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Speaking truth to the people

10 June 2016

IT HAS become a cliché on both sides of the Atlantic to say that politicians cannot be trusted; they all lie to gain office or to stay in it. This perception has not led to a new breed of truthful politicians — would that it might — but to even brasher contenders, whose lies and half-truths are more extreme than those they seek to replace.

It is as though the public, giving up faith in ordinary lying politicians, feel that they are safer trusting extreme lying politicians. At least their sins are obvious. And perhaps they don’t really mean what they say. Or perhaps they do. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. They are more entertaining than the other lot, and at least they recognise what the elites fail to see, which is that the rest of us are really, really angry.

We are angry with our growing sense of impotence at a world that is becoming increasingly violent and unpredictable; angry at the failure of the West to exercise responsible leadership; angry at immigration and its perceived threat to working-class and, increasingly, middle-class jobs; angry at corporations that fleece us and fail to pay their due in taxes; angry at impossible house-prices. And we are angry still, and with just cause, at the bankers, whose lies wrecked our economies in 2007-08.

Public anger on this scale breeds a longing for punishment, purges, and even revolution. And all these responses are tinged with fantasy, and threaten our democracy.

Those who would defend democracy on Christian grounds need to be honest about its flaws. Chief among these is the fact that democracy is morally vulnerable. To work effectively, it requires a moral electorate. We will never get honest politicians until we are capable of honesty ourselves.

If we are incapable of hearing unpalatable truths, politicians will lie to us, bribe us, entrance us with fantasy, and put off the decisions that need to be taken. They know what we want to hear. And sometimes the news is not good.

The Christian Church has a part to play here in speaking truth to power. That is usually taken to mean that the Church should challenge politicians, which in our media-driven society is easy and cheap. But the Church might be more effective in the public sphere if it demanded that the electorate step out of fantasy-land and recognise that we cannot have everything we want; that justice and fairness are both essential and costly; that those who have most owe most; and that there is no guarantee that our lives are going to become easier just because we would prefer it to be so. Democracy is not for wimps.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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