Acton Institute Powerblog

The Vocation of the Politician

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This morning the online publication Ethika Politika, the journal of the Center for Morality in Public Life, published my response to a previous article by Thomas Storck on natural law and political engagement. In his article, Storck contents that though the natural law exists as a rationally accessible, universal standard of justice, due to the disordered passions of our fallen condition political engagement on the basis of natural law is all but fruitless. Instead, he recommends a renewed emphasis on evangelism, emphasizing that the change of heart that comes through conversion is a far more effective way to effect social change and, in his view, necessary before any political change will realistically happen. In my article today, I respond,

While I am sensitive to Storck’s insistence that evangelism deserves renewed zeal for the sake of moral progress in society, I feel his opposition of evangelism rather than political action (or, more accurately, evangelism then political action) is ultimately harmful. In particular, there would seem to be no vocation for the Christian as citizen or civil servant today, no vital service that he/she has to offer to the kingdom of God now in his/her civic capacity before such a widespread evangelization has taken place.

I focus my response to Storck mainly on the relationship between the natural law and the positive law of the state, but the above quote contains something that I would like to pursue a little further.

I think that there is a danger among those, like myself, who in general support more limited government to develop a pessimism toward everything government related and toward those who work in politics in general. Sometimes this is, in fact, justified. It seems like every year there is a new story of a politician misappropriating funds, taking bribes, soliciting prostitution, etc. Certainly that sort of news would make anyone pessimistic. But I would caution that we need to try our best to reign it in. People, including politicians, will rise to the standards that others hold for them. If we resign ourselves to the idea that all politicians are corrupt (even if that is true), we will leave little room for honest (or relatively honest) ones to maintain their integrity. After all, if the consequence of corruption is simply that one will have fallen to the expected status quo, there is really no cost in doing so, making it an even greater temptation.

I would submit that, instead, we need to remember that even politicians have a vocation for the kingdom of God and the common good. We really do need them. We need good people to struggle daily to make more just laws in the sweat of their brows among the thorns and thistles of the political climate and moral ecology of our fallen world.

Furthermore, as I note in my Ethika Politika article today, doing so does not always look like we want it to. Rather than unswerving adherence to the ideal, we need politicians who work to make practical advances toward it, even if that means less than optimal results. We may want someone who never compromises any principles, but, to me, such a politician is equivalent to a farmer who would refuse to work such a thorn-infested land due to their strong stance against thorns. What is the result of such an attitude? A failure to bear fruit. Through inaction, no crops would be saved from the stranglehold of the spreading weeds. It is a heavy burden, a hard vocation, but we need people who are willing to heed the call, go out into the thorn-infested field of American politics, and get their hands dirty.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


  • Becky

    I definitely can’t agree with Storck that natural law is not a basis for political life in the light of the fact that “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” and an entire political system was put into place based on those natural laws. And, I think, for sustainability’s sake would need to return to those natural laws, otherwise we undermine the entire foundation of our country. But we also have to return to God simply because HE IS,and nothing has ever been gained from turning away from him. There is no better, or no more. I could go on and on, but I’ll refrain and get back on the subject. Those natural rights only exist because there is a God, and when we get away from that fact and no longer have a love of neighbor, but only selfish interests, then that is how things are going to go. So yes, we do have to get back to God. We ought never to have left.
    When you intimate that one should ‘compromise their principles’, then I would have to disagree with the words, though I agree with the meaning, if you are saying, for instance,that a bill outlawing abortion would be more likely to pass if it contained a provisio allowing it in the cases of rape or incest, then one without it. And it would be wrong for a pro-life politician to not promote that bill passed, if they believed that there should be no abortion allowed at all. If that is an example of what you meant, then I agree with your meaning. However, I do not look at it as a compromise of priniciples, but more of the fact that we do live in a democracy, another ideology, and that we are not always going to get exactly what we want.

    • Your example is the sort of thing I meant. I want politicians who have the right ideals but are also realists and work toward whatever good they can in a given situation, even if that good is far below the ideal. It is always better than the alternative. Thanks for the comment.

  • Roger McKinney

    Yes, Christians should be involved in politics if that is their calling. We should always have a witness in even the darkest places on the planet.

    At the same time, we shouldn’t think that political action will change the people. In a democracy, the politics will reflect the will of the majority. The political actions of a few will not change the character of the majority. If the majority thinks murdering the unborn is the height of virtue, then the minority in politics will never be able to change the law.

    The law can never change until the values of the majority change. That’s true even in a dictatorship. Even absolute monarchs cannot rule against the will of the majority for very long. China is finding that out today.

    So permanent change requires a change in the character of the majority of voters. Hence the need for evangelism has priority over politics.

  • Roger McKinney

    I have never understood votes who think they can watch a few debates and ads and determine the character of a candidate. Apparently they are searching for the guy with the right ideals, thinking that with the right stuff he will be able to make a difference.

    But anyone who has paid attention to politics for long knows that politicians tell voter whatever they want to hear so they can get elected. Once in office, the pressure to conform to the party line and payments from the major campaign contributors determine their votes.

    Yet Americans never give up. They always think they can find a guy or gal who is above all that. So sad.