“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States
It’s amazing what influence you can have with those around you, especially those whom you call “friends.” Even a brief, friendly encounter with someone who you have never met before can have a significant influence on your future actions. Arm twisting and cajoling, in addition to feigned friendship, simply cannot compete with the real thing when it comes to winning people to your cause. If you want to truly “win friends and influence people,” you must be personally involved with the people you are trying to influence.
One of the most vivid examples of this principle occurred in my life in May of 2002. In January of that same year, my family and I moved to Grundy, a small town in Southwest Virginia, where I began serving as pastor of Grundy Baptist Church. Known for its coal mining (praise the Lord for the coal miners rescued in Chile), Grundy had recently seen the arrival of the Appalachian School of Law, Virginia’s newest law school. The Baptist church that I was called to pastor literally shared a parking lot with the law school.
Five days before moving to Grundy, I received word that a disgruntled former student had gone into the law school, where he shot and killed the Dean, a Professor, and a student and shot and injured three other students. I hit the ground running as both the church and the community were trying to come to grips with the tragic events of that cold, January day.
Because of my legal background, I was able to quickly establish relationships with the President of the Law School as well as faculty, staff and students. In May of 2002, only months after the law school shooting, I was asked to deliver the Invocation and Benediction at the Law School’s Commencement Ceremonies.
The Commencement speaker that day was Rick Boucher, the long-time Democratic Congressman from Virginia’s Ninth Congressional District. As a political and theological conservative, I have rarely voted for Democratic candidates, despite the fact that I grew up in a Democratic household. After voting for Bob Graham in the 1986 Florida Senate race, I had no intention of ever voting for a Democrat again. That changed when I met Rick Boucher.
During Commencement, all of the law school faculty and administration left their seats to participate in handing out diplomas. That left only Congressman Boucher and myself, all alone amongst rows of empty chairs. Before I knew what was happening, Congressman Boucher got up from his seat in the row ahead of me and came back to where I was sitting. He proceeded to sit down beside me and, for the next 20 minutes, carried on a conversation with me like I was his long-lost relative. And, when I say carried on, I mean that he mostly talked and I mostly listened.
He did not have to give me the time of day, much less sit next to me and talk with me. But, in that brief period of time on that particular day, Congressman Boucher was as friendly as could be. And, little did he know, it made a huge impact on me. In November of that year, I did what I told myself I would never do again — I voted for a Democrat! I would vote for Congressman Boucher two more times before leaving Virginia and moving to New Mexico. Maybe you wouldn’t have been influenced by a similar personal and friendly act, but I was. And, just to be clear, a vote for the Republicans at the time, who were all weak candidates, would have been a completely wasted vote. This year, who knows.
Even though I haven’t voted for a Democrat since 2006 and will not vote for a single Democrat in the election of 2010, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t be persuaded to do so again. For instance, there are several of my fraternity brothers from Phi Sigma Kappa (Lambda Chapter) at George Washington University that I would support in an election (or otherwise), even though they are liberal Democrats (you know who you are). If they were running for office and needed my help, I would not hesitate to do all that I could to support them.
What would persuade me to vote for and support a person who I might not agree with? Quite simply, a personal relationship. For with personal relationships comes trust and mutual respect. That doesn’t mean that I have to agree with them on some, or even all, of the issues. What it does mean is that friendship matters. Sincere friendship (or fraternal bonds) go a long way in winning people to your cause.
I have no doubt that some will misunderstand this post. There will be some, especially in religious circles, that will automatically conclude that I am a “liberal” because I have voiced support for “liberals.” While my friends, including my liberal ones, know that this is not true, those who I don’t have a personal relationship with will perhaps jump to the wrong conclusions. And, they jump to these wrong conclusions because they have forgotten that the politics of persuasion often begins with friendship.
There are causes that we passionately believe in. There are changes that we want to see implemented. Sometimes these causes and changes require winning people to our side. We can try arm twisting and hardball politics, which is often the easier and preferred method of those already in power. Or, we can try the method that one of this nation’s greatest leaders advocated. In the long run, friendship really does work much better than force. What a radical concept!