There are two great risks in writing about a scandal unfolding as rapidly as the Iranian-contra connection. First, what I write today may be quickly outdated. I am reminded of the Civil War soldier sentenced to hang for desertion. The night before his execution, he wrote his fiancée with the sad news. The next day he was unexpectedly pardoned, and immediately posted a letter to his love—but alas, between the arrival of the first and second epistles, she married another man.
The second risk is not having all the facts. During Watergate, I discovered a vast gulf between reality and news reports. TV cameras may never blink, but they’re often selective.
Some things, however, are safely predictable. Replete with shadowy arms dealers, secret Swiss bank accounts, and “safe” houses, “contragate” will be around a while. We can expect months of pontificating by pundits and politicians, while those with aspirations for ’88 will either lick their wounds or lick their chops, depending on their party.
Some people may go to jail; some will write books. The Reagan revolution will be slowed; and not incidentally, a lot of newspapers will be sold.
But beyond its titillating tidbits, the scandal raises a host of serious issues, including who is running our foreign policy, and is it legitimate to deal with terrorists. The public seems especially outraged that all this was done in secret, misleading Congress, the press, and our allies.
Americans have always idealistically assumed that the business of democracy is conducted publicly, fondly remembering such assurances as Woodrow Wilson’s “open covenants … openly arrived at.” When we discover secret dealings, our confidence is shattered.
But, shocking as it may seem, it is fair to ask: Is open disclosure a realistic policy? Can government always tell the truth?
In 1971, after Henry Kissinger arrived for his well-publicized trip to Pakistan, reporters were told that he was ill. In fact, Kissinger was spirited away in the night and flown to Beijing to meet with Zhou Enlai. Today it would be called “disinformation.” But the lie was essential: Any leak would have derailed the opening of relations with China.
Such deceptions are not limited to national security. In August 1971, Nixon and key advisers knew the U.S. government would no longer establish the price of gold. But we denied it for days: a premature announcement would have put billions in the pockets of speculators.
In the current controversy, the wisdom of dealing with Iran will continue to be debated. But whether the decision was wise or not, once it was made, should the United States have announced it to friend and foe alike? The policy could only succeed in getting hostages released and in opening relations with Iran if kept absolutely secret. That required deception.
Theologians have debated such issues for centuries. After all, Rahab, the Old Testament harlot who lied to protect Israel’s spies, is listed in Hebrews’ great “cloud of witnesses.” And while Saint Anselm argued that a lie could never be justified, most of us would agree with Corrie ten Boom, who lied to protect Jews from Nazis.
Thus, the Iran controversy raises painful questions. How does government in the nuclear age balance what are sometimes conflicting demands—on the one hand, the disclosure expected in a free society; on the other, its first biblical duty, the preservation of order in a chaotic, fallen world?
Few issues are as black or white as we would like. Most are shades of gray. Consequences of some decisions are more damaging than others; statesmen must often make poor choices rather than worse ones. And actions that achieve order in one situation might well invite chaos in the next.
In today’s world of high-stakes relations with governments both moral and immoral, it is not as easy as idealists might wish to marry moral absolutes and public policy.
If this is true, the current Iran scandal presents several sobering lessons for Christians, who in recent years have enthusiastically waded into the political marshlands.
First, the realpolitik of the nuclear age, as well as human sinfulness, are powerful reasons for never marrying the gospel with any political movement. Of course, we may make common cause on issues such as abortion, peace, pornography, and the like. We should seek to influence government as an instrument of God’s righteousness. But we dare not claim it for Christ, lest when the political ship sinks, as all eventually do, the gospel goes down with it.
In the past six years, many Christian movements have enjoyed their identification with a president who may well be the most popular chief executive of the century. That’s fine. But, as events of recent months testify, the tides of public favor ebb and flow. Those who live by public opinion polls also die by them.
God gave Caesar the sword and Peter the keys to the kingdom. While wielding the sword, the state may have to choose a lesser among evils; but as the witness of the kingdom of God, the church can never compromise his absolute righteousness.
Second, the Iran scandal should give pause to those who believe that electing Christians will solve our national ills. The ethical dilemmas inherent in government will not just go away. Christians in public office must agonize over them as much as their secular counterparts—except their agony is often greater.
Third, those who had put much hope in this—or any—presidency should not despair. When in A.D. 410 the news reached Augustine that his beloved Rome had been destroyed, he replied calmly, “All earthly cities are vulnerable. Men build them and men destroy them. At the same time there is the City of God which men did not build and cannot destroy and is everlasting.”
The Iran arms controversy is just cause for sorrow. We grieve that our foreign policy has been damaged, the public trust abused. We must redouble our prayers for our nation’s leaders. But we must remember as well that our ultimate trust is elsewhere—in the city “man cannot destroy.”
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