Kevin Rudd has now lost everything there is to lose in politics – everything except his seat, of course.
And his fall from political grace has been every bit as spectacular and self-caused as his ascension to the leadership of the ALP in the first place.
I’ve watched the rise and fall of Rudd with some interest for the last six years, ever since the publication of his now infamous essay on “Faith in Politics,” and I’ll confess that I was no more impressed by what seemed to me to be the self-serving way he made use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in that essay (about which I’ll say more below) than I was by his politically anaemic campaign to unseat John Howard in 2007, or by what struck me as a morally shallow “apology” to Aboriginal Australians in 2008.
In each instance, there seemed to me clear evidence of a politician fully in the grip of what Max Weber called the political equivalent of the “sin against the Holy Spirit” – vanity.
As Weber wrote almost a century ago in his justly famed essay, “Politics as a Vocation”:
“For ultimately there are only two kinds of mortal sin in the field of politics: the lack of commitment to a cause and the lack of a sense of responsibility that is often, but not always, identical with it. Vanity, the need to thrust oneself centre stage, is what is most likely to lead the politician into the temptation of committing either or both of these sins. All the more, as the demagogue is forced to play for ‘effect’. Because he is concerned only with the ‘impression’ he is making, he always runs the risk both of turning into an actor and of taking too lightly his responsibility for his own actions.”
For Weber, vanity fundamentally corrupts the three qualities that must all be in harness for politics to be an authentic, much less successful, vocation: passion (the dedication to a cause), a sense of responsibility (owning consequences of one’s decisions, and thus refuses to indulge in politics as a mere “intellectual game” or fit of “sterile excitement”) and a sense of proportion (“the ability to allow realities to impinge on you while maintaining an inner calm and composure”). By uncoupling passion from the others, and thus exaggerating its presence in the political persona, vanity allows the politician to become intoxicated on the spectacle of his own virtue.
In the case of Kevin Rudd, however, such garden variety political vanity is given a peculiarly theological twist. And it is here, I think, that we come tantalisingly close to the key to the Rudd enigma: just what is it that fuels his seemingly inextinguishable political drive?
This question was, of course, the subject of David Marr’s meticulously well-timed 2010 Quarterly Essay, Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd. According to Marr, Rudd’s drive is a kind of sublimated attempt to overcome the humiliations he suffered as a child, and as such, it has endowed him with an astonishing emotional resilience. But Marr insists, famously, that what fuels this drive is also the core ingredient of the Rudd psyche: anger.
“Rudd is driven by anger. It’s the juice in the machine… Who is the real Kevin Rudd? He is the man you see when the anger vents. He’s a politician with rage at his core, impatient rage.”
However, in terms of its explanatory power, this conclusion is both overstated and unconvincing. Some puerile resentment stemming from childhood traumas explains nothing about Kevin Rudd because it explains everything. And Marr clearly erred in seeing it everywhere, coiled around the disparate elements of Rudd’s story, providing them the artificial consistency of a mediocre psychodrama. (In an especially pleading moment, Marr reports one of Rudd’s teachers as saying, “I remember teaching him about Caesar’s troubles with Pompey the Great, and young Kevin was angered by Pompey’s poor behaviour.”)
Unfortunately for Marr, his fixation with Rudd’s subterranean rage meant that he didn’t know quite what to make of those truly original observations that occur within his otherwise rather unoriginal, and ultimately overrated, essay. One such observation was well worth exploring, instead of just throwing away:
“What it is about Rudd and martyrs? It’s a fascination that goes all the way back to his school days… Could there be somewhere in him the death wish of a pious schoolboy: some trace of an old hankering to go out in a blaze of moral glory?”
Whether it be the calmly defiant Thomas More of Robert Bolt’s The Man for All Seasons or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brave resistance to the Nazi regime or the political assassination of Gough Whitlam, martyrs seem to function as a kind of idee fixe for Kevin Rudd. They order Rudd’s political passions.
But – and here’s the crucial point – it is not that Rudd wants to be a martyr in some masochistic or Icarian way. Rather, he wants to see himself through the eyes of the adoring throng that venerates the martyrs. After all, the underlying fantasy of martyrdom is that one can somehow outlive one’s death and be witness to one’s own vindication – and, by extension, to the abject humiliation of one’s enemies. This vainglorious lust for renown is also the great temptation of martyrs, the inherent perversion of their act.
As Augustine argued at length in The City of God, what distinguishes the witness of the apostles and martyrs from the “Roman heroes” is the fact that the virtue, righteous acts and finally the purpose for which they died is hidden from the martyrs themselves; whereas, for the heroes venerated by Rome, “What else was there for them to love save glory? For, through glory, they desired to have a kind of life after death on the lips of those who praised them.”
None recognised the potency of this temptation quite so clearly as TS Eliot. In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot’s play about the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket, three Tempters confront Becket attempting to dissuade him from his act of defiance to the King, which will most certainly cost him his life. He rebuffs each of their advances. But then a Fourth Tempter arrives. “What is your counsel?” asks Becket. The Tempter urges him to embrace martyrdom:
But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.
When king is dead, there’s another king,
And one more king is another reign.
King is forgotten, when another shall come:
Saint and Martyr rule from the tomb.
Think, Thomas, think of enemies dismayed,
Creeping in penance, frightened of a shade;
Think of pilgrims, standing in line
Before the glittering jewelled shrine,
From generation to generation
Bending the knee in supplication,
Think of the miracles, by God’s grace,
And think of your enemies, in another place.
Thomas is thus urged paradoxically to succumb to martyrdom, but to do so out of vanity and the longing for vengeance.
What can compare with the glory of Saints
Dwelling forever in the presence of God?
What earthly glory, of king or emperor,
What earthly pride, that is not poverty
Compared with richness of heavenly grandeur?
Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
On earth, to be high in heaven.
And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
Your persecutors, in timeless torment,
Parched passion, beyond expiation.
What else was Kevin Rudd’s appeal to his vast support among “ordinary folk,” even in the face of certain death at the hands of caucus, or his interminable and grotesquely plaintive litanies of achievement at his final press conferences as prime minister and then foreign minister, or his posturing on the world stage and his penchant for grand (but finally empty) symbolic gestures, but the expression of this longing for a kind of life after political death; like the Roman heroes, to live on “on the lips of those who praised them.”
But this obsession with the “glory of the martyrs,” it seems to me, was fully evident in his 2006 essay on “Faith in Politics.” As an appreciative engagement with Bonhoeffer, the essay is incredibly poor. It represents little more than shapeless chunks of Bonhoeffer’s best-known quotes floating in a thin gruel of sanctimonious prose. And it certainly doesn’t indicate any deep engagement either with Bonhoeffer or with the vexed question of the relationship of Christianity and politics.
But Rudd’s essay ultimately wasn’t trying to do either of these things. As David Marr rightly observed, its real intent was to embellish Rudd’s much-publicised attack on the integrity of the Howard government – which had come under particular scrutiny through the AWB scandal – with a kind of heroic overlay. Rudd was depicting himself as the Bonhoeffer to Howard’s Nazi regime. In other words, his appeal to Bonhoeffer was entirely self-referential.
It is worth recalling, on this point, Alasdair MacIntyre’s criticism of the various attempts of liberal theologians in the 1960s – of which Bishop John Robinson, author of Honest to God, and in our time John Shelby Spong, are two of the more pernicious examples – to sex-up their mediocre variety of soft-left pseudo-radicalism by appealing to the theological language and moral experience of “extreme” figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The same can be said for Kevin Rudd. And this goes not just for his self-serving use of Bonhoeffer, but also his subsequent predilection for high-blown moral language – whether it be his now notorious description of climate change as “the great moral challenge of our time,” to his characterisation of neo-liberalism as “that particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed which became the economic orthodoxy of our time,” to his most recent positioning of himself as the only one who could “save the Australian Labor Party… and save the country from the ravages of an Abbott government”. By raising the moral and political stakes through the roof, Rudd casts himself in an impossibly heroic posture; and if he fails, he achieves the glory of political martyrdom for a higher cause.
I thus find myself, slightly unnervingly, in profound agreement with Alexander Downer’s assessment: it’s not power that drives Rudd, or anger. It’s the lust for fame, for recognition, for glory.
One can only imagine how different it could have been if Kevin Rudd’s Christianity had been more than an ornament on his political ambition. Had he paid better attention to Catholic teaching on martyrdom, or even read Bonhoeffer a little more carefully, perhaps he would have recognised the grave, indeed mortal, dangers involved when, as Bonhoeffer put it, “I make myself the observer of my own prayer”. And that the test of the political and Christian virtue is when their “righteousness … is hidden from themselves.”
But as it stands, Rudd is no political martyr, much less a messiah. He is just a politician who wanted people to love and praise him, and who tried to use his tenuous grasp of the Christian faith to achieve that end.
Scott Stephens is the Online Editor of Religion and Ethics for the ABC
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