Faith and political courage

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An edited version of this column appeared in the November 2, 2005, issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is available online via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. My blog entry linking the column is here, responses from other bloggers are linked here and here. Posted online October 6, 2017.

Faith and political courage

by Michael Bates

It's been just over a week since "Tulsans for Better Government" launched their initiative petition to change the Tulsa City Charter to cut the number of City Council districts from nine to six and to add three super-councilors, to be elected citywide for four year terms. Already there's a strong backlash: An opposition group is getting organized, and it's drawing support from across the political spectrum. The Tulsa County Democratic Executive Committee has already issued a formal statement opposing the at-large councilor scheme, and grassroots Republicans are pushing for their party to come out against it as well.

Like so many other local issues, it doesn't divide along party lines. Instead you have certain privileged interest groups pushing for it, and ordinary Tulsans, concerned about fairness and equal representation in government, pushing back. Of the 22 members of the advisory board for Tulsans for Better Government, 18 live in the wealthy sections of Council District 9 or right next to Southern Hills Country Club in District 2. District 9 already has two City Councilors living within its borders -District 7 Councilor Randy Sullivan has lived there for nearly two years, preferring not to live among the people who elected him - but apparently that isn't enough for these people.

Of all the provocative things I wrote in last week's column on this topic ("Seeing the Light on City Charter"), this sentence has provoked the most comment: "Councilors Medlock, Mautino, Turner, and Henderson are all men of devout Christian faith."

The statement was in the middle of a paragraph about how these four reform-minded councilors have withstood relentless pressure from the defenders of the status quo. All four have said publicly and privately that their faith in Christ has sustained them through all the trials they have faced.

Over on my blog, batesline.com, Michael Sanditen commented that my statement was "off base and makes you appear a bigot. I will remind you that without the Jews in Tulsa, this town would be extremely pitiful. They are the quiet givers, the anonymous ones, many more than just the Kaisers, Schustermans, and Zarrows!" I'm amazed that the statement, intended as a compliment to the four councilors, would be read as an insult to adherents of any other faith. I concur that the contribution of the Jewish community to the prosperity and welfare of Tulsa far outweighs its numbers, but that has nothing to do with what I wrote.

Other commenters objected to any mention of religion in this context. One wrote, "Whether these men are Christian is irrelevant. Whether these men can perform their duties as city councilors is much more important." Another said, "Religious persuasion (or a lack thereof), for me, is not a litmus [test] for the qualifications for public service. I don't need to know what faith these Councilors follow to know that they are good men.... I hope you will realize bringing religion into the debate will most likely divide us more than it unites us."

I think I understand the root of their objections. If you think of faith as just professing agreement with certain doctrines, then what I wrote would be irrelevant to the discussion. If you confuse faith with religion, then you might well wonder what a Councilor's position on the propriety of infant baptism, which foot to lead with when genuflecting, or whether musical instruments have a place in worship has to do with his performance in office.

But faith is more than reciting a creed or performing certain rituals. Faith involves confidence and trust. During a worship service you profess certain things to be true about God's nature and character. During the rest of the week, your true faith - what you really believe about God and his dealings with you and the rest of the humanity - becomes apparent in the way you live your life, and particularly in the way you deal with adversity.

For that reason, what an elected official really believes about God's nature and character affects how he conducts himself in office. Someone who has genuine confidence and trust in God as He is revealed in the Bible will have courage and persistence in the face of discouragement, danger, hostility, oppression, and injustice. From the Torah, he knows that God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt, made a way of escape through the Red Sea, provided food for them in the wilderness, and settled them in the Promised Land. In the prophets, he reads of God's hatred for injustice, favoritism, and false dealing.

The politician who believes in the God of the Bible knows that he is in office not because of his brilliant campaign strategy, but because God put him there; in Psalm 75, he reads that "promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another." He reads Jesus' parable of the talents and knows that he is accountable first to God for what he does with the office which has been entrusted to him. He reads Mordecai's appeal to Esther and knows that he too is where he is "for such a time as this" - that it is not by accident that he is in office at this particular moment. There is something to be accomplished now, not put off until after the next election.

The usual pressure tactics won't succeed with the politician who reads and believes the Epistle to the Philippians. He turns his anxieties into prayers to his all-sufficient Father. You can threaten his job or his wife's job, but he reads that God will supply all his needs. You can threaten him with removal for office, but he is learning, with Paul, to be content in any situation. You can threaten his reputation and position, but he is a follower and servant of Christ, who forsook his heavenly throne, "made himself of no reputation, and took upon [himself] the form of a servant." You can threaten his life, but he knows that "to die is gain" - the worst you can do is send him on to his heavenly home earlier than he expected. He expects to share in the sufferings of his Lord, but also in his Lord's resurrection.

If you're a Councilor steeped in Scripture you aren't going to be deterred when a big donor threatens to fund your opponent, when someone from the Chamber or the Home Builders corners you to cuss you out over a vote, or when the World does another front-page hatchet job on you.

History is filled with men and women whose faith gave them the courage to persist in the political realm. One example: William Wilberforce, a member of the British parliament in the early 1800s, was driven by his faith to push first for the abolition of the slave trade, then for the abolition of slavery itself. His faith sustained him through the18 years it took to accomplish the first aim and another 15 years to accomplish the second. He spent most of those years as one lonely voice trying to overcome apathy and the opposition of powerful commercial interests.

There are and have been courageous politicians who are not Bible-believing Jews or Christians, and they draw their strength from other wells. But the Scripture is a deep well from which to draw.

Please understand that I am not talking about the sort of politician who wears his religion on his sleeve, who flits about from one megachurch to another, more in search of votes than spiritual nourishment. And I'm not talking about where a politician stands on any particular issue, although a worldview shaped by Scripture is bound to affect one's platform. I am talking about men and women who have learned through hardships, setbacks, and disappointments that the God of the Bible is still present and is worthy of their complete trust.

We say that we are weary of run-of-the-mill politicians. We are tired of compulsive people-pleasers who can't make a decision and stick with it. We are fed up with officials who abandon reform at the first sign of resistance. We have had it with "public servants" who seek only to serve themselves. If we want elected officials who are fearless to do what is right, we ought to look for men and women whose character has been shaped by confidence in a God who is bigger than any adversary they may face.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on November 2, 2005 2:30 PM.

Biblical faith and political courage was the previous entry in this blog.

Do we need a downtown? is the next entry in this blog.

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