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When Politics Turns Ugly

As a rule, I try to avoid commenting on politics and campaigns. But a recent political event left me deeply shaken, precisely because of my beliefs about how faith and politics ought to come together.

The occasion was the Republican presidential debate in California. Moderator Brian Williams noted that Texas had executed 234 people since Rick Perry became governor. He then asked the governor, “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?"

To which the governor instantly replied, “I’ve never struggled with that at all.” He cited what he called Texas’ “very clear process” and added that “if you come into our state and you kill one of our children” or “kill a police officer” or “one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas.”

Now, I have to admit that I was deeply troubled by the governor’s response. I recall the life-and-death decisions I participated in when I was in the White House. Some nights I would go home deeply concerned that I might be putting people in peril. I know that I lost sleep — it’s hard to imagine anybody not being troubled by having to make those kinds of decisions.

What’s more, my experience with the criminal justice system — which, like any human institution, is capable of grave errors — doesn’t instill in me a level of confidence anywhere approaching that of the governor’s.

Let me be clear: I think that there are times when capital punishment is necessary and justified. But the thought of taking another person’s life, however heinous their crimes, should give us pause. It’s never to be made lightly or casually.

And it certainly shouldn’t be the occasion for cheering as the crowd in California audience did twice. If the governor’s response troubled me, the crowd’s cheering chilled me.

I agree with Rod Dreher of the American Conservative when he called cheering for capital punishment ugly. He was absolutely right when he wrote that “justice may require execution, but we should never rejoice in taking the life of another human being.”

This whole episode left me wondering what kind of people we have become. The chill wasn’t helped when, at the next debate, the audience yelled “Yeah!” when Representative Ron Paul was asked if a shortsighted 30-year-old without insurance should be allowed to die.

He danced around the answer to that question.

Politics is supposed to be about a search for the common good. It would be naïve to deny that power — both seeking after and exercising it — dominates modern politics. And I know from personal experience that American politics isn’t for the fainthearted: It can be and usually is a rough game.

But it’s not a blood sport. The answer to “How now shall we live?” is not and cannot be “cheering the other guy’s demise.” I like to think that the people doing the cheering at the debates weren’t Christians. If they were, shame on them.

As you know, I favor a robust Christian presence in all aspects of public life. Part of the goal for that presence is to offer an alternative approach to modern politics and governance — one that that promotes justice, human dignity and human flourishing.

What would politics without a Christian presence look like? Let’s just say ugly isn’t too strong a word.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication date: September 23, 2011

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