I used to be more political than I am now. After more than four decades of participating in the political process, I’m a little disenchanted with the whole prospect of changing society through politics. But not totally. My expectations of the political process are now less naive and more nuanced. Let me explain.
The first presidential election that I participated in was the 1976 contest between Carter and Ford. I was in college at the time, and I was incredibly naive about the political process. As I watched a televised debate between the candidates, I was surprised to see that both men used statistics to support their points of view. Numbers, I reasoned, are objective. Statistics can’t be skewed to support opposing ideas. (I told you I was naive.)
I remember asking one of my professors about my perspective on statistics and opposing ideas. I can still remember his answer: “Paul, you’ve got to remember this. Figures don’t lie. But liars do figure.”
I voted for Carter. I liked the idea that an openly born-again Christian would occupy the highest office in the land. My political opinions were sketchy and ill-formed then, but I remember being troubled at his response to the question of abortion: He was personally opposed to abortion, he said, but his role as head of the Executive branch was to enforce the law, not change it.
Then along came the Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution. Like many evangelicals, I got swept up in that euphoria. Jerry Falwell was rallying the troops. When James Dobson spoke, Washington trembled. Those were heady days for evangelical values voters.
But my enthusiasm, even then, was tempered. I remember wondering at the time about the agenda for this powerful new voting bloc: opposition to abortion on demand I understood as a moral and biblical issue, but support for the B-1 bomber? I began to wonder if this alliance of Christian voters and the GOP was more about consolidating conservative political power and less about advancing a biblically-informed agenda.
But everyone loves a winner, and my vote for Ronald Reagan was the first of a string of presidential campaigns in which voters like me backed the winner: Reagan, Reagan, Bush.
That’s why Bill Clinton’s 1992 win over George H.W. Bush–the president who had driven Hussein out of Kuwait–came as such a shock. I had never seen my man give the concession speech on election night. What went wrong? How could a pro-choice adulterer take the White House? What had happened to that gargantuan evangelical voting bloc?
It was during Clinton’s eight years in office that I began to notice a pattern. His taking of the White House didn’t seem to make a significant difference. The cultural status of issues that had driven me (and millions of other values voters) were relatively unchanged. Abortion was still, in the words of Clinton, “safe and legal.” It began to appear to me that it didn’t really matter who was in the White House or how many marchers showed up for the annual March for Life in Washington, or which party controlled Congress. No matter who occupied the halls of power, things didn’t seem to change, at least not much.
The ascendancy of George W. Bush gave new hope to me and other voters like me. This was another openly born-again Christian, a man with a testimony, a man of principle. I voted for him twice and saw him win twice, but by now I was voting with less enthusiasm and far lower expectations. Politics, it seemed, would never bring about the sweeping social changes we values voters longed for.
I even began to wonder if the liberals were right about the Republican Party. Was the GOP merely manipulating values voters–playing on our fears–with the wedge issues of abortion and homosexuality, just so it could remain in power? If that’s true, and if it doesn’t really make that much difference who’s in charge, what difference does political action make? Why even bother? (I never actually stopped voting, but these dark thoughts did cloud my mind.)
Then I remembered two men. My friend John White attended the same church many years ago. I knew him to be an honest, intelligent man of principle, and I knew he was involved in local politics. We were actually standing side by side at a pro-life event when he told me that politics is often discouraging. He called it “a three-steps-forward-two-steps back” sort of affair, where you just had to persevere to get anything done. At last report, White went on to serve in the Ohio state legislature until 2008, when term limits forced him to retire from office. John White, a good and intelligent man, thought political action was worth many years of his professional life. He dedicated his energies to the tedious labor of politics because he thought it was the right thing to do.
And I remember William Wilberforce, the man who waged a twenty year campaign to eradicate the slave trade in England. Wilberforce’s mentor John Newton, a former slave trader himself, urged the young politician not to go into the ministry but to remain in politics. And it was as a politician–a doggedly determined politician–that Wilberforce changed the course of history.
So I have come to realize that while I was wrong to be so naive in those early days, I would be just as wrong to be cynical now. Politics is hard work–tedious, frustrating, even exasperating work. But it is ultimately work worth doing.
I thank God that there are men and women who possess the gifts and the drive to wade into that bloody fray and fight for the values that I care about. I no longer expect sweeping cultural change to come from Washington or even from Columbus. I understand that politics, as the late Chuck Colson said, is “’downstream from culture.” That is, political battles over moral issues are really only part of the larger cultural struggle that goes on in the media, in education, in our own homes and communities.
So maybe “disaffected” is too strong a word. This values voter hasn’t given up hope, he’s just realigned his expectations. I pay attention to candidates and platforms and I vote. I always vote pro-life. But I also support the local crisis pregnancy center and Samaritan’s Purse and the Salvation Army, all organizations that are working to bring about the changes I want to see in society and in the world.
If I have to choose between naïve euphoria and weary cynicism, I choose “none of the above.” There’s work to be done, and we’ll stay on-task.
Paul William Pyle has taught high school for 36 years and serves as an elder in a Dayton-area church. He studied English and music at Evangel University and holds the M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife have four children, ages 18-33. His blog, “Noticing,” can be found at paulwpyle.blogspot.com.
All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff..