Shorter Than a Yard

It was Sen. Eugene McCarthy who said that being a senator was a lot like being a football coach — you had to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it was important.

I have written about the dangers of ideology in politics (which addresses the how more than the what), and thought I needed to say one additional thing about that. By ideologue, I do not mean someone who is zealous, or who is focused on what he is doing. I do not mean someone who sacrifices for a political cause — I rather mean someone who sacrifices the wrong things.

In his great essay “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis points out that certain duties are worth dying for, but not worth living for. The ideologue reasons from the end to the beginning, and says that anything that can claim our allegiance to the point of death must have the authority to fill every waking moment as well.

“It seems to me that all political duties (among which I include military duties) are of this kind [not worth living for: DW]. A man may have to die for our country, but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God himself.”

Our task in political engagement, like our tasks in every other area, is to be approved by God. But He does not use a simplistic measurement of electoral success. His calipers can measure things shorter than a yard. Achieving good you can point to in this life has something to do with it, but there are many other things going on as well.

What better way to conclude this particular point than by quoting Johnny Cash? Near the end of his life he reminded me, and more than a little bit, of Qohelet, the preacher of Ecclesiastes. His cover of Hurt says, “you can have it all, my empire of dirt.” But that is — in the mouth of Cash — a perspective in the light of eternity, not relativistic nihilism. In When the Man Comes Around, he “Will you partake of that last offered cup? Or disappear into the potter’s ground when the Man comes around?” Or, as in yet another great song, “you can run on for a long time.”

Right now matters. Voting matters. Politics matter. Fighting for righteousness in the public square matters. But not in the way we sometimes assume. So don’t sacrifice the wrong things.

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