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Corruption is a Moral Problem – What Living Abroad Taught Me About Christianity and Politics: Part 1

March 10, 2016

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Any person who has lived abroad for a significant amount of time can probably say that it was a transformative experience. When you come face to face with ways of life and thinking that are unfamiliar and foreign, it is impossible not to react. As I follow the 2016 USA Presidential Race, what I learned while spending three years in Prague has come sharply into focus for me. In four ways, my political Christian opinion shifted from a conservative mold to an embrace of transcendent Truth.  This is the first of four articles in which I will share these shifts.

Shift #1: Living abroad opened my eyes to the moral problem of political corruption.

Upon arrival in the Czech Republic, one of the first things I learned is that the country is notorious for thievery and bureaucratic corruption. There is a funny but sad story about former President Vaclav Klaus (not Vaclav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution and first president) getting caught on camera stealing a really nice pen. The Czech government has strengths, but integrity is not one of them. The national problem of corruption and dishonesty has been acknowledged by a government official: Deputy of Interior Minister Adriana Krnacova told the BBC that many Czech politicians are “not friends with transparency.”

The Czech Republic is the least religious country in Europe, and therefore a lack of integrity makes sense. One may accuse me of ignorance of the goals of Secular Humanism to further justice. However, a group of researchers has found that fear of a god causes people to act less selfishly, promoting trust, which in turn facilitates the cooperation needed for success. Niraj Chokshi reported in the Washington Post: “When people are inclined to behave impartially toward others – even if that’s because they fear retribution – they are more likely to adopt behaviors that can create and support large-scale cooperative institutions, such as trade and markets.” This research does not mean that secular societies are incapable of integrity – God gives grace.  This research also does not mean than religious societies are without corruption – sin still affects us.  However this research does indicate that it is no surprise a country ravaged by Communism for forty-one years and now lacking religion struggles to foster financial integrity.

Corruption in the United States looks different than in Czech. Fortunately, there is a great deal of transparency in the financial dealings of our federal government, thanks to The Center for Responsive Research at www.opensecrets.org. However, because there is transparency, what should be called bribery and corruption is passed off as a system called “Courting the Establishment.”   Cronies give millions of dollars to the government and politicians’ personal bank accounts in the form of campaign contributions, lobbying, and “speaking fees.” Such money influences the decisions of our lawmakers, leaders and judges, undermining democracy and justice. At worst, this bribery is condoned as acceptable, and at best, it is called a problematic political complexity. Yet rarely is it cast as a moral problem.

A simple concordance search of the Bible makes it obvious that bribery is against the character of God. For example, in 2 Chronicles 19:7, King Jehoshaphat tells the new judges he has appointed, “Now then let the fear of the LORD be upon you; be very careful what you do, for the LORD our God will have no part in unrighteousness or partiality or the taking of a bribe.” Living abroad has opened my eyes to moral problems in American politics other than the typical morality flag masts (like abortion and marriage). I am not belittling such concerns. I ask, why is bribery a non-issue? Where is the march for integrity? Why are “Christian” politicians guilty of corruption and yet church-goers hardly blink an eye? Why did a hypocritical Republican candidate, who accepts money from the for-profit prison industry, receive endorsement from a group of pastors? Why is there so little respect for liberal politicians seeking to demolish cronyism? If the American Right-Wing claims that this is “A Nation Under God,” and if financial integrity is important to God – who is Truth – then where is our collective passion for such integrity?

Continue to Part Two, in which I share the second lesson living abroad taught me about politics and faith.

I want to thank Liz Lalama and Julia Wise Lambert  for their helpful editing and feedback on this series.

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