Politicians are Crooked (and so are we)

“Politics as usual” is a familiar refrain heard during an election year. It simply means that people expect politicians to act in their own best interests and contrary to the oath they took to protect and defend the Constitution. There is nothing new in this. But because of America’s unique constitutional protections, the citizenry has an almost limitless freedom to expose and block the efforts of politicians who act in a self-serving manner. Ordinary citizens can voice their opinions without threat of political reprisals in the editorial pages of local and national newspapers and magazines. With the advent of Blogs and ever-growing social networks, now anyone can publish an opinion and make it available to the masses.

There was a time when the freedom to criticize those who held political office was universally denied to the citizenry. To speak ill of the king often meant imprisonment. Some paid the ultimate price in speaking out against the crown. The right to express opinions came gradually and only to Parliament. While a member of the English Parliament was immune from punishment “for anything said by him in his official capacity during a legislative session,”1 such a right was not conferred on the general population.

The right of the citizenry to differ with rulers did not stop everyone from finding ingenious ways to vent anger and frustration over impossible edicts and capricious political maneuverings. One clever way to expose the shenanigans of the crown was to compose biting parodies that ridiculed the policies of the king and his court. Of course, these medieval public mockings were almost always done anonymously. For example, during the reign of Richard III, the poet William Colingbourne wrote the following:

The Cat, the Rat, and Lovel our Dog,

Do rule all England, under a Hog.

The “Cat” was the crafty lawyer Sir William Catesby who, through the help of the crown, lined his pockets through graft. The “Rat” described Sir Richard Ratcliffe who exhibited the traits of the offensive rodent “to gnawe on whom he should.” Lord Lovell’s crest was a dog, and King Richard’s emblem was a wild boar, a hog. Colingbourne’s meaning had been a bit too transparent. The poet was executed on Tower Hill in 1484.

Similar political satire can be found in popular nursery rhymes such as “Jack and Jill,” “Old Mother Hubbard,” “Little Boy Blue,” “Little Jack Horner,” and “To Market, To Market.” While their messages are lost on us, they made perfect sense to those who first heard them. Consider “Three Blind Mice.” “The three blind mice were Messrs. Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, who greatly annoyed the farmer’s wife, landowning Queen Mary, by opposing her determination to restore England to Rome, and got their life tales quite appreciably shortened thereby.”2

There is little doubt that “There Was a Crooked Man” has delighted children for centuries. Is it possible that the satirist had a particular person in mind? Perhaps a corrupt ruler who went out of his way to use his crooked ways for ill-gotten gain at the expense of his subjects?

There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile,

He found a crooked sixpense against a crooked stile:

He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,

And they all lived together in a crooked little house.

Whatever the original meaning, there is a great lesson in these lines to help us understand the problems we face in thinking straight in a crooked world when it comes to politics.

“There was a crooked man” is an appropriate description of today’s politicians and we who keep them in power. We’re all crooked. This is why Benjamin Franklin astutely observed that “In

questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”

Our nation’s founding fathers understood man’s basic problem. There was the general acknowledgment of human sinfulness, even among those who had been “refined” by education and breeding. They believed that “[t]he heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). Most of us don’t want to believe such negative things about people, since we don’t believe such things about ourselves. Today’s materialist climate does not account for sin. There are “environmental” or “systemic” reasons for why people do what they do. But sin? God forbid!

Most colonists grew up with the New England Primer (1690) which began the study of the alphabet with “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Some might claim that the indictments leveled against the human race as a whole by these pre-moderns should be excused since they were formulated in a pre-scientific age prior to the development of psychiatric theories which tell us “I’m OK—You’re OK.” And even if you’re not, you can always blame your mother, your father, your teacher, or the Little League or cheerleading coach for your disturbed and sensitive condition. If you can’t find fault in any of these, there is always, “My genes made me do it.” There is a genetic cause for nearly every malady today.

Our nation’s founders acknowledged the sinfulness of man and took it into account when they developed the system of government that has been the envy of the world. “There is,” in the words of James Madison, a “degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust.” Madison speaks of the “caprice and wickedness of man,” and of the “infirmities and depravities of the human character.” Alexander Hamilton “remarks upon the ‘folly and wickedness of mankind,’ and declares that he regards ‘human nature as it is, without flattering its virtue or exaggerating its vices.’ Consequently, he believes that ‘men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.’”

Hamilton’s “pessimistic view of man is shared by John Jay, the third author of the Federalist, who sees men as governed by ‘the dictates of personal interest’ and who will therefore ‘swerve from good faith and justice.’” Benjamin Franklin astutely observed that “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.” Even with the heady notions of the Enlightenment swirling about, the American Founders never relinquished their fundamental belief in the depravity of man.

Our founders did not believe in the perfectibility of man by any human institution, Church and State included. Federalist scholar Gottfried Dietze writes: “This raises the question of whether the contributors to this American classic believe that man can be improved. The answer is in the negative. No millennium is foreseen in which human selfishness would disappear and in which it would be possible to live happily without the restraints of government. All kinds of men, whether poor or rich, whether of common or aristocratic stock, are selfish and always will be.”

We should bear in mind that the founders lived within a Christian context. They knew of barbarism and how “religion” transformed the world. Many of their anti-religious broadsides were leveled against those who abused their authority as religious leaders. Even so, we know that the realistic pessimism of our founders did not stop them from creating a system of government that took into account human sinfulness.

We should never expect that any politician or group of politicians will always do the right thing, even when they take an oath and promise to God that they will. That’s why when we vote for them we must have low expectations of what they will do and what we would like to have them do for us. Keeping a politician honest means keeping us honest. If it’s wrong to steal from a neighbor, it’s wrong to elect someone to do it for us.

  1. Leonard W. Levy, Emergence of a Free Press (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 3. []
  2. Lawrence E. Nelson, Our Roving Bible: Tracking Its Influence through English and American Life (Nashville, TN: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1945), 44. []
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