Ronald Reagan and the art of compromise

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Model Emily Ratajkowski tweeted this week that she had been sitting next to a New York Times reporter who claimed that Melania Trump “is a hooker.” She slammed the reporter in her Twitter response, drawing gratitude from the First Lady and an apology from the reporter.

I am living in my twelfth presidential administration and have never seen the political climate in Washington as vitriolic as it is today. When I was in our nation’s capital recently, I was struck by the rancor that characterizes so much of its culture.

What has happened to the spirit of compromise that is essential to democracy?

Without question, leaders must sometimes take principled stands and refuse to waver from their position. But in a democracy, such stands should benefit the people whom the leaders serve. Unfortunately, the political calculus of our day claims that politicians must get elected and empower their party in order to serve the people. Thus, they interpret anything they do to defeat the other party as serving the public. Such a view makes the compromises necessary to two-party governance virtually impossible to achieve.

Consider Ronald Reagan’s reflections on political compromise. In his autobiography, he reflected on his experience after being elected governor of California:

“When I began entering into the give and take of legislative bargaining in Sacramento, a lot of the most radical conservatives who had supported me during the election didn’t like it. ‘Compromise’ was a dirty word to them and they wouldn’t face the fact that we couldn’t get all of what we wanted today. They wanted all or nothing and they wanted it all at once. If you don’t get it all, some said, don’t take anything.”

But when Reagan became president of the Screen Actors Guild, he “learned while negotiating contracts that you seldom got everything you asked for. And I agreed with FDR, who said in 1933: ‘I have no expectations of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average.’

“If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later, and that’s what I told these radical conservatives who never got used to it.”

How do we know when we should and should not compromise?

One: Defend the faith at all costs.

Standing before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, Peter refused their demand that the apostles cease preaching the gospel. His response: “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

1 Peter 3 calls us to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (v. 15). While we can adapt the method, we must never change the message. The gospel is the only good news that leads souls to salvation. We cannot give up what Scripture clearly teaches and must never stop preaching his word.

In a similar vein, Ronald Reagan believed that “freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.” He once noted, “Sometimes when I’m faced with an atheist, I am tempted to invite him to the greatest gourmet dinner that one could ever serve, and when we have finished eating that magnificent dinner, to ask him if he believes there’s a cook.”

Like him, we must be ready to defend God’s word and ways to a skeptical culture.

Two: Choose people over tradition.

At the same time, it is important to know when we are defending tradition rather than truth. Jesus met with the Samaritan woman at the well in defiance of the social norms of his day. Paul testified that he had become “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:23).

The “seven last words of the church” are “we never did it that way before.” Reagan noted, “Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things.”

Three: Seek the Spirit’s leading.

Jesus promised us that when we are called to testify before authorities, “what you are to say will be given to you in that hour” (Matthew 10:19). Here’s how: “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (v. 20).

Start every day by surrendering that day to the power and leading of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). Ask him to give you discernment to know when you must stand firm for the faith and when you can compromise for the sake of the Kingdom. And trust that he will lead you where he wants you to go.

In his First Inaugural Address, President Reagan noted: “Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.” I would add that an even greater weapon is “free men and women” led by the Spirit of our omnipotent King.

Let’s be such people today, to the glory of God.