We’ve witnessed story after story about the abuse of power practiced by Christians and Christian institutions. Does that mean that, to quote Lord Acton, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely?” How should followers of Jesus relate to the possibility of wielding power? Cherie Harder, the President of The Trinity Forum, is ideally suited to address these questions. She’s spent a lifetime in the corridors of power and shares a wealth of theological and practical wisdom on this important topic.
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
CHERIE HARDER: It’s much more common to find the misuse of power not only in the dark and dastardly, but in petty little self-deceptions and petty self-advancements. They contort our faith – or the language of faith – to advance and to excuse.
I’m thinking of one instance years ago when a boyfriend of mine was the Chief of Staff for a member of house leadership. Over the span of a month or so, at least 10 different members of Congress sought an audience with his boss to tell them that God was leading them to run for president. 10 of them.
And presumably, they were fairly sincere. They had been praying and seeking God’s guidance. It’s unlikely that God had been saying to all ten of them that they should run for president. I think it’s very easy for us to mistake our own wishes for the will of God. And I think we often use Christian language to disguise what’s essentially our own self-interest.
CURTIS CHANG: Talk more about that dynamic and why it’s so dangerous to use faith to cloak the raw desire for coercive or self-serving power. Why is that mixture so particularly dangerous?
CHERIE HARDER: Boy, there’s something uniquely dark about those moments in history when religion has been instrumentalized – much less weaponized – to serve selfish interest. There are plenty of examples of things going terribly wrong. You think about the French Revolution, how one of the slogans was, “Strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.” That’s dark and awful.
But in literature you can see part of what led to that. A Tale of Two Cities opens with a young French peasant being killed because he failed to bow quickly to a priest. There’s always a temptation to try to play God and to demand worship. It’s a form of idolatry. And almost all abuse of power is either idolatry or injustice.
CURTIS CHANG: It strikes me that when most Christians are heading into positions of power, they’re not thinking, “Gosh, this is my opportunity to practice idolatry. Now is my chance to finally wield self-serving power and use faith as a cloak.” The road to abusing power is a slow and subtle process of corruption.
As somebody who’s been in DC for so long, I imagine you must see this process happen. Can you describe this process? What are the key markers? What are the dynamics such that an otherwise well-intentioned person can go down this path?
CHERIE HARDER: Yeah. There are many different routes, of course. I’ll mention a few that I’ve noticed.
One is confusing means and ends, or thinking the end is so important that it justifies the means.
The moment, the bill, the policy, the law – it’s so important that it doesn’t matter if we break a few eggs to make an omelet.
One example is from my time working for the Senate Majority Leader. I met with a Christian group that was concerned about a hate crimes bill. They were not happy with it and thought it was wrong. And at the time, my boss agreed with them.
And I met with them to say, “Look, right now we count 65 votes for this. The bill won’t come up for a while so there’s time, but you will have to engage in the old art of persuasion.” And frankly, I thought I had given them pretty good policy and political advice. We were united on the desired outcome and hoped that they would work to persuade people to think differently and peel off a few votes. Instead, one of the people in the meeting stood up, slammed her hands down on the table, pointed to me, and said, “You are grieving God.”
It was a chilling moment, and looking back, I think she was sincere. I think it probably took a form of courage. In her mind, she was speaking truth to power. The problem was that she saw senate rules – even the law – as things we should brush aside. And failing to do so would somehow be disobedient to God, whose law superseded the law of the land. It’s an illustration of how that kind of thinking happens, that the cause is so important that it justifies throwing off the constraints of the law itself.
I’ll also mention that so many of the fights in Washington, while they are pitched to the rest of the country as big fights between good and evil, are often really conflicts over tactics or approaches or budgets. It is rarely a straight up-and-down moral issue.
So that’s a really important place to start: to insist that your ways and means be in accordance with your end. If your aim is a just, civil, charitable and flourishing society, your means must also be just, civil, and charitable. You can’t have means that contradict the end.
And a second thing I’ll mention is the self deception that eventually comes with that. As believers, we follow the Way, the Truth and the Life. But it’s often tempting to believe that, because we follow the truth, we always have the truth. But our ability to accurately perceive truth in any given moment is affected by the fall. Our judgment is not perfect. And so it’s important to allow for what’s been called a healthy “epistemological modesty.”
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