Modern times

September 2012

  • Andrew Hunter

The influence of religion on politics is not new. An argument could be made that in a modern, secular society, the two should be separate. Yet if politics is a contest of values, our leaders should not hide from the customs, experiences and beliefs to which they set their moral compass. 

In recent years, the Christian principles of two men were brought to the public’s attention when the grand prize of public life was within reach. The first was Kevin Rudd, who wrote fondly of values he understood to be ‘Christian Socialist’ in an essay entitled ‘Faith in Politics’. The article appeared in The Monthly of October 2006, several months before Rudd assumed leadership of the ALP. Rudd identified Dietrich Bonhoeffer as his role model and consciously defined a system of Christian values that he wished to bring to the position of Prime Minister. 

The second was an essay written about the current Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and appears in the current edition of the Quarterly Essay. The piece was illuminated by an extensive off-the-record interview between the author, David Marr, and Abbott. Marr described Abbott as a man of deep faith, but struggled to identify a time where Abbott put his values before power and politics.  

It is not detrimental to Australian democracy that our politicians have a system of values informed by their faith. Nor should it be a problem that our current Prime Minister is not religious. The problem is that values are too often forgotten when it is politically expedient to do so (to be remembered again, as the political context demands). If an elected representative cultivates a public persona built on values informed by his or her Christian faith, it stands to reason that their words and actions should consistently reflect the core teachings of the scriptures, and not simply materialise when the Marriage Act, Abortion or Euthanasia are debated.  

Whilst the definition of marriage is rarely discussed in the gospels, great swathes of the New Testament are devoted to the need to ease the suffering of the spiritually or materially poor and the marginalised. Indeed, Jesus Christ was for centuries following his death understood to be a champion of the suffering, oppressed or deprived (be it spiritually or financially). 

Jesus instructed his disciples that, on the Day of Judgement, ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’. The notion of reciprocity (also known as the ‘Golden Rule’) can be found in practically all religious or ethical traditions, but in the Bible it is most evident in regular instructions to prioritise the wellbeing of the destitute or marginalised. 

These teachings and commands are collectively referred to as the preferential option for the poor. It is the focus of countless passages in the scriptures. ‘Poor’ does not refer to material depravation alone, but has numerous meanings and applications in the gospels to describe the range of situations common to the sub-dominant class. The book of the Proverbs (17:5) states: ‘A man who sneers at the poor insults his maker’, whilst the first chapter of Isaiah exhorts one to ‘pursue justice and champion the oppressed; give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause’

The preferential option for the poor is also part of Catholic Canon Law, which states: ‘The Christian faithful are also obliged to promote the precept of the law, to assist the poor.’  It is easy for a politician of faith to embrace this obligation in thought – but what good is that if in practice they advocate strongly on behalf of an economic rationalist system that entrenches inequality?

In a country where benefits disproportionately flow to the upper echelons of society, poverty can become entrenched. Income inequality has become exacerbated to the point that it threatens the very fabric of our society. What Christian virtue can be found in a system that embeds inequality? What can be said of elected representatives determined to maintain unemployment benefits at a derisory level? Systematic inequality with an inadequate safety net takes away hope; this is an anathema to the scriptural teachings that one is ‘saved in hope’ (Romans 8:24). 

Addressing systematic inequality is urgently needed but any hint of wealth redistribution is derided by politicians supposedly driven by Christian values. How do attacks on wealth redistribution score against an understanding of Luke 3:10-11, where John the Baptist responded to the question ‘what shall we do then’, by saying: ‘Whoever has two coats should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.’

Many figures in the Enlightenment criticised religion because it was seen to be derived from a specific set of social or historical circumstances. The values found in the scriptures remain important to today’s society, but it is difficult to identify serious rhetorical or political commitment to systematic change that will lead to the liberation of the poor and oppressed – ideas that so consistently run through the scriptures. Values still have a role to play in political discourse and they should be discussed and debated, whatever their source. 

It is time to end the abuse of faith in politics. 

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