The Blight of Political and Religious Infallibility

Some three years ago, writing in The New York Times, Paul Krugman referred to ‘America’s epidemic of infallibility’. He gave instances:

Mr. Trump’s pathological inability to accept responsibility is just the culmination of a trend. American politics — at least on one side of the aisle — is suffering from an epidemic of infallibility, of powerful people who never, ever admit to making a mistake…More than a decade ago I wrote that [in] the Bush administration …nobody…ever seemed willing to accept responsibility for policy failures, whether it was the bungled occupation of Iraq or the botched response to Hurricane Katrina. [1]

When one thinks of religious infallibility the gaze usually narrows down to the Papacy. But Protestants can readily practise an ‘infallibility by osmosis’. More on that later.

Here in Australia one can discern instances of infallibility being practised (but not being openly acknowledged) in both political and religious domains of existence and relationships.

To encounter its political expression, one needs only to be a listener to ABC Radio National between 6:00 am to 9:00 am on pretty well any week day. When the investigative interviewer seeks an honest answer from a powerful political figure as regards accepting responsibility for a mistaken, failed, harmful, injudicious or corrupt practice (or policy) – take your pick – the invariable response is a Trumpian one. There is a smoothly worded avoidance of any responsibility. Because of their infallibility, the political figure cannot admit to making any error.

So, to use fundamentalist Christianity’s favourite terms, they are both “inerrant and infallible”.

Another way such infallibility is maintained is to refuse to answer the question in the interview. And a ready excuse can always be found to avoid ever having to say publicly: “Yes, my response has been inadequate, poor, mistaken – again take your pick – is what is never said.

And whether the political figure professes a religious faith or not has no affect on their shedding their infallibility. Indeed it could even strengthen their arrogance.

The practice of infallibility is a political blight that withers the public declaration of truth. It is a virus against which the best vaccine is truth-telling.

In the religious sphere, infallibility tends to come by osmosis. The Protestant process, briefly described, shows the steps taken. It applies within that stream of Protestantism that declares fervent faith in the Bible being infallible.

Several propositions show the osmosis pathway:

  1. What the Bible declares is infallible.
  2. What the Bible declares is Biblical.
  3. My faith/church/group is Biblical.
  4. My faith/church/group is infallible.

At the heart of infallibility is the belief that one’s theology is totally, and always, right. That one’s interpretation of the Bible is the only one to be accepted. It is also not to be questioned.

One can see both the Protestant and Catholic implementation of that infallibility in the closing down of any intelligent discussion of the ordination of women. Whether in the Vatican or in conservative evangelical centres such as Sydney, no synodical discussion can occur because those who have decided the issue are infallible.

This practice can be called ‘Bourbon theology’. The term reflects the witticism ascribed to Talleyrand of the Bourbons returning to post-Napoleonic France. His description of them was that The Bourbons had forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

If one is infallible, one does not need to learn anything. Hence the closing down of any intelligent discussion. For to gain a differing understanding leads to the erosion of infallibility.

A final thought or two. When did you last hear a major political or religious figure confessing publicly to having had to change their mind (or theology) on an important issue?

And a harder test – when did such a figure confess publicly to having reversed their view?

Any suggestions for ending the blight?

Ray Barraclough

  1. Paul Krugman, “America’s Epidemic of Infallibility: in The New Yoke Times, 20 March, 2017.