Monday, February 13, 2017

The Politics of Jesus in the Year of Bill

In many ways NZ had its Trump period a long time ago, and it just maybe that we shouldn't be looking around in 2017 wondering who our Trump might be. He has already been and gone and his name was Rob Muldoon.

I was quite politically conscious in my teenage years and vividly remember the sense of excitement of the Labour government (1972-75), the vigour of Norman Kirk's leadership and the shock of his death in 1974.

Bill Rowling became Prime Minister and he was a decent bloke but the Trump-like Muldoon was barnstorming the country in 1975 with ads of dancing cossacks provocatively asserting that the Labour Party was just Communism by stealth. There were also some massive fuel price rises to cope with and other alarms on the economic front, so in came Muldoon and nine subsequent years were as feisty as these past few Trump weeks have been. Moreover Muldoon spent big on NZ infrastructure and with another economic collapse threatening, he called a snap election in 1984, almost certainly drunk as he slurred the announcement out, and out he went. NZ has never been the same since the next Labour government turned the tide with market-oriented policies (which mostly, IMHO, has been a good thing).

It requires not the slightest bit of fancy to assume that had Twitter existed in 1975 Muldoon would have used that form of social media to direct the country. He was that kind of Trump guy. (Though he did know more about economics than Trump!)

Now we have Bill English for our Prime Minister and this year is going to be fascinating for at least one reason. If he can win the election he will have redeemed his previous parlous attempt to win an election. In 2002 he led National to its lowest ever percentage of the vote as it lost that election.

On New Year's Day this year it happened that I was in church with Bill and Mary English! They were holidaying in Nelson with their friend and local MP, Nick Smith, and went to the nearest Catholic church for Mass - in Stoke, where my parents-in-law worship.

Of course it is no surprise that they should have been at Mass somewhere in NZ that Sunday. It is widely know that Bill and Mary are both deeply and regularly involved in the Catholic church, and that Bill's Christian convictions influence the shaping of his political leadership (most clearly seen, I and others perceive, in his running of the economy as Minister of Finance, where his concern in various initiatives has been that our economy yield better outcomes for all, not just for the rich).

On that particular Sunday one of my own internal responses to recognising Bill and Mary English at worship was that it felt very good to know that our current Prime Minister is a committed Christian. I have had huge admiration for our previous two Prime Ministers, Helen Clark (1999-2008) and John Key (2008-2016), but each was openly not a Christian. (And good on them for their honesty on that score.)

This does not necessarily mean that I will vote for Bill or that you, dear Kiwi reader, should either. Yet it might be a factor if our decision narrows down (other things being equal) to what drives the leadership of the next government: a gospel or other motivation?

But long before we who are not dyed-in-the-wool Lab/Nat/Green/NZF/Etc voters get to choose whom we might vote for, it is always and everywhere worth considering what God wants and what God is doing in the world.

A recent post by Ian Paul at Psephizo is relevant on this point. He is reviewing one of the latest Grove Booklets, Mission and evangelism: a theological introduction by Tim Naish. All good stuff, but pertinent to this post is the following comment by Ian:

"What missio Dei [i.e. that mission is primarily God's activity] is emphasizing is that the church is a secondary goal in God’s longing. The primary goal is what Jesus in the first three gospels means by ‘the kingdom.’ And we might add that it also comes close to what the fourth gospel means by ‘life’ (or ‘life in all its fullness’). God has a purpose, which is the kingdom, or heaven, or life, or salvation, or (to use biblical phrases rather than single words), ‘the reconciliation of all things’ (cf Col 1.20), or ‘the creation itself being set free from its bondage to decay and obtaining the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (cf Rom 8.21). The church is brought into being through Jesus the Christ as a step towards that goal."

The politics of Jesus is establishment, advancement and completion of the kingdom of God. This is the primary goal of God's work in the world. Not the church, but it is for another post to have another reminder to self and to readers that the church should not be all consuming! Here we might ponder that if the kingdom of God is God's first agenda item for the world then what our human politics is working towards is pretty important. Is it attuned to the kingdom of God?

Having a Christian Prime Minister/President is - of course - no guarantee that the politics of a given country is going to be any better attuned to the kingdom than under the previous government. But what could be guaranteed is that if Christian voters understand the primacy of the kingdom and the importance of working to align with that kingdom rather than against it, then we will vote more wisely than if we vote the way we have always done, or for the most popular person/policy, or for naked self-interest.


Michael Reddell said...

Muldoon as a precursor to Trump? I'm not so sure.

Yes, perhaps there are a few parallels. One could think of the Fitzgerald v Muldoon case, in which the courts rightly upheld the view that a Prime Minister, even with a huge parliamentary majority, could not just absolve citizens of their obligation to obey a law (even one that was shortly to be repealed.

But if there were suggestions of an extra-marital relationship of some sort, Muldoon was the lifelong husband of one wife. And whatever drove Muldoon it seems much more likely to be the reaction to growing up quite poor during the Depression, than the sort of narcissism and craving for respect that most authors seem to think is a large part of Trump's persona.

And if Muldoon played politics for keeps, he was scrupulously observant of the protocols of government, and respectful of (eg) Treasury officials even when he strongly disagreed with their advice. And he had a huge capacity for work, for processing the paper that can easily overwhelm ministers etc.

He seems to me a profoundly ambivalent figure, even with decades of hindsight. He faced the toughest economic circumstances NZ has (still) faced since the Great Depression, and his policy responses were mixed - some wise and even brave, some ill-advised or worse. There were things to admire - the offer of support to the UK over the Falklands - and things to lament. His administration was responsible for some of the more important early reforms, the effects of which are still with us - eg CER, Saturday shopping, the Official INformation Act, voluntary unionism.

Perhaps a key difference is that he led under a parliamentary system. Any Thursday his caucus could have dumped him - and once came close - but didn't

Anonymous said...

You say Peter, it is everywhere worth considering what God wants and what God is doing in the world. Kierkegaard somewhere comments that this involves understanding God's providence - "and concerning that subject we are most ill-informed". I think he is right.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Peter

It’s always good to find myself in broad agreement with you, which may be the rule rather than the exception, it’s just more interesting to debate the exceptions! One of my (and I suspect our) abiding interests is to understand how best we engage with ‘thy Kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven’ as it applies to the political sphere. Michael Joseph Savage believed that implementing the welfare state was ‘Christianity enacted’. I have deep reservations about that, albeit I suspect he would also be shocked to see how his initiative has unfolded over the last 80+ years.

I too am pleased Bill is a professing Christian, although I was surprised at his unsolicited and vocal support for gay marriage, saying he would have voted differently if he had the opportunity over again. What’s more, at his initial press briefing he made a point of saying that his faith had shaped who he was as a person, but did not necessarily affect his politics. (or words to that effect). Again, this is deeply disappointing. I was also disappointed at his silence over Murry McCully’s initiative against Israel at the UN. Who of us knew that New Zealanders had decided to be proactive supporters of the Islamic block against the only democracy in the Middle East?

Consequently, I have very low expectations of this and any future National led governments when it comes to running public policy through a Gospel / Kingdom prism. Just when conviction politicians are on the rise in other parts of the world, we find our parliament filled with focus group pragmatists.

My prediction is that short of a terrorist attack on our soil, this will be the dullest election year on record.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Michael
No imputation of parallels between private lives Muldoon/Trump intended, at all.
Comparison is simply around style and bombast.
I am delighted that you found one point of comparison :)
Might the willingness to permit the 1981 Springboks (a pretty savage, Up you African nations! approach) in order to ensure a win in the next election be another comparison?
Muldoon did achieve a lot but I think his ego got in the way of really discerning the economic signs of the early 1980s.
Trump may yet turn out to be a force for good for America, including some majore trade deals and infrastructure projects!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Rhys
More is achieved for the kingdom through the mysteries of providence than the work we do.
But might the work we do also help the kingdom?
(And some things we might do, like resist the abolition of slavery pretty clearly, IMHO, hold the kingdom back.)

Michael Reddell said...


Trump a possible force for good for America? I'd be very surprised, and given his personal disqualifications for the position I'm not even sure I'd be glad if somehow it came to be true (unless perhaps it was as lived demonstration of how awful things have become, which recalled Americans, and American public life, back towards something characterised by decency, restraint etc etc).

For now, I can think of only three positive words to associate with a Trump presidency: "Gorsuch", and "not-Clinton".

Call me an old-fashioned free trader - and thus no fan of TPP - but I'm not sure what makes you optimistic about his possible trade deals.

Michael Reddell said...

Tyler Cowen endorsing you Trump/Muldoon comparison

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Michael
I do not have high expectations for Trump achievements :) And I do not expect any on "free trade" but maybe he will be helpful for Brexit Britain????

I am grateful for Tyler Cowan backing up my thesis but I am surprised that he reads ADU :)