Public Office as a Spiritual Discipline
The governor of Tennessee reflects on the call to political service as a call to take up your cross.
Baylor University Press, 2015. 229 pp.
When I first ran for governor seven years ago, my wife and I agreed on one thing: we both felt like I was called to run for governor. However, as she gently reminded me throughout the campaign, the election would determine whether I was called to actually be governor. Now, as I begin the last year of my second term as governor, I agree with John Senior who writes in his book, A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office, that a new view of the theology of political vocation is not only possible, but also critical, as we live out our faith in a morally ambiguous political world.
Senior aptly describes the process, difficulty, and benefit of being called "in" and called "to" a political vocation. The process of being elected is part of being called in, and the difficulties arise immediately. For me, campaigning brought challenges that I had never anticipated. While the meek might inherit the earth, what do they do on the campaign trail? As believers we are instructed to "do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3). Yet a campaign is primarily about saying, "I'm the one. Elect me and I can solve these problems." The challenges continue once you are in office. The issues are rarely as clear as they seem, and those issues are discussed in a media environment that is changing faster than anyone imagined. Today's social-media-driven world has no editors to check validity and rewards taking the low road while it punishes anyone choosing to defend against the crowd.
Today, many Christians on both sides of the aisle seem to have come to the conclusion that Machiavelli was right. They've concluded we have to choose between being faithful and being political. As Senior summarizes the dichotomy, "One can be a good Christian or a good republican (small r), Machiavelli seems to be saying, but one cannot be both." Humility, grace, sacrifice, and forgiveness must take a back seat to strength and power and "above all, assertion of one's proper claims in the knowledge and power needed to secure their satisfaction." Thus a candidate who will support our view of abortion, or the expansion of health-care coverage, or any other issue that we deem worthy is to be supported at all costs. In that view, the ends of power make it worth it to abandon those Christian virtues in order to be elected and thus able to effect change. Lost in the discussions about specific issues is the concept of the "common good." In our hyper-partisan era, the idea that there even might be a common good is up for debate. One of the joys of serving in office has been seeing the impact of various initiatives that contribute to the common good. A program to provide free community college has changed countless life trajectories. New drug courts can provide alternatives to incarceration for people struggling with drug addiction. Job training for adults with disabilities allows them to enter the work force. These elements of the common good, and many more, rarely make the list on a voter's guide describing critical issues for people of faith. Add to this the historical difficulty of governing in a pluralistic society, and it is understandable that most potential office-holders would just throw up their hands and declare politics hopelessly broken.
Senior refuses this Machiavellian false dichotomy, but with eyes wide open. The truth is that the political space is, as he describes it, morally perilous. It is hard to find encouraging examples. But I would argue that most spaces are morally perilous. Politics is just more visible and more frequently involves higher stakes since the decisions that elected leaders make have consequences for so many people beyond themselves. Senior discusses the all-too-real problems of political spaces forcing good people to act in problematic ways. When one is forced to make difficult decisions, with no clear-cut answers, in front of a watching public that will be affected by that decision, the tendency is to find the easiest, most politically popular landing place. This is exactly why a proper theology of political vocation is so important. Courage to make a hard political decision comes from the assurance that God has called us to this position and this challenge. Rarely is the decision as easy as it sounds on Fox or CNN. I remember having a conversation with one of President Obama's senior aides near the end of Obama's term in office. I asked the aide what he knew now that he wished he had known eight years ago when the Obama team was getting ready to assume the White House. His response was that the issues and problems were so much more difficult on the inside than they appeared from the outside. He told me, "While I still don't agree with many of his policies, I have a lot more empathy for President Bush than I did when we were campaigning to replace him. This is hard stuff with big consequences and I see that now." My experience has been that former office-holders are the ones who tend to give current office-holders the most grace because they uniquely know the pressures and difficulties of serving. My hope for the church is that we would be people that cling to the truth while still understanding the complexities of the challenges that face our elected leaders.
For those of us in elected office, the challenge of political vocation means taking seriously Paul's call to "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Romans 12:2). As a candidate and as an office-holder, I experienced powerfully the pull to conform in order to succeed. The best way that I have found to counteract that magnetic pull is to remind myself that I am here because I truly believe that this is where God called me to be. As a matter of fact, nothing in my life has felt as much like a calling as serving in a public role. A campaign for office can either be an exercise in pushing Christ to the side, or a crucible for the formation of Christ in us. There is nothing like a campaign to force you to constantly remind yourself that your opponent and your opponent's supporters are created in the image of God! It was more than a little bit helpful to keep the phrase "created in the image of God" in the back of my mind as I listened to someone criticize me or my policies. It has also been beneficial to remind myself that as a cross-bearer, we are inevitably called on to bear pain. Max DePree, the late CEO of Herman Miller, reminded us that "leaders are called to bear pain, not inflict pain." Bearing pain can frequently mean being misunderstood or publicly chastised for a vote or an action. But it also means the inestimable privilege of being a part of God's project to redeem society and serve our fellow image-bearers.
The Crucible: Public Office and Spiritual Formation
Personally, nothing in my life has affected my spiritual growth as much as campaigning for election and serving in public office. The heightened visibility and multiplied consequences of serving in a public role have frequently reminded me of my own weakness. The difficulty of the decisions leaves me yearning for wisdom. And the relentless nature of problems constantly reminds me of living in a fallen world.
John Calvin's description of politics as being "the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all professions" has always seemed like a little bit of a stretch to me. However, since I do agree with Senior that all of us are called to be a part of God's project to redeem society, I think that having a political vocation does give us a chance to multiply the influence our work has. I have often remarked that, while I ran for governor thinking I would be the CEO of the state, I more often feel like its senior pastor. I am amazed at how often our work, when done well, can change the course of a life. It is hard for me to imagine ever having a job again that will give me as much opportunity to change lives as being governor.
When I first ran for office, my hope was that serving in public office would give me a chance to glorify God and encourage the flourishing of his creation. As I finish fifteen years of serving as a mayor and a governor, I am grateful for the opportunity and the calling God has given me to be about his work.
What I didn't anticipate was how God would use serving in public office to change me. As Senior writes, "The idea of vocation implies a process of formation; it is about the kind of selves workers become by virtue of participating in vocational work. The idea of vocation holds that in the doing of vocational work, persons become the kind of selves God intended them to be."
As someone currently called into a political role, I am grateful for the insight that John Senior brings. Given today's political climate, Senior's thesis is an important one: Christians should not shy away from political service, but should engage with a spirit of being about God's work rather than the passionate pursuit of our own political success. However, those of us in elected office at any level could benefit from a further discussion of the practical pulls and tugs that are a part of our lives. The practice of a political vocation, based on a sound theology of political vocation, has rarely been more difficult, or more critical, than it is today. May God send us faithful men and women to live out that calling in ways that glorify him and in making this world look a little more like the world that is to come.