What Alan Jones and Mitt Romney can teach us about Public Christianity

It’s hard to believe that two almost identical situations have occurred so close to each other on the conservative side of politics. Alan Jones can’t have been ignorant of what happened to Mitt Romney when some graceless comments he made at function for party faithful found their way into the media. Which makes Jones’ simply awful comments about John Gillard even less excusable. If that’s even possible…


Image Credit: The Australian

Jones has apologised today, calling the remarks a “black parody” – and that’s the problem with “parody” – it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between “black parody” and the twisted things a shock jock thinks and chooses to express. Romney’s put down of almost half the people he’s hoping will vote for him will probably cost him any chance he had at the presidency.

But there are a couple of lessons here for anybody who speaks into a microphone, or in public, or even in semi-private, or private… first – there’s no such thing as off the record. Ubiquitous recording makes it likely that anything stupid you say in front of people will see the light of day. It’s not enough to not put dumb and damaging things in writing – you can’t even speak them if you don’t want people hearing them.

There is no private. No closed room. No off the record. And people will be quick to throw light on misdeeds. Even when you think you’re only talking to the in crowd.

The rule for company spokespeople used to be never say anything you don’t want people to hear in front of a mic or camera even if you think it’s off… the better principle is probably “never say anything you haven’t thought about that you don’t want being heard by everyone.”

It’s very easy to say that you were misquoted, taken out of context, speaking in parody – but at that point the damage is already done. It’s easy to make clumsy statements – to offensively compare people to the Nazis when they disagree with you, to make slippery slope arguments that disgust your opponents, or to draw unfortunate comparisons by linking different topics deliberately or otherwise… it pays to be careful with what you say, in any context. To “tame your tongue”  because it can be pretty dangerous – as Jones and Romney are learning the hard way, or as James puts it in his letter in the New Testament…

“5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James prefaces that statement with a particular warning for people who are going to teach others – which I think doesn’t just apply to what ministers of the gospel say from the pulpit, but what Christians say when they speak as Christians in public.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”

This, on one level, is a pretty superficial solution – but it would’ve helped both Romney and Jones. A better solution goes to the heart of the matter. Verse 2 is also a great reminder that we’re all going to stuff up at some point – which is why it pays to apologise early, and often, and to be clear any time you speak that you’re speaking as a broken person only made clean by an external agent – Jesus.

The problem that Jones and Romney have exemplified, and the reason its so hard to swallow an apology after the fact – is that these guys haven’t been just pinged for wrong speaking, but for wrong thinking… the tongue, whether the brain is properly engaged or otherwise, reveals the heart. Or, as Jesus puts it in Matthew 15:

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them….

17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person.”

This works in both ways – both Jesus and James are keen for words to be matched by deeds, and hearts… it’s no good speaking good words from an unclean heart, as a later interaction with the Pharisees (who approached Jesus to question what his disciples do in Matthew 15)… from Matthew 23 demonstrates.

First, Jesus instructs the people about the Pharisees…

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…

Then he turns to the Pharisees to proclaim a series of woes… here’s two of them…

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

A better solution than “don’t say dumb or harmful stuff where people can hear you” is “don’t think dumb and harmful stuff” – get your internals right, and the externals will follow.

Like James said – we’re always going to stuff up. It’s hard to tame the tongue. The real solution for people in ministry or doing public Christianity is to base everything on the work of Jesus, and God’s grace, in the light of our brokenness – so that we’re known for the gospel, and can point to our own stuff ups as evidence of the need for Jesus’ help, and his words as the basis of our words. If we’re known for that, rather than known for banging on about moral codes that we’ll all inevitably break without a generous act of God and the Spirit, it gives us something consistent to point to when we apologise.

An apology is more believable, and easier to accept, if what is being apologised for is not consistent with everything we’ve said before – and this is where Jones and Romney are going to struggle – Romney has a reputation for being out of touch with the lower class, his wealth, tax records, the aloof and out of touch things he says about life for the everyman, are going to make it hard for him to move past his 47% line, and Jones has a reputation for saying crass and shocking things to make a political point, especially when it comes to Julia Gillard.

This too is why it’s going to be harder and harder for Christians in Australia if we’re not known as people who love God, love our neighbours, and want to follow Jesus – but as people who want to protect “Christian values”… especially when we inevitably misspeak, or aren’t quick enough to distance ourselves from those who do… there’s tremendous pressure on Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party to distance themselves from Jones, just as there was last week with Bernardi’s unfortunate contribution to the gay marriage debate.


Image Credit: SMH

As James puts it…

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

The aim is to use our tongue for the first, and avoid the second… while being wise (more from James):

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deedsdone in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

Incidentally – if you didn’t read verse 14 after reading verse 6 – you might think there was a contradiction between what Jesus says about the heart being what “defiles” – because James says the tongue starts fires that “corrupts the whole body,” while Jesus says the tongue reflects what’s going on in the heart. It’s clear from this verse that James thinks the heart is the basis of the boasting of the tongue… his argument seems to be that an untamed tongue poisoning both for the speaker, and those who listen…

That is all.

1 Comment What Alan Jones and Mitt Romney can teach us about Public Christianity

  1. Bruce

    How about Kevin Rudd and his witness in terms of public and frequent media appearances outside the church he attended on sunday mornings, and the reputation he gained of being a less than honest person and a person who lacked any convictions.
    whenever a politician appears in public cloaking themselves in “the church” to lend credibility either to their cause or to their personal status, the church gets branded with whatever that person does for good or ill.

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