Should Christians begin moving resolutely into politics?

Absolutely, says Preston Manning, but they should be very careful how they do it and why

Preston Manning, the man who thought up, started, built and initially led the western Canadian political rebellion at the turn of the 21st Century, a rebellion that wound up winning three consecutive federal elections, has written another book. Only this isn’t really a book. It’s more like a manual on how practicing Christians can survive and thrive in modern politics. And not just Christians, some of their fellow travelers as well.

Of course Manning wasn’t leader when the movement he started won those elections. He had been succeeded by his former policy analyst Stephen Harper, another Calgarian. The book is titled “Faith, Leadership and Public Life,” but the emphasis is on faith which, says Manning, has a great deal to teach 21st Century politicians of all political stripes. This is particularly true of Moses, who was decidedly unpopular with his own people, the Jews, for much of his reign.

Which, says Manning, newcomers to politics, who are successfully elected, should ready themselves for. They will find that their victory did not shower them with the instant adulation of a grateful populace. The fact is that the modern electorate doesn’t really like politicians. Every poll seems to show them as not trusted, regardless of their party affiliation. The first public response to any political report, Manning notes, is to ask whether it’s true. “What do we find? A political discourse that is so riddled with near truths, half-truths, outright lies and political spin that the public has justifiably ceased to believe much of what politicians say.”

The proposed solution of the Chretien government, was to develop a “code of ethics” for elected office-holders and senior civil servants. This failed. Politicians exhibited “a chronic inability to recognize moral and ethical issues when they arose,” says Manning, “especially with respect to old practices, sanctioned by time, routine and habit.” Moreover, “there was a persistent defaulting to moral relativism, as an excuse for inaction.”

Manning devotes considerable attention to the would-be candidate for office, “It is particularly important that people of faith involve themselves in the democratic process,” he writes. Their motivations for doing so range from the unabashed pursuit of self interest to the selfless and altruistic pursuit of the public interest.” But how, he asks, “do believers avoid being deceived into believing that a call rooted in ulterior motives and ambitions is a providential calling?”

In answer, Manning distinguishes two kinds of divine calling — the call to be something and the call to do something. In the first instance, the person’s focus of attention is on Christ, who has become the whole centre of his or her life. One strives to be the sort of person Christ wants. In the second instance, the focus of attention is on some specific work, project or cause that the individual wants to pursue as a service to his fellow men and to God. But it is in the second that the spiritual danger lies because the work itself and whatever flows from it — official recognition, social position, high and wide regard– can become the reason for doing it. 1 If the first call has preceded the second, and the second is the consequence of the first, the danger is far less likely.

In the matter of God’s “calling,” Manning is far more dubious about Canadians than Americans. “Our current generation of Christian-oriented political activists … are engaged in well intended efforts to address the challenges of the day, but rather than stemming from and drawing inspiration from revelation of God at work, these efforts are largely self-directed and driven by other influences.”

Manning does not conceal his suspicions of the second call. In fact, in an amusing fictitious sidebar he portrays a first-century version of a twenty-first century political promoter sandbagging Jesus into going back to the high priests, recanting his other-worldly pretensions, and calling the whole crucifixion thing off in favor of a general rebellion organized by the Zealot Party which Jesus will head. It’s very well done, making one wonder whether Manning himself missed his own true calling.

In sum, however, he makes “reconciliation” the central function of Christian leadership, which seems to assume that all conflicts between humans can, through God’s grace, be “reconciled” and all evil thereby avoided. Something about this I find worrisome. I am 14 years older than Manning, giving me a vivid memory of the Second World War. Though I was too young by one year to take part in it, everybody in some way or another was deeply involved. It defined at least two generations..

A case could be made that that war happened because of an over-reliance on “reconciliation.” For five years, Hitler negotiated for peace with French and English governments, meanwhile invading Austria and Czechoslovakia. For at least three of those years France and England could have invaded Germany, virtually unopposed. Hitler would thereupon have been overthrown by the German army, which we later discovered was waiting to do this. Could it not therefore be validly said that an over-dependence on “reconciliation” cost the lives of sixty million people? (We will ask Mr. Manning to reply to this.)

Nevertheless, what Manning has produced is a much needed work, which anyone considering a run for public office—Canadian or American, left or right—ought to read and heed.

1.In his play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” T.S. Eliot puts this quote into the mouth of the doomed archbishop, Thomas Becket: “Sin comes with doing good. Servant of God has chance of greater sin than he who serves the king. For he who serves the greater cause can make the cause serve him, still doing right.”

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.

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