Opinion

Politics and ethics can coexist | RICH ELFERS

Recently I announced a guest Pacific Lutheran University professor at my church would be discussing Christian ethics and politics during the Adult Forum. I received laughter when I noted those two terms didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Both presidential candidates claim to be Christian, but in the heat of political battle for the highest office in the land, truth seems to have taken a back seat to winning – or is it to avoid losing?

Reinforcing this perception of mine was an insightful article called “Blue Truths, Red Truths” in the Oct. 15, 2012, issue of Time magazine. Altman and Rogers, the authors, noted that as early as the 1980s political journalists tended to remain silent when candidates misrepresented their opponents. They were more interested in the “back-and-forth” rather than in examining whether claims were true or false.

This perspective evolved in the 1990s to the point where fact-checking is now part of the political environment. Unfortunately, both parties now use the fact checkers to their own advantage, ignoring times when their own statements are inaccurate.

In a compelling quote from the article: “The great irony in this curious chapter (the 2012 election) in American politics is that both campaigns have made telling the truth a central message and a core qualification in each man’s case to be President.”

Part of the blame for the increasing untruths of our political candidates is that, as our society has become more fractured, some voters “have developed a tendency to forgive the home team’s fibs.” In fact, 76 percent of both Romney and Obama supporters believe the other side is “intentionally misleading” voters.

Paradoxically, based upon a study at Georgia State University noted in the article, “The more we care about politics and the more it becomes central to our worldview, the more threatening it becomes to admit we are wrong or our side is wrong.” The study went on to note that the more voters knew, the more biased they were.

Another study cited in the article observed that emotions play a big part: The more fearful and insecure voters are, for instance, “the more difficult it is for them to accept accurate information.” In the study, having research subjects write about a time when they stood up for a value that was important to them made them more self-confident and more open to information that challenged their political biases. It seems the more secure we are, the more we can hear the truth.

The authors ended the article with, “Until the voting public demands something else, not just from the politicians they oppose but also from the ones they support, there is little reason to suspect that (lying) will change.”

These words gave me pause to consider. Why do politicians, not just at the presidential level but also at all levels, distort the truth? The simple answer lies in the fact that the desire to win overwhelms a candidate’s ethical views. Their thought is probably that they can’t bring about the necessary changes in government and society if they don’t get elected.

Since voters often more readily remember and believe bad things about candidates than good things, the only way politicians can win is to throw ethics aside and misrepresent the facts – the ends justify the means. In other words, do evil so that good will result. That’s one explanation.

President Obama offered another perspective in his book “Audacity of Hope,” written before he won in 2008. He stated that for politicians, winning an election is not as important as not losing. Fear of being seen as a failure is a stronger motivator than the desire to be successful for politicians.

Whatever the cause, Christian ethics and politics do not have to be mutually exclusive words. If voters are more secure in their beliefs as the above study demonstrated, we can bear to see the weaknesses and misrepresentations of our favorite candidates and not let them get away with the philosophy of the ends justifying the means. Change in the way politics is run in this nation lies within the power of us, the voters, only if we become more secure and open to the truth.

 

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