Glorifying God in the White House
Faith & Inspiration | By making nonbelievers say, “I want some of that.” The third in a series of “stump speeches”
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 7/04/20, 11:01 am
Here’s a talk I gave in Washington in 2004 at a gathering of the White House Christian Fellowship. Also, see my “stump speeches” about how concerns over corrupt Anglicanism helped spur American colonists to revolt and how President Andrew Jackson often went against the tide.
It’s great to be here on Dec. 2. At this time one month ago, on Nov. 2, based on the exit polls, your opponents were planning to move in.
Their preparations reminded me of the story about an elderly man who lay dying in his bed. He suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs. He gathered his remaining strength. He forced himself down the stairs. He gazed into the kitchen. Spread out upon platters on the kitchen table were literally hundreds of his favorite chocolate chip cookies. Mustering one great final effort, he threw himself toward the table. He reached out, but—smack!—a spatula came down on his hand. “Stay out of those,” his wife growled, “they’re for the funeral.”
Well, the funeral never came, and today we can talk about the huge opportunity all of you have. But what do you want to do with that opportunity? Why are you here? If you’re here as a Christian, then you know you’re here because God has a purpose for you to be here. And it’s not to make President Bush or your direct boss look good, although you should certainly be a good employee and honor those in authority over you. It’s not to make your particular function or the whole administration or the White House or the Republican Party look good, although that may be a byproduct of your effort.
No, if you’re a Christian, your purpose is to glorify God, to do your job and live your life in such a way that, in many circumstances, people will notice, people will ask, “Why is he engaged in that self-sacrificing work,” or, “Why is she showing love to those who are unlovely.” Your hope is to live your life so someone will say, “It’s because he or she is a Christian.”
Last Saturday, I was in New York at Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side, which was the restaurant site for the notorious scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan is across the table from Billy Crystal and uproariously faking sexual ecstasy—at which point a woman at the adjoining table says something like, “I’ll order whatever she’s eating.” Well, in—let me stress—only in a manner of speaking, we want to act Christianly so that we hope a questioner’s heart will be stirred and he or she says, “I want to be like that person, I want what that person has.”
Of course, sometimes it works out that the onlooker reacts by thinking, “I don’t want to be like that person. I don’t want to help others; I want to help just myself.” I’ve been married now for 28 years, so I can testify that being faithful to my wife throughout that time has great long term benefits. Some students I talk with about this say, “I want some of that,” but others think, “I don’t want to be faithful to my present or future wife or husband, I want whatever enticing pleasures I can get tonight.” So it goes.
And even worse for our egos in some ways, you might do everything and act in every way you should, and no one will notice—no one, that is, except God. But one thing you can be sure of: Anything you do wrong will be noticed. You’re under a magnifying glass. The press has, perhaps with some exaggeration, dubbed this a Christian administration. So if you’re living like some conservatives with messy personal lives you’ll probably end up embarrassing yourself and the administration. More importantly, you’re not glorifying God.
Those of you in policy areas should remember that it’s not just in the policy process that you’ll make your mark. The telling difference is whether you love your neighbor as yourself and whether you love God more than yourself. You may be allied with other conservatives, but you’re serving a different master. There should be times you realize that you’re seeing the world in a different way.
So I ask you two questions that you should ask yourselves regularly. What are you doing that, if you were not a Christian, you would not be doing? And what are not doing that, if you were not a Christian, you would be doing? Or, to put it more simply, in what way is the love of Christ pushing you to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative? If you can’t think of a way in which Christ is making a difference in what you do, you’re probably dancing with Mr. In-between.
Let me give you an example of one person who is doing something that if she were not a Christian she would certainly not be doing: Caroline Cox, the 67-year-old deputy speaker of the British House of Lords and a baroness. She’s on the cover of our issue of WORLD that goes to press tonight because she’s our seventh annual Daniel of the Year.
She inherited a 14th-century manor house and is vice president of the Royal College of Nursing. She serves on boards of this and that but regularly forsakes the fancy places so as to help persecuted Christians and others. Reaching them requires—literally—crossing militarized borders, hiking forbidden mountains, and fording bridgeless rivers. For example, she has made more than 58 trips to the war zone in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory that Azerbaijan and Armenia fight over.
Throughout a conflict much of the world has ignored, she has smuggled cigarettes for the pilots, food for Armenians, and essential drugs for doctors performing surgery by candlelight and without anesthetics. She counted 17 pilots among her friends killed during that period. Still, she kept up steady jaunts to the region, often hunkering with families in bomb shelters. Today, the medical-supply runs have turned into a full-service healthcare center in Stepanakert, the capital, with a training center that in the last year graduated its first healthcare workers.
Nagorno-Karabakh taught the baroness to work in other places that the United Nations had labeled “no-go” for reasons of politics and danger: southern Sudan, northern Nigeria, East Timor, and refugee camps along the Burmese-Thai border. She has documented atrocities, spoken out against them, and always brought tangible aid. She has ignored a prison sentence in Khartoum. Death threats in several parts of the world hang over her.
Where she has pioneered, others have followed. One reason southern Sudan is on the administration’s radar is that Mrs. Cox has made at least 28 trips to southern Sudan to regions where the Islamic government forbade UN aid to predominantly Christian tribes. She learned from villagers and saw firsthand slave raids, villages burned, crops destroyed, and forced Islamicization. She met Christians whose first aid request was for Bibles. She met rebel commanders who walked all night, fording swollen rivers on foot during the rainy season, just to meet her.
Pretty cool—and she’s 67 years old. When I spent some time with her a couple of years ago, I thought, “I want to do some of that.” With her example in mind, I went to India last year and to Cambodia and Cuba this year, looking for ways to expand compassionate conservatism abroad. (By the way, if you want to bring some powdered milk or medicine into Havana this winter, email me.) And if she has that effect on an old fogey like me, I hope her example has that effect on you and lots of our readers.
Now, you might say, I’m 27 or 37 years old, I want to glorify God, but I can’t do anything so dramatic. Well, one interesting part of Baroness Cox’s career is that she didn’t set out to do anything dramatic. Her nursing interest led her to other domestic interests that led her to international travel that brought to her attention the plight of widows and orphans whom she just could not neglect.
So none of you is that different. You don’t have to go looking for trouble, because if you act and think Christianly, trouble will come looking for you. And you don’t have to travel around the world like Caroline Cox. She’s a special person with a unique opportunity, but lots of others in West London who can’t travel as she does help the poor in East London. And all of you can start with what’s right around you, the poor and fatherless of Washington.
I do want to take a couple of minutes to explain the mindset you need to be effective in this. You can’t go in as a condescending liberal, believing that people are helpless and hopeless, and do an effective job. Instead, you need to see and believe that every poor person, even the grubby guy panhandling at the Farragut Metro stop, is made in the image of a wonderful God and therefore capable of doing wonderful things. Sadly, liberals often treat them like animals. Liberals are kind to the poor in the way I’m kind to my two dogs at home: Put some food and water in their bowls in the morning, scratch them on their heads, and tell them it’s fine to lie around during the day because I don’t expect anything else—except maybe in the evening we’ll go out for a walk.
In other words, it’s important to view the poor as responsible human beings. It’s important to think Christianly. Here’s where a difference between the conservative and Christian understandings emerged. While the conservative critique of the welfare state was accurate, conservatives messed up by arguing that federal welfare programs were too expensive. That was nonsense. The real problem is that they are too stingy in what Christians know is truly important: treating people as human beings made in God’s image—not as animals to be fed, caged, and occasionally petted.
Conservatives did a lousy job of explaining that, even if welfare succeeded, sometimes, in preserving bodies, it killed the spirit by treating the poor as pets. Conservatives did a lousy job of explaining that welfare killed dreams among poor individuals who gradually become used to dependency—and those who tried to break out were often called chumps rather than champs. As a Christian, you can do much better. And I’ll ask you directly: If you think back over this past year, is there one poor person, one poor child, who you have helped directly over the past year? I don’t mean handing out some food at a soup kitchen at Thanksgiving or sending a check to a charity, although those may be fine things to do, but a particular person with whom you’ve spent time on a regular basis, maybe tutoring a child, or helping a young woman going through a crisis pregnancy?
If you have, great. If not, maybe by next year you’ll be doing it, and someone will see what you’re doing, and say, “I want some of that.”
Christianity is about communicating the gospel in other ways as well and correcting the common misunderstandings that are around. Let me give you an example. There are people who will tell you that sound public policy has to be built on skepticism but Christianity is built on faith, so the Christian has to take off his Christian hat and put on his policy hat when he comes to work on Monday morning. A policy analyst a few years ago told me, “In policy work, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
That analysis is provocative but flawed for one main reason: Yes, the Bible speaks of faith, but it also in essence declares, “If your heavenly Father says He loves you, check it out.” Why else would Luke stress at the beginning of his gospel that he relied on eyewitnesses, that he had “followed all things closely for some time,” and that his goal was to offer the recipient of his letter, Theophilus, “certainty concerning the things you have been taught”?
The Psalms repeatedly call not for blind faith but for attending to the lessons of experience. For example, keep thumbing through Psalms and note 116:1: “I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.” Or Psalm 118:5: “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free.” Or Psalm 119:65: “You have dealt well with your servant, O LORD, according to your word.”
If you explain that to someone who knows a little about the Bible, he may throw back at you the famous words in John 20:28 that Jesus said to the apostle who became known as Doubting Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Those sentences are sometimes taken, out of context, as signifying that faith and evidence are opposed.
The context is important. The other 11 disciples have told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas was doubtful because he did not trust the eyewitness evidence that others provided, and it’s in that sense that those who believe without seeing for themselves are blessed. They are not so self-centered or solipsistic that they refuse to accept the testimony of anyone other than themselves.
One good thing about working in this White House is that you’re on a team. You often have to rely on what other people have seen, even if you haven’t seen it for yourself. You have to find out who’s trustworthy and who’s not. But when you’ve done that, you’re not relying on blind faith. You’re relying on experience and analysis, and there’s nothing un-Biblical about that. And then you show that being a Christian doesn’t mean operating on blind faith but doing the same analysis everyone else does, and then multiplying that by using the wisdom of the Bible and the testimony of the Holy Spirit. You’ll come up with better decisions because they’re based on Biblical teaching, not on one of man’s ideologies. And then others say, “That person’s different. He’s a Christian.” Or, “She brings something extra to the process. She’s a Christian.” Then you’re glorifying God. And even if you lose, and even if no one’s watching, you can run and feel God’s pleasure.
Let me close by mentioning to you one of the best essays I’ve ever read: “The Inexplicable Prayers of Ruby Bridges,” written by Robert Coles. The essay describes a little girl who desegregated a New Orleans elementary school in 1960, walking in and out every day between federal marshals.
As Coles writes about the daily greeting party of 50 or 75 adults at that school, “They called her this and they called her that. They brandished their fists. They told her she was going to die and they were going to kill her.” Ruby Bridges was a tiny heroine for going to school each day.
But she was more than that, Coles found out. Told that Ruby seemed to talk to the people verbally assaulting her, Coles asked what she was saying, and Ruby replied, “I wasn’t talking to them. I was just saying a prayer for them.”
“Ruby, you pray for the people there?”
“Why do you do that?”
“Because they need praying for.”
You will all face a lot of hostility as you follow your callings. People will misquote you, twist what you say, lie about you. Will you have the strength to do what this little girl did, walking in and out, surrounded by hostility, not just once but day after day? Will you have the strength to pray for rather than holler at those who hate you? I hope I will over the next year. I hope you will as well.
Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.