Pretending to be what you’re not

Depending on your disposition, you are either bored to tears of the Conservative Party leadership run-off or thrilled by the exciting spectacle. You are either bemused by the utter dross on display or excited at the prospect of such excellent talent becoming Prime Minister presently. For my part, the whole thing feels rather close to a series of The Apprentice except none of the candidates get fired but will almost certainly be given a job in the forthcoming cabinet.

However you feel about the contest, however, the performative desire to look like ‘one of the people’ is a trope as old as politics itself. Again, you don’t have to like the bloke, but at least Jacob Rees-Mogg doesn’t even try. Admittedly, he goes the other way and plays up to a posher than the royals persona that is as hammed up as any of his clubbable colleagues seeking to look like one of the plebs. The rest are doing their level best to insist they know how the hoi polloi live.

The latest iteration of this was Rishi Sunak pulling pints in a Cheshire pub. What’s wrong with that? Nothing of itself. But two thing are notable. First, it seems somewhat reminiscent of Nigel Farage and his obsession with being seen with a pint to appear like one of the people. It seems a calculated move to win over the hard right and speaks to the influence such types still have on the Conservative Party. But second – and not unlinked – is the fact that Sunak is himself tee total. Again, nothing wrong with that. Some of my best mates, and my own dear mother, are tee total. But none of those pals and relatives pretend anything else. It is one thing to calculate the need to win over the hard right vote with such posturing, but it is problematic when it is clear you are pretending to be something you are not.

There are two things that are rather unpleasant about this. The guy doesn’t drink and is desperate to be seen to be pulling pints. And in equally slippery manner, the whole thing is designed to be seen as one of the people when he has been quite upfront about the fact that he simply doesn’t have any working-class friends. In all honesty, I couldn’t care less whether he is tee total and it is hard to be shocked that a multi-millionaire Winchester College old boy has no working-class friends. Those things are entirely unsurprising. But there is something deeply unpleasant about him seeking to present a view of himself that undercuts all this.

Nor is this the first time. Before pulling pints in a pub as a tee-totaller, Sunak was once seen out and about filling up a little Kia hatchback. Only (again, entirely unsurprisingly) it turned out it wasn’t his car! Again, I really couldn’t care less what car Rishi Sunak drives (or whether he has a car at all). But there is something particularly distasteful about borrowing a Sainsbury’s worker’s car in order to pose as a man of the people. Pretending, once again, to be something he is not.

Some people will not care about these things at all. What does it matter? Don’t all politicians do such things? Well, actually, I’m not sure they do all pretend to be something they are not. Not all spin is totally untrue. Everybody puts the best spin on matters as it suits them in all walks of life. It isn’t necessarily lying, it is presenting a best (or worst) case as suits. But there is something different about pretending to be somebody that you are not altogether. That is purposefully intended to deceive. Given the very causes that led to Sunak being in a position to take a tilt at the party leadership in the first place, you would think he might be alive to the problems of deceit and pretending things are what they are not. Now, you would imagine, would be the time for painful honesty to put as much distance between the new leader and their last one. But here we are.

As an outsider to all this – I am neither a Conservative Party member nor voter – you might think I find this all rather amusing. But I really don’t. I think truth matters. I think character matters. And I think, given our recent travails, this is precisely what the country does not need. But as an outsider looking in, I am well aware of how these things can easily become the norm in the church.

It is all too easy for pastors and leadership teams to pretend to be what they are not. We have seen plenty of people disqualifying themselves from ministry in recent years. To a man, there was a lot of pretending to be what they are not. Presenting a public face while being something altogether different in private. The church is not beyond this sort of thing. If there is a significant divergence in the public facing pastor the the private man, be very worried indeed.

But this is not only about sin. There is no more benefit to be had in the pastorate pretending you are something you are not. Trying to dress, look and act like working class people, for instance, when you are a middle class pastor is a mugs game. People have well attuned antennae for this sort of nonsense. Pretending you are from the hardest bitten of backgrounds when you aren’t won’t endear you to anyone. People will quickly see through you. And if they can’t trust you to so much as tell them honestly about your background, they really aren’t going to trust you when it comes to telling them they need to believe the gospel.

The fact is, trust is in short supply as it is. People are already cynical and prone to distrust. We do not help anyone when – just like our politicians – we are seen to be pretending we are something we are not. We serve our people best when we are the same people in public as we are in private – whoever that actually happens to be.