The Myth of the Uncompromising Politician

When did “compromise” become such a dirty word?

his-way-my-wayI’m looking at candidates on both sides of the political aisle, this campaign season, and concluding more and more that “compromise” has morphed into something they believe is evil.

And, yes, I’m saying this has become as issue on both sides of the political aisle. Among ideologically opposing candidates —and even more among their supporters— a dangerously similar mythology is arising that goes something like the following:

ONLY candidates with unwavering and unchanging principles make good presidents.

Candidates who change their minds, or “evolve” on issues, are weak and waffling.

This is a myth, of course. It’s an idealist fantasy and a fairy tale. There are no actual politicians —at least politicians who get actual stuff done— who do not eventually compromise.

This first came to mind this week, as we journeyed through “The Gifts of the Dark Wood,” and I spent a week meditating on what Eric Elnes calls “The Gift of Uncertainty.”

In the world of religion, there is kind of fundamentalism, of which I cannot embrace, which is always “sure” of everything.

It seems to me there’s a political fundamentalism that mirrors it. (And yes, fundamentalism is an equal-opportunity danger…to both the left and right…)

Like the “Church Lady,” these political puritans dig back through the record of our political leader’s every move, vote, and quote…looking for signs of that most dreaded of all things: hypocrisy.

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To them, hypocrisy is the greatest of all sins. When, in truth, it’s just the most common.

Let me be clear, then. I’ve never been an ideological purist when it comes to religion, nor am I when it comes to politics. Theologically, count me down as a fan of Reinhold Niebuhr. (And not just the Serenity Prayer).

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Niebuhr, a generation ago, realized that realism is an important trait in leaders. Idealism is important. Idealism should drive us personally.

But it’s not for nothing that the old expression goes: “politics is the art of the possible.”

All this is to say, then, that I do not count it as a strength when candidates crow how they’ve never changed their positions, or their minds. To the contrary, I find the ability to grow, change, and morph essential qualities in good leaders, whether they be left, right, or center…sacred or secular.

Politics is the art of getting things done. And getting things done requires de facto compromise. Our entire political system is predicated on negotiation and compromise. The Constitution itself was a negotiated document. And it functions, or it should, as a road-map to lead people to negotiation and compromise.

But, again, time and time again, on both sides of the political aisle this season, I hear talk that echoes of religious fundamentalism, in terms of a strident refusal to accept any other view but its own. Time and time again, “compromise” is made to sound like a sin worse than murder. Or akin to it.

“Murder of idealism?” Is that what people are hearing when they hear the world compromise? I don’t know. But I do know this: Compromise is not a political sin. Compromise is not a dirty word. And until we rid ourselves of the dangerous myth of the uncompromising politicians, we are likely doomed to more gridlock.

As I said in my video to Northaven this week, I thank God that God has opened spaces in my life where I can grow and change, over time. I thank God I am not held to the beliefs I had when I was 20…or 30…or even 40.

And I’m reminded of that great quote John Wesley once wrote in a letter to a friend:

“When I was young I was sure of everything. In a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before. At present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to me.”

Genuine spiritual maturity is like that quote. It humbly understands that it cannot know everything, and that the spiritual life is always leading us to new insights.

Political maturity is the same.

Which is why, when anybody says “I’ve never changed,” or “I’ve never wavered,” or “I will never compromise…” the one thing I know about them is that they should never be President.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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