Candidly, I feel now that it's time for someone to blaze a trail and set a precedent by virtually confessing in public everything that has really helped move her/him to go into public service. Some here might respond that surely blowhards drone on about that every day already. The truth is, though, that they don't. They drone on with patently shallow and phony platitudes that "stand in" for what really goaded them into public service. People don't expect them to say what _really_ led them into public service at all. However, "really" is the operative word here.
That's where my hoped-for trailblazer comes in. S/He would let everything hang out by describing candidly the very moment in her/his life when s/he knew that public service was what s/he wanted. While it might be a personally risky leap to do so, I think it would wake up a profession that is most distinguished today for being thoroughly boring!!!!!!!!!!!!! By establishing a precedent -- or fashion, if we want to be cynical -- of letting it all hang out, it will be harder in the long term for others not to be obligatory copycats. Once everyone is doing this, willingly or not, it will be easier for even the most inattentive audience to spot the phonies. They won't be infallible, of course, but I have a hunch it might be generally surprisingly easier than some might think to spot the phonies in this kind of "test". Everyone in public service is driven by something, after all, and if that "something" is being genuinely confessed or just covered up in BS, most people can tell the difference.
Obama already made a move in this direction in his autobiographical account of one important juncture in his life:
"I started working with both the ministers and the lay people in these churches on issues like creating job-training programs, or after-school programs for youth, or making sure that city services were fairly allocated to underserved communities," he says. "And it was in those places where I think what had been more of an intellectual view of religion deepened.
"I became much more familiar with the ongoing tradition of the historic black church and its importance in the community. And the power of that culture to give people strength in very difficult circumstances, and the power of that church to give people courage against great odds. And it moved me deeply." (snopes.com: Who Is Barack Obama?
He abandoned that kind of candor in 2010. Big mistake. Horrible mistake. Idiotic mistake. That kind of "accounting", after all, was a huge component of what made Reagan so devastating.
Now I can just hear some people jumping all over this and saying "You want our candidates to go all religious on us?" NO, that's NOT what I'm after. This Obama quote is just a f'rinstance of something bigger. Rather, I want them to go all confessional on us, to a point where total candor -- from everyone -- is obligatory from everyone -- to a point where it will be viewed as normal, even expected, for each and every candidate to say plainly and in a genuinely free way -- once and for #%^#*^^$&#$^* all -- just what their real feelings are about life and their own place in it. I bet that few here know, for instance, that both Congressman Stark and Governor Ventura are atheists? Well, they are, and more power to them! And they should feel safe and free enough to speak of that atheism in public! And once an Obama, or whoever, establishes a precedent of utter candor on what drives him, I envision a time when every public servant and everyone in their audience will be accustomed to open accounts of just how one's atheism, or one's Islamic faith, or one's Jewish faith, or one's agnosticism has played its part in one's life choices and also -- if relevant -- in one's policy choices as well. Utter candor.
Above all, openly show the grounding of just why one thinks and acts the way one does in public life! That grounding can be anything: it can be one's beliefs, it can be one's atheism, it can be a passion for great literature, for great music, it might be comic strips(!) -- anything! But it must be genuine, and it must be related to a crucial juncture in one's life when one first embarked on public service.
Will there be pushback? As my father, a history professor and an atheist, used to say, "You're darn tootin'!" The innovator who sets this precedent will experience horrendous headwinds. But when that innovator accidentally(?) wins his first race, a mere one or two others will then dare the same thing. And then two or three others more. And then three or four more......... Nothing succeeds like success. Maybe the fashion at first will ever-so-slowly gather steam partly out of pure cynicism. Hey, that's O.K. Just so long as candidates slowly start to realize that they're expected to be "on the couch".
Out of this slowly gathering "fashion", atheists and Muslims and others will tentatively start talking publicly of their beliefs too. They will talk openly on the stump, and some people will certainly shout and holler at first. But vitriol gets tiring if the targets are too many. It was easy to make life hell for the gays if only a very, very few dared come out. But once two or three more came out and then three or four more and then four or five more, there arrived a point at which those in pushback mode slowly started getting weary. Oh sure, there are still such out there today, plenty, but they are fading, and that's what will happen as more and more candidates of every philosophy put themselves "on the couch" for the electorate. Some day, the raised eyebrow won't come when someone reveals that s/he is an atheist, or a Wiccan, or a Muslim. Instead, the raised eyebrow will come when s/he doesn't say anything at all.
Now, I freely admit that I have talked over these ideas extensively with many friends, ranging from the most devout to solid atheists like my brother. Whichever side of the belief divide they're on, whether devout friends from church or lifelong intimates who are atheist, the initial response is mostly the same, "No talk of one's beliefs! That should be off the table in the public square! Period!".
(In fact, it is notable -- given certain strenuous religious proselytizers on the right -- just how vehement our own most devout friends are on the importance of keeping beliefs off the table entirely! Many, in fact, are no less vehement against it than my brother!)
With respect, though, I've now concluded they are all wrong. I think it's ultimately unhealthy and a detriment to freedom to stay in the closet on one's beliefs _if_ they have played an important role in shaping just how one acts in public life. Now obviously, if one's beliefs or lack of belief have not played a big role at all in one's calling as a public servant or in one's actions as a public servant, then there's no reason to talk at length about that. The candidate can just move on. But the worst public construction can often be put on his moving on unless there's already a cultural atmosphere that is readily hospitable to philosophies of all sorts being freely confessed. Only that kind of openness can help the occasional candidate whose belief or non-belief is of minimal relevance move on without unfair suspicions being triggered. Once that kind of thing is openly discussed all the time anyway, there will therefore no longer be any question of "something to hide" for those who choose not to speak of it.
The culture itself must be transformed by a new normal: Once all kinds of outlooks from atheism to orthodoxy are openly confessed in public, all those outlooks will bear no more of a stigma than being left-handed, or red-haired. Lest anyone doubt that an entire culture can be transformed in this way, think of the frame in which race was generally discussed before Martin Luther King versus after. The difference is profound. The same thing can start happening once one man sets the tone of utter candor on what drives him to give his life to public service. That's when we'll really be free.
My two cents.