feared by the bad.”
Augustine understood the separate roles of the judges (government officials) and the intercessors (interest groups). The one has a role of enabling a lawful and orderly society; the other has a role of advocating and healing. For Christians to have true value in whatever free society we inhabit (oppressive societies are another discussion), it is imperative that they seek wise administration and openness to advocacy from government officials, rather than dogmatic commitment to specific moral perspectives.
I pretty much agree that stands on hot-button issues (like abortion, gun control, and the death penalty) shouldn’t be the issue that clinches an election for someone.
Where I might differ is on the questions you seek to answer. (Really, I might not even differ, it’s just the primary question I have was not included in your list.) My number one question is Will this candidate – whether we agree on pet issues or not – will this candidate support a governmental framework that best supports our liberties, our ability to do good, and our ability to affect the direction in which our country moves?
George W. Bush was not my candidate in the general election last time ’round simply because (as we’ve very much seen), creating a framework that promotes freedom and liberty is very much not one of his interests. With candidates like Bush and Guiliani and McCain and Huckaboo, it’s very much a “Gasp! The election’s over. Buckle in and hold on tight, let’s hope it’s not that bumpy a ride.”
This is because these leaders view the federal government’s role as very much top-down. Once they’re there we do what they say, even when they take on powers that presidents have never had before. I prefer a federal government that divests its power accordingly to state and local governments and, finally, to the people.
In that kind of government things can get done and the world can be changed. In a Bush-type government, the world can be changed too, but you’re just crossing your fingers and hoping against hope that the one person making these decisions is not a tyrant.
I think finger-crossing proved itself to be very much a superstition with the current administration.
Those are good comments. I think you and I agree on a few things and disagree on a few things, but essentially I think you are correct that an over commitment to to a top-down approach is problematic. I also agree that it is the chief problem/weakness of the Bush administration. Your “one question” is a great one to ask of political questions, and is again much healthier than those we commonly ask.
I’m not so sure I agree that every Republican candidate is that way. I think Guiliani’s background, especially in crime reduction, says otherwise. However, you are right that it can be a toss-up when you elect someone as to whether they will create a healthy environment for citizen involvement or lean toward a more top-down, tyrannical approach.
We also might disagree somewhat on how much power the people should have. I tend to favor a more republican (small r) government, and I do not have much faith in the average voter’s ability to have a constructive role in government. However, I do appreciate their roles in intercessory type groups, with leaders who know how to listen and create good policy from among the many voices out there.
Thanks for the helpful thoughts.
Okay, this is all well and good, I agree with essentially everything, but who should I vote for?
Well, the essay is designed more for the way you vote for ALL the different positions. However, my list probably would look like this.
Would not vote for:
But that’s just me!
Why not Romney Ben?
No Ron Paul?
No Alfred E. Neuman?
Not Jennifer Granholm?
I just tend to appreciate candidates who are realistic. Romney is not realistic. His perspectives on immigration, for one, are pretty much just what you’d expect from a Massachusatts guy trying to get hard-line southern conservatives to vote for him, but they are clearly not based on a strong understanding of immigration issues, nor do they reflect thoughtfulness about hte importance of immigration to the US over the years. I also do not think he did anything distintive from a policy perspective in Mass. He’s pretty much the most boring candidate on the ballot, whose main value is that he has the fewest things to complain about. However, I see nothing to elect him FOR.
Ron Paul is a bit of a joke. You HAVE to vote for the “he thinks like me” perspective with him, because he has almost zero experience from an executive office standpoint.
Guiliani displayed a fantastic responsiveness to reality in his time in New York, especially in developing statistics-based crime reduction strategies. He is an excellent leader and speaker in moments of crisis, and he has shown a willingness to change a policy if it can be argued well.
Huckabee, too, made a lot of very thoughtful reforms in Arkansas that have had huge benefits for that state. In fact, states all over the country are copying various laws and programs that he helped start in Arkansas.
Obama doesn’t have tons of experience, so he gets third place on my list. However, I think he is more visionary than any other candidate. We haven’t had one of those since Reagan and JFK before him, so it could be time for another one.
Clinton or Thompson, to my mind, would be absolute jokes. They have done precisely nothing. Ever.
@Ben – Paul would be an acceptable vote under the guiding question I choose to ask as my primary: the framework question.
I don’t categorize this question as any more of a “he thinks like me” perspective question than any of your other questions and it strikes a bit disingenuous to characterize it so.
@Rich – Your chief criticism of Paul has been that he is a candidate who cannot win. That is a hollow criticism considering your support of Huckabee – a candidate who would lose the Republicans the White House if he wins the primaries (because he will alienate all Democrat voters and a good number of Republican voters).
Honestly, the Republicans are offering very few candidates who won’t lose them the White House. In an election where you would think the GOP would want to distance itself as much as possible from the PR disaster of the Bush administration, its surprising how many candidates seem cut from similar cloth.
With that in mind, my guess is that Paul is the only Republican candidate who could win the general election (as unlikely as he is to win the Republican primary).
There are certainly problems with his politic, but your stated reason for ignoring him are at the least hypocritical.
My evaluation of Paul is based on my structure- is this person likely to be an effective administrator and policymaker? Paul has pretty much zero executive experience for a voter to look at. Therefore, you cannot vote for him based on your prediction of his executive administration capabilities (or at least, you cannot demonstrate historically that his would be better than another candidate’s). You have to vote for him on a more philosophical basis… in other words, based on some agreement between your perspective and his (in this case, on what sort of governmental structure the candidate supports).
Of course I have no problem with you using your vote this way, because your goal is to see a move toward the governmental priorities you prefer. However, based on the field of candidates, I am simply saying that a person cannot agree with the approach I advocate and still vote for Paul. But again, I have no problem with a person doing so, it just means we disagree on what you’re supposed to do with your vote.
I strongly disagree with your evaluation of the Republican chances. I do think the Democrats are more likely to win this year, but Paul has no chance. He has the word “Libertarian” attached to his name, and there are large swaths of the party (especially internally) that distrust that group. Realistically, I think only Guliani and Huckabee have a shot- they are articulate, don’t always follow the party line, and have significant credentials to back them up.
p.s. How am I being disingenuous? I’m quite sincere about what I’m saying.
@Ben – It only seemed disingenuous to dismiss a criterion by which Paul would find a vote as being of a “he thinks like me” perspective, and yet not apply such a label to seemingly like criteria such as: Is this candidate likely to make societal order healthier? Do they have experience and a good track record in that area? Can my bottom-up advocacy interests interact well with this candidate? Will the candidate make good policy decisions? Do they understand good governmental policy?
My own question (Will this candidate support a governmental framework that best supports our liberties, our ability to do good, and our ability to affect the direction in which our country moves?) seems to be be of similar form and function, yet Paul seems a viable answer to that question.
So to dismiss any support of Paul as being contra the perspective you warn against in your article seems disingenuous in that one could come to support his candidacy through means similar to those you outline as healthy.
As far as Paul having Libertarian attached to his name, I’m not sure how strong that attachment is. I think that nine months ago, there was a much stronger tie than there currently is. The average voter is an issue-voter, and as such is not concerned so much with frameworks – so won’t even put much stake on something like “Paul is a Libertarian” or “Paul ran as a Libertarian previously.” Instead, they’ll hear things like ending the war in Iraq, restoration of freedom, etc. and think: “Huh. A Republican who supports things that I support. Interesting.”
I’m not saying I think he can win, but I do think he’d be the best shot for a Republican White House (which is something that generally matters to Republicans). He’d get the one-issue Republicans to vote for him (since they’re almost all anti-abortion). He’d get interest from a number of middle-road Democrats who’d respond to his civil liberties message. And since pretty much anyone who’d vote for Guiliani or Huckabee would probably be more terrified of a White Hillary House, he’d likely get their votes as well.
Again, I don’t think he’ll win the primaries, but I don’t think he’d do poorly in the general if he did.
Yep, I see what you’re saying. I do disagree with the idea that the questions are similar in structure. I think my questions are designed to discover a candidate’s effectiveness in an administrative role, and yours is a question of philosophical outlook on the role of government. So then, given the field of candidates, I don’t think an evaluation of administrative effectiveness would place Paul at the top of the list.
And I simply disagree about the Libertarian label. Normal voters tend to attach that label to Pat Buchanon types, and political insiders think libertarians are naive. I can’t see Paul rallying the party enough to win or even do very well in the election. When I worked in Washington D.C., the leadership of the Republican party couldn’t stand Libertarians. Often they wouldn’t even talk to them.
Again, not that Paul IS one… merely that the perception would really hurt him.
Ben, I agree that Guiliani is an able leader, but is far too liberal on values issues for my taste. Huckabee, I think, is a bit of a joke. I think his answers to questions often reveal a childishness and ignorance about him, and he will surely, as The Dane put it, alienate alot of voters if he wins the primaries. I also think he is a conservative on values but very much a democrat on his fiscal ideas. It is in that area that I most dislike him as a candidate.
Romney, on the other hand, represents to me the most electable, most intelligent, and most qualified candidate. He can win both republican and democratic votes, and he is a conservative on values and on fiscal policies.
In all honesty I haven’s seen a single candidate whom I like on immigration (isn’t Huckabee’s plan simply Chuck Norris ;) And I tend to think Obama is nothing more than a gas bag.
Again, that’s all fine, but you have to agree that you are going with an “issues” paradigm. “Too Liberal on Values,” “alienation,” and, “fiscal democrat” are all built on the idea that you vote for someone who is as much like you as possible. I’m saying we should vote for someone who is the ablest administrator.
For instance, let’s say I have the only vote for president in the country. Should I vote for myself or for Guliani? The ISSUES voter would have to vote for themself. The ADMINISTRATIVE voter would vote for the more able administrator, Guliani.
I think we all use administrative skill as a factor, but all too small a factor. So, again, I don’t mind you guys voting differently, but you should be able to see that I’m advocating an entirely different paradigm on what politics actually MEANS.
The administrator is there to protect social ORDER, not to enforce individual VALUES. That is the key separation between the paradigm I suggest and that of most American voters.
So we have three voting paradigms at work here: you with administration, David with issues, and me with philosophy.
I think that probably any of these paradigms taken on their own have the potential for grave trouble. A great administrator who holds to a bankrupt political philosophy does a fantastic job running a horrifying government. A great philosopher cannot enact his philosophy if he cannot govern. And someone who is great on a few issues might be a disaster on others (examples of this are too numerous to begin counting).
I think there has to be some overlap – for instance, you likely believe that Guiliani has a decent philosophy to back up his administrative skills. I am dubious of such so I look elsewhere for a candidate.
That’s a good point, and I probably went too far in my emphasis on administration. I think the point I was trying to make in the beginning was not so much a single value or quality, but just to challenge people to recognize that the role of a political official is not merely to win some large-scale battle of values (such as electing enough pro-life candidates so that it will once again become illegal to have an abortion), but to effectively create an atmosphere of order within the context of limited government. I think Christians keep reserving their vote for candidates with certain moral perspectives without caring how well they are likely to fulfill an official’s ACTUAL role.
I pretty much can agree with that though I obviously differ in the details.
Ben, What are your thoughts on John Piper’s view that there are certain moral issues that automatically disqualify a candidate from presidency? He says pro-choice is one of them, just like pro-racism would be.
I would say that there are some issues, of course, that disqualify a candidate. A desire to exterminate an entire race would be the extreme example. So I wouldn’t say there are never times to draw the line.
And I don’t have a problem with moral outlook being an important aspect of what people look for in a candidate, if it is used to choose between two effective administrators.
However, I simply disagree with Piper that being pro-choice should be an automatic disqualification in the Christian mind. The job of an official is to execute their role within the government effectively, and we cannot expect a secular government to operate with a Christian worldview.
Part of what clarified this in my mind was the issue of capital punishment. I have come to the conclusion that for me, capital punishment is wrong. Actually, Augustine convinced me on this point. If I was a pastor, I would advocate for life sentences rather than death sentences, so that the criminal could have opportunity to hear the gospel.
Now, I am a person who is against abortion and against capital punishment. Not many people left to vote for!
However, here is the key. I AFFIRM that God has given the state the right to execute justice according to its best understanding of how that should be done. Because I affirm this, I vote for candidates who I feel will be thoughtful and effective in creating policy that ensures a fair and orderly society.
They may feel that abortion and capital punishment are both viable options within that purpose; for instance, I believe that is Guliani’s perspective (not sure about capital punishment).
However, I should also take upon myself the role of intercessor and advocate; in other words, I proclaim to society the Christian perspective on the value of life, showing the important seperation between the city of man and the city of God. I do this through the healthy community life of the church, intercession and assistance for the social ills in the world, explanation of a consistent Christian worldview, and most importantly using all these things to point to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I think the continual blurring of lines between personal religion and public politics creates confusion; instead of the realm of the religious and the realm of the political (which to me are two very seperate things), we are seeing Christians act as though we need to try to create a Christian society with our votes, rather than with the way we display the gospel.
Ok, this is a long answer. Here’s the short one.
I vote for guys who are good at doing what public officials are supposed to do. At the same time, I live and proclaim my faith, which will remain constant NO MATTER the political situation. I think to claim that a Christian should vote for a lesser candidate because the better candidate has worldview disagreements is a wrongheaded blurring of the distinction between the two.
Perhaps a simpler way to say all that is this:
I vote for guys who I think will create a healthy societal context that allows me to proclaim the gospel clearly, rather than voting for guys who agree with me for the reason of forcing everyone to live the way I think they should.
Actually, let me quote myself from the article.
“Instead, we need officials who realize that abortion is not a legal problem you can solve through changes in the law. It is a moral problem that can only be solved by bottom-up groups proclaiming a different moral perspective.”
“Augustine understood the separate roles of the judges (government officials) and the intercessors (interest groups). The one has a role of enabling a lawful and orderly society; the other has a role of advocating and healing. For Christians to have true value in whatever free society we inhabit (oppressive societies are another discussion), it is imperative that they seek wise administration and openness to advocacy from government officials, rather than dogmatic commitment to specific moral perspectives.”
If lengthy at least well said.
I think you may have given me some fresh insight on this perspective brother. Thanks.
I flip flop on this myself; yes, the bottom-up approach will produce people who have a heart to do good, but doesn’t good also come from the top-down approach? I mean, if a president was to end abortion, wouldn’t that be a real good? What if they were to make it harder to get an abortion, wouldn’t that be a genuinely good thing?
I share your views on capital punishment and abortion, which means like you there is no presidential candidate that represents me.
I’m not sure that I want to make the case that abortion isn’t a critical issue for candidates. What I will say is that we need to be honest with ourselves about what the candidate will really do with the abortion issue once in office. More often than not, Repubs use abortion to align themselves with believers, even though they don’t actually spend much time seeking change (there are notable exceptions to this of course). For me, if I thought a presidential candidate would actually DO something about abortion, I would vote for them. But since most of them use it to woo the religious right, it probably won’t be a deciding factor in my voting next year.
As far as the specific candidates, currently I don’t think a single one of them are fit to hold office; but we’ll see what happens come Nov.
Thanks for the thoughts, Alan.
One of the reasons that I began struggling with this whole concept is that, for the most part, African-American churches tend to align with Democratic candidates. I wanted to know why. The short answer is that they have a certain paradigm for the role of government which tends to be different than that of the “white churches,” by placing heavier emphasis on social justice issues.
I think I will write a follow-up article on the topic when I have the time, but the key thing I am finding is this; It is nearly impossible to create a wholistically godly government in a secular society.
It is too hard because to accomplish something there are too many people you have to alienate and too many rights you have to step on in another area. For instance, I think Republicans really fail at fulfilling the calls to societal justice laid out in the OT (I’m in Isaiah for my personal devotions right now).
So I had to find a way to articulate my understanding of the seperation between faith and governance, and then design a new criteria for my participation in government. I vote, then, not to create a religious government, but to create a societal atmosphere that allows me to proclaim the gospel to the world.
So yes, it’s fine for abortion to be an issue. But if you make that statement, then you also need to acknowledge the Christian calling to forgive enemies, to feed the sick and hungry, or to take in the stranger… which could have significant implications for war, welfare, and immigration!
The point is, you need to find a justification for your vote that acknowledges all of Scripture, not just a single issue. This paradigm is my answer to that questin.
In the meantime, I support the work that anti-abortion groups are doing, ESPECIALLY those that are reaching out to the populations that need counseling, comfort, support, adoption contacts, etc.
I really look forward to reading your follow-up piece; I agree with your position on a lot of these issues, but quite honestly politics is one area where I can’t see to get past frustration, disgust, and confusion.
Wait. What did this have to do with Sesame Street?
It’s all a plot to get Big Bird elected as president, with Count Von Count as head of the IRS and Kermit the Frog as White House Spokesman. No word on whether the Swedish Chef is planning to accept nomination to Secretary of State.
Some things to keep in mind, when voting in 2008 —
Background on David Rockefeller’s private thinktank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
Dick Cheney (ex-director of CFR) talks to David Rockefeller (short video)
Democrat CFR member Candidates:
Barack Obama (also, Michelle Obama is on the Board of Directors in the Chicago branch of the CFR)
Republican CFR member Candidates:
Mike Huckabee (not a CFR member, though he named Richard Haas, president of the CFR, as his adviser on foreign policy)
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