Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. People may have wealth, position, fame, but unless they have power, many of them believe their lives are incomplete. Power cannot only seduce, but also affect judgment. It can be more addictive than any drug, because it deceives the one who "takes" it. Power can be used to rationalize the most outrageous behavior because the power abuser sincerely believes his ends are justified and so any means of achieving them are legitimate.
When a preacher or any other person who claims to speak for God, and who already holds sway over sometimes large numbers of people, is seduced by power, he can become destructive, not only to himself and to those he is charged to lead, but to the cause and objectives of the One he is supposed to be serving. A prime example on the political and religious left is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who once made strong pro-life statements in behalf of the unborn, but caught the pragmatism virus when he decided the opposite view was much more favorable to his political ambitions.
During President Clinton's personal and political difficulties with the Independent Counsel and various women, Jackson signed on as a "spiritual advisor" to the president and his family. On a trip to Africa with the Clintons in March 1998, Jackson told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that he, Jackson, understands the extremes of politics-the adulation of a big speech and then the loneliness of a hotel room. In responding to charges of extramarital affairs against the president, Jackson told Dowd, "Obviously, there was a lot of torment there. Some can turn pain into despair. He can turn pain into energy." Added Jackson in a mixed metaphor, "Sex is not the one string on the guitar. There are nine more commandments."
Here is a clear example of how religious leader's knowledge of the truth succumbed to the seduction of power. Had he told the truth and urged the president to repent, he might have lost his coveted position as confident to the most powerful man on earth.
Compromising spiritual integrity for access to power is not limited to liberal clergy. In the same month that Jackson traveled to Africa, evangelist Billy Graham appeared on NBC's Today show and seemed to grant absolution to President Clinton for sins real and alleged. Graham offered forgiveness to Clinton (although the president had consistently denied any wrongdoing, leaving in question whether anyone can forgive an innocent man). Then Graham offered up an excuse for Clinton's wanderings. After saying, "I think that a president should attempt, with God's help, to have a higher moral standard than perhaps the average public has," he added, "but we're living in a whole different world today, and the pressure today on anyone is difficult." Then he said of the president, "He has such a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him."
In my syndicated column I suggested that not only should Graham devote his remaining years to preaching, but that is was long past time for all preachers to declare a moratorium on personal friendships with presidents of either party. It can only corrupt the preacher and the purpose of the church. Although Dr. Graham has generally been a model of integrity when it comes to his friendships with nine presidents, the marriage of religion and politics almost always compromises the gospel.
Nouwen writes that men and women who are dedicated to spiritual leadership are easily subject to very raw carnality. "The reason for this," he says, "is that they do not know how to live the truth of the Incarnation. They separate themselves from their own concrete community, try to deal with their needs by ignoring them or satisfying them in distant and anonymous places, and then experience an increasing split between their own most private inner world and the Good News they announce. When spirituality becomes spiritualization, life in the body becomes carnality. When ministers and priests live their ministry mostly in their heads and relate to the gospel as a set of valuable ideas to be announced, the body quickly takes revenge by screaming loudly for affection and intimacy. Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation, that is, to live in the body-not only in their own bodies but also in the corporate body of the community, and to discover there the presence in the Holy Spirit."
Nouwen says that confession and forgiveness are the disciplines by which spiritualization and carnality can be avoided. But think quickly about preachers who use television. How many can you name who are associated with confession and forgiveness? More often their messages are full of condemnation and judgment. When we consider that all of us have failed to live up to such a standard, a dose of humility might be in order, but as former, U.S. Senator Alan Simpson once observed, if one travels the high road of humility (in Washington) he will not encounter heavy traffic.
The third temptation of Jesus was the most subtle and the most dangerous, and it speaks clearly to those of us who want to use politics to usher into his kingdom. Those familiar with the story recall that Satan, who has had a lot of practice at this sort of thing (and gets new people to practice on with every generation), led Jesus into the wilderness. The record says, "And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, 'I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours'" (Luke 4:5-7 NASB). The temptation, of course, was rejected, but today some are giving into it. In the early days of the Moral Majority we were taken up to the mountain, and we saw how we could finally win the battle for Jesus' sake. Unfortunately, the voice we were listening to was no that of Jesus.
Many who claim to speak for Jesus and seek earthly power to help him usher in his kingdom forget that he emptied himself and took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:6-8). Nouwen writes, "The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the gospel is the highest temptation of all."
And finally comes perhaps Nouwen's most profound insight: "What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life."