Thorns and Thistles, by Marvin Olasky

Thorns and Thistles, by Marvin Olasky

Thorns and Thistles: Evangelicals should limit their expectations of—but not their participation in—politics, by Marvin Olasky

(This article originally appeared in World Magazine on Sept. 25, 2010. It is reprinted here with Marvin Olasky’s permission in anticipation of his talks at All Saints’ 2013 Cross & Culture series.)

We kick off WORLD’s intensive campaign coverage in this issue. That raises questions: What should be the evangelical frame of mind as we slouch toward this crucial election on Nov. 2? Why be involved in politics when we don’t see much progress?

Our starting point in evaluating “progress” should be God’s declaration in Genesis 3 following Adam’s sin. God tells the perpetrator, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.”

Those words may be familiar, but stare at them for a time: “cursed .. . pain . . . thorns and thistles.” Why do people spend five years creating a book, a movie, a new product, a ministry, a school-and the result is underwhelming? Like even great major league hitters, we usually make an out. That’s Adam’s curse.

Given the curse, a tie in politics—contra football wisdom—is not like kissing your sister. Given everything that can and does go wrong, fending off a loss is not bad. And that leads to a call not for cynicism, disengagement, or “being silent for a season,” but for political realism.

We are unrealistic when we say that conservatives, when they held sway in the White House or Congress, didn’t do much, and therefore it doesn’t matter whether evangelical conservatives get politically involved or not. Having a do little Congress isn’t bad. For 12 years I had a fox terrier who barked at every passerby. I learned to prefer a more sedate Lab mutt.

Liberals in power bark and bark, and their bite—in taxes and lives—is even worse than their bark. Think of all the barking and biting last year and this, as Obamites and Pelosians feasted at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Sure, Republicans from 2001 to 2006 messed up, but-given post-curse thorns and thistles-that shouldn’t surprise us.

Sure, it was frustrating to see the GOP mutt not push for the relatively small changes in our healthcare system that would really have helped poor people-but isn’t it worse to see yipping Democrats move us toward socialism?

We similarly minimize the results of Adam’s fall when we say the pro-life movement has failed because abortion is still legal. Back in 1970 reasonable prognosticators were predicting that by this year the United States would have 4 million abortions annually. They did not anticipate the growth and perseverance of the pro-life movement. The actual butcher’s bill is probably 1.2 million, still a terrible number, but 70 percent less horrible than the forecast.

We underestimate the fall’s effect when we search for the perfect candidate: Sometimes we have to ask, “Which candidate will do the least harm?” A standard Barack Obama commercial in 2007/2008 went like this: “You see, they don’t believe we can actually change politics and bring an end to decades of division and deadlock.”

Evangelicals should have said, “That’s right, you won’t be able to reverse the curse, but you can reduce its effect by decentralizing whenever possible.”

This is not a call for pessimism, but for truth in advertising rather than hype. Can we end abortion? No, given sin, but we can reduce the number of killings, and one day give unborn children legal protection. Can we eliminate poverty? No, but we can also reduce its extent.

Want legislators to read bills before they vote on them? Demand that, and have a free press embarrass them when they don’t. Want to reduce the power of lobbyists? If we reduce the size of the Washington honey pots, bears will find other places to stick their snouts.

We can work for candidates who have shown their trustworthiness and who pledge to defend life and liberty. We can vote for senators who will not confirm judges likely to substitute their own views for the Constitution’s. We can support men and women who have not only the right policy positions but the character to fight for them. And we can push for journalists to tell the truth about the politicians they cover and the principles at stake.

– – –

Curious to hear more on faith and politics? Register today for Cross & Culture on March 1.