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FIRST-PERSON: Is ‘Christian lobbyist’ an oxymoron?

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–As I write this, I’m in Washington, D.C. for the Evangelical Theological Society meeting, a gathering of a thousand or so biblical inerrantists teaching in colleges and seminaries around the nation, plus a lot of seminary students. For several days, we feast on paper presentations, discounted books and conversations with old and new friends.

This year’s topic is “Christians in the Public Square,” and I was one of many who read a paper under that rubric. Earlier this year, when we submitted proposals, the Jack Abramoff scandal was unfolding, so I decided to write on lobbying. Abramoff was a lobbyist who snared a number of congressmen in his web of connivances and who helped Ralph Reed surrender a lot of his luster. You may recall that, in order to help one Indian casino on the Gulf Coast, Abramoff and Reed stirred up Christian anti-gambling forces in the region to block another casino. The pastors and parishioners thought they were simply fighting a sin merchant when they were being used largely to eliminate competition for another sin merchant.

My first morning here, The Washington Post ran two stories germane to my subject — Jack Abramoff’s first day in prison and Rep. John Murtha’s tarnish from the ABSCAM bribery scandal awhile back. Then I picked up the current issue of Washingtonian and read “How Big Money Has Changed Washington.” It tells how former President Reagan’s shrink-the-government policies and former Vice President Gore’s reinventing-government initiatives led to a good deal of outsourcing to commercial firms. The national budget grew but the national staff didn’t, so there are a lot of new private-sector mouths being fed in the D.C. area.

Also, trade associations and unions keep raising their investment in former officials who can pitch their cause to lawmakers. So Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin can move from a $158,000-a-year salary in Congress to what has turned into a $2.3 million-a-year income lobbying for the pharmaceutical industry. Meanwhile, Dan Glickman, former congressman and the Clinton administration agriculture secretary, took a $1 million-a-year job at the Motion Picture Association. There’s gold for them thar shills.

It takes a lot of money to run for office, and politicians have been susceptible to the calls of those who can deliver support in one form or another, whether bundles of small, partisan contributions, lavish honoraria for brief speeches or great investment deals. And it can be hard to turn down perks like those Clinton commerce secretary Mike Espy got from the Sun-Diamond Growers of California — tennis tickets, luggage and other gifts worth about $5,900.

Concerned with pressures and image, congressmen have passed various campaign finance reform measures, starting back in the early 1970s. They’ve limited the size of an individual contribution, outlawed “bundling” of these small gifts and channeled honoraria to charities. There’s even talk about denying former congressmen access to the congressional gym, where a few privileged lobbyists can ply their trade in a clubby atmosphere. But most importantly, the law now insists on transparency. Whatever you get and whatever you give is supposed to appear in the public record. (See www.opensecrets.org for a sampling.)

All that being said, I’m still a believer in lobbying. For one thing, I support the work of our own SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which puts forward the convictions expressed in our denominational resolutions. It’s one of scores of “prophetic lobbies,” including the liberal National Council of Churches and the conservative Eagle Forum. Such groups work in a great tradition, notably represented in the late 19th century by Illinois’ own Francis Willard, head of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which still exists. She campaigned successfully alongside the early NRA (not riflemen, but reformers) to see that the perils of alcohol were explained in government schools (including the military academies) and to close the Chicago World’s Fair on Sundays. These folks made major contributions to policies we now take for granted, such as non-delivery of mail on Sunday, the prohibition of polygamy, and the appearance of “In God We Trust” on coins.

So it’s no stretch to imagine a denominational or inter-denominational “Christian lobbyist.” But what about a Christian who lobbies for an industry? Well, certainly he or she should follow biblical standards, a number of which are captured in the American League of Lobbyists’ code of conduct (e.g., truth telling; lawfulness; due diligence; avoidance of conflict of interest) — and also be convinced that the industry is honorable, as opposed, say, to the distillers or casino operators.

In studying the work of lobbyists, I stopped by the National Pork Producers Council website and read their mission statement and press releases. Now, I think bacon, sausage, ham and pork tenderloin are basically good things, and I don’t think that the Old Testament dietary laws still hold here, especially since curing eliminated the threat of trichinosis. Besides, when I visited the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn., I read testimonies by Dwight Eisenhower and Margaret Thatcher to the delicacy’s importance to the Allied effort in World War II. Sure, you might have a hitch in your spirit over a Council position now and then, whether on the slaughter of horses for food (they’re for it, since government interference here could have ripple effects on the pork industry) or the declaration of manure as a pollutant earning EPA Superfund attention (against it, since it could cripple pig farming).

Only a daffy romanticist would think it important to walk off in a huff every time things were a bit troubling in the workplace. We live in a fallen, complex world, and no institution is splendid in all its ways, the church included. You pick your battles and you draw your lines. Bug out too early, and you deprive the institution of your Christian salt and light — and yourself of a growing experience.

The Constitution guarantees citizens, whether pig farmers, haberdashers, preachers or retired soldiers the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances,” whether the subject is the tax code, safety standards, permits or holidays. And besides, doesn’t the Golden Rule prompt you to give legislators the information you would both want and need if you were in their place, faced with tough decisions on baffling matters?

Of course, lobbying is a morally challenging field, with real dangers to the soul, but which field isn’t this way? God help those who enter upon it — and God help us if the only folks who do are lost.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist. Send comments to: [email protected].

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  • Mark Coppenger