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

Principled Pragmatism

Napp Nazzworth


July 8, 2011
by Napp Nazzworth

God is good. Satan is evil. There is absolute truth. These commonly held beliefs too often lead Christians to conclude that in politics, there must also be absolute right and absolute wrong answers to public policy questions.

Perhaps our two-party system, which often reduces complex policy options into two and only two possible choices, contributes to this tendency towards political absolutism. Belief in right and wrong, good and evil, heaven and hell, God and Satan, has been translated too often into a belief that one party or candidate is on God's side, while the other party or candidate must be serving Satan's purposes.

Implied in the “what would Jesus cut?” campaign, for instance, is that anyone who disagrees with campaign supporters disagrees with Jesus. Similarly, former Congressman and Ambassador Tony Hall said at a press conference in March that, using the power of prayer, he was going to “sic God” on Republicans for their proposed cuts to anti-poverty programs. And conservative Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO) said recently, “at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God.” (Akin later clarified that he was not questioning the sincerity of any liberal Christians in particular, but that he was referring to liberalism as a “political movement”.) In a world where political issues are put into such stark terms, compromise has become a dirty word.

Compromise is essential, however, to any functioning democracy. There is nothing immoral, sinful or shameful in this fact. It is simply how democracies work. Opposition to compromise is, in practical terms, opposition to democracy. Only authoritarian governments can provide relief to those who cannot stomach compromise.

The word “compromise” often carries negative connotations. If I were flying in a plane, for instance, I would be worried to hear the pilot say, “our systems have been compromised.” We also have the common phrase “compromising your principles,” which most agree, should be avoided.

There are, however, at least two different definitions to the word compromise used in the context of politics: 1. a settlement of differences, and 2. a concession to something dishonorable. When political figures say, “I will not compromise my principles,” to explain their opposition to a public policy, they are confounding the two definitions.  A political compromise, a settlement of differences, is not the same as compromising one's principles, a concession to something dishonorable.

When two sides have a disagreement and agree to a compromise in which each side gives up some of what they want to resolve their differences, neither side has “compromised their principles,” but they have settled their differences. In public policy, therefore, compromise should not contain any negative connotations. Without it, a government of the governed would be impossible. 

In our political life, Christians should strive to become principled pragmatists. A willingness to compromise does not mean you have given up on your principles. Rather, it means you are pragmatic. You recognize that in a democracy, you will not have policies exactly as you would like, but you strive to make reasonable concessions based upon your principles.

This is particularly important to understand in the current debate over our national debt. Rather than helping to lead the charge against compromise, Christians should be at the forefront of helping our political parties bridge their differences on this most important policy question of the day. Thankfully, there are Christians today working to do just that. A Call for Intergenerational Justice, launched by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action, is an excellent example of what is possible when Christians from across the political spectrum come together and practice principled pragmatism. 

—Napp Nazzworth is a reporter for the Christian Post and has two blogs, Learning About Politics and Thinking Evangelical


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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.”