Wednesday, 26 June 2013

When politicians are also people of faith ....

This post first appeared on my blog at the time of the ALP leadership ballot in late June, 2013.  Events since then, particularly the change in the ALP government's policy toward asylum seekers, have necessitated some further material in this post.  In early September, the Australian Federal Election led to a change in government from the centre-left ALP to the centre-right Coalition, but this article stands essentially as it was written roughly a month before the change of government..  Bob.


Now, when leadership tensions are reaching a climax within the Australian Labor Party, and when many ALP members are thinking of returning to the leadership of Kevin Rudd, I'd like to reflect on the impact of a politician's religious convictions on their political service.  (A few hours after this was posted, Rudd in fact returned to office as Prime Minister.)

When a politician is also a person of faith, there are a variety of approaches they take to the relationship between their faith and their religious practice.

The most common approach is for the politician to declare a strict separation between her / his life as a politician and her / his life as a person of faith.  The classic example of this was John F. Kennedy who spoke, during his presidential campaign in 1960, about his own strict separation between his life as a politician and his life as a worshipping / practicing Catholic, including an undertaking to resign from office if a conflict of interest ever arose between his religious faith and his political duties. 

We see this approach in politicians of both centre-left and centre-right orientations in all countries.  In many ways, this is the "default setting" for a politician who is also a person of faith.  It's the easiest way to handle being both a politician and a person of faith, whatever the politician's religious convictions or political persuasion.

Other possibilities also have been seen
  • Particularly for politicians who combine a right-of-centre political persuasion and a conservative religious outlook, there is the option of functioning like any other secular politician, only with the extravagant use of pious rhetoric on occasion (at least when in similarly pious company).  This is very popular among many politicians in the United States.
  • Another option (seen in politicians of a variety of persuasions, particularly those with a more superficial understanding of their faith) is to limit the impact of one's faith on one's politics to the advocacy of conservative policies on issues relating to marriage, sex, and bioethics.

There's one further option, one that I see as far more creative and positive than any of those I've mentioned above.  It is much rarer and far more politically risky: 

Occasionally we see a person of faith who is also a practicising politician, and for whom politics is a calling, a sacred vocation, just like the vocation of a priest, monk, nun, pastor, rabbi, or imam.  And in many ways these politicians treat their political calling with the same reverence as the ordained treat their pastoral calling.  Some studied theology before going into politics.  Some served as clergy before becoming politicians (including many high profile African-American pastor-politicians).  I know one individual who became a priest after leaving politics.

Generally, these politicians are found in centre-left parties, but are usually not party "insiders".  They frequently have a troubled relationship with the movers-and-shakers found within their parties' establishments. 
  • Their combination of high intelligence, high integrity, and (at times) low levels of modesty often make them uncomfortable colleagues.  (The low levels of modesty are often a result of the sense of vocation.  Believing that one is "called" by the Sacred for one's task can often lead to arrogance if one is not careful.) 
  • As well, openly being a person of faith within a centre-left party with a pluralist-secular ethos leads to other difficulties.
Occasionally, through sheer talent and a public desire for transparent integrity, they become senior government figures.

In my adult life, I've been aware of four politicians of this sort who, across the English-speaking world, reached the heights of being the leader of a national government:  Jimmy Carter in the United States, the late David Lange in New Zealand, Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, and Kevin Rudd in Australia.

Each of these individuals had their flaws:  Rudd's temper - as well as his tendency to micromanage - was an obvious case in point, as was Lange's ego.  (And Rudd's personal flaws were given a wide airing in various political post-mortems following the election.)

All of these leaders had a real problem with knowing whom to trust.  While Carter was particularly known for his naiveté, each of the four tended to trust people who (it could be argued) took advantage of their trust.
  • In some cases, the misplaced trust was bad for their career.  Rudd trusted the ALP factional and trade union powerbrokers in 2010.
  • In other cases, the misplaced trust led to disastrous policies.  Blair trusted George W. Bush before the Iraq War.
While each was well-read in the area of theology, perhaps their theological reading could have been better-focused for a politician.  While Rudd's penchant for the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was well-noted, perhaps each of the four could have been better prepared for their political vocation if they had spent some more time with the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote of the need for those in public life to be wary of their fellow-inhabitants of the political environment and to avoid naiveté, in the interests of the public good.

This usefulness of some Niebuhrian scepticism toward political movers-and-shakers would have been particularly useful in two situations when these leaders made decisions that were seemingly inexplicable in terms of the values either of ecumenical Christianity or of social democratic politics: 
  • Tony Blair's decision to participate in George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq a decade ago, and
  • Kevin Rudd's decision to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, rather than resettling them in Australia, after resuming the Prime Ministership. 
Both men made highly flawed decisions in these cases (in my opinion), decisions that may have been radically different if either Blair or Rudd had reflected on their policy options with a more Niebuhrian quality of scepticism toward the motives of those advocating these policies.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.