Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Ethics and government are two ideas that ought to go together since human government is about promoting the common good and restraining evil and ethics are about the very definitions of good and evil. But so often we see that it is difficult to obtain ethical behavior from those in government or aspiring to government. Solomon in ancient times wrote “In the place of judgment wickedness was there. In the place of justice, wickedness was there.” Solomon also said “If you see the poor oppressed in the district and justice denied, do not be surprised at such things for one official is eyed by a higher one and over them both are others higher still. The increase of the land is taken by all. The king himself profits from the fields.” In our own times, corruption has not been absent. In 1905, George Washington Plunkitt, a politician involved with New York’s Tammany Hall, gave a series of interviews to William Riordon that became first a series of newspaper articles and later a book entitled Plunkitt at Tammany Hall; a series of very plain talks on very practical politics. Plunkitt expounded what he called “honest graft,” an opportunity to use politics to legally enrich ones followers and then in turn to use their favors to obtain and maintain power. While the newspapers complain of such approaches, political science classes everywhere often teach that this is what government is all about: dividing the spoils - whether between parties or classes.

The experience of the last two decades seems to show that corruption is not necessarily the creature of one or the other political parties, but rather a disease that tends to afflict whichever party is in power at the time. Is there no way to deal with this pandemic problem? Is it inevitable? Is it something about which the Christian can do nothing? We cannot make a fallen world unfallen. There must nevertheless be ways in which we can resist evil and advance good even in government.

Christians have approached government and ethics in three different ways. Some Christians have simply said that government is inherently a dirty business and that Christians should stay out of it. They have contented themselves with “speaking truth to power” while allowing that power itself to be dominated by those whose natures lend themselves to corruption. Another approach has been to assume that there are simply two different sets of rules for Christian living and worldly living and that government is in the category of worldly living. In this category, people simply expect that government is a dirty rough and tumble business and that while Christians may play a little bit more fair, they are still going to need to “get their hands dirty” as a matter of being involved in government as good citizens. There are obvious problems with this view when we consider both the unity of virtue and the biblical requirement to bring every thought into conformity to Christ. A third approach has been to assume that Christians can and should reform government. But all too often the reformers have been corrupted rather than succeeding in reforming the government.

Regardless of philosophical approach, something has ultimately been wanting in the pragmatic reality of Christians in government. What have we been doing wrong and what should we do now? Now is the time for us to do something. Christians now have a greater influence in our society than they have had for many years. They have a great deal of leverage in both political parties, but especially in the political party that is currently in power in Washington. Now is the time to act, but exactly how should we act?

Perhaps one of the root problems is our view of “ethics.” Dennis Prager has often said that “law school takes people who think morally and trains them to think legally.” Instead of asking whether or not something is moral, people who have gone to law school tend to ask the question of whether or not it is legal. And the question of whether or not something is legal, for an attorney, is usually not a black and white question. It is really a question of what kinds of arguments can be made to defend the practice and the probability that those arguments that those arguments will succeed in preventing undesirable consequences for the parties in some way charged with having engaged in improper conduct. All too often, lawyers hear what their clients want to do, then try to figure out ways to tell their client they can get away with it rather than advising their client that the conduct is not for the common good and should be avoided. When people engage in the use of power, they assume that it is appropriate for them to enrich themselves and their compatriots provided that they do so within the law. They then seek to do everything they can do to the end without getting indicted or fined. The results are usually that they do things that they claim were proper, but that one or another prosecutor claims to be improper. The result that follows is scandal, name-calling, mud-slinging and a general debasement of the whole political process. Perhaps part of the problem here is the view and understanding of the ethics that control behavior and government as relating to legality.

Perhaps real ethics for politicians and the wielders of power should not be seen as relating to legality but rather than to morality. Politicians and their minions need to be looking to the nature of God Himself and His commands rather than to the likelihood they will be fined by court order.

Instead we need to be asking how God expects people to act and how God expects governments to behave. We then need to strive to follow those examples. The difficulty comes in the willful ignorance of some people regarding God’s moral standards though they are not complex or difficult to understand, and the question of punishing people for violating those standards. Because God’s law is perfect, it is inevitable that people will fall short of its requirements. We cannot punish everyone in politics all the time. So how can we encourage people to strive to meet an ultimate standard when we cannot punish them for every failure? How too can we get people to recognize and advocate the true requirements of the moral law? In our post-modern society, people have become adept at denying their knowledge of the very moral principles written on every heart evident in nature itself and rearticulated clearly in the scripture. We assert the power to change the meaning of words themselves. In a sense, part of the battle over ethics in government is related to the battle between relativism and the logos doctrine, the belief in the existence of truth and the rejection of anything as true, the belief that right makes might, vs. the belief that might is the ultimate justifier.

To make things even more difficult, our schools and universities teach the post-modern legalistic and morality-free view of government, politics and mankind in general. They encourage students to believe that texts have no inherent meaning and hence can be shifted by those in power to cover or not cover whatever activities they seek to condemn or to exonerate.
Perhaps there are even more issues involved than these. Somehow a serious dialog needs to be started among believers about exactly how we can make a practical impact on this problem in our generation. While we face many difficulties in our society, all of them are affected by this attitude toward ethics. We send men and women to Washington to protect the United States from its enemies, to advance the common good, to restrain evil among us, and to eliminate the great blights upon our generation such as abortion, deadly experimentation upon human beings at early stages of development, the saturation of our everyday lives and experience with encouragements to immorality and instability. But instead of dealing with these difficult issues and acting upon the great problems of our time, they become mired in the search for loot and the fulfillment of self interest. So mired they are distracted from their true business and spend day after day, hour after hour pursuing things we do not want or need and ignoring the very things necessary to secure the life of our republic and the good hopes we have for future generations.

To discuss this issue, Trinity Graduate School and Trinity Law School, of Trinity International University, are planning a conference on Ethics and American Government to take place in February of 2008. They hope to make this a national conference with influencers, decision makers, and the wise among us coming together to address this issue. We are just begining to plan the conference. Your comments and ideas are welcome.

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