Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Christians for Compromise

Clay Cooke


February 1, 2013

By Clay Cooke

Why do we revere individuals such as William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King? As some may recall, Wilberforce helped abolish slavery in the British Empire by way of his tireless efforts as a politician; Bonhoeffer opposed Nazi practices to the point that he participated in an assassination plot against Adolf Hilter—a plot that ultimately cost him his life; and Martin Luther King, motivated by the pursuit of justice and equality, helped lead the Civil Rights Movement until his assassination in 1968. The common thread among these individuals, and the virtue that we hold in high esteem, is this: they were all unwilling to compromise the deepest principles of their Christian faith in order to pursue public justice.

In the United States today, however, we do not live in an era defined by overt human rights violations such as genocide, slave importation and ownership, or the segregation and exclusion of African Americans from public spaces. Rather we live in a period characterized by debates over the “fiscal cliff,” gun control, health care reform and the debt ceiling.  Concerning these issues and many more, what might it look like to function with the righteous conviction and faith of Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, and King?  Does it mean that we refuse to compromise as they did?

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Lisa Miller poses a similar question to three prominent Christian leaders: Cal Thomas, Jim Wallis and Richard Mouw. She asks, “Would God want us to compromise to avoid the ‘fiscal cliff’?”  The first two leaders, Thomas from the political right and Wallis from the political left, answer “no,” albeit for very different reasons. While the former ultimately seeks to protect individual rights, the latter desires to protect the poor and vulnerable. The third theologian, Richard Mouw, answers “yes.” He contends that Christians need a robust theology of compromise—one that recognizes both the depth of human sin and the acute complexities of issues like the “fiscal cliff.”  He likens the idea of embracing compromise to an exercise in discernment.  This framework, Mouw maintains, is an indispensable virtue in political life. 

Granted, not all political issues contain the same level of ambiguity as federal fiscal procedures.  For example, many Christians persuasively argue for steadfast stances on abortion, immigration and climate change. Yet even on these seemingly “clear-cut” issues, Mouw’s remarks have thoroughgoing implications.  They enable us to see that sin is not most basically “out there” in the world; it is not to be equated with right-wing Tea Party ideals or Barack Obama’s “liberal” policies.  Rather, sin is fundamentally in us.  Thus to observe the problem with American politics, one only needs to look in the mirror.  If Christians apprehend this fact, they will recognize that policy discussions require humility and discernment instead of rigid ideology.  They will see, in short, the urgent need for a spirit of compromise. 

Unfortunately, contemporary political culture in the United States does little to facilitate this spirit of compromise.  For example, since the tragic shootings in Newtown, CT, “culture wars” have raged over the issue of gun control; the looming debt ceiling debate promises to be more heated and polarized than the “fiscal cliff” talks; and many political pundits have suggested that Obama’s recent inaugural speech was strikingly oppositional in contrast to his 2009 address. Perhaps most telling of our current political climate, though, is one conservative group’s reaction to the “fiscal cliff” deal earlier this year.  In response to what they saw as Mitch McConnell’s willingness to “negotiate” with Obama over fiscal legislation, the group ran attack ads against McConnell in his home state of Kentucky.  Hence McConnell, who famously vowed to make Obama a one-term president, was apparently not intransigent enough; his mere openness to consider a plan that did not comply with 100 percent of his party’s values conceded too much.

These stubborn times bring us back to the question: what might it look like to demonstrate and embody faith similar to Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, and King?  Whereas in their circumstances it meant the absolute unwillingness to compromise, in our circumstances it may mean just the opposite. Faithful participation in politics may mean exhibiting genuine give-and-take, empathy for diverse viewpoints and openness to change.  Radical political discipleship, that is, may just call for radical compromise—an ethic based not on relativism but the wellspring of God’s grace.  

—Clay Cooke is pursuing a PhD in Ethics at Fuller Seminary. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”