Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Privacy of Politicians

It’s possible I am going to ruffle some feathers with this post, and I know I have been more focused on politics than on liberal faith this past few weeks. It’s that time in the political year. And, there is a parallel to life in the ministry that I think is instructive.

I usually agree with Barrack Obama, but not on the issue of privacy for politicians. This issue is one of the reasons I decided against pursuing a career in politics, (even though ministry is not much more private). I just can not agree that the family and personal life of a politician is not the business of the people they serve.

There is no “right to hold political office”. Serving in political office is not like having a job (just like ministry is not). It is a privilege, and for that privilege there are certain costs. One of those costs is that, by accepting political office, you are accepting the reality of living a publically lived life. Ministers do the same, if usually on a different and smaller scale.

The size of the public that can and should take a critical interest in your life is proportional to the size of the political realm that you serve. If you are a local politician in a small town, then it is appropriate for the citizens of that small town to pay attention to your finances, to your family life, to your moral and ethical decision making, both personally and professionally.

As your political realm increases in size, so too does the size (and resources) of the public that has a legitimate interest in your personal life. By the time a politician has moved to national political ambition, they also must accept that the national public does indeed have a right and responsibility, as well as the resources, to know just about everything in your personal life.

Many may not think this is fair. I disagree. There is an easy way to regain the privacy of a private citizen… become a private citizen again.

Now, I’m not saying that the politician must air out all their dirty laundry on the six o’clock news… nor am I expecting our politicians to be paragons of virtue all of the time. If there is one lesson I have learned in ministry, it is that humans are messy, and it is that messy aspect to who we are that gives us our challenges and trials, our successes and failures, our beauty and our ugliness. There is messyness in the life of every individual and in every family, and that messyness is what makes us interesting and gives us the opportunity to change and grow.

What you do not get, when you accept a life in politics, is the right to keep everyone out of your messyness. Try to divert the story, try to spin it, that is all fine and an accepted part of the political game. That is how politicians play in this particular field. Ministers are required to act differently, to accept their own messyness, learn from it, and be an example of how to grow, change, and transform. I think politicians do well when they follow this kind of path instead of the “spin and divert” game, but that’s just my opinion.

What I do not accept that politicians can do is to create a rule that their “personal” life is off limits. When you accept or seek public office, you accept a publically lived life. If you want to protect your privacy, and indeed the privacy of your family, then do not accept or seek public office.

Just as a colleague once said to me, about accepting a life in the ministry.

Yours in Faith,


One Thought on “The Privacy of Politicians

  1. Justine Urbikas on Tuesday September 2, 2008 at 16:45 +0000 said:

    I think I mostly agree with what you are saying, I don’t know if I would call serving in a political office as first and foremost a privileged (which you didn’t say exactly, but I would have worded it differently) but I see it as more of a duty… It is certainly a job and I’ve always correlated public office with that of actors and other public figures. Not celebrity in the way that McCain’s hate ad painted Obama, but a celebrity in that they are in the public eye, have access to media and are PUBLIC FIGURES in the same way. Their laundry is going to be aired… why not let it be clean so we want to come over?

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