Raising Illinois

Politics | Corruption runs deep in the Land of Lincoln, where legislative efforts at reform have failed. A new approach aims to change hearts

Issue: "Crackdown," July 18, 2009

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.-Few cities in the Western world over the past century rival Chicago in backdoor deals and dishonest civic leaders. But the suburbs and rural areas throughout Illinois come close. The state's culture of corruption is pervasive, destructive, and very old.

The recent indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich for allegedly trying to sell Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat is hardly the first scandal to sully that statewide office. The previous governor, Republican George Ryan, now sits in a federal prison for his role in a widespread corruption ring that produced dozens of indictments and convictions. Before him, Democrat Daniel Walker left the office of Illinois governor in 1977 and promptly committed savings and loan fraud, for which he spent 18 months behind bars.

And back in the late 1960s, Democratic Gov. Otto Kerner received a three-year sentence for accepting bribes.

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Illinois sits among Louisiana, New Jersey, and Rhode Island in reputation as the most corrupt states in the union. Some political analysts believe simple ethics reform, more oversight, and tighter restrictions could affect lasting change. Other reform advocates contend that the root of the issue is beyond any legislative fix. The source of transformation, they say, must come more from new hearts than new laws.

It's 7:30 a.m. at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield. The main foyer of the 140-year-old building is still empty, but inside a small room near the west entrance, a group of legislators has gathered for Bible study. An Uncle Sam poster with the words "I need you to pray" adorns one wall above a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. In this space, which has served as a dedicated chapel since the Ryan administration, church life and state politics intersect.

The 10 lawmakers in attendance on this morning joke casually about the legislative docket for the day. Talk turns to a medical marijuana bill, igniting discussion from various viewpoints. "This is America," someone says in defense of the bill. "Oh, I thought it was Springfield," another quips.

Then, the mood changes. Shaun Lewis, a freshly minted Master's Seminary graduate who founded the Bible study less than two years ago, directs attention to Psalm 139 for discussion of God's intimate knowledge of human hearts. "Why would anyone want to be known by a holy God?" he asks before answering his own question: "Because punishment is not at stake."

As he does every Thursday morning during session, Lewis, 29, leads his audience of legislators through the gospel, emphasizing the muscle of grace to bring a new kind of living-and a new kind of working. Absent is any specific political agenda. Gone is the evangelical instinct over the past several decades to exert influence through policy only. For Lewis, the primary objective is to see Illinois legislators embrace Christian faith and begin to take it seriously.

That's a mission spreading across state capitols nationwide thanks to the work of Capitol Ministries, an organization bent on refocusing the church's work in politics toward evangelism over special-interest lobbying. In a dozen years since its founding, the group has now deployed ministers in more than 20 state capitols and adds to its rolls each year.

Lewis hopes his work in Springfield can alter the existing culture of corruption one politician's heart at a time: "It's a long-term solution that we're working on. It's not like going in and persuading people like a lobbyist might do. It's the power of the gospel that transforms people from the inside out, and it's that consistency and perseverance over the long haul that I believe will make a difference."

But the present political realities in cities and districts throughout the state seem worlds away from the influence of a small chapel inside the capitol. The problems just seem too big, too many, too historically rooted.

Indeed, a recent report from the University of Illinois at Chicago documents criminal convictions of more than 1,500 individuals for some form of public corruption in Illinois since 1970, malfeasance costing taxpayers an estimated $500 million per year.

Political science professor Dick Simpson, a chief author of the report and former Chicago alderman, says such crookedness stems almost universally from machine politics, a Democratic machine in the city and a Republican machine in the suburbs: "If you're in the machine, you're trading government services, called favors, for votes; you're trading precinct work for patronage jobs; and you're trading government contracts for campaign contributions and sometimes bribes."

Of course, not every Illinois politician joins the machine. Alderman Joe Moore of the 49th Ward on the north side, for example, maintains a reputation for independence and ethics reform. "The culture of corruption is not reflective of all elected officials in the state," he says. "Most of us try to do our job honestly."


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