Pessimists at the Polls

As we head into a national election, pundits are wringing their hands over the cynical mood that seems to be pervading the American body politic. Just look at the results of recent polls. In a survey of Florida voters, 54 percent said they trust government leaders to do the right thing "only some of the time." 42 percent expressed the belief that "they don't have any say about what the government does." Another poll, sponsored by ABC News, asked Americans if they look to the president for moral leadership. Sixty-six percent said no. Now, I don't want to be an alarmist, but these polls and others like them are deeply troubling. It's one thing to be critical of current policy, and as responsible citizens we should be evaluating public policy in the light of our beliefs. But the high numbers who are pessimistic about government suggest that something else may be happening: People are becoming cynical about the institution of government itself. And that can be dangerous. The Scriptures teach that government was ordained by God Himself. That means Christians have a special obligation to maintain a high view of government. The apostle Paul commands us to "honor the king" and "pray for those in authority." Christians must respect government as God's instrument for order in the world—even when we are sharply critical of current policy and policy makers. How do you hold these two goals in balance? Through the centuries no question has been more vexing to the Church—from the first century, when believers paid with their lives for refusing to bow to Caesar, on to the civil religion of the 1950s, which wedded God to Americanism. The dilemma, I think, is resolved by drawing a clear distinction between the "institution" of government and the "people" who serve in government. Back in the seventeenth century, the Scottish cleric Samuel Rutherford argued that Christians are to respect the "office" of the magistrate while reserving the right to challenge the office "holder." And more recently, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr drew a similar distinction. On one hand, Niebuhr says, the ruling authority must be respected as a reflection of divine authority. On the other hand, the Bible tells of prophets who pronounced judgment on particular rulers for violating divine law. A genuinely biblical view of government retains both of these elements in healthy tension: We must practice what Niebuhr called "priestly sanctification" of the "principle" of government while at the same time delivering "prophetic criticism" of any particular government. For example, last winter President Clinton walked into the ballroom for the National Prayer Breakfast, I stood up out of respect for the office; I didn't applaud because of my disdain for the Monica Lewinsky affair. Today, when so many Americans have lost faith in government, it's more urgent than ever to put these biblical teachings into practice. We may agree that many of our lawmakers ought to be voted out of office. But we mustn't let that diminish our respect for government itself. Henry James once wrote that the "only bulwark" against bad government is the "civic genius" of the American people—the character that forms the basis of a healthy civic society. And much of that "civic genius" depends on you and me nourishing our country's political life with the rich insights of our biblical heritage.


Chuck Colson


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