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Prophet or politician?

Advocates and those who govern weigh power and principle differently

Issue: "Memorial Day 2003," May 24, 2003

IN A HUNDRED WAYS, GEORGE W. BUSH IS SITTING fat and happy in terms of his prospects for reelection next year. But several shots across his bow last week might well remind him not to count all his chickens before they hatch. The shots came from some influential evangelical Christians.

The testy exchanges came on the heels of two symbolic things that did happen with Republican leadership and another symbolic thing that didn't happen.

The first symbolic event was a quiet meeting two months ago between Mark Racicot, national chairman of the Republican Party, and 300 representatives of a homosexual lobbying group. It was reportedly the first time an RNC chairman had given audience to and addressed an explicitly homosexual group.

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The second symbolic event was the much-publicized statement by Sen. Rick Santorum about a pending Supreme Court decision on so-called homosexual marriages. In a perfectly accurate analysis, Mr. Santorum asked why if such rights are found for homosexuals they should not also be recognized for those who practice incest or bestiality. Homosexuals were outraged-and so were liberal leaders and many in the media. Calls from such sources for Sen. Santorum's resignation were repeated and loud.

The symbolic thing that didn't happen was an equally vigorous defense of Mr. Santorum by President Bush, or by representatives of the White House, or by Mr. Racicot, or by other top Republican leaders. No top Republicans said bluntly: "Rick Santorum was right on target! We back him to the fullest!" And that failure-that enormous silence-produced some not-so-silent bellows from people like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Ken Connor of the Family Research Council, and Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum. "If Republican leaders cannot mount a vigorous defense of marriage," said Mr. Connor ominously, "then pro-family voters perhaps should begin to reconsider their loyalty to the party."

So the perennial questions were raised again: Just how much leverage do biblical Christians enjoy with the current administration, and with the GOP as the more conservative of the two major parties? And what should the response of such Christians be if that leverage proves to be too little to produce what are considered critical changes?

In the thinking of the Dobson-Connor-Schlafly organizations (and many others like them-including WORLD magazine), it's hard to think of any more basic issue for a society to be agreed on than that of family and marriage. Even war and peace are secondary, for when a society discards the God-ordained foundation of family and marriage, there may not be much left that's worth fighting for.

So what should "we" do when "they" won't listen to what "we" believe "they" should be saying about such important matters?

Most of all, we should keep straight who "they" are and who "we" are.

"They" are politicians. Their ultimate job is to govern-which means that their first job is to be elected. They have to appeal to whatever combination of voters gives them a majority in any given election. By definition, in a democratic society, that means they have to compromise.

In crassest terms, that means a party like the GOP tends to look and listen and then to ask: Who has more political pull-evangelicals or homosexuals? And you may be disappointed, but not surprised, when that party compromises itself repeatedly. All of which is not to say a political party has no principles; it is simply to recognize that the essence of politics is to count voters first-and only then to think about principles. A president may be known for his principles, but he is not first and foremost a prophet.

Advocacy groups, in contrast, start at the other end. They start with what they think is right in principle. It is the essence of an advocacy group (like Focus on the Family, for example) to say to the GOP: Forget the numbers for a minute; just do what is right.

But because advocacy groups understand the pragmatism of politics, they'll also now and then talk that language too. That's why a James Dobson or a Ken Connor might occasionally threaten to encourage his several million constituents to sit out an election. "If the politicians can't understand principle," such a leader might say, "maybe they'll understand votes." But big risks lie along that path. "What if I ask my troops to withhold their support-and then they don't? Does that make me into nothing more than a paper tiger in the next debate?"

So politicians, whose main preoccupation typically is power, have to think also about principle. And prophets have to weigh the use of power. But in God's scheme of things, both concerns have a place.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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