In this season of our discontent, mistrust of politicians is rising more rapidly than the pollen count, especially among those who consider themselves religious. Many people think politicians rank just below used-car salesmen and that politics is an ignoble profession involving back-room deals and compromise.

Mistrust, when warranted, is not always negative and can be a healthy reaction to waves of scandal about sex, campaign finances, espionage and lack of congressional leadership. There will always be scandals, but Christians, while wary of politicians, should not flee politics as a profession, as some are suggesting, to retreat behind the doors of church and home.

A better path, I think, is to realize that politics has limits and within those limits it is possible to deal with the temptations of power in order to achieve some important social goods.

Some people lose sight of the fact that politics, like work, family, friends, and voluntary associations — including the Church — is an essential part of our life together. The Church has long taught that political life should be a concern to the believer because it sets the stage for the organization of society in which the human person develops spiritually and temporally. Democracy is to be preferred to totalitarianism because it allows people more freedom to develop their human capacities. But democracy is far from perfect and needs constant watchfulness and adjustment of laws so that responsibilities, benefits and burdens will be shared equitably, and so that all people can participate in governing themselves.

Some of the mistrust of politicians today can be traced to confusion about the roles of politics and culture. Several conservative activists like Paul Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation, and Cal Thomas, a journalist, are complaining that Christians have tried to use politics to transform society and it has not worked. Religious conservatives have contributed to a few important successes like passing the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act (it was later vetoed by President Clinton), but politics has not turned the culture around. These writers counsel dropping out of some political movements and concentrating on rebuilding religious institutions as a bulwark against the corrupting political environment.

One part of their analysis is correct. The dominant culture is not supportive of many Christian ideals, including, for example, family life and the virtues of purity and self-sacrifice. Passing a few laws is not going to change the culture but it might limit the damage. Real cultural change is beyond the scope of politics. Christians, instead of turning away from politics altogether, need to focus on achievable goals that will further their cultural aspirations.

Opting out of political life in a culture such as ours amounts to handing moral relativists a victory by refusing to resist, refusing to accomplish the good that is possible. The great struggle of the last twenty-five years over the right to life of the unborn is a good example of the need to have a voice in the political conversation about women's moral responsibility as well as rights.

Without that voice, things would be much worse. The arena of political struggle is of utmost importance to us as individuals and to the Church, which is the greatest defender of true human freedom in this century. Without a Christian presence in the political dialogue we risk losing some basic rights and casting aside responsibilities. Few would be left to defend and uphold them.

Maintaining a positive attitude about politics may seem impossible in the present climate. But when we are too world-weary and want to escape to the nearest island, we can recall the positive goods achieved through politics in this century — especially the spread of democracy and the fall of communism, both accomplished at great human cost. We need to support those good people who choose a career in politics and work to strengthen democracy. Our support of such candidates and our knowledge of the issues are important for keeping democracy alive and protecting our freedom by using it.

Protecting the right relationship between the person and the state is no minor matter. Without that balance we are on the slippery slope to totalitarianism, a form of government that has proven to be destructive to the human soul. The political task may seem too insignificant to some, but when considered through the eyes of faith, it becomes a defense of the dignity of the human person.

Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.