Christian Ambassadors: When Obeying the Law Isn’t Good Enough

Posted on July 31, 2013 by

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Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) should resign.

The Virginia governor, a self-proclaimed Christian and a graduate of Notre Dame and Regent University, is outspoken about his faith. Upon his inauguration, he called his post a ‘ministry‘, and McDonnell has encouraged the Republicans to be more ‘humble’ and Christ-like in their approach to public life.

While seemingly willing to tout Christian themes when beneficial, McDonnell’s ‘God-Talk’ has vanished of late. Why? McDonnell has found himself embroiled in a major political scandal. Over the past several months, The Washington Post has unearthed staggering information about McDonnell’s relationship with business-man  Jonnie R. Williams, President of Star Scientific, a company with business before the state government, and a business that McDonnell promoted on several occasions. The totals involved keep rolling in, but it appears Williams gave McDonnell (a $6,500 Rolex watch, a $70,000 business loan), his wife (a $50,000 loan, a $15,000 exclusive shopping spree), and McDonnell’s daughter (a $15,000 gift to pay for her wedding catering) gifts and loans, most of which was unreported and undisclosed.

McDonnell has hedged on the issue and has argued the benefits were legal under Virginia’s outrageously relaxed ethics laws, and he may be right. The law requires gifts more than $50 to be disclosed, but puts no cap on the amount of gifts that can be received by elected officials. Additionally, the law does not require gifts to spouses or family members to be disclosed at all. McDonnell’s said recently:

 “These have been the disclosure rules of Virginia. I’m following those. To, after the fact, impose some new requirements on an official when you haven’t kept record of other gifts given to family members or things like that obviously wouldn’t be fair.”

At the same time, McDonnell has maintained, with a straight face, the gifts have won no favors for Williams or the company he leads. However, recent emails suggest that, at minimum, McDonnell connected Williams to important officials within the government, including McDonnell’s own cabinet members. So, while there is no evidence YET that Williams’ gifts yielded a specified regulatory or legislative outcome, the appearance is awful.

While this is interesting on many levels, let’s attack it from the perspective of Christians involved in politics. Given that we exist as a healthy minority, Christians can no longer assume a position of power or authority within our political culture. As an influential minority, just pragmatically, Christians must always be aware their actions will be heavily scrutinized. If nothing else, political opponents will use any opportunity to pull powerful rivals down. So, if Christians want to maintain political influence, they must behave appropriately to maintain the public’s trust. After all, the only unforgivable political sin (if there are any left) is to put your own interests so obviously above the people’s interest. Taking money possibly in exchange for influence is the definition of corruption, so McDonnell appears to have failed the most basic of political tests.

Christian ethics, of course, demands even more than mere political pragmatics. While much of this might seem obvious, let us plow into it nonetheless. First, as Christians, we are commanded to be holy and to “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22). No matter what really happened here, McDonnell’s conduct has the appearance of evil, even if it falls within the boundaries of the law. Second, McDonnell’s actions stain not only his reputation and his long-term political prospects, but also the cause of Christ. Our actions, for good or ill, reflect on our God and his Son. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). Our actions, then, allow others to see God and his grace. In this way, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling[c] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

We are ambassadors for Christ as God works through us to achieve his own purposes. McDonnell’s actions, which have created a serious ethical scandal, have wrecked his ability to serve Christ in the public square. Now, neither voters nor colleagues will look at McDonnell as a believer who points people toward God, but as a hardened, cynical, unethical politico who has sought financial gain while using the law as a thin shield.

Instead of hanging onto power grimly, McDonnell should resign and follow Jack Profumo’s path toward at least temporal redemption. In Britain, Profumo was a high-ranking (Secretary of War) Member of Parliament, a key cog in Harold MacMillan’s Conservative government. However, he engaged in an extra-marital affair while in his post. Though scandalous in itself, the fact that it was with a woman who was also in a relationship with Yevgeni Ivanov, a Russian intelligence officer housed in London at the Soviet Embassy, turned it into a national security threat since this was at the height of the Cold War. Once the affair became public, and after evidence overwhelmed his denials, Profumo resigned from public life. Instead of running for office again and again, Profumo volunteered at Toynbee Hall, an East End charity, where he cleaned toilets and raised money for the rest of his days. Though he was never again a public figure, Profumo’s reputation grew and he influenced fellow politicians as a result.

McDonnell’s actions do not quite carry the international implications of Profumo’s, but he should still remove himself from public life. He should seek to serve God elsewhere so that eventually he will become a holy vessel once again of use to his master, even here on earth.

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