|Commentary: How can a Christian be in politics?|
State Sen. Roy Herron, a former United Methodist minister,
stands in front of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. A UMNS
photo by Mike DuBose.
A UMNS Commentary
By Tennessee Sen. Roy Herron*
May 23, 2008
"How can a Christian be in politics?" People of faith ask me this all
the time. They seem startled that a former United Methodist minister is
serving in public office.
Once when I was about to preach, my friend Johnny Hayes introduced me to
his congregation by telling of a political event that honored a
100-year-old gentleman. Johnny allegedly had asked the centenarian how
he had survived so long as a member of a small minority in a county
dominated by the other political party. The gentleman’s sage reply was:
"Johnny, you’ve just got to know who you can trust and who you can’t
When Johnny pressed him on how to tell the difference, the old man
replied: "There’s just three types of folks you can’t trust. You can’t
trust lawyers. You can’t trust preachers. And you can’t trust
God and Politics is Herron's upcoming book. A UMNS photo courtesy of
Sen. Roy Herron.
As I squirmed behind the pulpit, Johnny turned to me and said: "This
fellow here is a lawyer, a preacher and, last week, he went to work in a
political campaign. You can’t believe a thing he says!"
The congregation roared with laughter.
People may generally think more of preachers, even of lawyers. But
politicians are generally considered an untrustworthy lot. Why?
Many of us feel we have all the government we can stand––and more
than we can afford. We instinctively react against politics when we hear
about instances of waste, fraud, corruption, deception, arrogance,
abuse and burdensome taxes.
Many people of faith often hold this view of politics and government,
and they also believe that government in recent decades has contributed
to moral decline and the weakening of traditional values.
Like my father before me, I get edgy around April 15 when my wife and I
calculate our federal taxes. I’ve seen governments waste money much too
often. I’ve even known corrupt people in government who stole public
funds. I know too well how fallen our government and its officials can
“For all its flaws, our American political system is a blessing that too often we take for granted.”
As frustrating and maddening as that side of politics can be, I
remember the way one of my political friends in Tennessee used to begin
her speeches: "Politics is a beautiful word to me!" declared Tennessee
Sen. Anna Belle Clement O’Brien, who would go on to explain: "Politics
is how crippled children walk, the mentally ill get care, roads are
built, health care is provided, children are taught."
It is through the political process, through electing people to
represent us, that government works, doing the things we ourselves—the
people—ask it to do.
We ask governments to provide for the national defense, prevent crime,
catch and punish criminals and build courthouses, jails, roads and
airports. We ask them to help businesses grow, protect workers and needy
children and protect all of us from hazardous wastes and deadly
poisons, while also educating our children, preventing epidemics and
defending our constitutional rights to free speech, association and
Indeed, whether we respect our governments or not, we ask them to play
important and positive roles in the life of every American. For all its
flaws, our American political system is a blessing that too often we
take for granted. And no one owes government more than I do.
How politics saved my children
When my wife and I were expecting our first babies––twins!––there
were complications in the pregnancy. We went to a specialist who told us
there were two little boys, probably identical. Then the specialist
told us the twins had a condition that he had seen only 16 times and
that, in 15 of those cases, both twins had died. The sixteenth time, one
of the twins had died.
Thirty-two babies, 31 dead. He told us our twins were not going to live and recommended an abortion.
In 24 hours, we had six consultations with three doctors at two
hospitals. Further tests and a visit with Dr. Sal Lombardi, a high-risk
pregnancy specialist, led to a more hopeful prognosis. If Nancy could
carry the boys several more weeks, we might yet take two boys home.
Herron reviews pending legislation in
the Senate chambers. A UMNS
photo by Mike DuBose.
Nancy was minister of discipleship at a church in Nashville, but the
congregation—and many other friends—ministered to her during that time.
Her Bible study group met in our little apartment as Nancy went on
"modified bed rest."
We saw Dr. Lombardi weekly during much of the summer and daily during
the final days of the pregnancy. He was trying to delay the delivery as
long as possible so that the larger baby, whose lungs were not yet fully
developed, could have a better chance of surviving. But he did not want
to wait so long that the supply of blood to the smaller baby diminished
so much that it killed him. He literally was trying to balance the life
of one twin against the other.
Seven weeks before the due date, we were sent to the hospital for
delivery. While the larger baby’s lungs still were not as developed as
Dr. Lombardi wanted, if we waited even a single day longer, the smaller
baby probably would die.
John and Rick were born that day. Their birth day marked the end of one
difficult period and the beginning of another. Living in a neonatal
intensive care unit for 28 days straight was more than we ever wanted.
But we were so thankful our sons were alive. After four weeks, they sent
us home with both boys.
The politics of life and death
So, what does this story have to do with politics?
Dr. Lombardi, the high-risk pregnancy specialist who decided our twins’
birth day would not be their death day, graduated from public schools,
then went to college and medical school on federally subsidized student
loans. He developed his extraordinary expertise by learning from
taxpayer-funded teachers in government-funded schools, universities and
Dr. Doug Brown, the obstetrician who so skillfully delivered our babies
and took care of Nancy, received government-subsidized education and
The neonatologists who kept our babies alive also received
government-funded education and training, as did many nurses whose care
was essential for the boys’ survival.
“...If not for the wise and compassionate
decisions of men and women in government and the tax dollars paid by us
all, my sons would have died.”The hospital where our boys
spent their first four weeks is part of a private university, but
receives literally millions of tax dollars from our governments.
But this is only part of how our boys were saved by government and tax dollars.
One of our premature babies was treated with surfactant, which helped
his lungs develop so he could breath and survive. That miracle-working,
lifesaving drug was developed with millions of tax dollars invested by
our federal government.
The neonatal intensive care unit where they spent their first four weeks
was itself made possible and developed with both federal tax dollars
and private donations.
Several other treatment techniques, procedures and medicines that helped
save our babies and literally thousands and thousands of others were
developed with government funding.
Simply put, if not for the wise and compassionate decisions of men
and women in government and the tax dollars paid by us all, my sons
would have died. You can see, then, why I am unlikely to agree with any
oversimplified depiction of government as only evil.
Choosing for good
In America, politics selects and controls the governments that save
lives—or don’t. In America, politics and government often are forces for
good. If sometimes they do not do their job as well as they should,
then we should participate in the process and make them better.
“If people of faith refuse to participate in politics, then others will make the crucial decisions.”
Plato wrote: "He who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself."
And so it is for faithful Christians today. If people of faith refuse to
participate in politics, then others will make the crucial decisions.
In a democracy, the people get the government they choose—and work for.
You could say we get the government we deserve.
Government can be awful and it can be good; often it is both. Our duty,
as citizens and as Christians, is to make it better. The question, then,
is not: How can a Christian be in politics? The question is: How can a
Christian not be in politics?
*Herron is a former United Methodist minister and an attorney who has
served since 1987 in the Tennessee Legislature, where he is currently a
state senator. His book How Can a Christian be in Politics? was published in 2005 by Tyndale House Publishers.
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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