Rudd's religion strikes a chord

10 Jan 2007

THERE is a spectre haunting Australian politics, it seems: the spectre of faith. Many liberal-minded Australians complain about what they see as the tightening links between political conservatism and the burgeoning ranks of non-denominational Christianity. On this view something called the “religious right” is stalking the country, having been summoned out of its lair by the mean and selfish character of the zeitgeist.

This is a misleading and even self-deceptive picture. Religion has indeed been undergoing a resurgence as a moral influence on politics in recent years - but it’s been across all points on the spectrum. Indeed, commonly those who declaim most loudly against conservative currents in Christian thought are themselves church-goers - albeit of a different political hue.

Conservative Christians have certainly been more vocal in recent years on issues like abortion and stem-cell research, although their influence has usually been less significant than they or their opponents might believe. At the same time, many of the premier small-l liberal social causes of the last half-decade - the asylum-seekers debate, the US camp at Guantanamo and its Australian detainee David Hicks, the Iraq War - have all been opposed primarily on “conscience” grounds. And at the forefront of all of those causes have been progressive Christians of various descriptions.

Indeed, to talk of the “two sides” of politics on moral questions nowadays it itself a little confusing. Moral anxieties over affluence, “consumerism” and the supposed rise of hedonistic individualism now preoccupy the minds of many radicals and conservatives alike. And increasingly they speak about them in similar terms - as the curious synergy between the views of the liberal social critic Clive Hamilton and the conservative Anglican cleric Dr Peter Jensen attest.

All of this forms the backdrop to Kevin Rudd’s canny decision to present his political philosophy chiefly in terms of a personal sense of faith.

Time and again over the last couple of months Rudd has insisted upon the basic congruence between the Christian ethic, understood broadly, and the social democratic tradition out of which his party has evolved. He’s pointed to that strand in the Christian heritage which emphasises the “basic dignity” of the human person, and has stressed - reasonably enough - the links between that heritage and Labor’s commitment to bringing the nation’s more marginalised citizens back into the social mainstream.

Contrariwise, he’s attempted to align the government with a kind of amoral “market fundamentalism” that supposedly denies citizens that type of respect and dignity.

And in a gesture which I have to confess still puzzles me personally, he’s declared his moral affiliation to the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer - the most prominent German Christian opponent of Hitler’s Third Reich. (Although Australia today is clearly a long, long way from Nazi Germany.)

Rudd clearly appreciates the extent to which the timbre of the national character is up for grabs at present. In his own eyes, he’s wrestling with the prime minister over the heart and soul of the Australian people, and what it means to be decent and fair-minded as a political leader.

The PM has staked much in recent years on his intuition that Australians have a deep-seated commitment to fairness, but only if that fairness is cast in broad universalistic terms. On the whole he persuaded Australians that it was fairer to require asylum-seekers to “wait in the queue” than to assume their bona fides, since this meant that all applicants for immigration would receive equal treatment - even though many of the same Australians felt troubled about the conditions in our detention centres. And the PM’s work for the dole and welfare reforms emphasised the idea of a social contract between citizens and the state in return for social protection - the primal idea that underlies so many Australians’ sense of just deserts.

At the same time, though, there has been a bubbling discontent evident in the social surveys about what is almost inevitably termed the mean-spiritedness of the government’s social policies. While the public coffers have been groaning with cash, hundreds of thousands have been languishing on disability pensions because they lack the basic skills to re-enter the workforce. While working couples spend up big, single parents are still overwhelmingly likely to be living in or near poverty. And for all the talk of “practical reconciliation,” aids to indigenous entrepreneurship and success are still niggardly.

This is the ground, Rudd clearly believes, upon which Labor can claim to advance a rival social morality - one equally hard-headed and “fair shares”-minded, but much less vengeful and austere. It’s an acute political insight. The trick, though, is in moving from the insight to a manner of speaking about issues of morality and faith which will grip the imagination of sceptical, unheroic voters.

For Christian morality, in itself, only takes a political vision so far. Compare, for instance, Rudd and his political arch-enemy, the federal minister for health Tony Abbott. Abbott is, of course, himself and articulate exponent of Christian ethics as a foundation for our political culture. Not infrequently he expounds those principles in terms more or less indistinguishable from those of Rudd.

Like Rudd, Abbott likes to stress the role of the Christian tradition in emphasising the innate dignity of human life. Except that where Rudd wants to apply this principle to cases like the war in Iraq, Abbott chooses instead to apply it to what he would call the sanctity of life of the unborn foetus. Like Rudd, Abbott emphasises the Christian foundation (the “Good Samaritan” principle) that underlies many of our intuitions about the virtues of cultural tolerance and multiculturalism. In practice, though, this says relatively little about the two men’s views on the state of Australian multiculturalism.

In any case, to couch the debate over faith and morality in terms of our Judeo-Christian philosophical heritage is in large part to miss the point. Zealous converts, nominal Christians and unbelievers today alike all share these values today in large measure. Indeed, unbelievers are probably greatly over-represented in the ranks of our social welfare organisations, doing the kind of work once more or less monopolised by the pious.

It’s possible to over-state the extent to which faith has been undergoing a revival in recent years. It may be more accurate to say that people have become rather less reticent in admitting to the faith-derived foundations of their personal conduct and life-organisation skills.

The key to the success of evangelical-style groups is their grasp of this fact. The Hillsong pastors depict a faith which is three-parts self-help for every part theology. Theirs is a rather syrupy formula, but it’s effective in its way.

Likewise, faith will have more impact in politics when it shifts away from theological-political debate, and more towards the ways in which Australians hold together the lives of themselves and their families through vicissitudes like family tragedy or alcohol and substance-abuse.

We may be richer than ever, but we’re no less sick, or prone to arbitrary calamities or descents into depression, addiction or abuse. These are the arenas of life in which faith provides Australians with the greatest support. They’re also areas of life that have been sorely neglected by political parties in the past.

David Burchell teaches in Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, and is associate editor of APO. This article first appeared in the Australian.

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