“Washington is the problem and no good can come from politics.” As someone whose career is in political issue advocacy, this is a sentiment I hear with some frequency. In many ways the greatest obstruction we face in our national politics isn’t a party, or a philosophy, or even apathy, but our own overwhelming sense of disillusionment in the ability of our leaders to accomplish anything. The most recent failure to avoid a self-inflicted penalty of massive, economy-suppressing cuts to the federal budget (known in DC as the sequester), serves as a prime example of our political dysfunction.
Without question our politics needs fixing, but there remains another question worth asking: How much of our disillusionment is self-inflicted? Are there times when we are victims of our own ideals?
Here is what I mean. Just a few months ago, President Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol and delivered his second inaugural address, a stirring speech that many viewed as Obama returning to the ideals of his 2008 campaign. Obama, perhaps more than any other politician in recent time, has risen to the level of a symbol, and inspired hope for who we want to be as a nation. To many, Obama is a type of prophet. And it’s not just the President to whom we affix these expectations. We want our political leaders to be better than ourselves, to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, to be the courtyard prophet speaking words of truth, justice, and compassion. And then, when they make compromises, when they play the political games, and bow to the constraints we would see them overthrow, the disillusionment envelops us. We grow cynical towards government and despairing of the power of our political voice.
Politicians are not prophets. How much of our disappointment could we avoid if we viewed that simple truth with sober eyes and honest judgment? Politicians do not run to overturn the tables on Capitol Hill. And while that’s exactly what many of us may want them to do in our heart of hearts, holding on to that hope ignores the political realities and constraints placed on those who hold public office and fails to understand the primary motivations of politics and politicians. I repeat, politicians are not prophets.
The role of the prophet is to call us back to who we are meant to be – individually and as a society. At times politicians can assume this role, casting a prophetic vision that appeals to our nation’s better angles. But prophetic vision is just one tool in the politician’s toolbox and not the soul of his identity. The role of the prophet is different. The prophet must ever stand apart from power structures, from the people, from everything and everyone but God. That’s not to say that a prophet never finds herself in favor with the political structures or the people; she can be. But she can also just as easily be unwelcome anywhere, including her hometown. And so the prophet must establish an identity that is not dependent on anyone’s favor or disfavor but God.
The job of the politician, however, is wholly dependent on the favorability of the people and the power structures at play. A politician can buck them, certainly. He can make a moral stand for one reason or another, but there’s always a political calculus involved about whether that stand will ultimately harm or benefit his chances of staying in office. A politician’s primary motive is staying in office.
Before we take too cynical a view of that, consider that this can in fact be a noble motive for many. There are good people in office, public servants who sacrifice any number of other paths in order to serve their country and make a positive difference in people’s lives. But the only way to do that is by getting elected, and all that that involves. Call it moral relativism, the reality of sin, or the simple fact that our leaders are constantly negotiating competing claims for how to promote the common good, very little in politics is black and white. At best, the goal any politician can have when elected is to do the most good as possible for the people who sent him there. And that means doing what is necessary to continue to serve.
But the reflection doesn’t end there. Instead, it puts the onus back on us to have realistic expectations about what can and cannot be accomplished through our system of government. Government can be a powerful agent of good in our world. Through it, we can achieve noble goals and construct a society that appeals to our better angles and promotes the common good. Government cannot bring about the Kingdom of God. It is not flawless. In fact, part of the genius of the Framers was that they understood all too well the nature of sin and the power of power to corrupt. So they set up a system that assumes humans are a complex mixture of sinner and saint. They put in safe guards to protect us from our baser selves while allowing our capacity for justice, mercy and compassion to flourish.
In many ways our system of government is a theological statement on the nature of sin (and a bit on redemption too). Politicians operate from self interest – sometimes a self interest driven by a thirst for power, sometimes a self interest in preserving an office that enables them to try to do some good. In the face of this reality, we are called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We have to be honest about human nature, our limitations, our mixed motivations, as well as our capacity to aspire toward justice, compassion, and love of the Kingdom of God. We must be wise enough to understand that in a world mired in sin, we are subject to systems of power and self-interest beyond our control. And we must be innocent enough to believe that despite sin, despite the disillusionment we can experience at the hands of our leaders, love and justice will prevail.