I’ve been following politics in America since I was a teenager. I’ve listened to countless radio talk shows, watched an imponderable number of talking heads on cable news networks, and read the political news and opinion columns of a dozen different papers. As a writer, I also publish opinion pieces regularly with several conservative media outlets and have written two books on politics.
So, as you can imagine, I’ve got some experience observing other people’s political sins, and maybe even more experience in committing those sins myself.
The sins we commit in the public square usually don’t seem that bad and some might not seem like sins at all. But upon reflection, they are sins that, over time, harm us and our fellow citizens in significant ways.
Given the fact that I’m just as prone to political sin as the next person, I’ve posted a list of the traditional “seven deadly sins” on my wall. Beside each of the seven, I’ve jotted down some ways that we are tempted to commit those sins in our political interactions. Finally, I’ve paired each of the deadly sins with one of the Beatitudes that will help us avoid temptation.
Here’s the list, in the hopes that you might find it helpful:
Pride is the deepest type of rebellion and the sin at the root of all other sins. When we are proud, in the biblical sense of the word, we deify ourselves. We place ourselves at the center of the universe, making us more important than God or our fellow citizens. In the political arena, our pride manifests itself in our well-honed ability to spot the sins of people on the other side of the aisle, contrasted with our inability or unwillingness to see our own sins or the sins of our chosen political tribe. When confronted with the wrongs or weaknesses in ourselves or our political tribe, we change the subject or shift the blame, just as our favorite radio show hosts and cable news pundits have taught us.
As a remedy for our political pride, we should pray for God to give us genuine humility, the root of all virtue (Matt 5:3; Phil 2:5-11). In humility, we recognize that God is the center of the universe; thus, instead of being navel-gazing me-monkeys obsessed with ourselves and our political tribe, we are liberated to serve our fellow citizens and work for the common good.
Greed is the vice that causes us to value created things more than the God who created them. When we are greedy, we try to accumulate more “stuff” for ourselves, thinking that “shiny things” such as wealth or power will help us deal with the disappointments and sadness of our broken world. In the political realm, we manifest greed when we engage in politics not for the common good but for our own enrichment. That often leads us to sin in other ways, such as cheating, lying, colluding, and becoming obnoxious bullies determined to score political points. A greedy politician is one whose goal is not to help our nation but to appear that he is helping our nation while he is really only helping himself. A greedy policy wonk is one who wants a job at a think tank, but doesn’t really care about the people her policies are supposed to help. A greedy opinion writer is one who wants to gain a large following but doesn’t really care about the truth.
Greed promises happiness, but cannot deliver, because the deepest happiness comes from desiring God and his kingdom. For that reason, the gospel transforms our self-centered greed into others-centered mercy. The laborers of Christ’s kingdom sow seeds of mercy, and upon harvest, the laborers are shocked to discover fruits of mercy hanging from the stalks (Matt 5:7; Lk 10:25-37).
Envy is sorrow occasioned by another person’s happiness. Envy wishes to push the other person off the path of success or happiness. It is lethal to joy because gratitude is the root of joy, and envy refuses to be grateful. An envious society is one that allows for, and even encourages, its citizens to resent those who are more successful than they. It is a society whose members imagine themselves entitled to every success and every good thing. In politics, envy causes politicians, opinion writers, and party members to cringe at the success of others. It causes talk show hosts, opinion writers, and everyday citizens to slander and degrade decent people on the other side of the aisle, even while defending badness on our own side of the aisle.
As a remedy, Scripture offers us the opportunity to mourn (Matt 5:4). Think about it. Instead of spending our time envying people who are successful or happy in a way we are not, we can focus on comforting people whose are experiencing failure or sadness in a way that we are not. In God’s economy, those who those who exude love are more deeply happy than those who harbor envy; they have met the Jesus who “binds up the broken-hearted” (Is 61:1).
Wrath is ill-motivated and misdirected anger. Not all anger is bad. God exhibits a righteous anger, and so can his people. But unrighteous anger leads to hatred. It is self-righteous and judgmental, focusing on the other person’s sin to the exclusion of one’s own. A society characterized by wrath is one that, for example, wages wars of vengeance without recourse to principles of justice. Similarly, a wrathful society is one whose public discourse is pervasively uncivil, whose citizens treat one another with disdain and disrespect. A wrathful society is one whose citizens—including its Christian citizens—express uninhibited rage in their Facebook updates, Twitter conversations, website comments and email forwards. A wrathful society is one whose prime-time political pundits behave like juvenile delinquents, shouting, insulting, and interrupting one another, and whose prime-time audiences reward the pundits by continuing to watch their rude and inane shows.
In the Beatitudes, an antidote to wrath is meekness, which is strength under control (Matt 5:5). A meek politician, pundit, or citizen is one who has strong convictions but who acts upon those convictions civilly, in a manner befitting our shared citizenship. Another antidote is peacemaking, which seeks the reconciliation of the other person to God and to oneself (Matt 5:9).
Sloth is spiritual apathy. It undercuts our desire for God and our interest in him. Ironically, sloth often causes us to engage in frenzied activity, primarily as a distraction from our spiritual emptiness. A slothful society does not create space for silence and solitude, because its members are terrified that upon resting, they would find that the hole it their heart is so gaping, that God alone could fill it. A slothful society is one whose citizens engage in frenzied political activism, thinking that its activism will save the nation and fill the gaping hole in its collective spiritual heart.
In opposition to sloth, Jesus instructs us to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6). Only through such a wholehearted desire for God is blessedness experienced.
Lust is the desire to exercise one’s sexual passion with a person other than one’s spouse. It commandeers the heart and the mind, driving our blind eyes down the path of death (Prov 7:22-27). A lustful society makes sexual pleasure its ultimate freedom and its functional savior. Its citizens not only sin brazenly, but applaud others when they do the same. Its TV networks choose their political talking heads based upon physical appearance more than analytical abilities, and its TV audience confirms the networks’ choice by continuing to watch. A lustful society engages in extraordinary feats of moral gymnastics to secure social, cultural, legal, and political approval for their sexual activities and, significantly, to secure the right to terminate the unborn child that might result from those activities.
As a remedy for lust, Jesus offers purity of heart. Purity of heart comes from loving God above all, and allow him to shape our earthly desires. A person who is pure of heart recognizes his own sin, asks God’s forgiveness, and prays for the strength to resist temptation the next time it occurs. A citizen who is pure of heart reminds society that real freedom is not freedom “from” all moral norms, but freedom “for” a life lived according to God’s good design.
Gluttony is the inordinate and indiscrete enjoyment of bodily things. Medieval theologians noted that gluttony is revealed when we enjoy bodily things hastily, sumptuously (demanding the richest foods), excessively (consuming more than I reasonably need), greedily (I want the food I want when I want it), and daintily (my meal must be perfectly prepared). Gluttonous politicians are enamored with the perks of Capitol Hill but give little thought to the citizens who elected them. Gluttonous citizens on the Left live luxurious lives with no real concern for the poor; they appease their own guilt by speaking loudly about government-coerced wealth redistribution while contributing little or none of their own income to charities. Gluttonous citizens on the Right live luxurious lives with no real concern for the poor; we appease our guilt by saying that wealth redistribution is bad for society and that mediating institutions should help the poor, all the while giving little or nothing of our income or energy to those institutions.
In response to gluttony, we should hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6). As we hunger and thirst for righteousness we will not only enjoy life’s luxuries more moderately but will also find sustainable ways to help those who have less than we do.
Given the toxic nature of contemporary American politics and public life, Christian virtue will appear strangely “off-kilter” in the public square. But, in reality, it is sin that is off-kilter and virtue that is upright. C. S. Lewis depicts this phenomenon in his space trilogy. In Lewis’ story, the main character, Ransom, encounters “eldila,” creatures who are similar to angels. Whenever the eldila appear—as beams of light—they are slightly tilted, not quite at a right angle to the ground. Yet Ransom senses that it is not the eldila who are askew. It is rather the earth itself. The eldila are upright; Ransom is tilted. As Christians who engage politically, we should be similar to the eldila in this respect; although our “uprightness” will strike our society as a bit strange, at the same time it offers to our society a taste of the path toward social, cultural, and political renewal.