SAMUEL SON: conversation and compromise brings purpose to government

A May 2 Washington Post article argued that Donald Trump’s popularity could be riding the wave of dissatisfaction with our “messy” democratic process, namely, endless talks and compromises bogging down movements. A Gallup Poll in 1998 showed that 86 percent believed “elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action.” Sixty percent agreed “compromise is really just selling out on one’s principles,” and 32 percent were convinced the U.S. government would “run better if decisions were left up to successful business people.” A more recent poll done by political scientists David Fortunato and Matthew Hibbing showed similar numbers. People want less talk and more action. Business is all about efficiency and action. Trump, preening his towers and companies, promises to bring business practices into government. But there is a cost to corporatizing American government. Because with practices come principles that ground those practices. Methods not only change how you do things, but what you do.Michael J. Sandels, political philosopher at Harvard, in “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” lauds the brilliance of the market economy at organizing productivity. But he warns against Market Society, which flips all organizations into a market. What is efficiency in a business environment can be corruption in a different environment. Would a family be better if it was run like a business? Families that run businesses work hard not to bring work home. Husbands and wives don’t want their relationship reduced into a business partnership. The point is not the moral nature of any method, but the fitness of each method to its respective environment and the danger of imposing it on a foreign environment. Midas’s touch teaches that as useful as gold is, you don’t want everything you touch to turn to gold.When American churches were stagnating in the 1970s, a church growth movement ignited calling churches to be more like companies. Senior pastors became Executive Pastors, new church launches required submission of a five-year strategy, and annual ranks of the 20 fastest growing churches were published, going toe to toe with Fortune 500’s list mania. Eugene Peterson, author of The Message translation of the Bible, says that even before the ink dried on his ordination certificate, he was sent to learn from business leaders on how to run a church. Peterson is all about relevance. His most recent project is reading Psalms with the rock star Bono. But in an interview he previses: “We’ve got all these churches that have turned themselves into consumer churches. But, if we use consumer methods to develop our congregations, we almost guarantee immaturity.”If we make government more businesslike, we risk selling “the soul,” i.e. purpose, of government. We already know this peril so we rail against the power of lobbyists. So it is ironic that as Trump touts he is not beholden to any business money since he is self-funding for the primary, what he wants to bring to the oval office is business tactics.A great definition of America’s democracy was given by Lincoln in his Gettysburg address when he said, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” That definition implies a method since method invariably springs from purpose. Governing is about people and not products. A government of people requires what any human relationships require, lots of talk and compromise. Those very things that makes democracy messy is what actually makes democracy thrive.We disdain talk and compromise because we haven’t seen much of it. Both parties crucify anyone crossing the aisle. What passes for conversation is really commercial slogans. Would we hold up any of the presidential debates as models for conversations?What has made democracy messy is that it has already been smitten by business. We are not talking and not compromising enough. In the next few columns I want to talk about conversations and why compromise is a good thing. Because “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”Samuel Son is a teaching pastor at New Life Triangle church in Raleigh and a leader in Micah Groups, a leadership formation ministry focused on justice, a part of the Lloyd Ogilvie Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary.