Is Christianity concerned with Politics...?

The Moral Requirements of Public Leadership

H. A. Bosley: When Paul counseled the Philippians "to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil.2 :12), he, consciously enough, was stating the perennial task of religion and, all unconsciously, the watchword of democracy. John Philpot Curran was to give this watchword a memorable phrasing in his famous warning to Eighteenth-century England: "The condition upon which god hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance." Paul was talking about the salvation of the soul; Curran was talking about the salvation of a democratic state. Yet both perceived clearly the simple fact that the great ends of life are not won without persistent and responsible thought and work all along the line.

Difficult as it is for us to come to this conclusion, the plain truth seems to be that there is no place for panaceas - or magic cure-alls - either in religion or in government. Let a panacea get loose in the field of religion and a cult is born - to flourish vigorously for a while, then die. The roadway of religious history is dotted with the debris of tens of thousands of abortive efforts to work out some "quickie" solution to the profound and persistent problems of human life. Let a panacea get loose in the field of government and a tyranny, whether benevolent or malignant, is born - to flourish vigorously and tragically, for a while, then die. Students of political history are familiar with the great totalitarian states that have emerged in one form or another from the beginning of the human story. They flourish - or appear to flourish - in our own time with a new and terrible intensity.

Although the most arresting samples of these political panaceas have taken root in other soil than our own, we are living in a fool's paradise if we think our soil is unfitted to their nourishment. If you saw it, you will never forget the motion picture All the King's Men. Nor can you forget that it actually happened here in America, at least in principle. [The film is based on Robert Penn Warren's fictionalized account of Louisiana politics in the 1930's under Huey P. Long. It includes attempted impeachments and an assassination.]

There is something almost pathetic about the persistent belief and faith that men have, that there must be some short-cut, some easier way to the solution of human problems than that of long-range, patient, persistent effort. Time and again brute facts grab our daydreams and short-cuts by the collar and remind us that we, too, must work out our own salvation in personal and social life with fear and trembling; that it is as true for us today as it was for eighteenth century England that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Since the Christian faith is concerned with the whole range of human life there is a natural and unforced relationship between the Christian Church and the whole range of human problems that we face today. She approaches the problems of democracy with a concern born of her love for God and man, and her conviction that we are called upon to build as best we can the Kingdom of God in our common life. While the Church must seek to live in terms of the social and political patterns in which her lot is cast, she cannot be content with any of them. She must be studying at all times - and on peril of losing her sense of mission, if she does not do it - the deep and abiding problems of the people to whom she ministers. That is one of the deepest reasons why the Christian Church in this country is concerned with the problem of democratic leadership. As Arthur Holt has so well put it, "The modern church is working at the task of being influential in a social order which it does not desire to manipulate, but for which it feels a moral responsibility."

It is in this spirit that the Christian Church approaches the problem of the moral requirements of public leadership. It is clear that there can be no long-range hope for a democracy unless we understand the peculiar meaning of both citizenship and leadership in a democracy. While it would be out of place for the Church to try to suggest the political machinery by which democracy should function, she is well within her role when she talks about the moral responsibilities that rest upon both citizen and leader alike if this form of government is to reach anything like its fulfillment in our common life. That is why it is of great importance, particularly in an election period, for the Christian Church to try to be influential in securing what she believes to be wise choices both of men and of policies. To do less would be tacitly to admit that we do not feel a moral responsibility for a realistic facing of the critical problems of the day in which we live. To the end, then, of discharging what seems to me to be the clear moral responsibility of our religious faith, I propose that we shall pay strict attention to the qualities of leadership which can make the most significant contribution to our common life and hope.

Right off, let it be stated and underscored that no leader can do all of the work for us who are citizens in a democracy. Also, no one leader can make or break a democracy as firmly rooted as ours in America. It will take a whole series of ruinous choices for us to undo the work of our forefathers, and no one with faith in democracy believes that most of the people will be fooled all of the time into letting their rights slip away.

But having said this the simple fact remains that leaders are very important in a democracy. Not only do they actually initiate many policies, but they symbolize the ideas and ideals of the citizenry of the country. In time of great crisis, like war and depression, we vote them enormous power and must trust them to use it wisely and return it to us intact when the crisis is over. It is therefore a matter of great importance when a democracy or a democratic organization chooses a leader. A healthy democracy and a democracy determined to maintain its health will measure any man who presents himself as a potential leader in public life against certain moral requirements. Though other institutions may be reluctant to press these requirements, it is the clear duty of the Church to do so. These requirements are not optional except as democracy itself is optional; they are determined by the very nature of democracy itself. They apply to all elections, all political parties, and to all men seeking public office. Four such requirements deserve our careful attention.

The leader we need is one whose word is his bond. Democracy is fundamentally a matter of faith in the collective wisdom of men over a long period of time. It could not be otherwise and live. It must make allowance for short-term mistakes due to ignorance and passion. Democracy is the one form of government which can admit mistakes and not destroy itself thereby. If one generation of Americans was unjust to the Indian, as they were, a later generation will recognize this and strive to make amends, as we are now doing. But always there is a fundamental faith in the long-time judgment and justice of the average citizen of this country. As Archibald MacLeish once put it: "Democracy is belief in people; not just some people, but in all people."

The basic institutions of a democracy lean heavily on this faith; they could not exist in their present form without it. Our schools, courts, banks, and our particular form of government by means of elected representatives simply assume this faith in the common citizen. Representative government requires that we finally entrust to our leaders the right to make decisions for us and in our name. Obviously they must appear before us and appeal for this precious right. In early American days they made their appeal at town meetings where it was a fairly simple matter for neighbors and friends to check their words and promises against their known character in community life and affairs. But their manner of appeal is and must be quite different now. Party platforms are drawn up; campaigns are waged; candidates speak at mass meetings and over radio and television; problems are discussed and solutions advanced for public consideration. All these are essential ways of encouraging the common citizen to have faith in the leadership of some man and some party because he believes what they say, because he has faith in them and their public word, and, therefore, gives to them one of his most precious rights - the right to speak in his name.

Under these conditions either a man's word is his bond or the whole machinery of democracy is disrupted. If a man says one thing, and does another, how far can you trust him in any sort of dealings? As citizens we have not only the right but actually the serious obligation to ask of any man who offers himself for public office whether his word is his bond, whether he can be trusted, whether he makes promises intending to keep them or intending simply to snare votes with them. If he has a long record in public life, we have the right to study that record with eagle eye and say publicly what we see.

To me, the most disturbing aspect in the life of American democracy today is the completely skeptical attitude of so many citizens toward the public utterances of political parties and candidates for the most important office in this country - the presidency. It is no new thing for us to be critical of men who seek office; that is as old as democracy, and it is a thoroughly healthy attitude. But that is not what I am referring to. I am referring to the widespread decline of public confidence in the spoken word of public officials. I am referring to the fact that "Washington" is a synonym of mismanagement and the President is unhesitatingly referred to by a rival, and many of his critical friends, as "the cleverest politician and the worst President we have ever had." The moral implications of such an attitude reach far beyond the excuse of political expediency and strike a fatal blow at the very nature of democracy itself. Democracy cannot and will not long survive the collapse of public confidence in the dignity of public office and in the integrity of its elected leadership.

As citizens we must indeed work out our own salvation with fear and trembling in this matter. Nothing is more important for the future of America than an immediate and determined effort to restore confidence in the spoken word of public officials. Compared to this task, the so-called issues in any campaign pale into insignificance. We can survive, at great cost perhaps, mistakes made on specific issues, but we cannot expect democracy to survive the growing conviction that the word of the elected leaders, even of the President of these United States, cannot be trusted.

A second requirement of the leader we need is this: he must be one who unites us rather than divides us in our thinking and planning for the future.

Take a cross-section of the life of this country today, or any other time for that matter - and you find it harassed by great problems pressing for solution. You find embattled pressure groups on both sides of the problem, and you find sincere people among them, despite what their opponents say! As has been observed, "All vital issues are controversial issues." Just now our ominous problems are, roughly, (i) the conflict between labor and management for the control of industrial policy, (2) the race question with its ugly implications, (3) the determination of many underprivileged people to secure equality of opportunity for themselves and their children while arrayed in almost un-broken front against them are the holders of privilege in the status quo, and finally, (4) the matter of our relations with other nations.

It goes without saying that there is no immediate solution for such problems as these. No one man and no one party and no one election is going to solve them. Strictly speaking, we are constantly looking for the proper solution all of the time. One hundred and fifty million Americans are thinking and experimenting with various ways of solving them, and, sooner or later, we believe, we shall be successful. Two things can help us in our quest for the right answer. The first is the earnest desire for the right, the fair, the just answer. Without this we shall merely be looking for ways of favoring ourselves. The second is a growing confidence in the integrity of those who are on the other side of the line in any given problem. It is at this point that one of the great qualities of leadership in a democracy is indispensable.

The leader we need will have the ability to stimulate the growth of mutual confidence across lines of division within a democracy. He must be able to do this, not necessarily by political expedience and the art of compromise, though these have their place and are not to be scorned. But he will do it most definitely by bringing to the fore the more co-operative leaders in the embattled groups. If this is not done, the fighters, the unconditional-surrender type of men will surge to the front, setting the stage for riots and other forms of civil war.

It cannot be stated too strongly that he who seeks to lead by playing one group against another in our common life is engaged in nothing less than a betrayal of democracy. Call it good politics if you will, but it's rotten religion and I very much doubt whether it is good politics in the long run. This is no plea for soft-pedaling the gravity of the problems which are agitating us today - for that is a futile and finally foolish procedure. But it is to insist that every encouragement must be given to the conciliatory leaders within opposing interests; it is to insist that the United States government use its good offices as conciliator rather than exploiter of differences in our common life. It may be good politics to seek to "divide and rule" but it is discredited and dangerous strategy in a country which desires to remain a democracy.

This much is clear: we cannot afford to move into the ominous future with a lessening of confidence in one another! To move into a future of discord with increasing dissension in our common life will be sheer tragedy for everyone. To the end then of strengthening our common life, we are duty bound to seek as public leaders the men best fitted to increase our mutual confidence, especially in areas of greatest tension.

A third requirement of the leader we need is this: he must be one who accepts and exalts the disciplines of democracy. Democracy, for all our glib talk about it, is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Students of our particular form of democracy say that it is a system of checks and balances set up by the Constitution for the express purpose of keeping power divided among the three branches of government - the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The writers of the Constitution did not make this division in an idle and thoughtless moment. They well understood the tendency of power to become more and more centralized, resulting finally in some form of tyranny. They sought to ward off this threat by arranging our three centers of power in a kind of triangular relationship in which each is dependent upon yet identifiably different from the other.

You do not need to be any better student of geometry than I am to realize that when you remove one point of a triangle the triangle itself disappears. And when you remove, in letter or in spirit, one point in our system of checks and balances the entire system collapses into - God alone knows what, but it will not be our form of democracy. It is, therefore, a highly questionable precedent when the President casts slurs at the Supreme Court, the Congress casts slurs at the President, and the Supreme Court at least by implication questions the sanity of Congress. Yet we have seen all these tendencies in operation in a more or less aggravated form in the last decade. There is room for criticism and unrest and a continual study of the adequacy of the system of checks and balances. Yet he who advocates a change must have a clear picture of what it is he seeks by the change.

One of the most difficult disciplines of democratic leadership is the giving and taking of criticism. The right and the responsibility of criticism is fundamental to democracy. No man, no office, no policy, no institution can set itself up as beyond and above criticism. I know - not all criticism is fair and responsible. But we have less to fear from hotheaded, rash, hasty, and unfair criticism than from the effort to curtail it. A democracy without the right of public dissent and criticism is a contradiction in terms. And a leadership which seeks to evade or stifle public criticism is a poor leadership for a democratic society. It's about time we got over the habit of equating serious criticism with concealed treason. Let someone criticize our foreign policy and he is sure to be told, "Stalin couldn't have done better!" Let the churches oppose Universal Military Training and we are solemnly assured that we are "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." A democracy without the right of public criticism is not a democracy and a democracy that does not jealously guard the right of criticism and the free expression of criticism will not long remain a democracy. It will not be overthrown by attacks from without; it will fall by betrayal from within.

It ought to be axiomatic that a democratic leader is one who accepts and exalts the disciplines of democracy in that he will be a good citizen himself. Which is to say that he will seek to abide by the law of the land and not evade its clear intent by some devious means. If a law is outmoded - and this may well be - or if it obstructs the general welfare - and this may well be, the President, for example, has a perfect right to seek its removal from the statute books of the country, but so long as it remains there he should respect it. One of the frequent charges against the late President Roosevelt came from this area. As Mr. Arthur Krock of The New York Times once wrote: "The president has an uncanny ability to make end runs around existing laws!" In the last coal strike, and again in the present steel crisis, the President of the United States has not invoked the Taft-Hartley Act which was created especially to deal with such situations, because he does not like it.

I ask you, what kind of a country would we have if each citizen specialized in making end runs around the laws of the land, if we obeyed just the laws we liked? To ask the question is to answer it in a single word: anarchy. The whole purpose of law is defeated if it is left up to the judgment and caprice of the individual. It is, therefore, a most dangerous precedent for a democracy which finally depends upon respect for law to have as leaders those who by their attitude and action, whether consciously or not, teach a disrespect for this elemental responsibility for citizenship in a democracy. If long persisted in, we shall find government by law superseded by government of men - which means the end of constitutional democracy as we have known it in America, and a creation of the kind of government dramatically portrayed in All the King's Men.

A fourth requirement of our leader is this: he must be one who keeps us facing our deepest problems in domestic and foreign affairs. This calls for statesmanship of the highest order. It calls for utmost fidelity not only to the problems themselves but also to the nature of democracy, lest, in the very act of seeking to save it, we betray it. Democracy is not, as someone has suggested, "a government of the people, by the few, and for the rich"; it is "of, by, and for the people". Democracy requires, therefore, that every citizen must be kept aware of the problems, both internal and foreign, which this nation faces. Democracy does not ask of any man or any party that it pretend to know the answer to all such problems, but it does ask our elected leaders both to face these problems realistically and to keep them before the citizens.

The right answers to such problems come from the bottom up, not from the top down. I do not mean thereby to depreciate the role of public leadership in a democracy. Our grave problems must be studied by experts in our councils of state. They must be given the undivided attention of all of our elected and representative leaders.

Creative leadership in a democracy is a co-operative matter, involving the free use of all persons to whom we, the people, delegate authority and upon whom we exercise the periodic right of recall through elections. We have something considerably less than democratic leadership when any of our elected leaders take the bit of decision in their teeth and plunge ahead with a whole series of either veiled or wholly secret commitments, pausing only to tell us what they have done, not asking us to consider what they propose to do! And the whole matter becomes a farce when they appear before us and try to convey the impression that they are merely doing our will! They have been doing their will in our name! And their will can become our will only when we, the people, know definitely what they have been doing and have a chance to consider it carefully. Government by an individual or government by committee, without reference to the will of the people prior to a commitment given in the name of the people, is government, all right, but it is not government by the people.

It is one of the tasks of leadership in a democracy like this to guide us into a consideration of our common problems. This is the common task of the President and the Congress of the United States. They must help us understand the fuller nature of the problems we are confronting in domestic and international affairs. We expect them to suggest creative answers to such problems and submit them to us for consideration and approval or disapproval. Naturally this is a slow and tedious process, and it is understandable that we should seek to speed it up in various ways. But he who wants or seeks a short cut around it is wanting and seeking a short cut around an essential meaning of democracy.

One of the hardest tasks of democratic leadership is that of giving citizens an over-all view of national problems. Provincialism and sectionalism are among our besetting sins. It is natural enough, I suppose, to think that the pinch on us is the most painful pinch in the country, and therefore most deserving of immediate attention and relief. At least that is the way we act! Visit the agricultural areas and the woes of the farmer are poured into your ear. Visit the industrial areas and you hear the woes of labor and management alike. Visit anywhere in our Southland and white and colored alike have much to complain about - and they complain! You come away from the survey of our country's woes about ready to conclude that democracy is one big headache!

Of course it is the business of government to help alleviate such pains. But it is also the business of government both to get the total picture itself and to keep that picture before the people in a serious and sympathetic way. In fact, Senator Paul Douglas recently gave it as his considered opinion that "the gravest danger we face today is economic and political disintegration into competitive groups, each placing its own interest above national interest. The times demand on all sides a new degree of public-mindedness, a greater sense of responsibility for the general interest, a self-discipline that marks the wise use of freedom." He further said, "If I were limited to only one conclusion based upon my term in office of the Senate, I would make it this: we must guard against breaking our population into self-conscious, selfish segments commonly known as pressure groups" (Collier's Magazine, February 11, 1950).

To this end, we as citizens should try to send the fairest men we can find to our elective offices. A man who presents himself for our vote under the plea that he will be primarily concerned with our own interests ought to be suspect forthwith. Our elected officials are, as it were, our eyes for seeing the whole picture, not just our part of it which we know well enough. A carefully informed citizenry is much less likely to be split up into warring groups if the government does a good job of keeping us informed about the whole range of the problems in the nation and in the world. In peace, no less than in war, most of us are willing to bear our share of hardship if we are fairly sure that everyone else is doing likewise. The creation of this consciousness of oneness is one of the essential functions of government in a democracy. This, I know, is in violent contrast to the idea that good government is merely a matter of taking care of whoever shouts the loudest and controls the most votes.

Can we find men like this for leadership in a democracy: men whose word is their bond, men who unite us rather than divide us, men who exalt and exemplify the disciplines of democracy, men who keep us facing our deepest problems in domestic and foreign affairs? Can we find men for leadership of whom it can be said that they can face oppositions without animosity, criticism without rancor, flattery without conceit, and defeat without despair? This is our most pressing problem just now, and we must be prepared to work it out with fear and trembling, not simply in the elections in the immediate future, but especially in our own conduct as citizens in a democracy.

These moral requirements of leadership in a democracy are not optional unless the Hebrew-Christian conception of the moral nature of the world is wholly wrong. But if this conception of the structure of the world is right, these moral requirements are not simply requirements for the election of any one man - they are the requirements of survival for democracy. The only person who can afford to take these requirements lightly is the atheist. The rest of us will exercise the privilege and the responsibility of citizenship in a democracy, whether as citizens or leaders, by taking them as the watchword of our thinking and living. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" in a democracy. The problems we face are tremendous, but so are our resources if we lose not faith in God and man.

Preached by Harold A. Bosley in First Methodist Church, Evanston, Illinois on July 6, 1952


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