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The good news is that Catholics still live in a country where we can actively engage and influence our government through democratic processes. The bad news is that too many of us don’t know how to adopt the right disposition to effectively accomplish this task.A quick tour of sacred Scripture provides six guidelines that should define and direct our participation in the public square:
1. Be prepared. St. Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have” (1 Peter 3:15). In the original context, this is a specific reference to the trustworthiness of the Gospel. Yet, clearly, we are also called to think through our positions on important moral issues. If we are able to succinctly articulate the logic of our arguments, we will be far more effective.
2. Be polite. Many of us have laughed at an acerbic political cartoon or cheered when our least favorite politician was skewered or satirized in the media. Sometimes we justify this by appealing to the prophets, who often blasted the wickedness of the kings and rulers of their day with a message that impacted like a smart bomb. But the prophets received a direct mandate from God, and their angry words were often expressed through tears (see Jeremiah). We should remember that all government is instituted by God (Romans 13) and therefore deserves our respect. The apostles themselves have provided for us specific examples of how to relate to a person in a position of authority — even a desperately wicked one. While standing before a Roman governor that the historian Tacitus described as “one of the most depraved men of his time, who, with all cruelty and lust, exercised the power of a king with the spirit of a slave,” St. Paul was cordial, respectful and opened his defense with the salutation “Most Excellent Felix.” Likewise, St. Peter urged persecuted Christians to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (1 Peter 2:13). If we find that command difficult, the early Christians must have found it even more so, since the emperor at the time was Nero, a man whose name is even now synonymous with evil and cruelty. Yet those early believers loved the Lord, honored Caesar — and brought down the Roman Empire.
3. Be passionate. The previous point does not preclude this one. Jesus Christ was an extremely passionate person: “[His] disciples remembered that it was written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (John 2:17). In the same way, we do not have to apologize for feeling very strongly about moral and political issues that directly affect all of our lives. In nearly every case, we are dealing with life-or-death issues that have eternal consequences. Exhibiting a passion for these issues is more than appropriate.
4. Be personal. Facts, statistics and rational arguments are essential for persuading people to embrace and promote the right values and policies. But do not neglect the power of your personal story. When we share some anecdote from our own lives, the truth takes on flesh, and people are able to “see” the argument for a position in a much more compelling way. By and large, the apostolic preaching in the New Testament is testimonial in nature. And, in 1 John 1:3, the apostle writes, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.”
5. Be prayerful. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, St. Paul writes, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority — that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (emphasis mine). The apostle recognized that politicians and government officials have the power to complicate our lives and raise obstacles to our holiness. Ultimately, their political influence on us is determined by our prayerful influence on them. Whether or not a particular piece of legislation is passed or a specific law is enacted may well be determined by how much time we spend on our knees.
6. Be persistent. If you are discouraged by the decay around us and the unraveling of our culture, read Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). To the ancient Jewish mind, a widow was a very icon of helplessness. Yet this woman, through pluck and sheer force of will, persuaded a wicked judge to grant her justice against her adversary. At the end of the story, Jesus drives home the point: “[And] will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” (18:7). As we battle to promote truth, goodness and beauty in the public square, we should remember the 40-word text of one of Winston Churchill’s most famous speeches: “Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty; never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
As you engage the public square in order to influence our nation and culture for Christ, keep these six principles from sacred Scripture in mind. And, by God’s grace, live them out.