Religion’s role in politics? [reprise]

November 6, 2007

I came across a rather uneven opinion piece today by Barney Zwartz, purporting to demonstrate the role of religion in politics. Let’s have a closer look:

ALMOST the minute Prime Minister John Howard called the federal election for November 24, Australia’s religious right leapt into the fray, loins girded and ready for battle.

“Who falls asleep in a democracy will wake up in a dictatorship,” warned Christian activist group Saltshakers in a group email at 2.47 pm that day. It’s bad form within church groups to tell people how to vote, and Saltshakers didn’t. But they identified the vital issues: abortion, homosexual relationship registers, the freedom to choose your children’s school.

Later came the Saltshakers’ Christian values checklist for seven political parties. Issue 1: prayers to open Parliament each day. Issue 2: teach Australia’s Christian heritage in all schools. Issue 3: promote marriage over de facto cohabitation. The Christian Democrats scored 27 of 27, Family First 25, the Democrats and Greens one each — on issue 27, “greater care of God’s environment”.

The full checklist can be downloaded here. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, with curtailment of personal freedoms to conform with a conservative and repressive christian moral agenda: anti-secular, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-choice.

These are passionate Christians, beyond doubt. Are they sinister? Hardly. Are they subverting minds and stealing votes? No, they are preaching to the already converted, and at that level of detail there aren’t too many.

I think you could argue that he is letting the Saltshakers off the hook a little easy there. For some reason I don’t seem to be on that particular mailing list, but on the Saltshakers website, they describe themselves thus:

SALT SHAKERS is dedicated to helping Christians understand the times (1 Chronicles 12: 32) and equipping them to be SALT and LIGHT in the community (Matthew 5: 13-16) by upholding Biblical values and by being more aware of the ethical issues affecting today’s society.

Lunatic capitalization aside, their stated purpose is to uphold Biblical values. They support Intelligent Design. They are against a Bill of Rights. They are global warming deniers. They’re against Harry Potter and Buffy for crying out loud.

I’m not sure that I would be quite so quick to discount the pernicious nature of their agenda.

The fact is Australia simply doesn’t have an influential religious right in the way that the US has.

Do we have a religious right? Without a doubt. An influential religious right? Probably not, but I suspect that that is likely a function of time, not due to any inherent barrier against the existence of such a group.

The most important group, the Australian Christian Lobby, is concerned with welfare and social justice as well as individual moral issues. Australians simply are not religious in the American way.

Sure, but being involved with welfare and social justice issues does not necessarily mean that their influence on individual moral issues is either harmless or benign.

Therefore it is hard to explain the Prime Ministerial openness to two fringe groups. The first, the Exclusive Brethren, seems to be a matter of money. The Brethren give generously, hoping to gain specific and narrow benefits, such as the right to exclude unions from their businesses. Limiting union power would naturally cause the PM great pain, but he managed to steel himself to the task.

Ha. Irony. And interestingly, it completely glosses over the separatist cult like character of the Exclusive Brethren as a religious group.

The second, the support of Catch the Fire’s Danny Nalliah, who emerged from a National Day of Prayer last week to anoint Howard as God’s chosen, is mystifying.

I got to know Nalliah a little in the years that it dragged on. He is charming, ambitious, shrewd and loves to posture. His steadfast refusal to recant a word of the “vilification” was a convenient marriage of principle and opportunity. He cleverly parlayed himself from pastor of a small Pentecostal parachurch group into some sort of unappointed national spokesman.

And then the old “he’s a bit of a wild lad, but he’s alright” apology. Curiouser and curiouser said Alice.

The fact is, there is no neutral approach to legislation. All laws legislate morality because they express morals or values (trust, for example — you cannot break a contract), and sometimes the debate is about whose morals and values. Calls to keep Christians out of the public arena are deeply undemocratic. Christians, in turn, have long realised that in a pluralistic society they cannot claim authority; they must persuade. If they think gay marriage or abortion are wrong, they must explain why — but their opponents too must argue their case. It’s not enough for pro-choice advocates to claim that Christians want to impose God on everyone while maintaining that their own position is neutral and bias-free.

I completely agree that religious people should not be kept out of the public arena. As I have argued before, you judge people by their actions, not their beliefs, but they should be able to justify those actions with reason and logic without reference to any subjective religious dogma or belief.

But Barry seems to be accusing secular lobbyists of just arguing negatively against religious opponents, without presenting a positive case for their position. I’m sure that some do, but I think that it is a bit rich to hand christians the moral high ground on the issue when you have people like Pastor Peter Curtis and the Saltshakers relying heavily on scripture and religious revelation as the basis for their policy.

Overall, I don’t think that this article makes much of case for religion having a role in politics, but it does indeed demonstrate an interesting phenomenon of religious activity in this country (although I suspect inadvertently): that the religious right continues to be nurtured, protected and apologized for by the smiling, reasonable face of moderate religion.
Moderates have been quick to point out the repressive scriptural religiosity decried by the likes of Dawkins and Harris as being anachronistic and a minority view, but minority or not, as long as they continue to turn a blind eye to the excesses of the right, the moderates have little credibility with such an argument.

And finally, the somewhat cryptic conclusion:

But, as this election shows, politicians have taken to heart the dictum of former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple: it is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.

I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. Just what is god concerned with, other than religion? Facebook?



2 Responses to “Religion’s role in politics? [reprise]”

  1. Cody Says:

    Be very, very glad Australia doesn’t have a religious right as influential as the one in the United States. I have always disliked basing political decisions on what your religion says. That may result in a society that’s all well and good for people of that religion, but it makes things a little tough on people of other (or no) religions.

  2. […] State. I’ve said it all before. Teachers at the school in central Khartoum said Ms Gibbons made an innocent mistake and simply let […]

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