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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 trust."

God and Politics is Herron's upcoming book. A UMNS photo courtesy of
Sen. Roy Herron.


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 politicians."

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?

Different perspectives

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 be.

“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 worship.

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.

Herron reviews pending legislation in
the Senate chambers. A UMNS
photo by Mike DuBose.


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.

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 hospitals.

Dr. Doug Brown, the obstetrician who so skillfully delivered our babies and took care of Nancy, received government-subsidized education and training.

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 newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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