Politicians' Little Sins Lead to Great Ones

Oops! Apparently the "culture of corruption," of which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks with such derision, has infected the Democrats. Rep. William Jefferson (D.-La.) is the latest congressional figure to be implicated in a web of bribery and corruption.

The accusations leveled against Jefferson are damning. According to the Washington Post, an 83-page affidavit was recently filed that depicts him as, "a money-hungry man who freely solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, discussed payoffs to African officials, had a history of involvement in numerous bribery schemes and used his family to hide his interest in high-tech business ventures he promoted in Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria."

While he is entitled to the presumption of innocence, things don’t look good for Jefferson. Last week it was revealed that the FBI has in its possession a video of Jefferson accepting $100,000 in cash from an FBI informant in the parking lot of a Ritz-Carlton. The FBI’s affidavit says, "Congressman Jefferson reached in [to the informant’s car] and removed a reddish-brown colored leather briefcase which contained $100,000 in cash." A few days later, the FBI found $90,000 wrapped in aluminum foil in Jefferson’s freezer! (They don’t call it "cold cash" for nothing.)

How is it that elected officials in whom the public has reposed its trust can fall so short of the fiduciary obligations owed their constituents? It is not likely that public officials who came to Washington planned from the outset to parlay their public position into a vehicle for personal gain. Even the most hardened cynic will likely concede that most newly elected public officials come to their posts brimming with idealism expecting to act in accordance with the public good. Nevertheless, over the course of time, we often see that public servants who came to their offices expecting to be part of the solution have actually become part of the problem. This metamorphosis does not occur overnight. It occurs slowly, imperceptibly over time.

Many observers note that the longer one remains in office, the greater the likelihood that they will become part of the problem. That’s not surprising. The "system" in Washington, and in most state capitals, is guaranteed to cause problems for public officials who do not have a strong constitution and a sound ethical barometer. Professional lobbyists make their living buddying up to members and attending their every need. Paid to be sycophants by the special interests who retain them, they sing the praises of members of Congress and flatter them endlessly. Want a great meal? There is always a lobbyist ready to spring for it. The finest wine and champagne? No problem. Need to go to a luxury resort to decompress? When would you like to arrive? Have a penchant for golf? St. Andrews is the best. The goal, of course, is not merely to provide a nice repast for a deserving public servant. The goal is to accomplish the agenda of the client who retained the lobbyist. Little by little, if they are not extremely diligent to preserve their integrity and character, public servants become co-opted over time. Sadly, the longer they serve, the worse the problem often becomes. Recognition of this fact has provided the impetus for many of the term limit movements that have sprung up around the country.

The "frog in the kettle" syndrome that affects many public officials is not limited to those in public life. Rarely is one’s reputation undone because of a single momentous mistake. More likely it is the result of many smaller "compromises" that preceded the final collapse. The foundation of a house is not ruined because of one huge bite taken by a single termite on steroids. Rather it is the result of many small bites by a colony of termites that have infested the dwelling over time.

Charles Spurgeon, the famous English preacher who lived in the 1800s recognized the problem posed by "little sins." In one of his best known sermons titled "Little Sins" he observed that most people are not inclined to commit the "big sins," sins that everyone finds abhorrent (like when a public official accepts a bribe). Instead, it starts with a little sin, something that hardly seems significant at all — telling a lie, or receiving a very modest gift — and before long we become acclimated to the little sins, and they hardly seem disturbing. This process continues until we are entirely indifferent to even the biggest sin. Spurgeon exhorted his parishioners, "Little sins lead to great ones. Satan! Though biddest me commit a small iniquity. I know thee whom thou art, thou unholy one! Thou desirest me to put in the thin end of the wedge. Thou knowest when that is once inserted thou canst drive it home, and split my soul in twain. Nay, stand back! Little though the temptation be, I dread thee, for thy little temptation leads to something greater, and thy small sin makes way for something worse."

Spurgeon continues, "We all see in nature how easily we may prove this — that little things lead to greater things. If it be desired to bridge a gulf, it is often the custom to shoot an arrow, and cross it with a line almost as thin as film. That line passes over and a string is drawn after it, and after that some small rope and after that a cable, and after that the swinging suspension bridge, that makes a way for thousands. So it is oft times with Satan. It is but a thought that he would shoot across the mind. That thought shall carry a desire; that desire a look; that look a touch; that touch a deed; that deed a habit; and that habit something worse, until the man, from little beginnings, shall be swamped and drowned in iniquity… Oh! Take heed of those small beginnings of sin. Beginnings of sin are like the letting out of water: first, there is an ooze; then a drip; then a slender stream; then a vein of water; and then, at last, a flood: and a rampart is swept before it, a continent is drowned. Take heed of small beginnings, for they lead to worse."

In the final analysis, politicians are really no different from the rest of us. We all suffer from the consequence of the fall of our forebears in the Garden. We are all vulnerable to temptation. Thus, we would all do well to recognize our vulnerabilities and to guard against them, including little ones, lest we bring ourselves down, and others with us.