Sir Galahad theory of politics and religion
Posted On May 8, 2020
I remember hearing about the Sir Galahad theory of politics long ago. It’s based on the characteristics attributed to Sir Galahad of the Knights of the Round Table.
“Sir Galahad among other versions of his name, is a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table and one of the three achievers of the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend. He is the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic, and is renowned for his gallantry and purity as the most perfect of all knights.” (Source)
I added the extra emphasis to the quote because it’s the part that matters the most.
If you are willing to leave aside policies and ideology, you can read more about this theory from an article by conservative political operative Morton Blackwell wrote going back at least as far back as 2010, but probably further, in which he summed up the theory pretty well this way – “I will win because my heart is pure.” (Source). In the article, Gladwell talks about why he thinks Barry Goldwater lost to LBJ in 1964 by a landslide. Gladwell says that Goldwater ascribed to the Sir Galahad theory of politics and it showed in his political slogan claiming, “In your heart, you know he’s right.” (same source).
I believe that Gladwell’s description of the Sir Galahad theory is on target concerning how it is applied. But even in his assessment, he also suffers from the Sir Galahad theory. But that’s not unusual for political people. I have seen many examples of this theory played out – on both the left and right. I see it going on today still. People gallantly charging forward, knowing in their heart that they are right! And as a result, they lose. They lose the argument. They lose friends. They lose elections. They lose credibility. They lose co-workers. They lose so much. But gosh, they’re right supposedly – even if they are all alone and by themselves in being right. Believing you are right is costly. And often it doesn’t change anything.
Then again, there’s a difference in being right and believing you are right. Those that practice the Sir Galahad theory actually fall into the “believing I am right” category. Believing you are right and being right are two different things. Believing you are right only requires yourself as the basis of determination. You find the data and information that you need to confirm your own bias. You find the people that can make claims that agree with your own bias. You find examples that match up with your own bias. I know I’ve been guilty of this practice plenty of times.
This happens a lot. I see it with the responses around COVID-19. I see it when it comes to anything pertaining to Donald Trump – both those dedicated to the man and those vehemently opposed. I see it when it comes to some Social Justice warriors and causes and their opponents. I see it when we talk about certain political policies that are quite divisive – things like taxes, the environment, abortion, sexuality, money, patriotism, and more. Sir Galahad isn’t a Democrat or Republican thing – it’s both and neither.
This happens in religion too. I see it the folks who are most concerned with what I call “right thinking” and belief. Orthodoxy in thought is another way of considering this. How does your doctrine line up against your belief of how right you are?
As I mentioned though – there’s a difference between believing you are right and being right. Oftentimes, when we are right we may not even realize it. Sometimes we’d rather not be right because of the implications that we are identifying. Being right is often seen in hindsight. Being right often doesn’t come with immediate accolades. And often we don’t seek recognition for when we were actually right. Being right is something that can be backed up with evidence – not evidence of our own choosing, but rather a good range of evidence that all points to the same conclusion. Unbiased evidence that shows the reality for what it is.
Prophets from Scripture often fit into this category. Many of them tried to run away from being a prophet – from proclaiming the truth that God wanted them to tell. They ran away because often they knew the consequences of what they were going to proclaim. They knew they would be right and they knew that it would be costly – or rather that God would be right. But that cost needed to be paid in order to benefit others.
The biggest difference between being right and believing you are right is this – Being right isn’t about you. It’s about other people. Believing you are right is about your own ego and building it up. And that comes with a price too.
So why do so many practice the Sir Galahad theory of politics and religion? I think it’s like so many other things. Regardless of whether Sir Galahad was a real person or not, he is the symbol of something that goes beyond his real self – a perfection of humanity that is just out of reach. If only we believed the right things. If only we did the right things. If only we acted the right way. If only we were purer. If only. It’s just out of reach, but close enough for us to grasp at. It’s the idea that humans can achieve greatness of their own merit – but not everyone. Only a few select and special people. It’s the idea that salvation is within reach if we do this or that – then God owes us. It’s the idea that we can shape reality and we should because we are doing it for “pure” and holy reasons. It’s the idea that we who have the right beliefs are more evolved, or enlightened, or better than so many others. It’s that we are anointed.
Except we aren’t. We can’t. We are not capable of living into the lie.
Christianity isn’t about being Sir Galahad. It’s about grace and mercy and forgiveness. It’s about being a sinner and saint – impure and broken. It’s about participating in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God. It’s about moving towards and being a part of Shalom – wholeness. It’s about imperfectly loving our neighbor and God. It’s about seeing the image of God in others, while not expecting them to be perfect, just as we are not perfect. That’s what being a follower of Jesus is about.
When it comes to politics, policies are important. However, how we do politics is even more important. Do we do politics through the Sir Galahad lens and see ourselves as better and more enlightened and more intelligent than others. Or do we do politics through the lens of Christ?
Maybe it’s time to leave Sir Galahad behind. To close the book on that fairy tale. To see the destructiveness of that way of doing politics. Maybe its time to open a different book – a more complicated book, that is full of people who are flawed and broken. Maybe it’s time to pick up another model. One that isn’t so concerned with believing one is right, and instead doing politics for the benefit of others. Then again, maybe I’m just another Sir Galahad.