I once tried to be a speechwriter for a gubernatorial candidate in Oregon.
The former five-term congressman was fighting to win the Republican nomination, and his staff thought he needed help in the English language department. He began speeches by saying, “You all know I’m a straight shooter. So what you hear tonight is coming straight from the shoulder and straight from the heart.” His researcher winced every time she heard it.
Since I was a recent graduate of the congressman’s alma mater, someone recommended me to the campaign manager as a speechwriter. So, by and by, I showed up at the headquarters wearing chalk stripes and carrying a portfolio of political stuff I’d written, and I got the volunteer position.
At one point during the interview, the manager left me sitting alone in her cubicle. I happened to look up, and was startled to see the congressman, his hand in the trouser pocket of his Brooks Brothers suit, chewing gum and staring at me without any intention of saying hello.
He didn’t want a speechwriter.
The first meeting I attended was with the congressman, the manager, and the researcher. The goal was to produce an op-ed about the release of a murderer because, that year, the crime issue was a good bet for mobilizing voters. But we got stuck on the first line. “The first line,” said the congressman, “has to be, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!'”
Silence. The researcher offered, “We could start by stating what we’re objecting to.” The manager nodded.
“No. Just, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!'”
The meeting lasted all of ten minutes. He didn’t want to be told what to say.
There were road trips. Several of us would pile into a Lincoln and roar down the I-5 at 90 mph, the radar detector blinking on the dashboard. One would think it was an ideal time to get to know the man whose voice I was supposed to capture in writing. But the candidate took numerous calls, chatted with the driver, and read position papers. I had very pleasant conversations with his wife — number three, very smart.
I watched and listened to the congressman for a day, and returned a week later with a draft. I handed the speech to him, the manager smiling, and without so much as a glance, he handed it to the driver. “I won’t be using it today.” And we were off again.
But a few miles up the freeway, the phone rang. It was the manager. She asked the congressman if he was on the speaker phone, which he was. So he switched to the hand-held. “Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh. Yeah.” Click. He reached into the pile of papers his driver had put in the car and read through my speech.
“It’s good. Yeah. I like it. Some good lines in there.”
But he went back to “straight from the shoulder and straight from the heart.”
Evangelicals have savored their few moments of influencing politics. But they haven’t achieved the cultural change they were hoping for. The country hasn’t turned to Christ. Families are not measurably stronger because of any legislation passed. The main evangelical successes have been in opposition to gay marriage and abortion, not in advancing a vision for the country.
The lack of progress boils down to resources.
In politics, you have to influence a five-term congressman. You have to be big enough, mobilizing a large enough constituency or having the money to lobby him. Or, you have to have access to the person who influences how much funding goes to his district. Or, you have to have helped elect him in the first place.
Fundamentally, he must want to listen to you. And even that is not enough. He can think of many reasons to listen to a lot of other people too.
Evangelicals have committed vast resources — not just financially, but in terms of grass roots organization, media time, and depth of experience — to influencing five-term congressmen. They have been successful at becoming big. But now they are experiencing again how hard it is to move a nation from the top.
What would have happened if, for the last twenty years, they had committed the same resources to making disciples for Christ? Imagine the impact on American culture if local churches had been successful at saving marriages, nurturing new generations of Christians, deepening people’s knowledge of the Bible, and developing their capacity to pray. Imagine the impact if local churches had been as passionate about God’s priorities as they’ve been about ballot initiatives.
When confronted with what it really costs to make disciples, most evangelicals for the past twenty years have said the same thing. “We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the time, the money, or the patience. We can barely make disciples of our own kids.”
The sad reality of these two decades is that political parties have been able to attract evangelical resources, but the cause of making disciples has not. We will talk about the political implications of this reality on Sunday morning.
My candidate for governor got the nomination, but went down in flames that November. My effort to influence him didn’t even survive the primaries. He fired the campaign manager.
There is one thing that will make a five-term congressman want to listen. A cultural transformation in his district. The question is, how much do evangelicals really want to influence politics? Are they willing to move a nation from the bottom?