Private Scandals And Public Leadership?

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
4th September 2009

Tagged: government politics prayer sin

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This week has revealed the sad and pathetic story of another political figure forced to resign because of a scandal in his personal life.  It is a story without winners – apart from media ratings.

An ex-premier has defended the man arguing that by his public service he has made significant and important contributions to the welfare of society.

On hearing the news that his adulterous affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter was about to be revealed, he resigned as a minister of the crown.  He publicly acknowledged that he had made “poor personal decisions” and took responsibility for his actions.  He expressed regret for causing ‘‘embarrassment to my colleagues, my friends, my community, my church and my family’‘.  But he denied that this affair directly affected fulfilling his cabinet or parliamentary responsibilities.

This episode has raised concerns about the interface between public and private lives.  How does a person’s private life affect their public service?  How far should the media intrude into the private lives of public figures?  What are the issues that are off-limits?  To what extent does the public have a right to know and to what extent does a person, even a public figure, have a reasonable right to privacy?

It is naïve to think that there should be no exposure of a public figure’s private life.  Democracy cannot work if the voters are kept ignorant about the candidates for whom they are voting.  Most candidates at the time of election are only too keen to show that they are part of a socially well-integrated happy and stable family.  The electorate feels instinctively that a person’s social stability is the hallmark of a responsible citizen and therefore a suitable candidate for government.

Some matters in a person’s private life directly affect their ability to govern.  It is understandable that a “morals campaigner” is open to public criticism if his personal life is inconsistent with his public policy.  It is understandable that a person’s financial mismanagement should be known before they are placed in charge of the treasury.

It is also naïve to think that only Christians are able to govern for the secular welfare of the nation.  To choose between an incompetent Christian and a competent agnostic is not difficult.  The choice is rarely that simple or stark but if a person cannot do a job their religious commitment is an irrelevance.

But what about morality?  Is it only the personally moral who are able to govern?  And which aspect of morality matters?  Will adultery affect a person’s ability to administer the government’s health scheme?

Government is more than managing and administering particular programmes.  It is about community leadership.  If rugby league players are supposed to be role models, how much more should government ministers set a good example?  The decisions that parliamentarians make are more than administrative bureaucracy or even more than one particular portfolio.  They are placed under pressure to make moral decisions daily for the welfare of individuals and the community.  Therefore “character” does matter.  Adultery fundamentally undermines trust.  How can the electorate trust a man who lies to his own family?

Furthermore, modern political life is unbelievably and unnecessarily stressful.  Politicians work long and unrelenting hours - often away from their family and friends who could speak the truth in love with them.  They are placed into continued conflict.  They are forced by the thrust and parry of journalists’ questioning to talk out of both sides of their mouth in that strange language called “media speak”.  They are encouraged by our system of government to be adversarial over everything in order to gain power for their own party.

The signs of stress in the life of this week’s casualty were showing last year in an episode in a restaurant.  But the unnatural and unhelpful life of public politics continues at the unrelenting pressure of busyness and public scrutiny.  Given today’s political pressure, the moral character of candidates matters more than ever.  It will determine if they are going to stand the strain while maintaining the moral compass that governs for public service rather than personal advantage.

The journalist’s attack and defence of the politician’s private life smacks of pharisaic hypocrisy.  A journalist’s private life is kept private, and their morality is never really questioned.  They attack the victim because it is a good story.  But that may mean nothing more than increased circulation and ratings.  They defend the victim’s right to privacy because their competitor broke the story first or because of their own commitment to adultery.

The division between private and public life is difficult to maintain.  It is like trying to differentiate who you are from what you do.  Liars tell lies and people who tell lies are liars.  Yet somehow we wish to make a distinction between our selves and our actions – between our inner self and the accidents of our behaviour – or between who we think we are and what our errors in judgement may suggest we are.

In the end it is not possible to hate the sin and love the sinner for it is the sinner who sins.  It is not the sin but the sinner who is punished.  We keep seriously underestimating how deep is our profound bondage to sin.  It is only by God taking the punishment for our sinfulness upon himself that we see how intractable is our problem with sin.  There is no other way to release us from our bondage – the bondage of our wills – to the all-pervasive power of sin.

It is heart breaking, but not surprising, that another of our leaders has cracked under the strain that we place upon them.  We need to pray for him and his family that they find in this disaster the saving grace of God’s mercy shown in the cross of Jesus.  But we also must keep praying for all whom God has appointed into government that they may be protected from the evil one as they seek to create and maintain justice in our land.