The Transformative Power of Elected Office

What St. Thomas Becket and Winston Churchill may tell us about our new president-elect

by Fr. Benedict Kiely | Updated 14 Nov 2016 at 2:58 PM

I suppose it might be considered a sin — venial, not mortal — to take pleasure in the discomfort of panelists on all the news shows after the “Trumpquake” last week.

Keeping to theological language, there were very few “acts of contrition” — or even the humble admission of getting every prediction and prognostication spectacularly wrong. Maybe the admission of failure would be too much, signifying how out of touch so many in the liberal media bubble are from the people who “cling to their guns and their religion.”

“The king’s good servant — but God’s first.”

I suggest the pollsters and pundits take up reading tea leaves in the future. It will probably be more accurate and less costly.

There was one comment on one of the post-election shows that powerfully grabbed my attention and set me thinking. Matt Lewis, Daily Caller writer and CNN pundit, alluded to a possible transformation of candidate Trump into a very different man as president.

He used the example of St. Thomas Becket to illustrate the transforming power of office. The other members of the panel looked slightly bewildered — some nodding sagely, pretending they knew who Thomas Becket was. Others looked like they thought Lewis was suffering from some sort of post-election brain trauma.

King Henry II famously appointed his friend Thomas, first as lord chancellor and then as archbishop of Canterbury. If you’re sick of the election and post-election — watch the film “Becket” and enjoy Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole telling you the story if you can’t remember it.

Related: A Word for the Deplorable Evangelicals Who Voted for Trump

The important part of the story and why, presumably, Matt Lewis used this rather astonishing comparison, is the great change that took place in Becket when he assumed the office of Archbishop of Canterbury.

Until then, as the friend of Henry, he had caroused, probably fornicated, and “wenched” — but had certainly been a consummate “player” in the world of money and power in the king’s court.

All that changed dramatically when Henry aspired to control both church and state. The king believed his friend Thomas would behave exactly as he had before he was consecrated.

The tragedy — and the glory — is that Thomas Becket took both the office and the promises he made seriously. “Would to God,” Becket wrote centuries ago, “our lives made our promises more credible.” Yet he believed in those promises.

We know the rest of the story. Becket, like his great namesake Thomas More, believed and lived as “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Related: Evangelical Christians Are Helping to Change America

After his martyrdom in 1170, the shrine of St. Thomas would become the premiere pilgrimage site of Western Europe, until another Henry, the foul and scrofulous Henry VIII, would destroy it because of its obvious symbolism.

Another Englishman who lived centuries later and was voted by the British public in 2002 as the “Greatest Briton,” Winston Churchill, accepted the office of prime minister in England’s darkest hour.

“Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”

It is hard for us, charmed in a sense by the passage of time, to recall that Churchill was regarded by many as a failure, a rat, and a man lacking in principle and integrity. After leaving the Conservative Party and joining the Liberal Party, when he returned to the Conservatives he beautifully quipped, “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”

Churchill’s “wilderness years” in the 1930s were not only because of his opposition to Adolf Hitler — but because many people did not trust him with any kind of public office. Yet when the moment came — history, destiny, and the will of God in Britain’s finest hour — the man, the moment, and the office all combined.

Related: Stunning Election Has Key Lessons for the Church

Will President Trump, after two happy terms, and a long retirement, be found wearing a hair shirt under his vestments, as Becket was? Unlikely. Is he a Churchill? Quite frankly, the jury is out, but he is not a good actor and I saw on his face in the last few days qualities we might never have imagined. I saw humility and an awareness of the great weight of the office he is assuming. Can we hope for something of a Becket, something of a Churchill? I think we can.

Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East. He was ordained a priest at the Church of St. Thomas in Canterbury. 

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