The Christian As Public Servant
First published April 1981
John Strietelmeier

For thirty-four years, to my certain knowledge, some of us at Valparaiso University have been preoccupied with the idea of what a Christian should look like as a public servant. We have asked many questions. Would he or she be generally liberal or generally conservative in outlook? Would he or she be guided by a morality noticeably different from that of his or her colleagues in government? Is there a specifically Christian style in public life? Does the Faith itself offer insights to Christian public servants which are not available to non-Christians?

When we first started asking these questions, a young Lutheran medical doctor was beginning to dabble in politics in a small town just fifty miles from our campus. He started out as county coroner, then moved up to the state House of Representatives, of which he subsequently served for several terms as Speaker. In 1973, he became Governor. Last January this once-young physician, Otis R. Bowen, MD, left office after what may well be the most distinguished governorship in the history of the State of Indiana.

Distinguished in many ways, Doc Bowen dominated Indiana politics more completely, and for a much longer time, than any of his predecessors. He was unbeatable not only in his own races for public office, but also in those off-years when candidates for other offices made sure that voters were aware that they were “Doc’s Boys.” In the state legislature, the Governor got pretty much what he wanted because it was pretty well understood that the voice of the Governor was the voice of the people. And in the executive branch, it was generally understood that you had to be as clean as the proverbial hound’s tooth or you would have the Governor himself to answer to.

Why do I, a lapsed Republican turned liberal Democrat, consider Governor Bowen not only a great public servant but a kind of paradigm of the Christian in public office?

I suppose that it is because he has come as close as anyone I know to answering in his public career the questions we have been asking for so many years here on campus about the Christian in public life. Not that he would feel comfortable being labeled a paradigm. But he has helped me, at least, to understand that paradigms that have any understandable meaning for real-life human beings are created not in intellectual exercises but in the cauldron of day-to-day involvement in real-life situations.

I certainly have no intention of disparaging the intellect. But the intellect is only one of many tools that we have been given to apprehend reality and to project beyond reality some kind of ideal or model or paradigm. It is one of the weaknesses of the intellect that it can and often does project beyond reality an ideal or model which, while imaginable, is not really possible in the real world of fallen human beings.

A life well lived, by contrast, sets before us a high, but attainable, model. It does not set before us the impossible challenge to be what man does not have it in him to be, but the manageable challenge to be all that we can be—marred as that will necessarily be by the defects of our humanness.

So, in these terms, what did Governor Bowen tell us about the Christian in public life?

He did not flaunt his piety, real though it was. He was not much given to what Vie Hoffmann used to call “Jesus talk.” He did not claim for his generally conservative views any Divine endorsement. There was, in other words, nothing on the surface to distinguish him from any Jew or Buddhist of noble disposition and absolute integrity.

And yet the light shone through—in his bearing, in his speech, in his conduct of the government. I have seen that light in other great Christian public servants—in Mark Hatfield and Albert Quie and Paul Simon, to name only three. And it is as unmistakable as the voice of God.

What is it? I don’t know that I can capture it in words, but I apprehend it as a strange mixture of humility and self-confidence. The humility of St. Francis: “What a man is in the sight of God, that he is and no more.” The self-confidence of O. P. Kretzmann: “What a man is in the sight of God, that he is and no less.” The best word that I can find for it is integrity—a wholeness resulting, if one is a Christian, in an entire focus on one’s responsibility to carry out that ministry of reconciliation, of healing, which follows from the redemptive work of Christ.

To err on the side of self-confidence is to fall into the obnoxious priggishness of the Moral Majority. To err on the side of a false humility is to reduce one’s self to the status of just another real nice guy. Somewhere, in the strait and narrow space between these two models, lies the paradigm we have been looking for.

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