Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Rodda Project: An introduction

It was my great privilege in 1979 to join the staff of state Senator Albert S. Rodda, a Democrat who represented the Sacramento region in the upper house of the California state legislature. I had been awarded a Senate Fellowship and Rodda's aides selected me from among the new cohort of Senate Fellows for a position in his office. Although it unfortunately turned out that Sen. Rodda would leave the state legislature at the end of 1980, I ended up continuing to work for him in various capacities for the next several years. When he took over in 1981 as executive officer of the California Commission on State Finance, an agency of the State Treasurer's Office, I was the only staff member from his State Capitol office who accompanied him (the others all had job offers!).

The drastic downsizing of the Senator's staff in that transition from dean of the State Senate to executive officer of a small state agency resulted in my becoming a useful thread of continuity between the old and the new, the keeper of many papers and files left over from his 22 years in the legislature. While the California State Archives has several feet of storage space dedicated to Senator Rodda's papers, my transitional role (together with my notorious pack-rat tendencies) has preserved a large and informal collection of the position papers and essays of Albert S. Rodda. With this posting, The Back Bench is inaugurating the Rodda Project, my modest effort to make available a trove of thoughts and writings from one of California's keenest participants in the policies and politics of a crucial quarter century. The Senator took office the year that Pat Brown was elected governor and he left the senate in Jerry Brown's second term. You may recall that in the middle somewhere was another governor named Ronald Reagan.

Albert Rodda focused on public education and state finance, in particular because he was a long-time faculty member at Sacramento City College, but he was involved in every major state issue during his more than two decades in office. Rodda was a remarkably self-effacing individual, especially considering that he rose to become chair of two vital senate committees, Education and Finance. However, it was always his nature to work quietly and without bombast. His writing style, as you will see from the postings to follow, had an academic bent, but he came by his scholarly tendencies honestly, having earned a Ph.D. from Stanford after his service in World War II.

The Rodda Project, by the way, is not in itself a scholarly endeavor, although I would be delighted if someday it were to inspire scholars of state politics. I will not be annotating the Senator's writings in any significant way, nor will I edit his words. I plan to limit my interventions to minor technical points, such as turning the underlined text of the Senator's typewritten papers into italics or correcting one of his exceedingly rare misspellings (not, however, “correcting” his sometimes idiosyncratic usage or word choices). When I have ready access to books or papers he directly quotes, I check the quotes for accuracy; as expected, departures from cited texts are both rare and minor. In some cases, I provide context with some introductory paragraphs.

As the Rodda Project slowly grows in content, I'll maintain and update a sidebar that will serve as a quick guide to the Senator's papers. I have no great overarching scheme in mind, although I plan to identify each document as specifically as possible. Since Sen. Rodda was very good about dating his papers and labeling them with the venue in which they were delivered (as speeches or position papers), it will be easy in most cases for me to include those labels in each post. As you can tell, these are the first tentative steps in a work in progress.

Albert Rodda is alive at the time of this writing, a frail and genteel man of 95 years who resides quietly in his home in Curtis Park, close to Sacramento City College and the campus administrative and classroom complex that bears his name.

The Christian and the Democratic Process (1967)

The Rodda Project: The Christian's Role in Politics

Senator Rodda delivered this speech on January 30, 1967. His audience was the School for Christian Church and Service of First Evangelical United Church.

The Christian and the Democratic Process:
“What on earth are we doing about getting good government?”

In opening a discussion of this type, it might be well to quote or paraphrase a number of the world's leading thinkers who have commented upon the nature of government and, also, the meaning of democracy. In this way, perhaps, we may establish the context in which the discussion will develop.

It is my intent this evening to discuss, as clearly as I can, the meaning of the democratic, or open society, and to relate this system of government to the individual citizen, with particular reference to the Christian.

As I reflect upon the governmental process and through it the exercise of political power, I am reminded of Plato’s “Republic,” the first instance in western history in which the nature of government was examined in a substantive and rational manner. In this work, as I recall, Plato concluded after a careful analysis that the purpose of government was the achievement of justice. And I am also reminded of a comment that is alleged to have been made by Plato's student, Aristotle, and I paraphrase him, to the effect that “all governments eventually fail because of an excessive development or implementation of the basic principle upon which they are organized.”

Since our government is thought of or usually defined as a democracy, one wonders whether the observation of Aristotle will prove relevant. In effect, one wonders whether our system will fail because of an excessive development of the democratic principle or ideal upon which it is established. One's concern is heightened when one realizes that the meaning of democracy and the way in which the democratic processes of government have been developed in this country are badly understood or poorly appreciated by many citizens. Since a meaningful discussion of the citizen's role in government presumes an understanding of its essential character, I will briefly paraphrase a number of individuals who have remarked about democracy, either by way of definition or by way of a commentary.

Carl Becker, a famous American historian who is a specialist in the 18th Century, is quoted as describing “democracy is a tremendous gamble for the highest stakes.” This epigraph conveys dramatically my feeling about democracy and my own concept of its meaning. Certainly, democracy is a gamble and it must be a gamble because of the very essential idea behind it and because of the fact that its proper implementation provides no guarantee that the best interests of the people will be served or that its finest goals will be achieved, for example, the goal of justice.

Through democracy the “good world” may be realized, but not necessarily. George Bernard Shaw who remarked that democracy is that “system of government which guarantees the people what they ought to receive” focused on the essential element of the democratic process.

Through democracy the people exercise the final control over government and the uses to which governmental power may be put. This offers some assurance that government will serve good ends, but its great virtue is that if it fails, the failure will be the result of the failure of the people. Democracy guarantees, as Shaw remarked, that whatever the people experience—good or bad—it will be their doing, their responsibility; their government will be no better or worse than the people deserve. Can free men ask for more!

Despite this characteristic of the democratic system of government, the validity of democracy is being questioned and challenged today as never before. There are many who reject the verdict of Winston Churchill, who stated that “democracy was the worst possible form of government, only that it was better than any other.”

While democracy has many detractors, it also has many friends, and frequently its friends seek to rescue democracy by developing a concept of what democracy is in order to provide a norm or standard toward which we may move. Unfortunately, in most instances in which this is attempted the norms or models selected are not a true reflection of the American democratic process. To the extent that the model is an “ersatz” one, the well-meaning intentions of the friends of democracy tend to produce more confusion and, therefore, greater hazards for democracy. A few cases of “mistaken identity” may be cited.

For example, a case is made for what is described as “democracy as the American credo.” An appeal to history for legitimacy, the concept suggests that there is in existence an American creed or faith which can be extracted from the story of American history. Actually, the historical past can help us to understand the present, but it cannot provide a concrete, specific statement of democracy as a particular institution or event of yesterday, nor can it suggest what it ought to be today. The American Revolution, for example, solved only one question—the separation from Great Britain. It did not itself lead to the establishment of institutions, which by virtue of a consensus, may be looked upon as the legitimate or authentic form in which American democracy was cast and in which it should remain for perpetuity. The government which we know today actually developed out of prolonged disagreement and controversy over fundamental issues which were extremely intense in 1776 and 1789. A disagreement over basic ideals and institutions was the focus of controversy and it has carried on down to the present. It is foolish and transitory, therefore, to think that one may find in 1776, 1789 or 1865 an idealized form or model for American democracy.

Another model is that of democracy regarded as a religious faith. From this perspective it is suggested that the traditions of the Judeo-Christian religious morality provide an appropriate basis for a delineation of life upon a theistic view of the world which stands in contrast or opposition to the communistic ideal which is predicated or established upon an atheistic cosmic view. Unfortunately, the theistic model derives, also, from a misreading of American history, since American society developed out of a conviction that government could not provide a religious faith. Our society is actually founded on a commitment to provide the fullest possible freedom of expression in matters of theology and religious belief and this, therefore, is the only sense in which one can relate American democracy to Christianity or Judaism; it cannot otherwise be regarded without the risk of a crude distortion of the facts of our historical origins.

We must, it is sometimes argued, identify democracy or the democratic system of government, with capitalism. This interpretation arises from a confusion as to the distinction between the economic and political institutions of our country. Capitalism defines or describes the basic institutions we have developed for the production and distribution of economic goods. Democracy describes our political institutions and our governmental processes. To equate democracy with capitalism, therefore, is to insist upon an identity which is totally irrelevant to reality.

Historically, American society has given expression to forces supportive of capitalism and also forces which have been in opposition to it. We simply may not, therefore, equate democracy with capitalism, nor may we, on the other hand, equate socialism with totalitarianism. History does not reveal any particular mutualism between capitalism and democracy, neither does it identify collectivism or non-capitalism with totalitarianism. History records, on the contrary, that democratic processes of government are sometimes associated with socialism and that in contemporary European countries they have, when joined with a considerable amount of socialism, provided a principal defense against totalitarianism.

Moreover, capitalism, the full historical record reveals, has frequently been associated with colonialism and with political systems and structures which are anti-democratic. The hazard encountered when we equate democracy with capitalism is that we immediately place the economic status quo beyond the reaction of public opinion. Such an identification might, therefore, actually lead to the destruction of democracy itself, since any attempt to modify capitalism through the ordinary procedures of the democratic society, such as discussion of ideas and public criticism, might, because it constitutes a threat to capitalism, lead to the abandonment of democracy.

Another model is encountered in the identification of democracy with American constitutionalism. In this particular search for the real or true ideal, democracy is visualized as federalism, as the check and balance system, and as the separation of powers. Actually, these features of American constitutionalism are neither the essence of democracy nor are they essential to it, here or anywhere. Their existence in some instances has, in fact, hindered the development of democracy in America. They came into being largely as a necessity of political compromise, as a means of resolving differences peculiar to the united States. Federalism, for example, grew out of the political arrangements which were characteristic of our country's colonial history. The practice of checks and balances and the separation of powers, while an outcome of early colonial experience, was really an improvisation which was introduced into the basic elements of the government of the United States in order to thwart the popular will, or to avert what was commonly described as the tyranny of the majority. It would be improper, therefore, to hold that these characteristics of or elements in our constitutional arrangements are the essence of American democracy. Democracy can and does function effectively in other countries under institutions which certainly do not contain any of the elements of federalism, checks and balances and the separation of powers.

The identification of democracy with a faith or a credo, specific economic institutions, or certain unique features of our Constitution do a disservice to the concept. They reveal a failure to understand it. This sadly is one of the hazards which confronts our society today, because, as has been pointed out earlier, if we fail to understand what democracy really means, we certainly will be less competent to preserve it. If we struggle to realize a false image or model, we will quite likely give ourselves a directional impulse which is inimical to democracy.

We must know what democracy really is and means~ we cannot afford to act on the basis of a mistaken identity. We must know, also, that by virtue of its very essence, democracy presents a dilemma—the dilemma is how to maintain democracy despite the fact that within its essential essence may lie the seed of its own destruction.

The concept of the open society is the essence of the meaning of democracy; it, also, is the source of the democratic dilemma.

Anthropologists contend that in all societies there are certain “cultural universals.” These are the basic beliefs that hold a society together and give it meaning to its members. They are shared universally and once accepted become the embodiments of the spirit of the culture and they so permeate a society that they exclude other or alternative values. Institutions and practices tend, thus, to be opposite to or inversely related to others. This is true since they tend to implement or reflect competitive or opposite values; therefore, they are exclusive—monogamy excludes polygamy, for example.

If we are to appreciate the character of the open society, we must recognize that universals cannot be recognized as constituting such an integral part of the life of the society that they must be universally and rigorously imposed upon the people through the exercise of the political power of the government. Of course, such an admission does not carry with it the implication that a democratic society does not have or cannot rest upon a common set of values. Actually, a free or democratic society must have such values, but they must relate to the society in a different manner than those which are found in a rigorously structured society, whether extremely primitive or of a modern totalitarian character. The cement that binds a democratic society together is unique; whereas, there are no substantive universals imposed upon the citizen by law, there are certain processes to which there is universal commitment incorporated in the body politic. These can be regarded as “procedural universals,” and they are absolutely fundamental to the democratic society. They are the essential freedoms and constitutional guarantees, such as the freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of press, freedom of association, and freedom from arbitrary action of the government, or, in essence, due process of law.

Another universal or basic absolute, you might say, of the free society, is the integrity of the individual—the requirement that the citizen must be regarded at all times as an individual possessing fully and equally with all others the same basic rights under the Constitution and the same freedom to be involved in society.

These are the essential ideas of the free society and they are vital to the preservation of it. When they exist, it is impossible for an authoritarian or totalitarian system to come into being and it is only when they do exist that a free society can be said to be operative among people.

The general idea that derives from this condition, of course, is that there must be some common values—such as the necessity of speaking honestly, or seeking the truth, of dealing fairly with opposing views, and of acting with integrity toward the existing institutions of a country, of recognizing due process of law, and of exercising self-control or engaging in responsible personal self-government. In a free society it is essential that one is concerned about means as well as ends and that one avoids making the means the ends of society—in other words, making the control and the use of power the end of government.

Power must be exercised with the understanding that power is not absolute and that it must be used constructively—at all times with due respect for the rights of the individual. These are the essential universals of the democratic system as it pursues its search for truth and for social justice. This unending quest for truth is the thing that will make men free. While it continues there will not be a final attachment to an idea, an ideology, to a faith, or to a particular value which characterizes totalitarianism in its many forms. In its essence, the free society means that all substantive questions are open to question.

Doctors John Livingston and Robert Thompson in The Consent of the Governed have stated it as follows: “... the ideal of democracy requires that all universals be procedural rather than substantive and that all questions ... be at least potentially open ones.”

A qualification is that it is not likely or even desirable from the point-of-view of social stability “that all matters will be in dispute at all times. It is only necessary that they be potentially open“ for evaluation. This essentially is the difference between a totalitarian and democratic society—that is, “The totalitarian state operates from an authoritative all-embracing ideology which furnishes answers to all human problems and standards of taste and judgment and all human relations” at all times.

A pluralistic or open society is one “in which government does not prescribe the interests or opinions of its citizens and in which, therefore, forms of group life may flourish at the initiative and discretion of citizens.”

Having defined the democratic idea, or model, as a system of government in which the citizens are charged generally with determining who will govern them and only incidentally are engaged in the actual process of government, I will undertake to relate this system to the individual citizen.

A question that one might pose is whether the government which democracy provides is good or bad. In reflecting upon this question, one must realize that goodness is purely, in the political sense, subjective and relative.

There appear to be no objective and absolute criteria of goodness insofar as the ends of government are concerned; goodness in this context is strictly relative and a matter of opinion. As a consequence, any value judgment about the goodness or badness of government will of necessity be debatable. However, one should, in reflecting on this problem, keep in mind the obvious fact that democracy itself is not an end of government and that the existence of democracy does not of necessity result in conditions which are automatically or of necessity in conformity with the public good. A democracy is merely a method of government; it may lead to good or bad government. We, therefore, must constantly remind ourselves that democracy guarantees only one thing—that the citizens will control their government and that there is no guarantee as to the quality of the result of that government.

Whether the product of democratic government is good will depend, I suppose, on its ability to provide for the public or the general welfare. This, too, will depend, I think, upon the level of involvement of its citizens, the knowledge that the citizens have of problems of government, and the freedom that they enjoy to debate issues and to exercise the right of dissent. Such conditions are absolutely essential to the ultimate success of government by the people, they will provide, if the consensus or majority view proves inappropriate or contrary to the general welfare, a means through which change may be achieved and the minority point-of-view elevated to the level of a consensus. In this way democracy can and may provide a means for improvement and for the implementation of the good life by peaceful, evolutionary change, by revision and adjustment.

The good life probably, if it were to be defined in terms of specifics, would include the following:
  1. the preservation of the freedom of the individual to fulfill himself as a citizen;
  2. the creation of a continuing opportunity for the citizen to function within the economic system on a level commensurate with his abilities;
  3. an assurance to the individual of a position in the social system fully equal to that of any other individual, in effect status free from any form of discrimination which, deriving either from law or custom, assigns him an inferior position in society for any reason not related to his qualities or capabilities as a citizen;
  4. the protection of the independence of the state and the preservation of its sovereignty against external aggression;
  5. the creation of opportunities for the individual to develop fully the capacities of mind, spirit and body necessary for meaningful involvement in society in all of its aspects—cultural, educational, political;
  6. adequate provision for dealing with the problems which, while affecting the general well being, do not lend themselves to treatment on an individualistic basis; (examples of such a need would be that of education, elimination of air and water pollution, conservation of natural resources, community planning, national defense, and so on. Obviously, in an expanding, dynamic society such as ours, there will be an expansion of government into areas of activities which are of such a character);
  7. stabilization of the economic system in order to provide reasonably full employment, economic growth and expansion and a fairly wide diffusion of the national income among the citizens of the state;
  8. protection of the society through regulatory activities to check the abuses of monopoly or economic individualism;
  9. maintenance of law and order—the protection of property, civil order and public morals—the exercise of the police power of the state; and, finally,
  10. provision for a fair and speedy administration of justice through an honest and efficient judicial process.
Obviously, these criteria are not intended to be all inclusive, but they do, I think, offer a fairly selective and comprehensive list against which we might evaluate whether or not one's community conforms to the standards of a good society. Of course, it is apparent that any evaluation of a community or a society in terms of success or failures in these areas will be subject to disagreement, and quite possibly the principal areas of disagreement probably would center on the following:

National defense. The question which might be raised would be whether or not the government is adequately dealing with the communist menace, both as an ideology and as a form of political and economic aggression.

Civil rights. The question might be whether or not the government, under certain conditions, ought or ought not to protect citizens in their constitutional rights as citizens.

Civil liberties. Another closely related area of difference might be that of civil liberties—the issue being whether or not specified government policies might constitute a substantial interference with freedom of press and speech or the exercise of those basic rights which are essential to the preservation of a free citizenship.

Economic stabilization. Here the disagreement might very well be whether the government is proceeding too far with the regulation and taxation of business and is engaging in activities of an economic character which are harmful to the economy and, therefore, inimical to the economic goals of the society.

Welfare. The question might certainly be raised as to whether the government is undermining the moral character of the people through its efforts to compensate through welfare programs for the economic inadequacies of the economy and the poverty of many citizens.

There are other areas of major differences which might be mentioned; these, I believe, are the principal ones.

The critical factor in a democracy is that government is the responsibility ultimately of the majority of the citizens. Meaningful majority rule explicitly requires that government be aware of the public well being and that it attempt to advance it to the best of its ability—acknowledging at all times, however, the limits upon its power—and, therefore, while implementing programs as a means of achieving its objectives, preserve the maximum area of freedom £or the individual.

Also, essential to the democratic ideal is the right of the minority to the exercise of those freedoms which it must possess if it is to translate into policy and program the minority position.

It is in this context that the individual citizen operates and functions in a democracy. He commits himself to it; he involves himself in it, and he, at all times, evaluates it from the standpoint of the public, as well as the private good. Whether the citizen, in his evaluation of government sees good or evil will depend, of course, on his perspective.

We might reflect briefly upon the Greek concepts of Hubris and Sophrosyne, as we undertake to render a judgment upon the outcome of the governmental processes. Hubris, excessive pride and insolence, was regarded by the Greeks as sinful behavior. Sophrosyne, a personal life which exhibited self-restraint and intelligent recognition of the needs and requirements of the community, was regarded as virtuous behavior.

A problem confronting society today derives from the fact that there are those who, because of a lack of understanding of the real character of democracy, would through an excessive display of Hubris, or through an insolent disregard of the community interests, produce a condition of social chaos. A genuine possibility is that a condition of social anarchy may be brought on through an excessive assertion of selfish individualism. A problem of a different character and dimension is that other individuals, through an over-zealous pursuit of Sophrosyne, may encourage a subservience of the citizen to the society, or its personification in the state, and, as a consequence, introduce a form of totalitarianism into America.

On this point José Ortega y Gasset commented: “there will not be found amongst all representatives of the actual period, a single group whose attitude to life is not limited to believing that it has all the rights and none of the obligations. It is indifferent whether it disguises itself as reactionary or revolutionary; actively or passively, after one or two twists, its state of mind will consist, decisively, in ignoring all obligations, and in feeling itself, without the slightest notion of why, possessed of unlimited rights. Whatever be the substance which takes the position of such a soul, it will produce the same result, and will change it into a pretext for not conforming to any concrete purpose. If it appears as reactionary or anti-liberal it will be in order to affirm that the salvation of the state establishes a right to level down all other standards, and to man-handle one's neighbor but the same happens if it decides to act the revolutionary; the apparent enthusiasm for the manual worker, for the afflicted, for social justice, serves as a mask to facilitate the refusal of all obligations.”

In a free society the relation of subject and predicate, or citizen as agent and citizen as a recipient, are interesting. In the role of subject or agent the individual, to the degree that he is involved, influences the outcome of government, or its ultimate character. The citizen, if he is displeased with society as he interprets its goals and achievement, has an obligation to undertake to change it; this is not aright, it is the responsibility and obligation of all citizens in the free society. It is especially the obligation of the Christian, and especially of the educated citizen—for he must be involved if the ends of government are to prove worthy of its ideals. So, the citizen, in his role as activist or participant, can be and must be one of the many forces which determine the end result of government. The end product of government, of course, is the experience of the citizen in his passive role in which he is the principal object or recipient of the exercise of government power and authority. He is hardly justified in criticizing the condition of his fate as a recipient, or as an object of the ends of government, if he declines to exercise the role of citizen and refuses to assume his share of the responsibility for the determination of its ends and for the implementation of those ends.

The special obligation of the Christian flows from the fact that his life is ordered and constructed upon a religious foundation and reflects, if it is a worthy life, the ideals of that faith. We may infer from history, also, that the Christian ethics rest upon values which are traditionally related to the basic values of the free society, for example, (1) the emphasis placed upon the inner character of man, his motives, will and desires, (2) the importance to the Christian of the commandment of love, (3) the view that man is under obligation to God, which gives cosmic significance to his moral life, (4) the role of Christ as an inspiration to a life of idealism, and, finally, and very significant, Christianity's emphasis upon the absolute necessity of man's spiritual and moral growth—the view of man as an end and not as a means to an end.

This latter view of man, of course, is the absolute essence of the democratic ideal of society. Democracy affirms that man and the service of man is the end of government. It rejects the view that man is a servant of the state, and, as such, is a thing to be manipulated in order to serve ends other than those related to his own dignity and personal fulfillment.

The initial encounter of the citizen in his attempt to engage in politics is one of bewilderment and confusion. He does not know how to be effective and not infrequently an inadequate understanding of government leads to discouragement and eventually to disengagement. Usually, the sense of frustration experienced by the novice results from his over optimism. His unrealistic expectations produce a disappointing encounter. This can be avoided if the expectations of the first commitment are not too ambitious. It is important also that the neophyte learn how to make his effort reasonably effectual~ otherwise, a sense of inadequacy will fortify the sense of frustration and contribute to disillusionment and withdrawal.

There are essentially two ways to be involved in government: one, is as a citizen concerned with the public well being and the other is as a member of an interest group which is organized to advance a special objective. All of us are part of the public; all of us are members of one or more special interest groups.

If we desire an involvement or commitment aimed at a fuller expression of our membership in the community, we may proceed directly to partisan politics or to involvement in an idea group trying to influence government. If we wish to serve a personal, special interest, we may act as part of or through a special interest group—a business association, a religious organization, an employee group, or an employer group.

The widespread acceptance today of the “brokerage” theory of government, which visualizes government primarily as the reconciliation of selfish or special interests, presents a serious problem to a democratic society. Most citizens have a primary commitment to special interests and mild, almost indifferent, feeling toward the general interest. The compulsion experienced by many citizens, therefore, is the powerful urge to avoid partisan politics and to be involved almost completely and sometimes quite intensely in the cause of a particular and personal special interest.

The crux of our crisis in democracy today, therefore, is found, to a significant degree, in “the attitudes of individual citizens toward politics.” There seems to be an excessive preoccupation with personal affairs, which, in the words of De Tocqueville, “saps the virtues of public life,” and a too narrow involvement of the citizen in matters of public concern.

This condition encourages the “brokerage” concept or practice of government and tends to negate the prime requirement of democracy, which is that the citizen's role is to serve the interest of the public good.

If the Christian is to be involved in a meaningful way, he must share in the processes of government and be consciously active on the determination and advancement of the public good. This aspect of his civic life must be completely subordinate to his commitment to his selfish, business, professional or workingman's interest.

There are too many individuals who do not realize that the obligation of the citizen is one which requires a commitment and an involvement in the broad arena of political strife and controversy. This, therefore, is a cardinal weakness of the free society.

The issue before us, therefore, is not whether government is evil or good; the issue before us is the failure for the average man to realize that government is a primary responsibility of the citizen and, particularly, of the Christian citizen.

The role of an active citizen is not always easy. Registering and voting are time consuming, but that is about all, and this is the simplest and most direct way in which a citizen functions in the body politic. However, an involvement beyond this level, through active identification with a political party, involves more of a commitment, more of an effort, and more distress. Such an involvement places the individual in a role which produces an experience unknown to those associated with the church, with a special interest group, with civic activities, or even with non-partisan politics. Such an involvement provides an automatic encounter with controversy and conflict; it is sometimes exhilarating, but, as I have suggested, it is more often disillusioning. However, the principal difficulty encountered in personal involvement is not in becoming accustomed to confusion, to conflict, or the intrusion of politics into one's private life; it is rather in finding a modus operandi within a pluralistic society, embracing many special interest groups, for the effective implementation of one's essential moral convictions and, at the same time, preserving and safeguarding the institutions and processes which collectively make up the democratic way of life.

One immediately finds, when one is involved in partisan politics, that controversy is immediate, often intense, and tremendously disruptive. Often, unfortunately, it becomes quite personal. Success requires, therefore, that one view dispassionately the arena of politics when committed to it and learn, as President Johnson observed, “to disagree without being disagreeable,” and, thus, insure that a conflict of ideals does not become translated into a conflict of personalities or even destructive militancy.

Perhaps, the greatest danger of the moralist in politics is his tendency toward dogmatism—his inclination to take a black and white view on political issues, to see government as right or wrong, rather than good or bad. This propensity of the moralist produces a compulsion to become dogmatic and doctrinaire. It seriously handicaps one's ability to function effectively in an area where the preservation of relations cordial to the continuation of a dialogue is essential. Failure to exercise restraint in the context of active political involvement can produce a miasma or political sickness totally destructive of the spirit and institutions of the open society.

The fundamentalist religions, in particular, have trouble when politically committed. Absolute in the beliefs about their religion and the essential truths of their doctrine, they are unable to admit the view that society should tolerate an opposite view or to allow it to be advocated. Censorship—an appeal to the state—is the bulwark upon which they often rest their case and in so doing they advocate a course of action which, if pursued relentlessly, possesses an inherent potential for producing the final death of the free society, which of necessity must be pluralistic. Fundamentalists experience a difficulty in accepting or tolerating conditions which from their perspective are goalless, immoral and, therefore, sinful.

The truths revealed to them in their view are the ones which should be made the “established truth.” They fail to realize that in a non-democratic, non-pluralistic society, error, either of the majority or the minority, might or rather are generally permanently enthroned as “established truth.”

The Christian must, therefore, continuously remind himself that politics is not a black or white situation—especially in a free society. It is majority rule expressed with proper regard for the minority and with the guarantee of an opportunity for the minority to translate its view into a majority position. The Christian must rekindle the eternal hope that the prevailing majorities will reflect moral principles; since a society without ideals cannot achieve its true worth any more than can an individual.

Rigid adherence to the Christian ethic often generates in the believer a quality of absoluteness which also generates problems for the Christian who vigorously seeks to make that ethic viable and universal. It brings him into direct confrontation with the necessity of achieving a reconciliation between this commandment and the issues of war and peace, capital punishment, racial discrimination, social justice, and public and private morality.

The practical requirements of political life obviously produce a dichotomy or dual standard which is essentially a compromise and usually disturbing and unsatisfying to Christians. Some respond by withdrawal, even from society, and others from political life—taking the position that they can have no commitment to a political entity based upon values they reject or as operating amorally or without values. Others accept the anomaly and rationalize it—usually with the view that the democratic society through their involvement may create a morality, if it has none, or develop one more congenial to Christian idealism, if it is totally secular and materialistic. It is their hope, of course, that the separation of the spiritual and temporal power will then become less distinct and both the individual and society will be benefited.

At all times we must remember that American government is not based upon an ideology—that it tends to be non-ideological and that it is basically pragmatic. It deals with problems as they develop on a practical basis. If it has an ideology—and I doubt it appropriate to use the term in such a manner—the ideology is the concept and practice of majority rule and respect for the dissenting view of the minority. From its pluralism has come, therefore, a consensus which is an adjustment to practical problems, not an implementation of a particular ideology. In its concept and practice, the state is not given the role of protector of any orthodoxy or doctrine, whether of statism, Protestantism, atheism, communism, or racism. Its role is to preserve an opportunity for the people to develop a consensus which will produce the good life—justice to all men and respect for the dignity of man—clearly essential elements of the Christian ethics.

A corollary rule is that if there is a determination to proscribe by law a form of behavior because it is regarded as contrary to the moral precepts of Christianity or of a particular interpretation of Christian moral values, it should be established, prior to its enactment, that any such legislative proscription serves the public good by preventing a social evil and that it is not merely a prohibition of personal freedom, even if judged essential to the individual's well being. This is, it seems to me a basic principle to be recognized and observed by those citizens of an “open or free society” who understand its essential character—its pluralism.

The “closed society” can, of course, impose its will on the individual for his own good or for the good of the secular theology. In fact, it is not only appropriate to the ideology of such a society, but essential for its survival.


It would seem to me that the Christian, as an individual and as a member of a Christian fellowship, must have a special obligation to participate in politics. But, in so doing, he must be aware of the metes and bounds or the context within which his political involvement will of necessity place him. He must understand the open or democratic society; its pluralistic character; its ends and goals; its ideology and moral assumptions; and its peculiarities of structure and organization.

He must avoid being doctrinaire about his peculiar morality; he must accept the majority rule; protect the right of dissent; reconcile himself to the view that the immorality of the community—or even its amorality should be corrected by education and precept in preference to legislation. If society errs, he must remember that it is better to err and be free to change than to err permanently, once and forever.

He should remember the admonition of Michah in the Old Testament:
“Seek justice; love mercy and walk humbly in the presence of God.”
He should prefer to “light a candle than curse the darkness.”