WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Faith, Politics and Elections

WelCom February 2017:

Diocesan News and Views

Bishop Charles Drennan stirs the political pot

Bishop Charles Drennan.

Bishop Charles Drennan.

Keep religion out of politics. As a catch-cry it is nonsensical. Religions and faith have always been in the politics game and vice versa. The Sanhedrin, the body which oversaw the trial of Jesus, was political. And civic institutions which support and uphold democracy across our globe are founded on a Judaeo-Christian understanding of the person and society.

So it is to be expected that over the holiday period many of us have looked back on the big political events of the year through our eyes of faith. For many, Brexit (the Brits voting to leave the European Union), and for almost everyone, the election of Trump, leave us disturbed and perplexed. Both those votes have been called protest votes. Protest against toffs and talk, dynasties and old-boy networks, fat salaries pensions and bonuses for the few, self-serving bureaucracies, tax avoiders and those professionals who advise them.

It seems we know what we don’t want. But can we articulate what we do want? Americans, in protest against an out-of-touch political class, elected a maverick who may well go down in history as the least listening American President ever. What and who he approves is what and who he likes. Facebook on steroids.

New Zealand too has had its protest vote. The Flag. That vote (like Brexit) was a brilliant example of the purpose of a vote changing along the way. The Brexit vote was, in my opinion, too complex a subject for a referendum. In New Zealand the subject of the vote, though emotive, was far less complex. But as soon as Mr Key linked the vote with ‘my legacy’ rightly Kiwis began to resist. A groundswell of public opposition emerged, the flag itself plummeted to insignificance, and we voted No: your term of being our prime minister has nothing to do with creating a personal legacy. Serve us and lead us, but don’t patronise us with a need to be remembered.

Yet the media (the fourth estate) – a big player on the politics field – seems to be obsessed with the legacy word. It’s a version of hero cult. Our faith tells us that this is wrong. The searching question for politicians – or any leader – is not what my legacy will be but what have I (or better we) enabled others to become.

In that regard the Trump campaign slogan wasn’t a bad line: make America great again. Yet, we are already cringing. The problem of course lies in what we mean by great. Our faith tells us that the Trumpian idea of great is seriously sick: akin to the ‘greatness’ of a playground bully; or a kind of nationalism that might best be described as the junk food of politics.

How do we bridge this disconnect? Whose version of great is true? That’s a tricky question. While political parties probably rarely raise this question, most do seek a coherency through their policies; a degree of unity is required to bind a manifesto and convince an audience.

Unity can come through a single cult figure (Duterte?) but that model never lasts and dissolves into division and fragmentation. Even Kings Solomon and David ended up letting down their people. The alternative is a shared vision: “where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). The highest vision is God’s revelation to us (most especially through the words and deeds, or example, of Jesus). Perish can also be translated as ‘cast off restraint’ or, in other words, lose any care for the common good and be rampantly selfish and greedy. Interesting.

We Christians don’t, however, advocate theocracy (a collapse of the distinction between divine law and civil law). We live in a pluralist society. Righty the vision cannot be imposed but is proposed.

How then might a party ensure their vision hits the spot? Presumably that is a question parties do often ask. Faith tells us that getting back to the basics of a vision is important. Think about the great foundations of our faith – Christmas Easter Pentecost – we celebrate them annually not because our liturgical year is stuck in a groove but because we recognise the need to immerse ourselves regularly in the roots that give us purpose.

Similarly then, political parties might remember that civil governments were instituted to promote true human good, which is always communal, for we are all members of families which are the foundation of every civil society. This sounds obvious but evidently it is not. In a culture marked by strong individualism such as ours, it has become in many cases unPC to uphold whānau as the vital cells of society and it has become common to divide our society into sector-interest groups rather than geographical communities. What is good for families is good for nations and what is good for a nation is what is good for its families.

The great philosopher and lover of politics, Blessed Antonio Rosmini, said “political measures must be joined to the human heart”. It’s an insightful antidote to the shock being experienced by political classes and traditional parties around the world as ‘surprising’ polls confirm they have lost the respect of their constituents.

Rosmini elaborates further: an essential gauge of every political policy is its impact on the human spirit in terms of motivating us – individuals – to contribute to the common good of society. He concludes that policies which promote the common good (as distinct from particular interests) appeal to and satisfy voters because such policies satisfy our deep human desire to contribute to the good of those beyond ourselves – our children, our whānau, our communities, our nation, the world.

Let’s make New Zealand a truly good example for our world. Politicians and parties, in this year of election we are looking for a vision that inspires Kiwis to think ‘us’ not ‘me’. That needs you to do the same.