It seems one of the prerequisites for political office in America is that your life used to be really, really hard. If you’ve followed the nomination process or the conventions or any efforts at political persuasion in recent years you can’t help but notice the ubiquitous narrative of personal struggle. Opportunities should be won, not given. Success should be a surprise, not a rite of passage. No one wants to come from privileged stock. Everyone wants someone in the family tree who was a coal miner, an immigrant, a maid, a bartender, a handyman, or janitor. Everyone wants to come from a place that was tough and rugged, full of small-town values and blistering poverty at the same time. Bonus points if you can work in the word “hardscrabble.” The way to political power is by demonstrating that you were born without any. The road to to success must begin in struggle.
How should we assess this ever-present narrative of struggle? Is it good for American politics? Good for Christians? Good for the soul? Or are there dangers?
Let me offer one observation, two appreciations, and three concerns.
Observation 1: The narrative is quintessentially American. We love rags to riches stories. The riches part is less monetary these days (wealth can be a detriment to the story) and more of a general overcoming of the odds, but the plot is still the same. We all want to hear another Horatio Alger tale. After our passion for liberty, the fundamental American belief is that hard work and determination will eventually lead to success. The promise of the American Dream is that anyone can come here from anywhere and make himself into anything. The Democrats may want to celebrate the role of government in making that dream come true while Republicans do more to extol rugged individualism, but both parties take great pains to prove that their leaders, their orators, and their standard-bearers have had endure many trials to get where there are today.
Appreciation 1: The narrative of struggle encourages many Christian virtues. Although Christianity must never be confused with the American Dream, we ought to be thankful for whatever is honorable, commendable, and excellent (Phil. 4:8). Hard work, delayed gratification, sacrifice for the sake of your family, diligence, perseverance–these are Christian ideals too. It’s good to want candidates who know the value of these things.
Appreciation 2: The narrative is, in one sense, deeply Christian. We follow a crucified Lord. We are saved by a suffering Servant. The scandal of the cross is that Jesus’ death did not disqualify him from being the Messiah; it was his crowning achievement. The testimonies of our politicians embody Neitzsche’s objection to Christianity: we have made weakness our weapon. Surely, it’s better to have candidates eager to prove their pain than point to their privilege.
Despite the good inherent in this narrative, there is much that should concern us as Christians. There are obvious things like:
- Our most important struggle is rarely mentioned (the struggle against sin).
- The role of a Savior is almost always absent (though George W. Bush’s story about overcoming addiction was an exception).
- It undermines a Christian understanding of vocation (why is housemaid “slumming it” and politician “making it”?).
Besides these uniquely Christian concerns, there are three other reflections that make the struggle narrative less significant than it seems.
Concern 1: The narrative is often misleading. Some public figures have truly remarkable stories and genuinely heroic pasts. But almost anyone in a position to run for a major political office has been surrounded by privilege as well. As scholars like James Hunter and Charles Murray have pointed out, most influence and most influential people have connections to elite institutions. Our last four presidents (Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama) all have degrees from either Harvard or Yale. Most members of Congress are quite wealthy. We may like it or hate it, or not care at all, but the fact of the matter is it’s impossible to become president today without connections to money, influence, institutions, and people that are outside most of our circles.
Concern 2: It’s unfair and unwise to expect every political candidate to have a compelling personal story. By compelling, of course, I mean what marketers find compelling. Every human story is filled with grace and tragedy and triumph and sin. Any examined life has something to say about someone else, if seen through the right lens and told in the right way.
But we should not mandate that the one indispensable requirement for leadership is a Horatio Alger story. First of all, because if that’s the requirement people will simply make things up or make a narrative out of next to nothing. And second because the goal of every political campaign and the promise of every politician is to give the next generation a different story. No one campaigns on the dismal prospect that our children can be born in squalor and deprivation. We want our kids to have opportunities we didn’t have. We want them to make more money, get into better schools, have fewer obstacles. If that’s what parents want–and what politicians promise–how can we penalize the men and women who themselves were born into these stories?
Struggle by itself proves nothing, even if the person presently looks successful. The underlying assumption behind most of these stories is that these past trials for me or my family have made me into the noble, accomplished person I am today. But we all know people who never learn from their trials. We know that the path from suffering to wisdom to inner strength is a narrow one and many do not travel it.
Suffering does not qualify anyone for anything, unless the suffering accomplished something. The Bible doesn’t call us to love Jesus just because he endured pain (though many Americans have an affection for Jesus based on nothing more than a sympathy for martyrs). We worship Jesus because by his suffering and death he purchased our redemption from sin.
Our past hurts and heartaches may mean we are particularly sympathetic, sensitive, and full of steely resolve. Or it may mean we are bitter and self-absorbed. Or it may mean nothing at all. Likewise, my present success may be owing in large part to the lessons I learned through suffering. Or there may be no connection at all. Just become someone is “real” and “authentic” doesn’t mean they’re any good at governing. Without more information, you can be raised by an asthmatic farmer who milked cows with his one non-arthritic hand using a bucket made out of shrapnel he got from the war, and I still don’t know if you are ready to be President of the United States or even Mayor of Whoville.