God is in the (political) details

By John Heathershaw
October 5, 2010

I have often wondered about the origins of the expression "the devil is in the details". Recent events have so conspired that I have again found myself using the phrase – so much so in fact that I have been wondering about the political and theological significance of the term.

These days, of course, commentators don’t even need a weighty dictionary of quotations to find the answer, but can refer (with a bit of checking) to online sources which tell us that the phrase derives from an earlier one, God is in the detail", whose original author is uncertain, although one variation of it is attributed to Gustave Flaubert.

God in the detail is also the title of an excellent 2001 book edited by Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy on the interaction between religion and culture in the United States. It looks at biblical renderings of the Judaeo-Christian God, varying from demands for certain ritualised practices (later contested by the prophets) in the Hebrew tradition, and in the Christian one, a Christ who cares for specific relationships and needs above general principles.

It is quite apparent today that ‘details’ (that is minutiae of events and rituals, complex practices and processes, technical forms and particular categorisations) drive and even determine our lives in so many ways to the extent that we are trapped by the details – by computer systems that won’t allow us to do this, by league tables that demand that our schools and hospitals do that.

In September 2010, the college (American) football season began in the United States to much fanfare. Having spent a year working at an American university, Notre Dame, where football and Catholicism were both religions, I came to gain some appreciation of the details of the former.

Here, as in most sport, the details (inches, seconds) matter in whether your team wins or loses. Statistics are accumulated exhaustively and fastidiously by fans with categories and ranking for every imaginable aspect of the game. They are cited relentlessly by analysts to demonstrate which team is going to win or lose.

So far, so objective is the detail. However, appearances deceive. Much of who wins and loses, who rated best or worst, is quite arbitrary in American football, it seems. Moreover, the supposedly objective facts of statistical models are in fact derived from subjective human acts of judgment and discretion.

God (or the devil) is in the details as teams are ranked not in a league table of results – this is impossible due to the multiple independent conferences – but by an opinion poll of experts. At the end of the season the top two in the ranking play for the national championship and there’s always some controversy over whether these are really the best two teams.

Thus, the little things really matter: who you play, when you play them, what is the reputation of your coach and star players. For example, teams that beat an over-rated team early find their ranking increased while teams who lose to an under-rated and unranked team will drop down the ranking. Subjective, expert judgments matter; as does, the luck of the draw, and the quality of one's colleagues.

In many ways I find American football to be a metaphor for government and society in the UK. Policy-makers and social movements, like players and teams, find themselves in a world where they are at the mercy of the technical preferences of complex systems and the subjective judgments of experts and systems of classification which masquerade as impartial and authentic.

Here’s an example from my sector of society. The Times Higher Education world university league tables were published recently. Twenty-seven UK universities made it into the global top 200 but the excellent University of Warwick, which has recently been ranked 7th in the same organisation’s UK national tables, did not make it.

Why? Well certainly not from any objective judgment. At the same time there was not overt discrimination against Warwick. Rather it was simply the systems of classification and indicators that were chosen. Warwick was disadvantaged inadvertently and will now likely be holding an inquest and requiring its undoubtedly hard-working staff to work overtime to meet league table targets. Importantly, meeting these targets does not in itself make for a good university but rather one which is a savvy strategic operator in this brave new world of global rankings.

What’s true for university league tables is true across other areas of society. This is how institutionalised racism occurs – not through the explicit racism of any individual or group but from lots of technical acts where discretion is neutered and lots of small decisions where judgment is crucial.

Examples abound.

When I worked as a research analyst, I convened a cross-governmental working group to try and harmonise UK statistics on military exports. As things stood, and to my knowledge still stand today, if a member of the public or parliament wanted to find out how many weapons Britain sells and to whom, the answer they got would differ dramatically depending on which department they asked.

The ministry that promoted British industry said overall exports were roughly three times larger than the estimate given by the ministries that publicised Britain’s ethical foreign policy. They weren’t trying to deceive – they just had different methods based on different classifications of what counts as an arms export, and vested interests in not surrendering their own advantageous definition.

Few people in the UK knew about this situation yet it made it impossible for government and citizens to make judgments based on impartial and objective facts.

It is almost certain that the ongoing Chilcott Inquiry into the war in Iraq, which went on tour to military bases to speak to frontline troops this week, will face a similar story. Civil servants weren’t told to make up the evidence. They didn’t have to be. Subjective judgments based on prevailing wisdoms – with a little implicit political pressure thrown in for good measure – were all that was needed. The devil was in the details.

The government didn’t knowingly go to war on a false prospectus, although many individual civil servants had their doubts. In such a devilish context, Tony Blair can repeatedly say, as he does once again in his recently published memoirs, that he acted "in good faith".

So, in this we find ourselves at the ultimate question of moral and political responsibility. Given this complex, detailed world, is ‘acting in good faith’ good enough?

Tony Blair’s answer is a resounding yes. Despite his training in legal minutiae at the Bar, his is a world of big pictures. General judgments are made – so general that almost anything, such as Saddam’s denial of the existence of weapons, can be marshalled as supporting evidence. Broad principles are established – so broad, in fact, that terms such as ‘modernisation’ or ‘choice’ can mean almost anything to anyone.

However, a morally responsible answer to the question is a clear no.

A politician, official, social activist, doctor or school governor who does not pay attention to the details in our complex world is in dereliction of duty, however much good faith she applies. This is an onerous task for any prime minister or president who is at the top looking down and around to an increasingly complex society. A complete command of the details is evidently impossible. But, in the big picture world of Tony Blair, we are left at the mercy of technical systems, received wisdoms and an individual who thinks it was his divinely inspired destiny to lead the country.

This is what Archbishop Rowan Williams, in a sermon in 2004, a year after the invasion of Iraq, called a lack of "attention". It is where a biblical perspective, in a somehat daunting phrase, calls us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.5).

Dr Williams commented that “part of the continuing damage to our political health in this country has to do with a sense of the events of the last year on the international scene being driven by something other than attention. There were things government believed it knew and claimed to know on a privileged basis which, it emerged, were anything but certain; there were things which regional experts and others knew which seemed not to have received attention. Forgetting the melodramatic language of public deception, which is often just another means of not attending to what is difficult and takes time to fathom, the evidence suggests to many that obedience to a complex truth suffered from a sense of urgency that made attention harder.”

So this leads us finally back to this question of moral responsibility which sits squarely at the intersection of politics and theology. Politicians like George Bush, Tony Blair and Sarah Palin, among others, may feel and say they have the moral courage to do ‘the right thing’. But if this thing is only generally and broadly defined it provides no moral guidance at all. As such, it indicates the lack not presence of political responsibility.

People’s lives take place in the details. As a Christian, I believe that God and God’s people, gathered in the Church, are called to be there with people and should be working to support them in living full and loving lives - despite the financial crises of market capitalism, the bureaucratic straitjackets imposed by modern governments and ill-considered decisions to conduct wars overseas.

Leaders who think about the big picture before they think about the consequences for individual, communities and relationships delude themselves that God is with them. God is in the details.


© John Heathershaw is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter. His most recent book is Post-conflict Tajikistan: the politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (London: Routledge, 2009).

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