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Political Science


by Charles W.  Colson

My proposition is simple: that both sides need each other for the greater good of our society.

Let me approach my thesis beginning with the subject I know best: criminal justice. Over the past 17 years, I have been in well over 600 prisons in nearly 30 countries. In one as a resident, the others as a visitor. I have visited penal institutions all the way from nearby Lorton to Perm Camp 35 in the Ural Mountains. And through our ministry we even operate one prison, which I’ll tell you about in a few moments.

What I have experienced can be summed up tersely: The American criminal justice system is terminally ill. While I find Dr. Kevorkian appalling, we could use someone like him in public policy–to dispose of discredited government programs. (We all know that nothing in government dies of natural causes.) And criminal justice policies would top the list to be hooked up to the death machine.

The statistics tell the story. In 1973 there were 210,000 people in U.S. prisons; the incarceration rate was 98 per 100,000, well behind the notoriously high rates of the Soviet Union and South Africa. The crime rate at the time was rising, and many Americans began to feel new fears in old neighborhoods.

Last year, the total number of people incarcerated in America was 856,000 plus 425,000 in jails. Our rate of incarceration was 512 per 100,000 (including jails). We are now leading the world by a wide margin.

We have seen an unprecedented boom in prison construction over the past 20 years, investing over $37 billion (another $5 billion construction is in process today with $10 billion more projected). The cost of incarceration is nearly $20,000 per year per inmate–a staggering sum.

But in spite of the huge number of criminals being incarcerated, our crime rate has continued to rise. During this same period, violent crime climbed over 75 percent. And each year the people who commit these bloody crimes are younger. According to The Lipman Report, between 1985 and 1991, the number of 18-to 20-year-olds arrested for murder rose 113 percent, the number of 17-year-olds rose 121 percent, and 16-year-olds rose by 158 percent.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate that 20 percent of high school students carry weapons to class. And in the city of Baltimore, according to the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, more than half of black men between the ages of 18 and 35 are caught up in the criminal justice system: either in prison, on bond, on parole, or on probation.

Lawlessness seems submerged just below the surface of our everyday life. The cost of crime, the price of prisons, the sacrifice of security–these are burdens that grow heavier each year. And when spark touched tinder in Los Angeles, many of us saw a vision of the future of many American cities, illuminated by the glare of neighborhoods in flames.

Statistics can leave us cold. But I have seen the dreadful cost of this system in the faces of thousands of human beings trapped in it.

When I was a prisoner I watched men spend most of their days lying on their bunks doing nothing, staring into the emptiness. Bodies atrophying, souls corroding. At night the inmates might sit around their tables, playing cards and talking about how they would get even with those who had wronged them or with society in general. Prison talk usually centered around how they had been caught before and how they would get away the next time. I’ve never been in a place so filled with anger, bitterness, despair, dejection.


It is no wonder to me that after being released, between 66 and 74 percent, depending on whose statistics you use, commit new crimes within four years; the wonder is that the remaining 25 percent do not. The prison experience is brutal, dehumanizing, counterproductive.

Of course, prisons do serve one very important function. They separate dangerous offenders from the rest of society. On this score, they are effective–at least as long as the offender is incarcerated. And I should add that the failure of the system is not due to correctional officials. I’ve been greatly impressed with the high quality of people who serve in corrections–some of the most dedicated public servants I’ve known.

No, the blame for the mess we’re in today rests squarely on the shoulders of politicians; and it is shared equally by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Both sides have been wrong. Dangerously wrong.

Let’s consider first the liberal approach. The prevailing sociological view earlier in this century was that crime is caused by environmental factors–poverty, racism, oppression, lack of opportunity. So in the 1930s and ’40s we began to experiment with various forms of human engineering. New prisons were built where these “deprived” individuals could be (in the fashionable term of the time) “resocialized.” Prisons were seen as a constructive response on society’s part to help people trapped in deprived circumstances. They had resorted to crime, after all, through no fault of their own.

Once this idea took root, it was hard to shake. In the 1960s, Ramsey Clark said flat out, “Poverty is the cause of crime.” Millions of people in the inner cities caught on to the idea and concluded they weren’t responsible for their behavior. They were merely victims of poverty; crime was a natural response to their circumstances, and perfectly excusable.

When he was president, Jimmy Carter said virtually the same thing in response to the looting that erupted in New York following the city’s infamous 24-hour blackout. It was poverty that drove New Yorkers to riot, Carter argued. But his words rang hollow a few months later when studies showed that most looters were employed and stole things they didn’t need or have any use for.

And last year during the Los Angeles riots were heard haunting echoes of Clark and Carter.

If the cause of crime is in the external environment, then it was natural to presume we could cure crime by changing the environment. Thus, we came to believe that prisons are capable of rehabilitating criminals. All sorts of people were placed in prison “for their own good” in the hope they would come out renewed, lawabiding, upright citizens, restored to being productive members of the community.


But rehabilitation proved to be a costly myth. I don’t know anyone in corrections today who honestly believes that prisons rehabilitate, that they have any therapeutic or redemptive purpose at all. Nevertheless, the myth lives on, and so does the notion that individuals are not responsible for their behavior–that they are not morally depraved, they are simply socially and economically deprived.

The assumptions on the conservative side have been equally flawed. Conservatives seemed to believe that the solution to crime was simply to lock criminals up and throw away the key.

I don’t know anyone in corrections who honestly believes that prisons rehabilitate.

I’m familiar with this approach myself. I wrote many of Nixon’s law-and-order speeches (at least the more eloquent ones). In fact, since a Christian is called to repent of his sins, I will do so here. I helped shape the law-and-order mentality that has flourished ever since. Latter-day politicians have simply stolen some of my own lines that proved to be crowd pleasers. “Throw away the key. Get tough on crime,” intones the politician–and he is drowned out by applause.

This is called the deterrent theory: Lock them up and we’ll scare people out of crime. But it doesn’t work either. The problem is that fear does little to change behavior. If it did, no one would smoke. Motivations are more complex than that, particularly when it comes to crime and violence.

Those of you who know your Bibles will understand instantly why the deterrent theory fails. The Apostle Paul, with poignant realism, wrote, “That which I want to do, I do not do, that which I do not want to do, I do. Is it the law that makes me sin? May it never be so, but until the law said, `Thou shalt not covet,’ I never coveted.” The fact is we are stubborn creatures, we humans. The more likely we are told not to do something, the more likely we are to do it. The failed experience of the touted “Scared Straight” program in Rahway, New Jersey, where lifers attempted to scare juvenile offenders away from a life of crime, offers convincing evidence. Our minds may lead us right, but our wills do not always follow.

If prisons did rehabilitate or if the threat of prison did deter crime, surely we would be living in utopian peace. But the stark fact is this: Though we’ve thrown more people in prison than at any other time in human history, few sensible people would be willing to walk through the combat zone of this city, or any other major city, after dark. One out of four American households will be victims of crime this year. Crime and the fear of crime disrupt our lives and haunt our nights.

Why have both of these approaches failed? The answer is as close as our conscience and as distant has our highest ideals. Both approaches have ignored our moral life. They have passed over our character and forgotten our soul. And that is where the cause of crime is rooted.

In the 1960s psychologist Dr. Stanton Samenow and psychiatrist Samuel Yochelson, sharing the conventional wisdom that crime is caused by environment, set out to prove their point. They began a 17-year study involving thousands of hours of clinical testing and examined the lives of 250 inmates here in the District of Columbia. Their landmark work was published in 1977, entitled The Criminal Personality. To their own astonishment, they discovered that the cause of crime cannot be traced to environment, poverty, or oppression. Instead, crime is the result of individuals making, as they put it, wrong moral choices. Samenow and Yochelson concluded that the answer to crime is a “conversion of the wrong-doer to a more responsible lifestyle.”

In 1987, professors James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein at Harvard came to similar conclusions in their book Crime and Human Nature. They determined that the cause of crime is a lack of proper moral training among young people during the morally formative years, particularly ages one to six.

In other words, the crime problem boils down to concepts that are foreign to our lips today, words that may even sound quaint–like morality and character. The root of our crime problem is the loss of individual character, and the resulting erosion of our character as a people. Neither the liberal solution nor the conservative solution reaches this deep.

The evidence of American history powerfully supports this conclusion. In the early 1980s, the same James Q. Wilson decided to survey our national history to find some trend or cycle that would correlate with crime data. He noticed a startling pattern.

Contrary to common expectations, crime did not correlate with poverty. During the Great Depression, for example, there was widespread poverty–34 million people unemployed–and yet crime dropped.

Nor did it correlate with factors like urbanization–masses of people crowding into the cities. The middle of the nineteenth century, for example, was a period of rapid urbanization. Yet the level of crime actually fell. Why? During thatsame period a great spiritual awakening took place. Just as industrialization was beginning, a more fervent morality was also taking hold. So from the mid-1800s to 1920, despite all the environmental, economic, and social pressures that should have led to increased crime, the crime rate actually decreased.

Conversely, during the good economic years of the 1920s, crime actually rose. Why? Because, as Wilson concluded, “the educated classes began to repudiate moral uplift and Freud’s psychological theories came into vogue.” People no longer believed in restraining a child’s sinful impulses; they wanted to develop his “naturally good” personality. The weaker emphasis on moral training led predictably to an increase in criminal behavior.

The same philosophy, by the way, came back into fashion in the 1960s, bringing with it a sharp increase in crime, which still continues today.

My own experience of more than 17 years dealing with tens of thousands of inmates confirms what Professor Wilson discovered and what the late Dr. Samenow and Dr. Yochelson learned: that crime stems from moral factors. That being the case, we are led to the conclusion that the solution to crime must be moral as well. Anything else is merely a Band-Aid to treat a sickness of the soul.

What practical guidelines does this insight give us in confronting our crisis of crime and punishment? How do we provide a moral response to crime?

First, We need committed people who will transmit to prison inmates a message of hope and redemption. At this very moment, Prison Fellowship has 50,000 volunteers going into prisons, holding seminars, conducting Bible studies, mentoring inmates as they are released from prison, visiting their families, bringing gifts to their children. And we are seeing it make a powerful difference.

I would not be so presumptuous to say that only the Gospel of Christ can bring about moral reformation. I’m happy about every effort where individuals help individuals. But it is Jesus Christ who made a lasting difference in my life. And this is what I can offer to others.

In Humaita prison, inmates are constrained by the love of Christ.

Does it work? Emphatically, yes–even by the standards of the most skeptical critic. A 1990 study conducted by the Institute for Religious Research at Loyola College in Maryland compared two groups of exoffenders. They were similar in terms of crimes committed, age, gender, and race. The only difference between them was that one group had participated in Prison Fellowship programs and the other had not.

The study found that, overall, offenders who had taken part in the programs were nearly 22 percent less likely to be re-arrested than those who had not. Among women, the difference was even more notable: Women who attended Prison Fellowship seminars were 60 percent less likely to be arrested. Those who were re-arrested were charged with less serious offenses.

But the most convincing testimony to the effectiveness of moral reformation is the experience we have had in actually running a prison in Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil.

Almost 20 years ago, two Christian laymen, Mario Ottaboni and Sylvio Marques (who is today a judge), persuaded the officials of the State of Sao Paulo to hand over to them an old prison in the center of the city that was about to be closed. Their plan was to run the prison on Christian principles.

And that’s precisely what they have done. The prison is called Humaita. And of the 600 or more prisons I’ve visited around the world, I have never been in one where I felt the warmth of spirit that I did at Humaita. It was clean, the gardens in the entrance way were well maintained. The inmates were smiling, particularly the murderer who had the keys and opened the gates to let me in.

There are only two full-time paid staff in the prison; the rest of the prison is run by inmates. And wherever I walked, I saw people who were at peace. I saw clean living areas; I saw people working industriously. I saw signs on the walls, sayings from Psalms and Proverbs written in Portuguese. One sign I saw over the work area should hang over every factory in America: “He who lives by killing time…dies with it.”

When an inmate arrives at Humaita prison, his chains are removed. One of the inmate staff takes off his chains and says, “In this prison, you are constrained not by steel but by the love of Christ.”

Every inmate is assigned to a buddy system, something that has proven so effective in the military. Each inmate is accountable to another. They watch out for one another’s interest.

Every inmate is assigned a volunteer family from the outside, who works with him during his period of incarceration and assists him on his release. Every inmate is given an opportunity to join either a chapel program or a valorization class where he learns character development.

In the center of the prison are the notorious punishment cells once used for torture. I was escorted there by one of the inmates. We walked down a long corridor of barred steel doors. He told me there was one inmate left in the last punishment cell. We got to the end of the corridor and he put the key in the lock and then said, “Are you sure you want to come in?”

Somewhat impatiently, I said, “Of course, I’ve been in punishment cells all over the world.” He looked inside and said, “Yes, he’s there, stand back.” Then he slowly swung the door open. I could see in a corner a soft light, a couple of chairs, and as I walked into the room, I saw the inmate in that punishment cell. It was a beautifully carved crucifix of Jesus hanging on the cross.

“He’s doing time for all the rest of us,” my inmate guide said softly.

Does all of this make a difference? Absolutely. Over 20 years, the recidivism rate at Humaita has remained at a mere 4 percent. Contrast that, if you will, with a 75-percent recidivism rate in the rest of Brazil, about the same rate as here in America. The secret to Humaita’s success is spiritual and moral rehabilitation.

Second, to deal with the crime crisis, we need a balanced criminal justice policy, one that charts a third way between liberal and conservative, offering both real punishment and real redemption. That means abandoning the idea altogether that prisons either rehabilitate or deter. Prisons succeed in keeping violent and dangerous criminals off the streets. Beyond that point, they accomplish little.

So we do need tough laws to incarcerate truly dangerous offenders. These facilities must be humane, but their primary purpose is to quarantine violent criminals and keep them away from the public. Bars and walls are merely a type of societal self-defense. We cannot fool ourselves that barbed wire and empty hours are a recipe for rehabilitation. The lesson of our recent past is clear. Prisons protect society. They don’t reform lives.

So on the other hand, we ought to explore alternative ways of dealing with nonviolent offenders. Most people don’t realize that 50 percent of the people admitted to prison each year have committed nonviolent offenses.

We could solve the prison overcrowding problem in America overnight if we had the political courage and honesty to take nonviolent, non-dangerous inmates out of prison, put them in work camps or in community-based treatment centers or in home incarceration and make them work. In this way, they could pay back their victims rather than sit in a prison cell at a cost of $20,000 a year to the taxpayers. It is redemptive for the individual, teaching responsibility for his actions. And it is redemptive for society, restoring the victims of crime.

Restitution is, of course, a biblical principle. And it works. In 1973, Minnesota revised its corrections system, coupling alternatives to incarceration with sentencing reform. The results are impressive. Minnesota has an incarceration rate of 73 per 100,000 residents–the second lowest in the nation. Even more impressive, Minnesota’s incarceration rate is lower than many western European countries, including Denmark, France, the U.K., Switzerland, and Austria.

Alternative sentencing also saves taxpayers money. While each Californian pays more than $77 a year to operate the state corrections system, and every New Yorker pays more than $73, the average Minnesotan spends less than $21. And public safety has not been compromised. According to the FBI, while New York and California rank second and third, respectively, in violent crime, Minnesota ranks thirty-seventh.

Other states are catching on. Just a few weeks ago I saw a report from the State of Alabama where we were successful in passing a community-based corrections program. The state boasted that the growth rate of incarceration had dropped dramatically due to the use of alternative forms of sentencing.

We’ve had similar success in several other states. And the Clinton administration has given me cause for guarded optimism. Last week I read that the administration was considering freezing new prison construction and spending some of the money saved on nonprison alternative. If the policy is implemented, it will be the most refreshing change on the national scene in two decades. The numbers prove that alternatives to incarceration do succeed. All that’s required are courageous politicians and an educated public.

The drumbeat message to kids is to live for the moment and go for the gusto.

Third, if the solution to crime involves a moral response, we must deal with out culture’s crumbling moral consensus. Remember what Wilson and Herrnstein said–that crime stems from a failure in moral training. The prevention of crime has everything to do with the moral climate, habits, values, and attitudes of our people–particularly young people.

I’m always amused when politicians talk about winning the war on drugs as if we could build enough prisons, hire enough police and judges, and effectively seal off the borders to stop the drug flow into America.

In prison I never went to sleep one night without smelling marijuana burning.

If you can get marijuana into prison with all the guards and watch towers and security measures, you can surely get drugs into a country. II don’t care what kind of treaties we enter into with South American nations. I don’t care how many guards we put on the border. I don’t care if we send the Marines in to burn all the coca and poppy fields in Columbia. So long as people want drugs they will find them just a few handshakes away.

The problem is not on the supply side. If it were, we could have stopped the drug problem long ago. The problem is on the demand side.

Kids are not given training in the basics of right and wrong in the home. The surely don’t get any education in traditional values at school. And the drumbeat message of commercials, television, and music is to live for the moment and go for the gusto. At ten, eleven, and twelve they go out on the street and smoke dope or crack. We bust them, they think we’re crazy, and so do I.

The problem isn’t lack of law enforcement, and it isn’t material poverty. It is a poverty of values. In our violent, inner-city neighborhoods, people are crying for the order that grows only out of moral character and moral courage.

Crime, after all, is a mirror of a community’s moral state. Today that mirror reflects a broken consensus. A set of traditional beliefs that defined the content of our character has been shattered like glass. Americans are left to pick their way among the jagged pieces.

No culture can survive without a moral consensus, shared beliefs about right and wrong, a common standard of truth. this is what defines the rules we live by. It binds us together with mutual duty. It motivates self-sacrifice. It undergirds the law. It allows the cultivation of public virtue. It permits freedom without anarchy. It is the agreement that society is governed more by transcendent truths than by individual desires, that society is more than the sum of the choices individuals make.

Without this consensus, how can we make any ethical judgements? How can we define the good life? How can anyone cry for reform when “form” has no meaning? The individual is abandoned to self-interest alone.

Ultimately, the goal must be reformation, not just reform.

I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson’s reaction when he was told a certain guest believed all morality is a sham. “Why, sir, if he really believes there is no distinction between virtue and vice,” roared Johnson, “let us count the spoons before he leaves.”

The problem is after decades of value-free tolerance, we don’t have any spoons left to count. Look at all the “gates” that followed Watergate, the Wall Street scandals, religious frauds, fallen sports heroes.

So the problem is that our moral consensus has shattered. How do we go about restoring it? Where does moral conviction come from?

Though George will might argue that government can inspire and create public virtue–that statecraft is soulcraft–I respectfully disagree. I believe virtue is something that grows from within, not something enforced from above. The law does have a role in moral instruction. But the roots of our moral life go deeper than laws and bills and statesmen’s speeches. Government programs can feed the body; they cannot touch the soul. They can punish behavior; they cannot transform hearts.

Ultimately, the goal must be reformation, not just reform. And this points directly to the essential role of religious values and religious hope in our common life. It is the only was to reach into the darkest corners of every community, in the darkest corners of every mind.

Religion provides a moral impulse to do good. It has sent legions of Christians into battle against disease and oppression and bigotry. It ended the slave trade, built hospitals and orphanages, tamed the brutality of mental wards and prisons. It motivated marches for civil rights and marches for human life. It has provided a voice for the weak and a hope for the hopeless. Religion also provides the power to be good. It subdues an obstinate will. It provides new values to old sinners–even to people like White House hatchet men.

I can sense that some of you are squirming, and I know what many people think: “Those Christians just want to cram their religious values down reluctant throats.” But that is not my intention. I want simply to argue that Christians bring something important to our culture, something that cannot be easily replaced. I want to argue that they deserve an honored placed at the table. And that in a free, pluralistic society, we can contend in the public square for the truths we cherish without “imposing” them on anyone.

I believe in the separation of church and state. But I must also say that there is only one thing more dangerous than the entanglement of church and state-and that is the complete separation of religion from our social life.

This brings me back to my opening thesis. The peace of our society is threatened when children are not taught respect for life and property. When deception and fraud are commonplace. When our nation is drained of its ideals. All these things can be confronted only if we rediscover the moral consensus that restrains our baser instincts and inculcates virtue in society, character in individuals.

But to do so, we must appeal to the religious faith of our people. As historian Christopher Dawson argued, at the root of culture is “cult”–or religion, that which defines our deepest commitments.

The great paradox of our age is this: In the interest of tolerance, we are aggressively seeking to scrub religious values, and even reminders of our religious heritage, out of our public life. Yet it is that religious heritage, it is that tradition, it is that source of a true and vital religion that is absolutely essential for the recovery of character.

It is the very virtues that could save us that are dismissed and disdained. Religious values are banished from our public debate and stripped from our common life. But in the meantime, moral challenges press us forward. We jettison the life rafts and set sail on stormy seas.

There are those who say America is engaged in a culture war. And there can be no truce in this culture war until both sides begin to understand one another–until we [realize] that a society can be both tolerant and, at the same time, respect certain transcendent truths, ideas of right and wrong that inspire us to rise beyond narrow self-interest.

A good place to start is with you and me–with what we might call the conservative evangelical wing of the American church and what, for lack of a better term, is called the media elite. So long as we see one another as mortal enemies, we will make little contribution to public harmony.

I have to confess at this point that my side bears a substantial responsibility for the gulf that divides us. We have often acted as though the media were in league with the People for the American Way and the ACLU, hatching plots in the basement of CBS to grind our altars into dust. We have pictured you as extremists, who will not rest content until you’ve strangled the last abortion protester with the guts of the last televangelist.

You, in turn, have often painted us as bigoted enemies of American values. Every church is pictures as a carnival of corruption, with an Ayatollah in every pulpit.

Both of us are wrong. And if this is how the debate continues to be framed, if this kind of polarization continues, all of America loses.

And so let us offer one another an olive branch.

Those of us who represent the Christian faith share a common interest with you, the media, in the preservation of America’s first freedom. Both us live or die by the same First Amendment. We are guided by the same landmarks of liberty.

A true and vital religion is absolutely essential for the recovery of character.

On our side we need to make a better case of what is required to developed public virtue in the moral reformation of a society–what Tocqueville called the “habits of the heart.” We need to argue more convincingly that a free society depends not only on economic and political freedoms but also on the moral character that supports those freedoms. We need to invite you and others to join us in reasoned, dispassionate, thoughtful debate.

We would ask you, on the other hand, to look at what religion actually means in American life. What does it mean to preserving the family, with the many consequences this holds for the future of our nation? What does it mean when 50,000 Prison Fellowship volunteers go into the prisons regularly? When 100,000 volunteers deliver Christmas gifts to needy children?

To be frank, Christians chafe when we see front-page coverage of our shameful scandals. Our religious excesses are fair game for your coverage, of course. But how about giving the other side of the story, too? Why not consider accompanying some of our volunteers when we deliver those gifts at Christmas time? I must have read dozens of stories last year about religious abuses in America. But I read no national news of our own Angel Tree, which brought gifts to 260,000 forgotten children.

An escalating war between paranoia and bigotry serves no one.

I, of all people, realize that gripping stories make for successful journalism. But are we to be simply stereotyped as narrow-minded bigots, led largely by hypocrites? Isn’t there another side to show the public?

So I would appeal to you, in the interest of the public welfare: hear our case. Don’t judge us by a few zealots, just as we should not judge you by those few passionate journalists who stereotype us as ‘poor, uneducated and easy to command.”

Let us come together to recognize that an escalating war between paranoia and bigotry serves no one. And in this truce, perhaps we can begin a serious discussion of our common moral life–in a society where crime makes that discussion increasingly urgent.

The late Charles Colson (1931-2112) is the Founder of “Prison Fellowship.” This insightful speech was made to the The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in 1993, a few weeks after it was announced that Colson was to be the recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Colson’s return to the National Press Club was rich with historic irony, as it was exactly 20 years previous that he to a hostile press club in defense of President Nixon amid Watergate. This was originally published online by the Colson Center and is retrieved from http://www.colsoncenter.org/search-library/search?view=searchdetail&id=122


by Mark Eckel

Law and order—foundation stones of a just society—cannot exist without a transcendent measure. Christians believe doing what is right, what is good for people must come from righteousness. There is a need for doing good because bad exists. Evil often has the most awful consequences for those who are left unprotected from the good of justice. The poor, the disenfranchised, are the targets of violence because they often have no protector, no advocate. Law, order, and justice activists know that violence is the soil of poverty. Stopping violence against and providing justice for those who cannot protect themselves is the focus of the International Justice Mission (IJM).

IJM’s mission for stemming violence against the poor focuses on enduring, systemic change. The threefold model for lasting, essential justice includes (1) collaborating with indigenous authorities on behalf of individual victims, (2) targeting programs which improve law enforcement processes in arresting crime, and (3) partnering with local governments to support and sustain justice gains.

In particular, the developing world is susceptible to violence against the poor. Sex trafficking, slavery, police brutality, sexual violence, and civil rights abuse are common, daily violations around the world. Children are exploited in the workplace, women are abused in sex trades, neighbors attack weaker neighbors, and police assault those unable to bribe. IJM rescues the casualty of brutality but also works to stop violence before it begins.

IJM exists to rescue victims, pursue lawbreakers, restore survivors, and strengthen justice systems. Global reach extends into more than 20 communities throughout Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. But the work of justice is not sustained with theological or political platitudes. By its own count, “95% of IJM’s global team of lawyers, social workers, investigators and other professionals are at work in their own countries—leveraging their deep understanding of the local laws, language and culture in their communities.” [1] Multiple, updated stories on the IJM website do not simply trumpet successes for the organization but orchestrate a symphony of music breaking the silence of fear.

Harmonizing partnerships upholds the mission of protecting the poor. Religious groups as varied as Hindus, Muslims, and secularists praise IJM’s work. Media outlets such as The New York Times and National Public Radio support IJM through journalistic acclaim. Educational institutions champion, NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) aid, and churches sponsor IJM as a benefactor of the common good. The health and well-being of the world’s poorest and most violated have powerful friends advocating for virtuous life, separating victims from evildoers. IJM depends on the beneficence of patrons as poor crime victims depend on the work of IJM.

Like other non-profits whose labor cares for people, it is no surprise that The International Justice Mission has  Christian roots. Nourished by Scriptural texts, biblical principles, Christian leaders, and an action-oriented think tank IJM is sustained by a  transcendent source of justice. The fruit of justice depends on the root of righteousness. Justice flows from righteousness; the words are often paired in the Old Testament (Deut 32:4). But because justice is impossible from solely human origins, God’s mercy, His pardon is offered to humans (Rom 2:1-11). Here is the premise for IJM: social evil is overcome by good, the mercy of God, lived through truth-bearers who rescue those who cannot save themselves (Prov 24:11; 2 Cor 5:17-21).  

Clarion calls for serving the oppressed support the mission of the Institute for Biblical Justice which “serves to mobilize the global Church by joining the Holy Spirit in catalyzing a spiritual awakening to God’s passion for justice among Christian leaders.” [1]

Law, order, justice, and grace depend upon a transcendent source as the violated poor depend on the effort of The International Justice Mission.

References and Resources

Haugen, Gary A. Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

__________ and Victor Boutros. The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[1] The International Justice Mission. https://ijm.org/  Accessed 10 January 2015.

Dr. Eckel, manages the “Warp and Woof” website, and this essay is included in the upcoming Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States (5 volumes, Rowman & Littlefield, copyrighted, 2016).


by David Claerbaut, Founder, FaithandLearningForum.com

We all know what happened but who started it?

The libraries are teeming with books on Watergate, and 2014—the fortieth anniversary of Richard M. Nixon’s resignation of the presidency—will bring many more.  Comb through the pages of those Watergate tomes and you will find everything covered save one thing:   Who started it?

Take some of the best-known books.  All the President’s Men by Woodward and Bernstein is an outsider account.  John Mitchell, Nixon’s confidant, wrote no tell-all book and is a patchwork of guesses.  Charles Colson did not engage it.  H. R. Haldeman’s The Ends of Power theorizes but cannot isolate on anything with respect to origins.  Witness to Power by John Ehrlichman does not nail it.  John Dean’s Blind Ambition does not.  By now someone should hit it.  Why not? 

A review of the literature indicates that theories abound.  A popular one has John Dean manipulating the break-in.  Concerned that the office of the Democratic national headquarters may contain material on call-girl activity that may hark back to the madam activities of a friend of his then new wife, Maureen, Dean allegedly wanted it purged.  Others think G. Gordon Liddy simply wore down resistance within the Committee to Re-Elect the President (popularly known as CREEP) until it capitulated to his zany plots.  Still others believe that no train left the Nixonian station without the approval of Haldeman, or at least Ehrlichman, hence one of them had to be the trigger puller.  That there are so many theories suggests that no one really seems to know. 

Evolution has extensive explanations as to how the earth and its inhabitants have developed over time, but no explanation for how the universe came into being.  Similarly, the accounts and analyses of Watergate have voluminous explanations for how things unfolded but none for its starting point.  There is no Genesis chapter in the books on Watergate.

This is fascinating.  Though debate still rages on the exact origin of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, there is no shortage of literature addressing it.  There is less question as to how Lincoln’s assassination plot began, and the initiating role of Sirhan Sirhan in the death of Robert Kennedy is well established.  In each of these tragic events, origins are addressed quite credibly. 

Not so with Watergate.

But somebody started it.


Richard Nixon started Watergate. 


It was the personality and style of Richard Nixon that made Watergate inevitable.

Almost everything we know about Nixon is observational because he did not reveal himself to anyone.  He deplored and ridiculed “gut spilling,” regarding it as a sign of weakness.  We can’t judge Richard Nixon’s soul because no one knew him.  According to Bob Greene in (4/8/2002) Jewish World Review, he wanted it that way. “Even with close friends, I don’t believe in letting your hair down, confiding this and that and the other thing—saying, ‘Gee, I couldn’t sleep’ … I believe you should keep your troubles to yourself. That’s just the way I am. Some people are different. Some people think it’s good therapy to sit with a close friend and, you know, just spill your guts … [and] reveal their inner psyche—whether they were breast-fed or bottle-fed. Not me. No way.” When told that most Americans, even at the end of his career, did not feel they knew him, Nixon replied, “Yeah, it’s true. And it’s not necessary for them to know,” noted Greene.

No one does a better job of painting a portrait of Nixon’s hyper-introversion than Richard Reeves in his President Nixon: Alone in the White House.  He describes Nixon as so secretive that he kept three books on foreign policy, only one of which contained a valid account.  Nixon ate alone, worked alone, and communed alone. 

This loner trait goes back as far as it can go.  Born in poverty, this son of a failed California lemon farmer, devoid of all but the rawest of social skills, advanced largely due to his strong will.  And he did so in isolation.  In law school at Duke, Nixon studied alone.  His nickname was “gloomy Gus.”

He was more than a loner.  He was suspicious, obsessed with his adversaries and what they may be planning.  It is public knowledge that he saw the world in terms of those for or against him.  He often used the term, “the other side,” publicly. 

The word paranoid is often used to describe Nixon.  It is word I discourage because it is a clinical word and there are no valid clinical analyses available on Nixon.  Moreover, the term is regarded as pejorative and hence used by members of “the other side.”  What is clear by all accounts, however, is that Nixon saw himself as an embattled political figure, the object of intense hatred among many.


And he was right.  He was hated.  To understand this contempt one need only look at the root of his political career.  Nixon’s ticket to the political fast track was the mood of anti-communism in the 1940-50’s McCarthy era.  At that time, the “commie” charge was the lowest, most devastating, and hence most effective of all political labels.  Communism was equated with atheism, oppression, and totalitarianism.  It was the political personification for evil.  Once the “scarlet letter”—in this case the scarlet C–was attached a political figure, he or she was a dead pol walking.

In his initial run for the U.S. Congress in California in 1946, Nixon savaged the incumbent, Jerry Voorhis, by labeling him as sympathetic to communism.  Though Voorhis “temperamentally and philosophically loathed” communism, according to Roger Morris in Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician (1990), the red-baiting worked.  Although Nixon defeated Voorhis by nearly 15%, the anti-Nixon seeds had been sewn and a hundred fold harvest of hatred would eventually emerge.

It did not end there.  Four years later Nixon ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate, also in California.  The strategy was the same—a smear campaign.    Douglas was accused of having “red sympathies,” connecting her to a far-left member of Congress.  Labeled the “the Pink Lady,” Nixon’s campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, had flyers printed on pink stock, to reinforce the charge.  Nixon won again, gaining a seat in the Senate, but also legions of additional enemies.  He received a label of his own, “Tricky Dick,” courtesy of his opponent Douglas.  Any doubt that Nixon had traded on tagging opponents with the scarlet C was gone.  Enemies multiplied at a near geometric rate, many of them among the liberal press. 

In later life, Nixon made no apology for below-the-belt politics.  His many statements indicated that one did what one had to do to get elected.  “The other side” would do the same had they had the opportunity, was the defense. 

Trading on his anti-communist reputation, two years later, the socially awkward and uncomfortable Nixon, one now with myriad enemies, became Vice President of the United States.

After eight years in office as Dwight Eisenhower’s veep, it was Nixon’s turn to run for the Presidency in 1960.  He was lost by an eyelash to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy on the strength of what many observers believed to be political skullduggery in notoriously corrupt Illinois and Texas, engineered by Kennedy’s father, Joe. 

Nixon’s enemies, particularly members of the press, rejoiced openly, believing that this beneficiary of red-baiting politics had finally gotten his proper due.  For Nixon the defeat was particularly humiliating due to the questionable electoral tactics and how his awkward, homely style had been consistently juxtaposed with the dashing, charismatic patrician, JFK.

Painfully aware of how much he was loathed by the press and the elite, Nixon attempted a premature comeback two years later, running for Governor in California.  He was defeated.  In the post-election press conference, the bitter and self-pitying Nixon told the press that he was done with politics and that the loathing and loathsome members of the press would not have Nixon “to kick around anymore.”

Six years later, in 1968, Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States.

But the cement had dried.  He was battle-scarred, socially inept, painfully self-conscious of his lack of style, and hyper-aware that outside the boundary of his political backers lurked myriad enemies who would glory in any Nixon failure and engage in almost any stratagem to bring one about.  He had already come to the conclusion that the press was liberal, out to get him, and would never give him his fair due.


So how does this relate to Watergate? 

Look closely at this occupant of the White House.  He was a loner, uncomfortable with the practice of social niceties, brazenly aware of the contempt in which he was held by the amorphous “other side,” and a victim of allegedly dirty political tactics.  

More than anything, Nixon was extremely distrusting.  Biographies provide little evidence of any close friendships in his life.  The much publicized research and speculation on his marriage, indicates a less than robust and intimate union.   He reputedly knew little to nothing of the families of those with whom he worked closely.  Nixon was a solitary man.  No one “had his back.”  It was all on him.

Manipulation—Divide and Control

Out of all this, flowed Nixon’s methods of relating to others. 

Any observation of Nixon’s presidential behavior will indicate that he used a “divide and control” management style.  The White House tapes are rife with conversations in which Nixon would ask a given subordinate about another not present.  He plied them with questions and concerns, playing one off against the other, all the while positioning each to vie for his favor. 

He might ask Mitchell about Haldeman, Haldeman about Colson, Colson about Ehrlichman, Ehrlichman about Dean, and Dean about Magruder. 

As a result they also distrusted each other—just what Nixon wanted to stay solely in control—and did not function as a group in the White House or afterward.  If you read the books by these principals in the Watergate drama, the tomes are conspicuously devoid of evidence of any unity or even cliques in the Nixon White House.  In fact, they speculate about one another, using notes and tapes as documentation.  It seemed as if each had one eye on pleasing Nixon and another on his colleagues.  Even Kissinger was both held at arm’s length by the President and asked about just as were the others of the White House corps. Kissinger’s accounts of those days are also Lone Ranger speculations based on what visible facts were present.  With no group unity, not one could seem to get to the root of Watergate.  Divided these men offer sharply varying accounts as to who started it.  In reality, none of them really knew because none of them really started it. 

Currying Favor

The way one gained favor in the eyes of the President, was by providing fresh information that might be useful to the President in securing his grip on the White House and his administration.  Hence, his advisors regularly met with him, either conveying new information to the President or at the very least joining the President in speculating about others.

During the lengthy coverup, the tapes reveal a man desperate to remain in power.  Regularly, we hear Nixon rationalizing and advancing justice-obstructing activities under the pretense of protecting the presidency as an office, when in reality it meant protecting Nixon as its occupant.

Genesis of Watergate

Out of all this—to please the man who kept them divided and hungering for his approval—come the actions and attitudes that hatched Watergate.

In other words no one person simply said, “Ok let’s go ahead and bug the Democratic office in the Watergate.  Enough talk.  Just do it.  I’ll take the heat.”

No one did that because Watergate was not the result of simply Liddy’s plan and a number of CREEP members supporting the action by means of a Robert’s Rules of Order vote.  It was the final, inevitable act in a series of incremental actions and conversations aimed at securing the occupancy of the White House of an embattled and hyper-suspicious President who wanted nothing more than to avoid being brought down by “the other side.”

Watergate was a state of mind, a psychological environment created and reinforced by Richard Nixon, one that culminated in a break-in at the Democratic office headquarters and a long circuitous effort to cover it up. 

And Nixon knew it. 

Listening to the tapes should remove all doubt.  They reveal a President who is ever plotting, ever strategizing, ever managing impressions but never communicating from the heart.  Not once, not ever, does he demand to know who was at the bottom of Watergate.  Not once, not ever, does he express moral outrage at the atrocities of Watergate.  His commitment was not to the truth or justice.  It was to protect his presidency, even if it meant covering up his own actions and those of his administration.  And it was that obsession with protecting his status as President that generated the break-in and all things thereafter.

Richard Nixon started Watergate.


The biggest victim was the United States of America.  Whatever innocence that had remained after Kennedy’s assassination was gone.  Whatever idealism remained from the ‘60’s, dissolved into cynical postmodernism.  Watergate did much to feed that cynical spirit.  We no longer are even a bit surprised when political corruption at the highest levels of government is revealed.

Christianity is about truth.  Those of us committed to faith and learning are driven by a desire to seek God’s truth.  Watergate was not about truth.  It was about secrecy, manipulation, deception, and perversion of truth.  

The bad guys were punished.  All the President’s men went to prison.  All but the one who started Watergate.  He–in the words of the legendary CBS political journalist of the era, Eric Sevareid, in one of his commentaries—was sentenced to the maximum security prison of his own mind.


by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University

It was 1978 and the Palestinians spoke to me of their ancestral lands being expropriated.  They spoke of their ancient olive orchards being bulldozed.  They spoke of their houses being dynamited after the family was given one hour to remove its belongings.  They spoke of humiliating searches at airports and at checkpoints scattered around their country.  They cried out for justice.  And they asked why no one heard their cry.  The reason these evils had befallen them was that they were not Jewish.  Had they been Jewish, none of it would have happened.

A year or so later I went to the Middle East; to the West Bank – the “occupied territory,” as the Palestinians call it – and saw for myself the expropriated land, usually on the crest of hills, the crest now covered with gleaming new residences exclusively for Jews, paid for in good measure by American funds.  I saw where the olive orchards had once been.  I saw two families standing next to the heaps of rubble that had been their homes until the middle of the night before.

I went to Israel and talked to Jews and Palestinians.  I heard from the Palestinians about the many ways in which their not being Jewish resulted in their being treated as second-class citizens.  I heard progressive Israelis confirm this charge.  I listened to the “spiel” of the leader of the so-called Jerusalem Embassy, an American evangelical dispensationalist organization committed to supporting the Israeli cause.  He seemed either unaware that there were Christians in the Middle East or utterly indifferent to what Israel’s policies and America’s support of those policies were doing to them.  When a question was raised afterwards, he stated that these were not real Christians.  The Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike, ought to leave.  God gave this land to the Jews.

Religious intolerance takes strange turns.  The patent anti-Semitism that surfaced in the famous Dreyfus case in France in the late 1800’s, coming after one hundred years of European enlightenment, led Theodor Herzl to conclude that Jews would never be fully accepted in Europe.  He proposed was that Jews establish their own state somewhere–he had no strong preference as to where.  The Holocaust impelled many of the surviving Jews to leave their homelands after the World War II and emigrate to the Middle East.  Their arrival was instrumental in the founding of the state of Israel–a Jewish state.  Now this same persecuted and oppressed people were seizing the ancestral lands of the Palestinian inhabitants, destroying their livelihood, dynamiting their homes, simply because they were not Jewish.  Moreover, while many if not most of the founders of the state of Israel understood Jewishness more in ethnic than religious terms, that is not true of the present-day population of Israel; it is even less true of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Similar stories could be told of how Christians have treated those who are not Christian, Muslims those who are not Muslim, and Hindus those who are not Himdu.

In this essay I shall present a case for religious tolerance that draws on a near-forgotten theme in the Christian theological tradition: given the assumption that religious intolerance is unjust, to be intolerant of the other person’s practice of her religion is to wrong God.

Injustice as the wronging of God, does not constitute a full case for religious tolerance.  One has to add that religious intolerance is unjust.  First, a bit about the nature of tolerance.

The nature of tolerance and the reasons for practicing it

Tolerance is not indifference.  It is incompatible with indifference.  Indifference makes tolerance impossible.  If I believe that all religions are as good as my own in arriving at God, I will not tolerate your practice of your religion; I will be indifferent as to which religion you practice.   Tolerance is also incompatible with prizing your practice of some religion different from my own–“So interesting to have a Hindu in the neighborhood.”  Prizing diversity makes tolerance impossible.  When J. S. Mill urged that we prize disagreement on the ground that the clash of opinions makes the attainment of truth more likely, he was not urging tolerance of disagreement.

Some of what passes for religious tolerance in the Western world today is merely the prizing of diversity; even more of it is sheer indifference.  Few people, however, are indifferent to all religions; even fewer prize all diversity.  The liberal Christian who relishes having a progressive Hindu in the neighborhood is likely to be upset if a right-wing teetotaling evangelical Christian moves in.  His being upset by having a right-wing evangelical Christian in the neighborhood, but not by a progressive Hindu, means that the presence of the evangelical Christian offers him an opportunity to practice tolerance whereas the presence of the progressive Hindu does not.

Tolerance and intolerance of someone’s religious practice are alike in that both presuppose that one disapproves of that practice.  One tolerates others’ practice of their religion if one disapproves of it but still voluntarily puts up with it.  Putting up with another’s religious practice solely because the law compels one to do so is not tolerance.

Disapproval varies in intensity depending on what it is about the other person’s religious practice that is the focus of one’s disapproval.  It may the notion of a seemingly rational adult believing such silly nonsense.  It may elicit unsure and uneasy feelings about my own religion, or that other’s unwillingness to participate in our nation’s wars.

Tolerance and intolerance likewise vary in intensity, coming in many forms.  Although I may not advocate your being denied the opportunity to practice your religion, I may shun, ridicule, or mock you; or advocate that you not be treated equally by the state.  In not advocating your being denied the right to practice I am putting up with the practice of your religion.  In mocking your religion I am not putting up with your practice of it.  My behavior is a mixture of tolerance and intolerance.

If I disapprove of your practice of your religion, tolerance becomes a live option but only if I believe that my own religion and morality permit it.   Herein lies the greatest obstacle to tolerance: Many religious people—through the ages—have believed that their religion obligates them not to tolerate another religion.  God demands that heresy be stamped out.  Allah demands the elimination of the infidel.   What made possible the emergence of widespread religious tolerance in the West was a deep theological alteration in the mentality of Western Christians.

What does motivate people to tolerate the practice of a religion of which they disapprove?  It may be consequentialist considerations–vivid awareness of the great personal and social evils that flow from intolerance coupled, perhaps, with the attraction of the personal and social goods that tolerance may yield.  It was the appalling bloodiness of the religious wars of 17th Century that led European Christians to conclude that religious intolerance came at too high a price.

A consequentialist case for tolerance is unstable, however.  Circumstances change such that the personal and social costs of intolerance may no longer seem unacceptable.  The more fundamental case for religious tolerance is that intolerance is unjust; it wrongs the person who is treated with intolerance.  It wrongs her because that  human person has dignity, worth.  To be intolerant toward her practice of her religion is to violate that dignity, to treat her as if she did not have that worth.  It wrongs her.

Hence, a full case for religious tolerance would argue that Christian scripture and theological tradition permit religious tolerance and that human persons–one and all– have dignity. It would conclude that religious intolerance violates that dignity.  Assuming these three claims can be defended on the basis of Christian scripture and theological tradition, I will point to a theme in the Christian tradition concerning the import of perpetrating on someone the injustice of religious intolerance.   To treat someone unjustly, is also to wrong God, a notion more prominent in the thought of John Calvin than in any other theologian

The Augustinian background

Calvin’s thinking was bold when one considers his predecessors.  Augustine’s views on these matters both expressed a mentality that was already well entrenched in his day and that powerfully shaped the thought of his successors.  In a passage from Book IV of the Confessions, Augustine exposes graphically the grief that overwhelmed him upon the death of a school friend from his home village of Tagaste in North Africa.

He felt total grief, complete misery.  He despised the places they had gone because they carried memories of his departed friend.  He was emotionally wounded by the loss.

The death of his friend occurred before Augustine’s embrace of Christianity, the death of his mother, after.  That made his response to his mother’s death—detailed in Confessions IX–profoundly different from that to his friend’s death.  He tried to hold back the tears and feeling he should suppress the expression of his grief…

Augustine’s struggle for self-control was not successful.  He reports that after the burial, as he lay in bed thinking of his devoted mother, and weeping openly.  He then makes a confession.  The sin is not so much the sin of weeping over the death of his mother as the sin of which that weeping was a sign.  I was being guilty of being too attached to the world.

How are we to understand the mentality coming to expression here?  Augustine, with all the ancients, held that to be human is to be in search of happiness  — eudaimonia in Greek, beatitudo in Latin.  Furthermore, Augustine aligned himself with the Platonic tradition in his conviction that one’s love is the fundamental determinant of one’s happiness.  Augustine never imagined it possible that we could root all love out of our lives.

It was as obvious to Augustine that grief ensues when that which we love is destroyed or dies.  In reflecting on his grief over the death of his friend he felt he had become too attached to things that were finite, mortal and so could not last.

The cure is to detach one’s love from such objects and attach it to something immutable and indestructible—God.  Augustine was not opposed to all enjoyment of earthly things: of food, of drink, of conversation, of visible beauty, of music.  Suspicious and wary, yes; opposed, no.  His point in the Confessions is only that we should root out all love for things whose death or destruction would cause us grief.  To enjoy the taste of kiwi fruit is acceptable provided one’s enjoyment is not such that, should kiwi fruit prove unavailable, one grieves.  Though we must not love the world, we may enjoy it.  Yet Augustine says little or nothing by way of grounding the legitimacy of such enjoyment.  In Book X of the Confessions he does state that one should turn away from things of enjoyment and toward their divine source.  Further, Augustine was fond of saying that things of this world are to be used (uti) whereas God and God alone is to be enjoyed (frui).

Augustine believed that the struggle to eliminate love for earthly things is never complete in this life; the newly oriented self never wholly wins out over the old.  That introduces a new mode of grief into our lives–this is a legitimate mode.  We are to grieve over the repetitious reappearance of the old self and rejoice over the extent of its disappearance.  And we are to grieve over the sins of others and to rejoice over their repentance.  Each of us is to be joined in a solidarity of rejoicing and grieving with all humanity over the right things, however, namely over the religious condition of our souls.  I am to rejoice and grieve over the religious condition of my and your soul.  This exception is important, but the general rule is that we are to struggle to eliminate grief from our lives by struggling to concentrate our love on God alone.

What Augustine says about God is the obvious counterpart.  God’s life is thoroughly blissful.  In God there is no emotional disturbance.  Of sympathy, Mitleiden with those who are suffering, God feels nothing, as also God feels no pain over the shortfall of godliness in God’s errant creatures.  God’s state is what the Greeks called apatheia.  God dwells eternally in blissful non-suffering apatheia.  Nothing that happens in the world alters God’s unperturbed serenity.  God is not oblivious to the world; there is in God a steady disposition of benevolence toward God’s human creatures but this benevolence proceeds on its uninterrupted successful course irrespective of what happens in the world.

Augustine and the other ancients had two fundamental reasons for this belief.  First, they held that God’s existence is perfect existence, and hence, one of undisturbed bliss through and through.  Moreover, because they thought that God was changeless, they did not think that God’s perfect existence was something God had to await.  That would have been a mark of imperfection.

Second, they held that if God were to suffer and grieve, something outside God would have to bring that about in God.  But God’s changeless character and existence is not affected by anything outside Godself.  God is the unconditioned condition of everything not identical with God.  It was these two lines of thought, God’s perfect existence and God’s being the unconditioned condition, that led to the doctrine of the blissful apathy of God–God’s impassibility.

Calvin on injustice as wronging God

In the course of carrying of commenting on the books of the Bible, Calvin, in his Commentary on Genesis, was confronted with the following passage:

I will demand an account of every man’s life from his fellow man.  He who sheds man’s blood shall have his blood shed by man, for in the image of God man was made.  (Genesis 9:5-6)

Calvin stated that humans, being in the image of God, are objects of God’s care and therefore he is violated when they are violated.  Hence, injuring another is to injure God.

The thought is striking.  He went on to say that this doctrine to be taken seriously, “carefully observed” and “deeply fixed in our minds.”  To inflict injury on a fellow human being is to wound God.  Behind and beneath the social misery of our world is the suffering of God.  To pursue justice is to relieve God’s suffering. If we really believed that, we would be much more reluctant than we are to inflict injuries.

There is more striking and provocative conclusions in his Commentary on Habakkuk. The text on which he is commenting is this:

The arrogant man shall not abide.  His greed is as wide as Sheol,     like death he never has enough.  He gathers for himself all nations,  and collects as his own all peoples.  Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, in   scoffing derision of him, and say, Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own–  for how long?–and loads himself with pledges!  (Habakkuk 2:5-6)

Commenting especially on the cry “How long?” Calvin says that this cry, How long? is heard by God because this awareness of injustice is planted in humanity by him.  It is as if God were crying over the injustice.

Again the thought is striking.   The cries of the victims of injustice are the cry of God.  The lament of the victims as they cry out “How long?” is God giving voice to God’s own lament.

Calvin’s anti-Augustinian position on enjoyment and grief

What led Calvin to such an extraordinarily bold theology of social injustice?  A starting point is his opposition to the Augustinian position on grief in human life, namely that we are to try to eliminate all grief by struggling to love God and God alone (the exception being that one is to grieve over one’s own failure and that of one’s fellows to accomplish this project.  Calvin dismissed the Stoics who condemned grief and sadness.  We are not to be utterly stupefied and deprived of all feeling of pain.  Our ideal is not what the Stoics of old foolishly described [as] “the great-souled man,” one who, having cast off all human qualities, was affected equally by adversity and prosperity, by sad times and happy ones – nay, who like a stone was not affected at all. (Institutes III, viii, 9)

One reason for repudiating the Stoic ideal is that it paints “a likeness of forbearance that has never been found among men, and can never be realized” (ibid.).  In setting before us this impossible ideal it distracts us from the attitude toward suffering that we ought in fact to cultivate.  Thus afflicted by disease, we shall both groan and be uneasy and pant after health, thus pressed by poverty, we shall be pricked by the arrows of care and sorrow, thus we shall be smitten by the pain of disgrace, contempt, injustice, thus at the funerals of our dear ones we shall weep the tears that are owed to our nature. (Institutes III, viii, 10).

Calvin had a second reason for rejecting the Stoic ideal.  “Our Lord and Master,” he says, “has condemned [it] not only by his word, but also by his example.  For he groaned and wept both over his own and others’ misfortunes.  And he taught his disciples in the same way.  “The world,” he says,  “will rejoice, but you will be sorrowful and will weep” (John 16:20).  And that no one might turn it into a vice he openly proclaimed, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4).  No wonder!  For if all weeping is condemned, what shall we judge concerning the Lord himself, from whose body tears of blood trickled down (Luke 22:44)?  If all fear is branded as unbelief, how shall we account for that dread with which, we read, he was heavily stricken (Matt 26:37, Mark 14:33)?  If all sadness displeases us how will it please us that he confesses his soul “sorrowful even to death”(Matt. 26:38)?  (Institutes III, viii, 9)

The discipline that we are to undertake in the face of sickness, death, poverty, disgrace, indignity, and injustice is not indifference, but one of following the example of Christ: To let our God-given nature take its course, paying to justice the honor of grieving upon being treated unjustly, paying to life the honor of grieving upon the death of those we love.  We are to let our wounds bleed, our eyes tear.  The discipline we are to undertake is the discipline of becoming patient in suffering.

Calvin’s opposition to Stoicism and Augustinianism was grounded in his conviction that they set for us an impossible and inappropriate ideal, contrary to our created nature, thus distracting us from the achievable and appropriate ideal of patience in suffering.  But it is easy to see that his attitude toward grief also fits with, and is supported by, his attitude toward enjoyment of the things of this world.

In a remarkable passage in the Institutes (III, x, 2) Calvin argues that of grasses, trees, and fruits we should appreciate not only their utility as nourishment but their beauty of appearance and pleasantness of odor and taste, of clothes we should appreciate not only their utility for keeping us warm but their comeliness, and of wine and oil we should appreciate not only that they are useful but that wine gladdens the heart and oil makes one’s face shine.  As if with his eye on Augustine, he asks rhetorically whether God did “not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?”  He answers that God did.  So let this “be our principle, that the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us, since he created them for our good, not for our ruin.”

Augustine urges us to look away from the things of the world and toward their maker.  They are to be seen as benefit only so far as they are useful for our continued existence and for our devotion to God.  Pervasive in Calvin, by contrast, is the insistence that we are to see the things of the world not only as God’s works but also as God’s gifts to us.  “This life,” says Calvin, “however crammed with infinite miseries it may be, is still rightly to be counted among those blessings of God which are not to be spurned.  Therefore, if we recognize in it no divine benefit, we are already guilty of grave ingratitude toward God himself”(Institutes III, ix, 3).

One cannot overemphasize the theme in Calvin of the world as God’s gift to us for use and enjoyment, and of the counterpart theme of the propriety of gratitude.  Never was there a more sacramental theologian than Calvin, one more imbued with the sense that in world, history, and self, we meet God. “Away, then, with that inhuman philosophy which, while conceding only a necessary use of creatures, not only malignantly deprives us of the lawful fruit of God’s beneficence but cannot be practiced unless it rob a man of all his senses and degrade him to a block” (Institutes III, x, 3).

On bearing the image of God

According to Calvin’s theology, one does not say to the person suffering injustice that she should not care about justice so much that she grieves over its violation–that she should love only God.  To the contrary, one encourages grief.  But there is a second component as well in the path that led Calvin to his radical conclusions, his thoughts on the image of God in human beings.

“’So man was created in the image of God,’ in him the Creator himself willed that his own glory be seen as in a mirror” (Institutes II, xii, 6).  What Calvin means is not that male human beings were created in God’s image but that male and female human beings alike were created in the image of God.  “God looks upon Himself, as one might say, and beholds himself in men as in a mirror” (sermon on John 10:7; quoted in T. F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man).  “God’s children are pleasing and lovable to him, since he sees in them the marks and features of his own countenance. . . . Whenever God contemplates his own face, he both rightly loves it and holds it in honor. . .” (Institutes III, xvii, 5).

Beholding what he has made, God observes that human beings are icons of Godself.  God observes that they mirror God, that they image God; that they are likenesses of God.  God delights in this.  And this evokes God’s love for them.  God delights in all God’s works.  But human beings are singled out from other earthlings in that, in them  God finds God’s perfections most clearly mirrored back to Godself.

A consequence of the fact that each human being mirrors God is that we exist in profound unity with each other: To see another human being is to see another creature who delights God by mirroring God.  No more profound kinship among God’s creatures can exist.  Furthermore, each of us mirrors God in the same respects—though some do so more, some less.  In a derivative way, we resemble or mirror each other.  In looking at you and me, God finds Godself mirrored.  Accordingly, in my looking at you I too discern, once my eyes have been opened, that you mirror God–and that you mirror me.  I discern myself as in a mirror.  I discern a family likeness.  As Calvin puts it, “We cannot but behold our own face as it were in a glass in the person that is poor and despised. . . though he were the furthest stranger in the world.  Let a Moor or a Barbarian come among us, and yet inasmuch as he is a man, he brings with him a looking glass wherein we may see that he is our brother and neighbor.”  (Sermon on Galatians 6:9-11, quoted in R. S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, 150)

Some argued that the image of God in us can be eliminated.  Calvin disagreed.  Below are his words.

Should anyone object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of no small dignity; and secondly, the Celestial Creator himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the end of his original creation; and according to his example, we ought to consider for what end he created men, and what excellence he has bestowed upon them above the rest of living things. (Commentary on Genesis, 9:6)

There is nothing that can happen to a human being, and nothing a human being can do, to obliterate the image of God in that person.  Though a human being’s mirroring of God can be painfully distorted, blurred, and diminished, it cannot be eliminated.

Wherein lies our iconicity?  In what respects do we mirror God back to Godself and then to each other?  Calvin offers two rules in answering this question.  First, our iconicity is to be discerned in what differentiates us from other earthlings: “the likeness of God extends to the whole excellence by which man’s nature towers over all the kinds of living creatures” (Institutes I, xv, 4).  Second, realizing that our likeness to God can be increased and diminished, the fundamental goal of our existence is to become as like unto God as possible– as “divinized” as possible, in the language of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  And what would a human being’s full likeness to God be like?  We see that in Jesus Christ, who was “the express image of the Father.”

When we follow these two rules, looking at our uniqueness and looking at Jesus Christ, we are capable of functioning as persons who are like God in being capable of understanding; and the more our understanding expands–especially our understanding of God–the more we become like God.  We are also like God in being able to govern our affections and actions; and the more upright our heart is, the more like God we are.  For Calvin, these two are the principal resemblances.  But there are others as well.  Our (mandated) governance of creation mirrors God’s governance, and our formation of communities mirrors that perfect community which is the Trinity.  There are still others.  For example, creativity is a mirroring of God’s creativity.

Love, justice, and the image of God

Calvin grounds the claims of love and justice in our mirroring God.  The standard picture of Calvin is that obligation, duty, responsibility, and the call to obedience loom large in his thought; and indeed they do.  Yet for Calvin there is something.  All of us are confronted with other human beings, who as icons of God, make claims on us.  Moral claims can begin from the responsibility of the agent toward the other, or they can come from the other toward agent.

That Calvin begins from the moral claims of the other toward the agent is striking.  The pattern is displayed with great insistence in this passage from the Reformer:

The Lord commands all men without exception “to do good.”  Yet the great part of them are most unworthy if they be judged by their own merit.  But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider what men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love. . . . Therefore whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.  You say, “He is a stranger”; but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh.  You say, “He is contemptible and worthless”; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.  You say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to him.  You say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.  Now if he has not only deserved no good at your hand, but has also provoked you by unjust acts and curses, not even this is just reason why you should cease to embrace him in love and to perform the duties of love on his behalf.  You say, “He has deserved something far different of me.”  Yet what has the Lord deserved? . . . It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them. (Institutes III, vii, 6; translation slightly altered)

Several things in this passage stand out, in addition to the insistent grounding of the claims of love and justice in our ineradicable iconicity.  One is Calvin’s insistence that, due to human iconicity, the virtue or lack of virtue of the other person is irrelevant.  The perpetrators of injustice always want it otherwise.  If the so-called blacks in South Africa just behaved, they would be given a voice in their governance.  If the Palestinians just behaved, the ending of the occupation of their land could be considered.

But how exactly does the image of God ground our claim to love and justice from others?  One would expect Calvin to say that it is the great dignity that supervenes on being an image of God that grounds the claim of the Other on me.  This dignity calls for respect; and there is no other way to show respect than by love and justice.  Calvin’s emphasis, however, is that the other has claims on my love and justice because she and I are kinfolk in the deepest possible way, by virtue of jointly imaging God.  This comes out vividly in a passage from his Commentary on Isaiah.   The passage on which he is commenting is this:

Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry  and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them,  and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (58: 6-7)

Calvin’s comment runs (in part) as follows:

It is not enough to abstain from acts of injustice, if you refuse your assistance to the needy. . . . By commanding them to “break bread to the hungry,” God intended to take away every excuse from covetous and greedy men, who allege that they have a right to keep possession of that which is their own. . . . And indeed, this is the dictate of common sense, that the hungry are deprived of their just right, if their hunger is not relieved. . . . At length he concludes – and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh.  Here we ought to observe the term flesh, by which he means all men universally, not a single one of whom we can behold, without seeing, as in a mirror, “our own flesh.”  It is therefore a proof of the greatest inhumanity, to despise those in whom we are constrained to recognize our own likeness.

To fail to treat one’s fellow human beings with love and justice is to fail in the duties of kinship, and to act with “the greatest inhumanity.”

Injustice as wronging God

There is a second way in which the iconicity of the other human being grounds her claim on me to love and justice, moving us toward God’s identification with the suffering.  “God himself, looking on human beings as formed in his own image, regards them with such love and honor that he himself feels wounded and outraged in the persons of those who are the victims of human cruelty and wickedness” (R. S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, p. 149, summarizing various passages from Calvin).

For Calvin, the demands of love and justice do not lie first in the will of God, nor in the reason of God.  They lie in God’s sorrow and God’s joy, in God’s suffering and in God’s delight.  If I abuse something that you have made and that you love, then my wrong is not that I have violated your directing me not to abuse that object of your affection.  It lies first of all in my causing you sorrow by riding roughshod over your affections.  The demands of love and justice are rooted, so Calvin suggests, in what Abraham Heschel in his book on the Hebrew prophets called the pathos of God.  To treat a fellow earthling unjustly is to bring sorrow to God.  To wound God’s beloved is to wound God.  The demands of justice are grounded in the realization that to commit injustice is to inflict suffering on God.  They are grounded in the vulnerability of God’s love for us, images of God.  God is not apathê.

Calvinist patience

There is also the doctrine of patience.  While Augustine said that we should struggle to withdraw all love for things whose death or destruction would cause us grief, Calvin’s position was profoundly different.  We should not try to alter our created nature; we should honor it.  Grief is the normal and appropriate response to indignity, death, injustice, and a multitude of other evils.  The discipline is not to withdrawing all our attachments but to be patient in our suffering.  Patient grief is to be our stance.

When confronted with the prospect of grief, one can pursue the Augustinian course of struggling to alter one’s nature so that, when the event occurs, one feels no grief.  But one can also pursue the opposite course of trying to avert the occurrence of the event.  Did Calvin recommend that we also renounce this latter course?  Did he say that we should no more seek to change the world than to change ourselves, allowing the threatening episodes to flow over us?   Should we simply put up with religious intolerance, for example?   Is Calvinist patience passive acceptance?

The suggestion makes no sense.  What characterized the Calvinist movement was its dynamic restlessness, this to be traced in good measure to Calvin himself–to his words and actions in Geneva.  It is true that when it came to the political realm, Calvin insisted that those not in positions of political authority were not to revolt.  But not revolting is very different from passive acceptance.

Calvin vigorously denounced corruption in the church, tyranny in the polity, and inequity in the economy.  Though it would not be inconsistent to denounce bishops, tyrants, and bosses while counseling passive acceptance of their orders and actions, Calvin regularly took the next step of urging resistance to evil and struggle for reform, all the while practicing what he preached.  In a famous passage from his Commentary on Daniel Calvin, while not recommending revolt even as a last resort, unmistakably recommends defiant disobedience.

In the context of Daniel 6:22—the story of the angel saving Daniel in the den of lions, Calvin claimed that human leaders abdicate their authority when they defy God and are unworthy of being regarded as human.  He believed they should be defied when they try to “spoil God of his rights” and take over authority that is his.

Given the situation in the book of Daniel, one might wonder whether Calvin is focusing exclusively on infringements on the free exercise of one’s religion.  When we are denied freedom of worship, we must disobey.  But in his discussion of patience in the Institutes Calvin puts the struggle for justice and the struggle for free exercise of religion on the same plane.  We are called to both, and both may bring suffering and the honor of the martyr.

Calvin: To suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake is a singular comfort.  For it ought to occur to us how much honor God bestows upon us in thus furnishing us with the special badge of his soldiery.  I say that not only they who labor for the defense of the gospel but they who in any way maintain the cause of righteousness suffer persecution for righteousness. (Institutes III, viii, 7)

In short, Calvinist patience is not the patience of passive acceptance but the patience of suffering as we struggle against the world’s evils.  It is the paradoxical combination of patiently grieving over deprivation and injustice, while struggling to alleviate that deprivation and undo that injustice.


Intolerance toward a person’s practice of her religion is an affront to that person’s dignity and therefore unjust.  There is a strong theme in the Christian tradition concerning the significance of any injustice, religious or otherwise.  To perpetrate the injustice of religious intolerance on a fellow human being is to wrong God; the cries of those who are persecuted or demeaned because of their religion are giving voice to God’s suffering.

The theme of injustice as the wronging of God, does not by any means exhaust the significance of injustice.  Injustice also is a violation of the victim’s dignity; and Calvin has suggested that it is an abuse of one’s kin.  This theme is not prominent in the Christian theological tradition as a whole, but it was prominent in the thought of John Calvin.

No matter how much one may dislike the religion of another, she nonetheless bears the image of God and is on that basis is loved by God.  To treat her with intolerance is to wrong her.  To wrong her is to wrong God.  If we believed this, and believed it firmly, we would be much more reluctant to treat someone with intolerance, whether that intolerance is grounded in our religion or in something else.

Dr. Wolterstorff is an internationally renown philosopher and former President of the American Philosophical Association (Central Division).  This is paper is adapted–with the permission of Dr. Wolterstorff—from his keynote address to the convention on “Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict,” commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.


by David Claerbaut, Founder, FaithandLearningForum.com

This essay does not contain a single footnote.  It is an analysis, from a sociopolitical perspective, of what happened in the 2012 presidential election.

With that disclaimer, we state the obvious:  Few sitting presidents have been more vulnerable to electoral defeat than was Barack Obama in 2012.  His accomplishments were few, his approval ratings plunging, and even some of his strategists suggested he not run on his record.  Moreover, he did not win.  His opponent lost.

And it is not as though re-election to a second term on Pennsylvania Avenue is ever really assured.  Republicans Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush learned that lesson harshly, as did Democrat Jimmy Carter.  Three of the last seven presidents were called home by the voters after a single term.  Arguably, none of them, however, were as lowly thought of as Obama, at least not if the polls were any indication.

So what happened?

Romney lost.

He lost for at least three reasons.


A cardinal principle in electoral politics is that a candidate must define him or herself.  Definition by one’s opponent is political death.  From the outset of the campaign, Obama’s people defined Romney.  They depicted him with incredible and demagogic skill–as an uncaring, avaricious capitalist, with nary heart nor sensitivity for those on the outside of money and power.

The campaign began, continued, and concluded with this definition of the former governor.  A review of the ads and the words of the talking heads are sufficient documentation.  And Romney did little or nothing about it.  Remember Bain Capital?  Romney and his minions naively thought that his successes there could catapult him to the presidency—viewed as a candidate who knew how to save companies and create jobs, cornerstone concerns in a deepening recession.  They took the Bain experience to the voters with fearless certitude.

Surprise!  Romney scarcely got out of the batter’s box with this message before his opponents began splashing the airwaves with ads about unhappy, unemployed, and victimized workers, claiming it was Romney and his Bain Capital people who had put them on the breadlines.  They took Romney’s opening thrust and turned it on him.

There was no response from the Romney camp.

Bill Clinton, as savvy a politician as we have seen in the recent era, said that a candidate should not let the sun set on a political attack or negative ad.  The longer a negative message remains out in the populace—unrebutted–the more likely the voters will believe it.  Silence is viewed as nonverbal assent.

Romney should have known that.  He is not a maiden to bare-knuckle politics.  Two of his predecessors gained an electoral victory much due to effective negative portrayals of their opponent.  In 1988, Bush the elder’s staff—led by political gut puncher, the late Lee Atwater—tarred Governor Mike Dukakis with being soft on crime, soft on defense, soft on fiscal control, soft on…  They used the then pejorative term, liberal, to label him.  Dukakis actually left the Democratic convention with what looked like a commanding lead, but once the Bush people warmed up the attack machine it was over.  Dukakis was plastered with negative attributes.  He never really fought back and soon watched his lead turn into a double-digit deficit.  It was one of the dirtiest campaigns in history.

Fastforward to 2004: Senator John Kerry closed the Democratic convention jubilantly before a gleeful throng of delegates with his Vietnam “band of brothers” theme, celebrating his apparent heroism as a soldier in the ‘60’s.  The jubilance was shortlived as the Swift Boat people came rushing in with their Unfit for Command tome in which Kerry was painted as a counterfeit peacenik and unworthy of leadership responsibility in the military and hence, the United States government.  They questioned the legitimacy of his Purple Heart decorations.  Clinton and others pleaded with Kerry to strike back.  He never did, and watched George W. return to the White House for a second term.

A candidate must define him or herself, particularly in an age of negative campaigning and attach ads.  If the candidate does not, we know most assuredly who will be happy to perform this service.


Obama is a communicator in the tradition of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.  In a word, he connects.  He looks straight into the camera and speaks directly to you.  He won on that as much as anything in 2008.

Romney never connected with the American voter.  Granted, his style is a tad formal, a bit like a nicely starched shirt.  That, however, was not the real problem.  The United States has elected some less than spellbinding communicators.

The problem is that Romney’s staff never designed a strategy that might humanize him in the eyes of those whose votes he was soliciting.  Other than “approving this ad,” one rarely heard Romney’s voice in any political commercial.  Those promos were mainly slick productions, either attacking Obama or glorifying Romney, but the audio was always that distant voiceover.

Does anyone remember Lee Iacocca?   When Iacocca was turning the Chrysler P&L sheet from red to black in the ‘80’s, he took his case straight to the consumer.  Ad after ad featured Iacocca standing on the side of a busy highway, adorned in a trench coat with cars whizzing by, making the case for his Chrysler automobile person-to-person—Lee to the viewer—as he peered into the camera.

Romney did none of that.  He needed to.  Mitt Romney entered the race as a relatively unknown political figure outside of Republican circles (in which the reviews were mixed).  Indeed, Romney ran in 2008, but on the Republican side, soon to be washed away by the eventual loser, Senator John McCain.  People are not going to vote for someone they do not feel they know; especially if what they do “know” has been provided by that candidate’s opponent.

Isn’t it interesting that Romney made his greatest impact in the first debate?  Why was that?  Some say it was because the President appeared flustered and on the defensive. Yes, that was one reason.  Here is another.  People finally saw Romney live, actually talking to people, and suddenly he did not seem quite as scary and apocalyptic as he had been portrayed by the Obama people’s ads.  He had a moment of connection.  And then it was gone, back to the voiceover campaign.


The GOP is about 40 years behind the electoral demographics of our nation.  In 1976, Gerald Ford won the white vote but lost the presidency to the equally white Jimmy Carter, who garnered 94% of the black vote.

Nearly four decades later, the story remained the same.   Romney was politically obliterated among Hispanics and African-Americans.

Some will say that Republicans cannot expect support among such groups because Republicanism is an ideology for all Americans, one that is not intended to appeal on a group-specific basis.  Maybe that is the problem?

Methinks not.

I propose that Republicans are regularly pounded in minority areas simply because they do not make a sincere effort to communicate their message in these locales.  Democrats are omnipresent politically in African-America and Hispanic communities.  Republicans are about as visible as bathing suits in a Wisconsin winter.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was once asked what he wanted.  “Respect,” he said.  If Republicans do not go into black and Hispanic communities, spreading their message and asking for their votes, they are communicating disrespect, and the voting machines will put a number on that perception of dismissal.

This cannot be charged fully to Romney.  He did, after all, go to the NAACP convention.  That he was hooted at–and yes, disrespected–should not be all that surprising given that disrespect is what many of the NAACP members have felt in their dealings with the Republican party.  This was their opportunity to send a similar message in the opposite direction.  The message of free enterprise and limited government need not change.  It is a political philosophy not all African-Americans or Hispanics reject.  Moreover, Republicans need not get a majority vote among these groups to win an election, but 90% blowouts say much more about them than those voters who are rejecting them.  What needs to change is a mindset within the party, one that values all Americans at least enough to solicit their vote.


There is nothing uniquely Christian about much of the foregoing, but there is certainly some suggestions as to how we might want to live out our faith in the electoral process.

Self-Definition, if nothing else, is an affirmative exercise.  It need not be a venture into negative politics.  It is about who a candidate is, in what he or she believes, not how demonic the opponent may be.  If not Christian, it is far less unchristian than gutter politics.

Rapport is, at least to some extent, about sincerity and integrity, not such bad virtues.  Yes, candidates do lie and twist the truth.  Time did an excellent piece on this, exposing both candidates’ deceptions.  Nonetheless–much more so than a polished ad–communicating directly to the electorate at the very least establishes a relationship between the candidate and the people he or she wishes to serve, and relationships are the essence of human existence.

As for party connection, candidates need to test their message before everyone.  There are over 400 verses in scripture that speak of God’s love for the poor.  To imply that racial and ethnic minorities are all poor is a nasty stereotype, but it is no stereotype to say poverty rates among these groups is much higher than among whites, and there remain lingering disadvantages associated with minority status in this country.  Our politicians need to speak to and serve all God’s people.

What is striking in all this, however, is that despite the vulgar millions spent on electoral campaigning, such fundamental errors are still made.  Obama is a much more talented campaigner than is Romney, but he entered the race badly wounded by the results of his first term, and the handsome, well-spoken and well-heeled Romney was poised to send him back to the land of Lincoln.  It didn’t happen.  Like a talented basketball team unable to overcome fundamental breakdowns and falling to defeat, millions of dollars do not compensate for unsound political strategies.



by David O. Moberg, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Marquette University

I become deeply disturbed whenever I discover that the political stances, voting, and other decisions of Christians are based primarily upon their social class, occupation, or other identities derived from their social world instead of “seeking first” the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Whenever that occurs, they usually pay attention only to favorite “worldly” misinterpretations of biblical ethics.  Too often Christians support predetermined positions derived from their societal identities and apply them to their community obligations and political responsibilities rather than having a more balanced view of the totality and priority of Scripture. Often their main focus is enhancing “the bottom line” without realizing how easy it is to slip into the “worship of mammon” (KJV in Matt. 6:24 & Luke 16:13) and the greed that is idolatry (Col.3:5) or similarly to yield to other lusts and cravings of the world (1 John 2:15-17).

It is especially easy to be deceived when they–and we, too–are humbly or proudly practicing whatever they or we rightly or wrongly self-interpret as Christian generosity, love, and good stewardship. Our Enemy’s “servants masquerade as servants of righteousness” and “angels of light” (2 Corinthians 11:15); never as devils with tails and horns or as forked-tongue demons.

All too frequently we Christians join the masses and succumb to the misleading slogans, promises, abundance of selected facts and figures that ignore data that are more important.  What is presented accepted is one-issue-only politicking that actually makes us support hidden agendas that we strongly oppose, name calling (“Big Government,” “right-wing reactionary,” “socialism,” “leftist liberalism,” etc.), card-stacking, old statements quoted out of context, and other tricks used by even devout and well-meaning Christians in politics as well as by those who indeed may be slaves of the Great Deceiver.


The simplest and widest road for us is to not ask revealing questions like these: What specifically is the philosophy and action pattern behind each propagandistic label and each political plank? What unannounced but necessarily accompanying actions might be the real intentions, motivations, or goals lurking beneath the surface? What unrevealed steps are necessary to fulfill each campaign promise? Who are the beneficiaries of each major proposal? What are the unseen and indirect consequences and what the long-range effects of each proposed action?

In other words, we Christians tend to remain political infants swayed by emotions, rhetoric, and surface-only expressions of both genuine and falsely alleged righteousness. Instead, to be true to God’s Word as the guide to our commitments and behavior, we must shun thoughtless conformity to the patterns of this world. “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the Plan of God for you is good, meets all His demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity” (Romans 12:2, Phillips). We can do this only by continually stimulating and nurturing the renewal of our minds that tests all our values and practices in the context of our expanding knowledge of the ever-changing world and then avoids every kind of evil while approving and practicing whatever is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).


Unfortunately, much Christian education has actually prevented us from helping each other to do that in regard to the majority of issues related to our citizenship responsibilities in politics. Why? Part of the failure of Christian education to teach believers in Christ to obey everything the Lord commanded (Matthew 28:20a) is a result of the lack of expertise. “Blind leaders” do mislead the blind.  Our teachers need a solid foundation in not only Scripture and theology, but also in the social and behavioral sciences in addition to the continuous onrushing torrent of current events. Knowing their deficiencies, we tend to distrust either their biblical teachings or their pragmatic recommendations or both. Contrasting choices that are products of personal habits, family traditions, and social identities thus pit Christians against other Christians.

This failure of Christian education is largely the result of fears of offending fellow believers who have such firmly solidified positions on crucial social issues or such strong loyalties to a given political party—one with such an unyielding stance in opposition to all other parties that its members refuse even to listen honestly to evidence supporting other Christian positions. Sadly, another part of it comes from distrusting any biblical teachings that do not conform to one or more adamantly held political position, when instead the biblical principles ought to have priority.

Still another part results from the intricate complexities of social structures and practices of the 21st century’s local and global societies, the admixtures of ethical values connected to every viable alternative for action, and the mind-numbing diversity of seemingly competitive biblical values that can be applied to each case. Far too much of it, however, is the result of a sinful distrust of biblical teachings that do not conform to whatever is one’s chosen political position, when biblical principles of God’s kingdom instead ought to have priority.


Christian resolutions will come only when Christian teachers and other leaders have a solid grounding (even if never perfect) in at least three domains: The totality of the Bible, the social and behavioral sciences, and the ever-changing scenarios of current events.

I believe the proper application of these three domains will encourage and help believers to discern what is right when they go to the polls, even if doing that may lead to non-conformity with one’s social peers and impose other costs of working toward genuinely biblical political values that will help to sustain and reform society “in Jesus’ name.”

Dr. Moberg’s distinguished academic career includes myriad publications.  Two of his well-known books are Aging and Spirituality (Taylor & Francis), and The Great Reversal (Wipf & Stock), now in its the third edition.  He is the founder of the Association of Christians Teaching Sociology (ACTS).  Their website is actsoc.org.

[1] Human Nature and the Political Process: How Our View of Anthropology May Dictate Our Vote

by Mark Eckel, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Crossroads Bible College

How do humans respond when “normal” no longer exists?  What is the essence of personal nature triggering what is good or evil within us?  Are humans basically good or inherently corrupt?  What previous experiences form our reaction to danger?  To what lengths are we prepared to go to for self-preservation?  Or will community turn to mob mentality and “every man for himself?”  Whatever the answers given to each question, no one really knows what personal beliefs will come to the surface in any confrontation.

These are the questions posed by Stephen King in his novella brought to film entitled The Mist.  A small northeastern town is struck by a severe storm in the night.  The next day, a thick mist envelopes the community.  Unbeknown to anyone, a military experiment gone awry succeeds in opening another dimension in the universe.  Through the open door come a myriad of awful beasts intent on what they do best: eating flesh.  Forty some people have found shelter in a local supermarket.  It is here the tale is played out.

Prior relationships dictate how people interact.  Inside the store we find residents versus out-of-towners, white versus black, blue collar versus white collar, religious versus unbelievers, pragmatists versus idealists, soldiers versus civilians.  David Drayton (Thomas Jane) is at odds with an uncaring neighbor (Andre Braugher) little concerned for the damage a dead tree has caused Jane’s boathouse.  Smoothing over their differences for the moment, they find their way to town for supplies.  Once the menace begins, Mrs. Carmody (Oscar winner, Marcia Gay Harden) morphs from town “crazy” to apocalyptic preacher, hardening a growing group of followers against anything other than paranoia.

Frank Darabont (director of other King writings: The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile) combines his impressive talents to ask the science fiction question “What if?”  The Mist makes one wonder if we don’t encounter the extraterrestrial, monsters, and the abnormal every day.  The question of how assumptions about our nature impact everyday life is investigated by more than sci-fi thrillers.  Our beliefs about who we are affect everything.

What I refer to as “assumptions” about our nature some call “pre-conditioners,” “pre-conceptions,” or “presuppositions.”  Whatever title we give to the phenomenon, everyone everywhere assumes certain core beliefs.  These assumptions may be conscious or unconscious starting points of thought—that is, we may be able to articulate exactly why we think the way we do or why we have adopted certain beliefs with or without careful consideration.

–Atheist—matter is eternal

–Religionist—God is eternal


–Scientism—only objective, empirical data can determine truth

–Relationalism—only subjective, relationally-driven information tells truth

Leonard Pitts in a December 2004 column[1] succinctly stated, “We believe what we want to believe.”

We like to see ourselves as principled types who sift the facts before forming an opinion. But for most of us, we are perfectly willing to ignore any fact that contradicts what we believe.

Quoting from the then unpublished research of Drew Westen of Emory University, Pitts recorded that people make decisions based on bias, not fact, something researchers call both “selection bias” or “confirmation bias”.  According to Westen’s data since published in 2006, peoples’ opinion could be predicted 80 percent of the time.  The strength or weakness of the evidence turned out to be immaterial.  Opinions of any group trumped concrete evidence.  Westen concluded in his work “partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want . . . Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts.’[2] As Pitts concluded “We believe what we want, facts be damned.”  The columnist continues:

“The scary thing,” according to Westen, “is the extent to which you can imagine this influencing jury decisions, boardroom decisions, political decisions …”

I’m reminded of a colleague of mine who says we Americans increasingly seem to embrace separate “truths,” reflecting not objective reality, but political orientation. Some of us even get our news exclusively from those sources that affirm our truths. He calls it living in alternate realities.

It’s because of that separateness that there often seems to be no moral center or intellectual coherence to much of what passes for public discourse these days. Our principles are situational. We’ll believe–or not believe–whatever it takes to win the argument.

Pitts’ and Westen’s points of view suggest something about our internal, psychological makeup.  Our Nature—our essence, the soil from which our person thinks, believes, behaves—conforms to a center, a point-of-view that can drive our decisions in multiple areas of thought.  As an example, we can ask the question, “How do we know what we know?” and show that selection of information may indicate our base belief.  If we say, for instance, that the Butler Bulldogs should be ranked in the top 25 in D-1 college basketball polls, we could show objective sources for such a belief, albeit, dictated by the love for our own team.  Our analysis of the outcome of tonight’s game between Tennessee and Indianapolis could be simple because we live in this city—“Yeah, the Colts have beaten the Titans 9 out of the last 11 meetings which sets the stage for victory tonight.”  Or we could note that the Colts are starting two rookie guards to protect Peyton and that Bob Sanders, heart and soul of the Indy defense, is sitting out yet another game.  But our instinctive belief is that the Colts will win, no matter what.  [As a note of full selection and confirmation bias disclosure, I’ve been a Colts fan since I was eight when I found out that Johnny Unitas was born on the same day as me.]

As bias relates to our nature, we may hold or lean toward one of two basic assumptions—we are good at heart, with perfectionist proclivities, or we are inherently corrupt, internally tainted, and not to be fully trusted.  Bertrand Russell wrote, “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.”  I would suggest, like Russell, that our belief about human nature encompasses our every belief and behavior.

[An aside: because of limitations of time and topic, it is not possible to broach the conflict between what many refer to as “the nature—nurture question.”  Is our nature genetically predisposed or environmentally conditioned.  On these points, one might find many resources.  Historically, some begin with John Locke’s psychological theory from An Essay on Human Understanding that people are born without innate beliefs and so her environment, upbringing, and experiences fashion her.  Others would agree with Stephen Pinker’s evolutionary view in his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  This topic alone would be the basis for another whole discussion; most probably, many discussions.]

Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that humans are “good at heart”   His 1762 Social Contract became what Daniel Boorstin called in his book Seekers “a sacred text of the French Revolution of 1789.”  Based on “the general will of the people,” noted 15 times in The Declaration of the Rights of Man (French, 1789), humans became sole arbiters of right and wrong.  Rousseau’s perspective has been taken up by such as Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan highlighting the freedom individuals have to construct a society.  But Rousseau would have sought a thoroughly majority-rules vision of any social contract.  Ideas of tolerance, progress, equality, rights, moral-neutrality, live-and-learn, and a “people know best what’s good for them” mentality are offshoots from Rousseau’s baseline belief.  Those who assent that the individual should construct how they live life, believe one should live life as they see fit.  The resources to live such a life are generally  assumed to be the benefits of a society and government that both protects those rights and provides the resources to pursue that life.  State generated, government directed programs are essential to provide a basic so-called “good life” for all.  It was Rousseau’s belief in “the noble savage”—primitive people who live in altruistic societies unsullied from the atrocities of the modern world—that has generated the modern belief that people are basically good at heart.

The other perspective of human nature—that we are shot through with internal corruption—also drives social and political theory.  Concerned that the state or those in power would control all human endeavors, the individual must be assured of external checks on those in the corridors of influence.  Local jurisdiction, property rights, natural law, and individual responsibility over government control might be hallmarks of this point of view.  Montesquieu, an 18th C. English lawyer, put it this way in his treatise The Spirit of Laws, “every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.  Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits?  To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.”[3] John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, simply known as Lord Acton, was a historian and moralist in 19th C. England.  Considered to be one of the most learned Englishmen of his time, Lord Acton expressed his assumption concerning human nature in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  Acton’s most notable conclusion to his life’s work believed that political liberty is the essential condition and guardian of religious liberty.

To the essence of this talk “how our views of anthropology—the study of humans—may dictate our vote” I would like to suggest the outcomes of our various points of view and how our view of the world may indicate which levers we pull in the voting booth.

(1) If we believe people are born good, we will attribute evil to forces outside the individual.  Terrorist attacks or national enemies are a product, not of individual will, but of external pressures such as poverty, ethnicity, or education.  Economic problems are the root cause of personal distress or disagreement and could be overcome by government intervention, financial entitlements, or state run laws.

(2) If we believe people are born good, we will stress educational programs in schools that teach the problems of smoking, the use of condoms for sex, and environmental policies.  We will suggest that the root problems of society are contained within sexism, racism, or classism.  According to this view, the greatest problem that I might have in my life are with people and things outside of myself.

(3) If we believe people are basically good, a religion sourced outside of myself may well be unnecessary and in some cases, harmful.  Even in our own lifetimes, if not throughout history, we have seen the destruction nature of followers of various religions.  Good people, by themselves, are capable of creating good moral standards within a social framework where government provides for social programs to create and maintain that goodness.

(4) If we believe people are basically good, we believe that those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad.  If there is a group that holds a different point of view, that point of view—coming from outside of us—must be perceived as a possible enemy to be defeated and therefore, eliminated.  This view would also hold that the more power one has the better to create government programs and judicial enforcement for the betterment of society.

There is another point of view.

(1) If we believe people are inherently corrupt [that means that every part of us is skewed from our motivations to our words to our actions], we believe that evil is actually a part of who we are.  From this point of view comes a belief in the need for an outside source of law which establishes boundaries not set by humans.

(2) If we believe people are inherently corrupt, we believe that education begins with character development—the interiority of the person—not with programs intended to address external issues of concern.  This view holds personal responsibility as paramount for what we do no matter our race, nationality, or religion.

(3) If we believe people are inherently corrupt, we believe that belief in God, no matter the sectarian or denominational belief, holds people to a higher standard of good not possible by themselves.  Assuming humans are tainted by wrong within themselves, people holding this position would advocate that political liberty protects religious liberty.

(4) If we believe people are inherently corrupt, we believe that all beliefs and political positions deserve and demand accountability through critique.  While one may think that another’s position is wrong, the desire for dialogue with objective standards of debate over power control would be most important.  In addition, a corrupt view of human nature precondition would argue for power to be in the hands of more than one group. There is a profound suspicion of big government, big labor, big corporations, and even big religious institutions.

David Mamet, for years my favorite Hollywood screenwriter, wrote an article in The Village Voice this past March entitled, “Why I am No Longer a Brain Dead Liberal.”  Perhaps no better person than Mamet could speak to the distinctiveness of the views of human nature.  I quote Mamet from his article at length:

I wrote a play about politics (November). And as part of the “writing process,” as I believe it’s called, I started thinking about politics . . . But my play, it turned out, was actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views. The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.

The play . . . is . . . a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.

I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.

As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart . . . And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

I’d observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.

For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.

In addition to Mamet’s interesting forty year change of thinking, I give you the cartoon section of the morning paper.  Students stopped outside my office for years just to read my door and walls, plastered with funnies.  Some are held by magnets to my refrigerator at home, others are taped around me in my study, re-created on powerpoints for presentations, additional strips are framed and under glass.  These modern drawings capture philosophy through art.  Along with Mamet and the cartoons, I find myself within the category of thought that considers humanity to be less than its best self.

Comics like The Wizard of Id, Calvin and Hobbes, and Frank and Ernest do a good job of explaining human nature.  Of all the comics I’ve saved over the years those that communicate best are depictions of characters that correctly mirror what people are like.  In Non Sequitur,Wiley Miller produced a comic titled “The Essence of Human Nature.”  A man and a woman are standing by a sign that says, “Absolutely NO Machete Juggling.”  The man comments, “Suddenly I have an urge to juggle machetes…”

Chris Browne’s Hagar the Horrible makes the case another way.  Hagar’s wife sees her husband leaving the house loaded down with weapons.  “Where are you going?” she asks. “I’m meeting with Attila the Hun to discuss the possibility of a peace treaty.”  Frowning, her second question is, “Why do you need all those weapons?”  Hagar matter-of-factly explains, “It might not be possible.”

In discussions with his boy, Hagar insists, “Never turn your back on an enemy, my son!”  Reasoning with his father the child responds, “You should be more trusting Dad!  He’s not an enemy—he’s a ‘human being,’ just like you.”  Making his point Hagar rejoins, “THAT’S why you should never turn your back on him!”

Non Sequitur and Hagar the Horrible goes on to add that issues of trust and peace are restricted not by human misunderstanding or weaponry but by our nature.  The obvious question left to ask is “What makes us what we are?”

Belief about human nature generally gives us a distinctive marker of belief.  Those who hold a human perfectibility point of view might believe that money and government will help solve problems and make people good.  Those leaning in the direction of human corruption are more inclined toward an internal regulator from an outside source which is the acknowledged standard.

Belief in perfectibility is what instructs some cultural viewpoints.  Three reasons are normally given for why we act the way we do: (1) biology—“I was born this way”; (2) environment—“I was brought up this way”; or (3) psychology—“I just behave this way”.  Why people murder, hate, covet, or steal may deflect responsibility away from us. Suggesting that accountability lies within ourselves cuts against the grain of human perfectibility.  Choice, decision, or an act of the will might indicate our own culpability.  Again, I illustrate from the comics.

Caught drunk by the king in The Wizard of Id, the court jester intones, “Actually, sire…I’m suffering from a chemical imbalance.”  Genetic preconditions are often hailed as proof of a person’s conduct.  Though by no means accepted by all in the scientific community, news reports often link biology to bad behavior.  “I can’t help it, this is the way I am, I was born this way” are phrases heard from some who would rather not accept responsibility for their actions.

Calvin, complaining that Santa is bias toward good kids at Christmas, contends to Hobbes that “mitigating circumstances” should be considered.  Reminded that he had placed an incontinent toad in his mom’s sweater drawer, Calvin defensively asserts, “If I was being raised in a better environment, I wouldn’t do things like that.”  Next to biology, background is the answer for many who look for behavioral rationale.  The idea behind this comic is that culture is responsible for creating the minds of people who live within its society.

While the “nature—nurture” (biology versus environment) debate continues, psychology has been added to the list of reasons for why we act like we do. Frank contends to a lawyer in a Frank and Ernest cartoon, “Take responsibility?  Is that legal?” This comic pokes fun at the belief that it’s just not psychologically healthy to feel bad for what you’ve done.

Let me explain how I have seen this belief played out in my 25 years as an educator—both at the high school and college levels.  I have heard the following statements made both in the classroom and from the home:

  1. “It’s the way he was born.”
  2. “It runs in the family.”
  3. “Everyone does it.”
  4. “He can’t help himself.”
  5. “He’s on medication.”
  6. “Rules stifle my son.”

Guess where they come from?  Every single one of these ideas has their origin in the environmental, biological, or psychological justifications explored in the last section.

Gregory Roper, a professor of English at the University of Dallas confronts this same difficulty as an educator.  Concerned about the response he was receiving in a certain class, he recounts the questioning of his own beliefs as he drove across the Midwest:

Why had this class crashed so badly, been such a failure for both the students and me? I was angry, confused, disturbed. I began replanning the class from the ground up: better assignments, more personal meetings with the students to discuss their papers, having them assemble portfolios of writing. It would be a lot more work—the research would have to be put off again—but that’s what a teacher does, I thought.

Yet somewhere in Illinois the thought occurred to me that the problem was with the ideas I was importing into my pedagogy. I believed that the students’ learning was somehow primarily my responsibility; I had somewhere imbibed the notion that if I were just passionate enough, energetic enough, prepared enough, creative enough—if I worked hard enough, got to know my students well enough, and presented the material in a fresh enough way—that I could reach every student. I would be able to teach the student, not the subject, and transform his life.

What I discovered was that I thought of my students as innocent and malleable, uncorrupted, unspoiled, and it was only my task to light the fire in their souls . . . I discovered to my shock that I was, in my pedagogical philosophy, [a believer in the perfectability of humanity . . . ]

And I realized immediately the harm that this had done. I was full of hubris; I was exhausting myself, and I was, unaware of it, condescending to my students.

I believe many in the teaching profession are in this state, and that our popular ideology of the teacher pushes them in this direction. In films such as Stand and Deliver or To Sir, With Love, in books and television and popular images, we see the teacher as the good liberal: the secular, good-hearted, amazing transformer who, through sheer will, preparation, and energy, can overcome human nature and make his students into something new.

What occurred to me as I crossed Illinois was quite simple, and yet profound: it wasn’t my fault. I had taught those students well; I had given them the same assignments, the same pep talks, the same advice and instruction that I had given numerous sections of the very same course many times before, and they rejected it. That is, I had something—well, something like grace to offer them, and they had, in their human freedom, chosen not to take what I had to teach them. It was a tremendously liberating discovery, this notion that students, rather than being angels, were sinful humans. Now I was no longer trying to invent new paradigms for my teaching, come up with better assignments, more innovative ways to grade and assess their progress so I could help them more. Instead, I decided that I would begin the next semester making clear my new discovery: that students are responsible for their own learning, and that, if they were going to do well, they would have to accept this responsibility as adults and perform well.

Let me speak now to the impact these assumptions about human nature make on the political process.  I will not approach this part of the talk as one might expect.  I lean on the humanities to flesh out in story fashion how our human natures may impact our political and social points of view.

If there are words that need be listened to, it ought to be those from whom much has been learned in the crucible of oppression.  One of the great dissidents of this past fifty years has been the person of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: a writer who for years lived under the hobnailed boot of the old Soviet Union’s oppressive regime.  In the “Ascent,” one of the autobiographical sections of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, we find the justly famous assertion that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart.”

And read just a little further and we come to these words, not so well known but just as true, which describe the evil that roots itself not in the personal, but in the political:

… I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.

It is of interest that Hegel in his Philosophy of Right could agree with Solzhenitsyn saying “It is only man who is good, and is good only because he can also be evil.”[4]

Literature itself is replete with statements that categorically state there is something wrong with the human person impacting all social relations.  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson demonstrates the titanic battle raging within humans: depravity triumphing over dignity.  Many other voices would concur with the general concern that humans are corruptible: “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne and “The Man That Corrupted Hanleyburg” by Mark Twain.

But it is in Lord of the Flies where corrupt human nature is perhaps best viewed as directly impacting the political process.  William Golding was a perfectionist prior to his serving on a carrier in World War II.  The post war tale explains Golding’s transformation to one who had seen the essence of humanity gone bad.  Golding tells the classic tale of a party of schoolboys who have crash landed on a desert island.  Dazzled by the wonders in what seems to them to be paradise “A new kind of glamour was spread over them and the scene, and they were conscious of the glamour and made happy by it.  They turned to each other, laughing excitedly, talking, not listening.  The air was bright . . . Ralph, faced by the task of translating all this into an explanation stood on the head, and fell over . . . eyes shining, mouths open, triumphant, they savoured the right of domination.  They were lifted up: were friends . . . “  Changing their military school garb for more primitive fare is an outward indication of an inward change: without an external law, the boys usurp authority, turn it into power, dominating each other.  What humans can become comes from what humans are—inescapably, terribly, dangerous.  As Ralphie, the bespeckeled target of power gone mad, says, “I’m afraid of us.”

Ralphie would have best understood the Mike Wallace “60 Minutes” interview of Auschwitz survivor Yehiel Dinur, a principal witness at the Nuremberg war-crime trials.  During the interview, a film clip from Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trail was viewed which showed Dinur enter the courtroom and come face to face with Eichmann for the first time since being sent to Aushchwitz almost twenty years earlier.  Stopped cold, Dinur began to sob uncontrollably and then fainted while the presiding judge pounded his gavel for order.  “Was Dinur over come by hatred? Fear? Horrid memories?”  Charles Colson records the response:

No; it was none of these.  Rather, as Diur explained to Wallace, all at once he realized Eichmann was not the godlike army officer who had sent so many to their deaths.  This Eichmann was an ordinary man. “I was afraid about myself,” said Dinur. “I saw that I am capable to do this.  I am . . . exactly like he.” Wallace concluded the summation of Dinur’s terrible discovery, “Eichmann is in all of us”

Were I to summarize my how the political process is impacted by one’s belief about corrupt humanity, I would have to confirm the following points of view:

No better example of concerns over the corruption of the political process can be attested to than the three branches of government constructed in the American Constitution, whose ideals were borrowed and applied from some European countries.

The founders of our country structured the Constitution to assure that our government would be limited in its powers.  The federal government was to be robust, able to defend the United States against external threats while not threatening its own people through tyranny.  To limit the power of the federal government, it was separated into three co-equal branches, the states and individuals retaining all other powers (herein is the importance of the Bill of Rights.  The Second Amendment allows individuals to “keep and bear arms” while the ninth and tenth amendments clearly protect states’ rights.)  The relationship between the executive and the legislative branches, for example, was to provide checks and balances, with established, recurrent elections so as to maintain accountability for authorities.

Alexander Hamilton said in Number 15 of The Federalist Papers

There is, in the nature of sovereign power, an impatience of control, that disposes those who are invested with the exercise of it, to look with an evil eye upon all external attempts to restrain or direct its operations . . . Power controlled or abridged is almost always the rival and enemy of that power by which it is controlled or abridged . . . This simple proposition will teach us how little reason there is to expect that the persons entrusted with the administration of the affairs of the particular confederacy . . . will do so in an unbiased regard . . . the results of this come from the constitution of human nature.


Belief in an inherently defective humanity will opt for a political process which places responsibility on the individual person.  Knowing they themselves are corrupt, they will assume others are also, not wanting to compound corruption, nor to give their responsibility to another.  However, the state is necessary to restrain evil.  The state, because all individuals and institutions are corruptible, must be limited in its power and jurisdiction.

To this concern, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison say in Number 51 of The Federalist Papers

It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be, administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.  A dependence on the people is no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Any kind of “utopian” resolutions toward poverty and injustice must be viewed with skepticism considering inherent human duplicity.  The government’s main responsibility will be to maintain compliance to natural law intended for the common good of common man maintaining the freedoms of religion and free-market commerce.  Individuals bear the responsibility of meeting immediate needs that those living in a locale are better able to identify, promote, and resolve.  Here we are reminded by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, “While we have the Statue of Liberty on the east coast, there should be a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast.”

The government should only meet the needs of those who cannot help themselves by established, limited laws: limited both in their duration and in their extension.  Government is to provide oversight for compliance of laws so that within their bounds, freedom to produce from private property may result.  Individuals have both the freedom to create while bearing both the joy of success and the burden of failure.

Again, Montesquieu warns against “the public dole,” “taxpayer subsidies” from the 18th C. in The Spirit of Laws (Chap 2, Book VIII):

The people fall into this misfortune [contamination by riches] when those in whom they confide, desirous of concealing their own corruption, endeavour to corrupt them.  To disguise their own ambition, they speak to them only o f the grandeur of the state; to conceal their won avarice, they incessantly flatter theirs.  The corruption will increase among the corruptors, and likewise among those who are already corrupted.  The people will divide the public money among themselves, and, having added the administration of affairs to their indolence, will be for blending their poverty with the amusements of luxury . . . But with their indolence and luxury, nothing but the public treasure will be able to satisfy their demands.

Montesquieu’s words might be simply summarized this way: when the pig bellies up to the public trough, it’s hard to pull the pig away.

Perhaps nothing remains so important than the maintenance of a moral culture by way of a transcendent law and order while guaranteeing the protection and dignity of each human person.  If order is the cornerstone of liberty, then liberty will be the capstone of an ordered society.  Freedom of worship and the maintenance of the family are two spheres of social institutions which need the protection of this moral culture the most.  By the creation of moral goods, as well as economic goods, will a nation prosper for the general advancement of their people for both utility and aesthetics.

In this regard, we have a warning from Edward Gibbon in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter IV

Most of the crimes which disturb the internal peace of society are produced by the restraints of which the necessary, but unequal, laws of property have imposed on the appetites of mankind, by confining to a few the possession of those objects that are coveted by many.  Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsociable nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude.  In the tumult of civil discord, the laws of society lose their force, and their place is seldom supplied by those of humanity.  The ardour of contention, the pride of past injuries, and the fear of future dangers, all contribute to inflame the mind, and to silence the voice of pity.  From such motives almost every page of history ahs been stained with civil blood.

So now we must return to the questions posed by Stephen King’s The Mist: What is the essence of personal nature triggering what is good or evil within us?  Are humans basically good or inherently corrupt?  What previous experiences form our reaction to danger?  To what lengths are we prepared to go to for self-preservation?  Or will community turn to mob mentality and “every man for himself?”

If the recent spate of comic book heroes come to a Cineplex near you has taught us anything it is that human-heroes are quite at odds with their own natures, their own beliefs.  Witness Ironman’s Robert Downey Jr. who asks “Haven’t you once felt conflicted about what you do?”  Del Toro’s cigar chomping, candy bar loving Hellboy offers that doing the right thing is simply a matter of choice, albeit after being jolted to thoughtfulness seeing the sign of the cross tattooed on his hand.  The Punisher teeters on the knife edge of justice versus revenge as he is forever marked by the murder of his family before his own eyes.  Many super-human-heroes could be named as examples.  [Perhaps it is at this point that we suggest, as a college student friend of mind explains, Superman is not a super-human-hero.  Superman is an alien whose greatest conflict is with Krytonite rather than with himself.  When I speak of super-human-heroes I mean those among us who are at once quite super and quite human.  Perhaps the American-Swiss philosopher Francis Schaeffer said it best, “Man is a great and a great sinner”.]

I believe the best example of a super-human-hero is Batman.  Like others who prey upon villains, thugs, and terrorists, Batman uses physical force to vanquish his foes.  He stands upon unassailable, laudatory virtues such as defending the defenseless and meeting force with force.  However, Batman struggles mightily with his own internal drive against villainy as he witnessed firsthand the murder of his own parents.  The desire to wreck havoc, uncontrolled vengeance, is etched on his face and in his soul as he confronts each villain.  It strikes me that Batman is the essence of our own humanity and the warning for our stable yet fragile political process.  The responsibility of government is our protection.  The responsibility of the individual is vigilance to keep government in its proper place.  It was the great teacher of the first century, Jesus, who reminds us what cartoonists and comic book heroes tell us today, “What enters a man from the outside cannot defile him . . . For from within, out of the heart of men, proceeds evil . . .” (Mark 7:17, 19).  If this is true, our view of human nature will indeed impact the political process and determine our vote.

Dr. Eckel presented this address at Butler University, October 28, 2008. Visit his Warpandwoof.org website.

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