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Principle and Compromise: Not Always at Odds


I’m dedicated to laying a principled foundation for whatever subject I scrutinize. I also want to see principles — Biblical principles — become the basis for all public policy. Those of us oriented toward principles have a natural aversion to compromise; we have a tendency to see all compromise as a step backward. I would like to argue that is not the case.

Let’s start historically and work our way to present-day issues.

At the Constitutional Convention, a major disagreement erupted between states with lesser populations and those with greater. The less-populated states desired representation in the Congress to be based on equality; they wanted an equal vote for all states. Their concern was they would be outvoted on everything if population became the cornerstone of representation.

Larger states naturally felt the opposite: since they had the most people, they should have a greater say in legislation. Who was correct?

I think both had valid points. Their concerns were genuine and needed to be addressed. The convention came up with a compromise that divided the Congress into two houses, one based on population, the other on equality.

That is an example of an excellent compromise because it didn’t sacrifice principle on either side. Without that compromise, there would have been no Constitution. The nation might have split into three or four warring factions, with all the misery that would have been connected with such a division.

Then there’s the example of New York state during the governorship of John Jay at the turn of the nineteenth century. Jay, an evangelical Christian, had often worked for the abolition of slavery in his state. Then, as governor, he had the opportunity to sign into law a gradual emancipation bill. This bill did not free all slaves immediately; rather, it laid out a plan that would eventually eliminate slavery in the next generation.

As someone who believed slavery was contrary to God’s purposes, should Jay have signed such a bill? He had no hesitation in doing so. Why? Because it set slavery on the course of extinction in New York. Long before the Civil War decided that issue nationally, New York had resolved it gradually.

Was Jay disobeying God in signing that bill? I believe just the opposite. His was a principled position. The compromise of gradual abolition achieved the long-term goal of his principle—getting rid of slavery once and for all. The new law made a step in the right direction. Therefore, I consider his action to have been consistent with his principles. Not to have signed it meant the perpetuation of the slavery institution, not its demise.

Now let’s bring this up to date. Let me offer two more examples.

First, let’s look at the issue of abortion. I firmly believe that the taking of an innocent human life is immoral. It is opposed to God’s moral law. My principled position is that all abortions should be outlawed. What if, as a legislator, I were faced with a decision on a particular bill that would eliminate 95% of all abortions in America? Should I vote for it? If I were president, should I sign it into law?

There are some who would say no. Why? They consider it a compromise of principle. Any law that doesn’t eliminate all abortions is less than what God requires. Consequently, support for a proposed law that would take care of “only” 95% of them would be a sin.

Again, I disagree—vehemently. If I have the opportunity to save 95% [or even 50% or 10%] of all babies who would otherwise have their lives snuffed out arbitrarily, I must take that opportunity. I would be advancing the principle in which I believe. By supporting such a measure, I am moving my society closer to God’s purposes. If we take an all-or-nothing approach, I believe we are deceiving ourselves in believing we are standing on principle. I would call it stubborn foolishness instead.

Congress is going to be dealing with raising the debt ceiling again soon. I am opposed to doing so. I am opposed to raising taxes in any way that will harm those who provide jobs for others. I wholeheartedly seek spending cuts. Now, do I hold out for everything I want or is there a way to advance what I believe is principled even while compromising temporarily?

One thing that all principled conservatives have to recognize is that in politics you don’t always get everything you want immediately. We can, though, push for as much as may be possible.

If an agreement is reached, for instance, that raises the debt ceiling, yet also includes “real” spending cuts, a cap on future spending, no increase in taxes, and at least a vote on a balanced budget amendment, why would I not support this? Enacting measures like these would lead us further on the path toward a principled and sane tax-and-spend framework.

Here’s how I summarize it: a compromised principle leads to unrighteousness, but a principled compromise is a step closer to the principle’s ideal.

I wish I could convince everyone of the wisdom of this perspective, but I’ll settle for whoever has ears to hear.


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