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Holding Elected Officials Accountable to Truth

The issue of trust is one that has increasingly found its way onto our political agenda, yet sadly it is often for the wrong reasons.

A January 2015 MORI poll indicated that only 16 percent of the British public trust politicians to tell them the truth, placing them behind even journalists and estate agents.

Of course, such statistics are more fueled by perception than reality, but looking back over recent years they are not entirely unwarranted.

A series of scandals in the financial sector seems to reveal an endemic culture of dishonesty, driven by an ever-increasing zeal for profit and gain above anything else.

The recently established historic abuse inquiry is a response to significant questions about the ability of public bodies to properly protect vulnerable young people, or adequately respond to allegations as they emerged.

The struggle to find a chair who is satisfactorily independent of the instruments of state is itself an interesting commentary on the sense of mistrust that prevails.

These and other prominent episodes have emerged against a more general backdrop of questionable behavior and ethics; journalists have appeared in court accused of phone-hacking, police officers for allegedly false claims of being insulted by public servants, and so we could go on.

In my home city of Liverpool, the life of our community has been dominated by the ongoing inquests following the publication of the Hillsborough report – a commitment to uncover the truth that began during that last Labour Government that was seen to completion by the more recent coalition.

This has revealed both the importance of truth to the lives of ordinary citizens and the painful consequences of its absence.

What I’ve described in the United Kingdom is not unique, as public trust of national political leaders in the U.S. hit an all-time low last summer.

What we expect from individuals in public office is not only to demonstrate their own integrity, but also to oversee and regulate society in a way that sustains and promotes truth and honesty.

Yet the current election campaign in the U.K. seems to be as much about claiming that opponents simply cannot be trusted, as offering any alternative vision or policy.

Such narratives can further undermine public confidence, particularly when those under scrutiny display a tenacious unwillingness to offer straightforward answers, albeit to questions that are often less than straightforward.

And perhaps the biggest problem is that truth can often be unpopular whereas politicians, especially during election campaigns, are desperately trying to be the opposite.

This moral ambiguity is epitomized by a report in The Independent, summarizing the political philosophy of one legendary spin-doctor as “never lie; but don’t always tell the truth.”

As we struggle to liberate ourselves from the consequent culture of ambiguity and suspicion, the words of Jesus resonate with even greater clarity: “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

He, too, was speaking into a politically charged atmosphere, laced with uncertainty and spin.

Churches and congregations reveal their commitment to truth, not only through their doctrinal proclamations, but their everyday life and activity.

Through community engagement, often supporting the most vulnerable in our society, they often provide space and security to share stories that cut through the statistics and rhetoric that can dominate our political narratives.

In many contexts, the church has become a voice for the otherwise voiceless – an important, if not always welcome, presence in the political arena.

If previous experience is anything to go by, well over half of the hustings (meetings where candidates address potential voters) in this election campaign will be organized by groups of churches, seeking to create a context where local candidates can be accountable to local people.

The Joint Public Issues Team – a collaborative effort of the Baptist Union, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church in the U.K. focused on addressing public issues from a faith perspective – published a report in 2013 titled “The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending Comfortable Myths About Poverty.”

The report highlighted how across the political spectrum statistics and caricatures can be selectively used to steer public opinion against certain individuals and groups within our society.

As immigration, welfare reform, tax avoidance and similar issues become features of this election campaign, here, too, is the potential for an economy of truth that people of faith might usefully monitor and challenge.

Truth is a vital element in any healthy and wholesome society – a reality that we ignore at our peril.

Phil Jump is regional minister team leader of the North Western Baptist Association in the United Kingdom and a member of the Baptists Together editorial board. A version of this article first appeared on the website of The Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT), a collaborative effort of the Baptist Union, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church in the U.K. focused on addressing public issues from a faith perspective. It is used with permission. You can follow JPIT on Twitter @PublicIssues.