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Challenges and opportunities facing Australian voters

Ethicist and Public Theologian, Tinsley Institute, Morling College, Sydney

Christian Democratic Party National Convention

Merroo, NSW, 9.30am Saturday 11 August 2012

Rev the Hon. Fred Nile MLC and other political leaders, my fellow ministers of religion, ladies and gentlemen:

We live in interesting times, whether our outlook is political, economic, moral or scientific.  Following the announcement last month of the discovery of a new elementary particle, widely believed to be the elusive Higgs boson, also known as “the God particle,” a Facebook friend sent me this paraphrase of a well known quote by American comedian and social critic Bill Hicks:

The discovery of the Higgs boson proves that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.

Such departures from reality are not only a good reason to avoid more than a fleeting familiarity with social media.  They illustrate the power and depth of the multitude of arguments and worldviews deployed against Christian understandings of truth, justice and ethics in our world in 2012 – and especially in the world of ideas, political philosophy, and common garden variety politics.

That is one of the reasons why I am glad that we live in a nation that has inherited a secular liberal democracy, where each of us can contribute as voters to the political process, and where individuals and groups can organise to form large and small political parties of various ideological stripes, and where a party such as the Christian Democratic Party can be established and have significant positive influence on the policy direction and moral outlook of a community or a state or a commonwealth, and where the only poll that really matters is the poll taken on election night.

Do not underestimate your potential for good.  The reason why The Australian Greens, among others, target the CDP so relentlessly and so loathingly is because you are effective.  The reason why the Rev Fred Nile is returned to the NSW Upper House election after election is because the people of NSW respect and honour him, and understand the value of politicians with strong personal moral foundations, and wise Christian principles that have stood the test of time, and clear policy emphases that are not subject to the whim of pragmatism or the whiff of corruption, as well as the gravitas that comes with age and a long parliamentary track record.  May there be many more like him, at local, state and federal level.

But there is much that can be improved, and it is important not only to have superior policies based on the best arguments, but also to consider reasonable criticism and suggestions for growth and change that are not incompatible with your national charter.  I will make three general points, and then comment on five key policy issues.

1.  “YOU DON’T SPEAK FOR ME”

As you will be aware, one of the criticisms levelled against the CDP is its status as a specifically Christian political party.  Some Christian people, perhaps loyal to another party, like what they see but their loyalty to a party more likely to win government trumps the loyalty they might have given to the CDP.  Others react on the basis that there are Christians in every political party and no single party should see itself as the preeminent voice of the Christian electorate.  A more strident version of this criticism is the assertion that the Christian Democratic Party (or, worse, “Australian Christians”) “doesn’t speak for me.”

But on that logic neither does any other party, and such criticisms are only made when party policy or public statements differ from the particular views held by the critic.  Rarely do Christian leaders in the public sphere receive encouragement for speaking out on an issue on the national agenda.  The Australian Christian Lobby receives the same treatment from such people, as do I in making public statements on social issues on behalf of Australian Baptist Ministries and the NSW Council of Churches.  When I make a statement they don’t agree with, they get very upset, and some of them write letters and emails, and phone me to express how they feel and what they think of my character and calling.  And I can tell you that very few of them express their views to me in what I would call a Christlike attitude.  But when a public statement agrees with their view, they are very happy for me to be seen to speak for them.

Of course, there is no practical way of avoiding this problem.  You need to be sure of what you believe, and why you’re in the business of politics, and be gracious but firm in what you say, and keep going.  Neither the CDP nor the ACL, nor other groups like them, have ever (to my knowledge) suggested that they speak for the whole Christian constituency.  My advice to you is to stay true to who you are, keep doing what you do best, and hope to win them over with grace and reason.

2.  THE IDEA OF “CHRISTIAN AUSTRALIA”

Another criticism of the CDP that I frequently hear is the conviction that Australia is a Christian country founded on Christian principles, and it is the responsibility of faithful Christians to do what they can to return the nation to its Christian roots.

There is some truth to this conviction, and many Christians (as well as others like the eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey) have invested much time and effort in demonstrating the truth of such claims.  Indeed, in May this year Rev Fred Nile made a stirring speech in the NSW Upper House on the subject of Australia as a Christian nation.  American Christians often claim the U.S. as a Christian nation, founded by men who took their faith seriously and instilled Christian principles in the country’s central institutions and laws.  Rev Nile argues a similar case for Australia.  Our laws are based on the moral code of the Bible – the Ten Commandments.  The Australian flag bears the crosses of three saints – Patrick, George and Andrew.  The nation’s Constitution states that the people unite, “humbly relying on Almighty God.”  All our Parliaments open with a Christian prayer.  And so on.

Australia is today a secular liberal democracy, although there are those who would wish it to be a secularist socialist democracy, and there are others who have quite detailed plans to transform the nation into an atheist Green commune.  In my opinion, you will win more friends and influence more people (especially the people who have what I call a residual Christian memory and, if they have any particular moral or spiritual commitment, will identify themselves as Christian on a census form, and who might well be motivated to vote CDP in the Senate or Upper House) if your message about Christian origins and influence is less triumphalist, and less of an echo of the narrative deployed by those in the American Christian Right who would identify the United States very closely with some version of the kingdom of God.

We might engage in interesting academic arguments over whether Australia is technically a Christian nation, but I believe it is more winsome, more disarming, and more tactically effective to affirm that the Christian faith has profoundly shaped Australian society, has a central place in Australian life today, and will continue to shape this nation for generations to come.  That is how I prefer to express the truth of Australia’s Christian heritage and identity, and I commend it to you.  It is a proposition that is much harder to refute, it encourages fruitful discussion and reflection, and it is plain common sense to a large number of Australians.

3.  SHOULD CHRISTIANS GET INVOLVED IN POLITICS?

Your presence here suggests to me that you believe Christians should (or must!) get involved in politics.  But I raise this point because there are many Australian who are also Christians and who should be encouraged to explore the political implications of their faith, and challenged as to their responsibility before God to make a personal contribution to the political culture of our nation beyond the content of their prayers in church on Sunday and beyond what they write on their ballot papers at election time.

Dr Paul Tyson, from the Australian Catholic University, wrote a helpful article on this in the current issue of Zadok magazine (no. 115, Winter 2012).  Here are some excerpts:

Probably the worst feature of democracy is that we tend to get the sort of politicians we deserve.  If your average Australian doesn’t have much in the way of a high moral vision of reality, doesn’t have any non-negotiable transcendentally-anchored values, doesn’t believe anything in particular about what is ultimate in life or what is essential to the preservation and proper flourishing of our humanity, then we will get politicians of like nature…

Should Christians be interested in politics?  Should Christians want to change politics in Australia?  …  Plato thought politics – the pursuit of the true welfare of the city in which one lives – is intricately linked to genuine piety.  The [Old Testament prophets] have much the same message.  He who would do what the Lord requires of him must do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with God.  Doing justly and loving mercy are not personal religious activities; they are moral and political acts done within a communal environment.  As Christians we should be interested in and involved in politics … [but] our first loyalty must be beyond politics and beyond the pragmatics of the material here and now.[1]

In the conclusion to his article, Tyson includes this quote from C.S. Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.  The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.[2]

Tyson ends with this challenge: “Perhaps the proper response for a Christian in the face of deep seated political disaffection in the populace and small minded pragmatic managerialism in our politicians, is repentance.”[3]  Repentance, of course, is of little use unless it is followed by actions based on the convictions that led to the repentance.  And that raises the question: What should I do?  How should I organise?  What is the best way to engage the world, and leave a better world for my children and grandchildren, and for future generations?  These are important questions, and fortunately many thoughtful Christians have done a lot of thinking and writing, and some have shown the way forward through their actions and the institutions they birthed or developed.

One of the most recent books to tackle these issues is James Hunter Davison’s To Change the World.  He begins by stating that, by divine intent and by nature, human beings are “world-makers.”  He says: “People fulfill their individual and collective destiny in the art, music, literature, commerce, law, and scholarship they cultivate, the relationships they build, and in the institutions they develop … as they reflect the good of God and his designs for flourishing.” [4]  Hunter writes:

To be Christian is to be obliged to engage the world, pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private.  This is the mandate of creation.  Needless to say, the actual legacy of Christians in relation to this mandate is ambivalent.[5]

Hunter contends that “the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology.”[6]  He believes not only that the various Christian strategies to change the world do not work, but that they cannot work.  And he offers three long essays, reflecting on the Christian faith and its engagement with the world.

This is not the place to examine the merits of the three paradigms, and how they apply to direct political involvement.  Suffice to say that the first essay considers the common view of “culture as ideas,” as espoused by leaders such as Chuck Colson and Andy Crouch.  The second argues that “the public witness of the church today has become a political witness,” exemplified in the U.S. by men of such diverse agendas as James Dobson, Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas.  The third essay describes what Hunter sees as “faithful presence,” emphasising cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples of Jesus and serve the common good.  For Hunter,

If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.[7]

James Davison Hunter offers a powerful critique of established and accepted ways in which Christians engage the world and seek to influence politics and public policy.  His arguments deserve careful scrutiny.  But I believe that, for a political party such as the CDP, based as it is on strong Christian principles, and seeking to make a positive longterm influence in Australian society through political processes, “faithful presence” entails important elements of all three paradigms that he outlines.  Your approach to public life does not need to be tribal; it needs to be comprehensive.  All you need is clarity on your ideals, strong and effective organisation, well-crafted policies based on the best arguments, and the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

KEY POLICIES FOR THE 2013 FEDERAL ELECTION

In his little book, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff writes:

To love and serve God in all our ways, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to be responsible stewards of nature – those are clearly proclaimed in the authoritative Scriptures of the Christian community as the fundamental obligations of mankind.[8]

That seems to me an eloquent and accurate summary of the biblical teaching on why we are here on earth, and why we are here at this convention today.  If you agree, I invite you to apply the principles in that statement to the CDP statement of principles, and the CDP National Charter, and the federal policies listed on the CDP website – and see how well they score, and what (if anything) needs to be clarified or modified, in order to more faithfully reflect the biblical teaching and to attract more support from the wider Christian constituency and the Australian electorate generally.

In terms of specific challenges and opportunities facing Australian voters as we head toward the 2013 federal election, I offer the following comments on same-sex marriage legislation, threats to religious freedom, federal gambling reform, media classification and regulation, and immigration policy.  [not included in print version]

CONCLUSION

I understand that the name of this conference centre, Merroo, is a local indigenous word meaning “a well of water springing up.”  I pray that this weekend, as you meet and share and learn together, you will build relationships and make plans that will enable God to use each of you to be his well of water, springing up across this dry and thirsty continent, bringing change and renewal and hope to Australian communities.

Thank you.


[1] Paul Tyson, “Faith and politics,” Zadok 115, Winter 2012, p. 7.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fount, 1977), p. 116.

[3] Tyson, “Faith and politics.”

[4] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 3-4.

[5] Ibid., p. 4.

[6] Ibid., p. 5.

[7] Quoted in Christopher Benson, “Faithful presence,” Christianity Today, 14 May 2010, available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/may/16.33.html

[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1984), p. 111.

Categories: speeches

Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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