Convenient Lies or Appalling Frankness?
(Editor's Note: The following essay is based on Greg Garrett's Faithful Citizenship: Christianity and Politics for the 21st Century, available for $4.99 at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.)
My position as the leader of a great party was not altogether a comfortable one. I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain. ~ Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister of England, November 1936
I'm back in the UK for a few weeks, and thus paying attention to British and Continental politics, and yet I find, as always, that a study of another nation's public life sheds a bright light on our American politics as well. We all live in what the British political writer Iain Martin describes in The Telegraph (traditionally a conservative paper) as a "culture of spin and fakery" (and what Stephen Colbert calls a culture of "truthiness"). The current British government, Mr. Martin argues, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, is trying to do what their previous PM Tony Blair and our President Bill Clinton did so well, "triangulation," in which a leader pays less attention to ideology or ideas, and more to "saying whatever it takes to win." But today's Conservatives, he reports, are failing at it because people now recognize the practice as political fakery. For better or worse, we want politicians with the courage of their convictions, not focus-group fanatics who will veer left or right to catch a momentary popular breeze.
This phenomenon of politicians pursuing policies not because they believe them to be right but because they believe them to be more popular is certainly not a new one. Stanley Baldwin uttered the words cited above in Parliament seventy-five years ago in response to Winston Churchill, then simply a member of the House of Commons. Mr. Churchill pointed out that Nazi Germany was rapidly rearming itself, in violation of treaties, Great Britain was at the same time disarming, and the Government might want to think about that combination of trends. Mr. Baldwin did think about it, and perhaps said rather too much in response. As Mr. Churchill said drily of Mr. Baldwin's words in The Gathering Storm, his history/memoir of the Second World War, "This was indeed appalling frankness."
It was appallingly frank because the Prime Minister was saying aloud the thing that must never be spoken: that in politics, one must sometimes act against one's conscience in order to retain power, preserve party discipline, or be re-elected.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.