Columnists > From the Publisher

Truth and power

They're related, but also very different

Issue: "DeLay: Cracking the whip," July 18, 1998

When James Dobson of Focus on the Family was hospitalized with a stroke a few weeks ago, one WORLD subscriber observed to me that there must have been a few powerhouse politicians in Washington who breathed a sigh of relief and muttered under their breath, "Well, at least that nuisance will be out of our hair for a while."

If that happened, of course, it was wishful thinking. It was an illness from which God delivered Mr. Dobson with a remarkable and speedy recovery. He may be slowed down for a bit, but his pointed and prophetic challenges to the power brokers will continue.

Yet if James Dobson carries a significant nuisance value for the much-too-pragmatic establishment in Washington and other seats of government, then perhaps people who believe many of the things Mr. Dobson does should begin to be asking the question: Who's in line to become the same kind of nuisance in the future? For in this life, every recovery is a stopgap and every healing is temporary. Even without a debilitating stroke, James Dobson sooner or later will have to set aside his role. Who will follow?

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Whoever that may be-or whatever combination of people it may be-they will need a nuanced understanding of the relationship between truth and power. Such a balanced understanding is not easily come by.

For every Christian has a responsibility first to pursue the discovery of truth-an activity that happens for us primarily within the context of our churches. Does every Christian then have an additional responsibility to apply that truth in public life? To the extent that every Christian does, that application takes place primarily within the context of politics. What's so difficult is that the two contexts, while distant from and in stark contrast to each other, also exist together in tight and unusual tension.

On the one hand, we are called to discover and proclaim God's truth. Because that truth comes to people like medicine, its purity is terribly important. For the church of Christ (in all its denominational and parachurch expressions) to preoccupy itself with the refinement of truth is no embarrassment. If God's truth is what we call people to live by, it needs to be pursued afresh and restated anew in every generation. But this process of discovering and stating God's truth is not a "power" enterprise. It is an activity of God's Spirit, wondrously but mysteriously changing men's and women's hearts along the way.

On the other hand, politics is very much a "power" enterprise-and I don't use that term in a pejorative manner here. The very nature of political activity is to unify and mobilize a sufficiently large bloc of public opinion so that together the people who hold a particular idea to be important can then enforce it, to a greater or lesser degree, on the body politic.

It is at this intersection of the discovery of truth, on the one hand, and the political application of such truth to public life, on the other hand, that we Christians tend to get our roles confused. The temptation is strong to look to the church and its subsidiaries (all of which ought to be "truth" structures) for the exercise of power in our society. And the temptation is equally strong to look to political organizations (which are meant as "power" structures) as sources or arbiters of truth. In both cases, we set ourselves up for disappointment-for the church is ill-equipped to exercise blunt power in society, and political organizations hardly know what the word "truth" means.

None of this would be so much of a problem if we were permitted to choose which of these two arenas we want to operate in. But a faithful Christian may find it essential to live in both arenas. So we go directly, in any given week, from the pursuit and proclamation of truth, on the one hand, to the exercise of political power (however big or small our personal sphere might be), on the other hand.

James Dobson, in the remarkable career that has made him perhaps the most influential evangelical Christian of our generation, regularly experiences the enormous tension that such a tightrope act requires. I think he prefers to be a teacher, a proclaimer, and a clarifier of God's truth for millions of people-a task he has carried out with increasing faithfulness. Only with obvious reluctance has he more recently simultaneously entered the political spectrum, not as a candidate but as an honorable broker of the significant political influence that perhaps lies at his disposal.

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