Christians should resist cynicism about politicians
From Father Silas:
If you were to ask the average member of the public what he or she thinks of politicians, it’s pretty safe bet that you wouldn’t hear anything remotely positive. Although the British are not alone in this, we have, as a nation, an abject regard for those who go into politics. We mistrust their motives, we doubt their sincerity, we sneer at their every utterance regardless of whether it be an expression of high-minded philosophical intent or an assurance of fellow-feeling with the governed. We don’t believe them. They steal from us via bogus expense claims. They keep smutty little secrets while lecturing us on morality. They are incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question. With a few honourable exceptions, they are not interested in us or our struggles. All they want is our votes to keep them in their private club by the Thames. Oh, and our money, obviously.
I’m pretty confident that this is what is called cynicism. According to the OED, to be cynical is to be “distrustful or incredulous of human goodness and sincerity”. It is to assume the lowest motive for any act or expression or ambition or desire. To be a cynic is always to suppose one’s fellow creatures incapable of altruism, philanthropy and selflessness. At some level, says the cynic, they are out for themselves, because that is what human beings are like. And that is what they are like, of course. But that is not all they are like.
What do we think persuades people to go into local government or Parliament? Do they do it for prestige, fame or fortune? Some of them, perhaps. But a desire for any of those things does not, of itself, condemn a person to outer darkness. It sits awkwardly (to say the least) with the Christian principle of denial of self and the primary love of God and neighbour; but it is hard to find many things that are pure in that regard. It may make such a person unattractive as a representative or legislator; but the electorate has the answer to that in its own hands.
However hard we struggle to accept it, there is evidence that low or selfish personal motivation does not necessarily eclipse all other, more admirable, qualities. It is entirely possible for someone who is motivated by a desire for his own comfort to care about the discomfort of others. One who sets out to benefit himself at public expense may nonetheless turn out to be a force for good on the public stage. Yet my suspicion is that few politicians are so motivated. Most start with a belief that the world can be a better place, and a conviction of how it can be made so. They may feel called to, or work towards, or arrive by chance at, a point at which they are personally able to move this belief forward. That is politics. Once they have gripped the greasy pole, their better or worse characteristics may come to the fore, but they are neither all good nor all bad. It is true that those who climb further, or who serve those at the top, are more liable to the corruption of power; but they remain human, always capable of better. This is the lesson of Damian McBride’s memoirs. Listen to what Telegraph blogger, Dan Hodges, says about that:
“Anyone who thinks Tony Blair or Gordon Brown or those who worked for them were quintessentially evil doesn’t understand government, and how it really works. It is not populated by political innocents. It is a car crash of power and ambition and jealousy and hope and pride and bravery and cowardice and triumph and failure. In other words, it is populated by ordinary men and women, with all the flaws that implies.”That is as near to an exegesis of the Doctrine of Original Sin as I suspect we shall hear from any political commentator this conference season. Pride and ambition are neutral, since they can be for good or ill. But note the presence of bravery and hope alongside jealousy and cowardice. The point is that politicians, like the rest of us, are human and fallen. Their world, like ours, “is populated by ordinary men and women, with all the flaws that implies”. Quite right, Dan. We are all capable of good and bad. To see or assume only the bad is cynicism; it is not fully human; and it is a condition of mind which the Christian is thus called to resist.
Father Silas is an undistinguished (he says) priest and deacon of the Church of England who loves it in spite of everything.