Some people in her own party want Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) to lose her membership on committees and even her place within her party’s conference in the United States House of Representatives, all because she won’t “move on” from her beliefs that the attempts to overturn the last election—leading up to last January’s attack on the Capitol—are a clear and present danger to democracy.
Whatever you think of Cheney (as you can imagine, I am a fan), there’s a larger point here—one that applies to many evangelical Christians in a thousand different situations in their churches and communities: At what point will you stop conserving your influence?
I thought about this conundrum last week while reading the transcripts of a New York Times podcast debate between Charlie Sykes of The Bulwark and Rich Lowry of National Review, both of whom are conservatives that admire Congresswoman Cheney’s integrity and conviction.
Where they disagree is on whether Cheney has squandered her influence within her party in ways that will prevent her from solving these problems in the future.
“As a politician, you have to be aware of where your voters are,” Lowry said. “Doesn’t mean that you pander to them or play to their worst instincts or always say yes to anything they want. But to live is to maneuver. Especially if you’re a politician.” Lowry said that Cheney’s refusal to back down on these matters wouldn’t be helpful. After all, if you’re not at the table, you can’t have influence.
Sykes noted that this idea is a common rationalization and that it’s circular. People who want others to remain silent or to go along with any sort of craziness often “tell themselves that they need to stay in the room so they can sound the alarm, but they refuse to sound the alarm so they can stay in the room.”
When I read this, I immediately thought of how often I have sat in the surreal situation of a television debate where the person I was debating gave a sad shrug and agreed with me off camera but went right back to saying the opposite as soon as the lights and cameras came back on.
I can think of people I’ve known in Christian ministry who told me, behind closed doors, how disgusted they were with a politician they deemed to be immoral but then, in public, praised the same politician as a man of integrity. The same thing is true all through the government.
The argument is that we need grownups in the room. As leadership expert John Maxwell once put it, “Being one step ahead makes you a leader. … Being fifty steps ahead could make you a martyr.” People in the vortex of craziness—whether in a workplace, a church, or a government—often tell themselves they have to play along with things they find insane to maintain their long-term ability to keep bad things from happening. “If I’m not here; someone worse will be,” they reason.
There’s a kernel of truth there, of course. I do a facepalm every time I hear of a young pastor who, after just arriving at a church, removes the American flag from the sanctuary or tries to excommunicate everybody who hasn’t attended in a year. “Even if you are right, these are not your biggest problems right now,” I would tell that person. “And this is the wrong time to take them on.”
Daniel in Babylon was willing to go the lions’ den over the demand that he worship the king, but, when it came to eating the rich delicacies of the king’s table, he prudently posed alternatives instead. Jesus didn’t believe he owed the temple tax but paid it “so that we may not cause offense” (Matt. 17:27). The apostle Paul circumcised Timothy so that the younger man’s Gentile heritage wouldn’t be a stumbling block to the mission (Acts 16:3).
The problem is that there comes a point where one moves from “choosing battles” to having one’s conscience seared. Peter’s refusal to eat with the Gentiles was, Paul wrote, “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Almost every time someone acts out of fear of getting kicked out of what C. S. Lewis called the “Inner Ring,” the person reasons that this is just “working within the system” or “living to fight another day.”
Whatever you think of Liz Cheney (did I mention that I’m a fan?), no one can seriously suggest that she was a radical revolutionary inattentive to maneuvering. She twice supported the president she now criticizes and voted with him over 95 percent of the time. She had the esteem of her colleagues such that she was elected to the third-highest rank in her party’s House hierarchy. She is a grownup. She was in all the rooms.
There came a line, though, that she could not cross—when she was asked to support things she believed to be contrary to her oath to the Constitution. What was she supposed to wait for? If attacking the Capitol to stop the counting of electoral votes is not the moment she should speak out, what exactly is that moment?
Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was responding to a group of “white moderate” pastors who had criticized his nonviolent action in the city as doing more harm than good by pressing progress so fast that it caused backlash.
Sociologist Peter Berger explained in the same time period how this happens. He showed that a key predictor of whether a pastor would speak out on the injustice of Jim Crow was whether that church was in a building program or a major church growth campaign.
And, contrary to the idea of biding one’s time and building one’s influence in order to do the right thing later, Berger found that the longer a pastor served at his church, the less likely that pastor was to challenge Jim Crow.
On the way up, we tell ourselves, “I don’t have the platform yet to speak; when I get one, I will.” After we arrive wherever we were heading, we tell ourselves, “I have too much to lose; if I am not at the table, they will lose my voice.” We think this is the voice of prudence inside us, but maybe more often than not, it’s just ambition mixed with fear.
Not only are the internal rationalizations circular, but so are the external circumstances. Whether in a church, a ministry, a workplace, a city council, or a neighborhood association, we tell ourselves, “I am going to live with this little bit of craziness so that I will be here to stop major craziness.”
Yet while those crazy things are happening, someone watching all this is wondering, “Am I the only one who sees that this is crazy?” When everyone else acts like the crazy situation is normal, that observer shrugs and concludes, “It must just be me.”
And then the craziness becomes the new normal. And folks “conserve their influence” for when it’s needed, for whatever is just a step crazier. I’ve been there, and that way leads to nowhere good.
Sooner or later, one’s influence isn’t conserved but hoarded. Sooner or later, one is operating not out of prudent patience but from a seared conscience.
Stop counting on the grownups in the room to solve the problems. Stop imagining that the crises erupting around us will settle down on their own.
Sometimes the grownup in the room is the only one who can point out that the room is on fire.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.