You know that there things you ‘just don’t talk about’ at the dinner table, right? Especially not with your parents – or your partner’s parents.
I am, of course, referring to religion and politics. It’s not a subject for polite dinner conversation. In my parents’ house, it’s not a subject for conversation at all – Neocon Christian parents don’t really want to hear from their slight-left-of-centre Witch offspring. No, no – religion and politics are subjects best left out of any meaningful communication.
So let’s talk about them. Specifically, let’s talk about the influence of religious belief – most often evangelical Christian – on the Australian political landscape. With an upcoming election, let’s especially talk about the level of pandering that’s going on by both major parties – who they’re pandering to, how they’re doing it, and what the effect of this is turning out to be. And let’s poke a little into the allegiances of the people who would be our elected representatives.
This post is the first in a series on the subject. Let’s kick off with a good one.
To start off, let’s focus on an evangelical Christian group that claims to speak for “all” Christians – the so-called “non-denominational” Australian Christian Lobby. We’ll start by examining a couple of its claims, made on its own website.
CLAIM : There are 13 million people who identified as “Christian” on the 2001 Census.
ASSUMPTION : All these people will, naturally, have identical values and priorities.
FACT : The figure of 13 million (which I haven’t checked personally, but will grant) includes all sects of Christianity, from Maronite Catholic to Quaker and everything in-between. Even assuming that each member of each sect subscribes completely to that sect’s values (and many sects don’t presume to dictate such things), there is still a world of difference between the “no-contraception” Catholic and the “pro-choice” Anglican.
CLAIM : ACL is “neither denominationally nor politically aligned”.
ASSUMPTION : The organisation, therefore, will not push a specific sect’s agenda, and can therefore be safely joined by all 13 million “Christians”.
FACT : It’s pretty sneaky. In fact, you have to dig to see it. But take a look – ACL helpfully lists a few of the organisations to which it tithes. These organisations include the Fatherhood Foundation (closely linked with the Australian Family Association, whose major mover and shaker, Bill Muehlenberg, might best be described as Bill O’Reilly with a Bible) and Samaritan Strategy’s “AIDS Hope for Africa” project, whose core belief statement reads like a primer in Dominionist theology (right down to “establishing Christ’s kingdom on Earth”). Both these organisations, along with many of the links they provide and the people behind them, have a basically evangelical outline that would be extremely unpalatable to anyone with a belief in women’s ordination, religious tolerance and civil rights for homosexual couples.
But you don’t find that out unless you really look. On the face of it, ACL is an “everyChristian” organisation.
And both John Howard and Kevin Rudd nearly fell over themselves to address their “Make it Count” conference, held on August 11 this year. Simultaneously webcast, ACL trumpets that somewhere between 80-100,000 people were present or viewing online. They’ve helpfully provided a full transcript of both leaders’ speeches. To save your bandwidth, however, let’s just look at the highlights.
The PM starts by positioning himself as just a humble Christian guy who can’t understand why people would think it strange that he wishes people “Merry Christmas”. This is, of course, an outrageous distortion of legitimate media inquiry into his insisting that his party members do the same thing.
Moving on, he makes a point of acknowledging that “God is neither Liberal nor Labor” – but then immediately follows that up by humbling submitting that many of the Coalition are “extremely active” members of Christian denominations, and that their faith naturally influences their decision-making. Just to make sure the audience got the message, he adds this, of course, is especially true of issues like the RU-486 abortion drug and stem-cell research.
And there’s a lovely little moment when he polishes that “down home” image by waxing lyrical about “two parables of Jesus” that exemplify his own attempts to bring his Christian beliefs into politics. This, perhaps, is the single most schizophrenic part of his speech. First, he gives us the Good Samaritan, who reminds him to help the oppressed and recognise the inherent worth of every individual. Then he offers up the parable of the Talents – what he calls “the free enterprise” parable. I shit you not. Jesus, apparently, is a good capitalist.
Much of the rest of his speech is a justification of his appalling legislation, such as WorkNOChoices. One could be forgiven for falling asleep – but then there’s this, and I’m going to quote it because, well, you’ll see :
“In the time that I’ve been Prime Minister, as well as trying to, with the help of my colleagues, deliver good policy, I have, consistent with my respect for the secular nature of Australian society – secular in the sense only that we do not recognise or practise the establishment of any religion in this country, and we recognise in a proper fashion the separation of Church and State – I have, consistent with that, sought, on all occasions that might be properly available, to extend in a legitimate fashion the role and the influence of the Christian church in our society because I believe it is a force for the profound good of our nation.” (my emphasis)
Did you get it? Yep, that’s right – because we’re a secular society, Howard feels compelled to push for extensive “Christian” intervention. And somehow, that isn’t undermining a secular society. (I take it back – the parable moment isn’t the most schizophrenic. This is.) This is particularly nasty, and part of a masterful setup. Howard’s positioned himself as “one of the good guys”, flattered Christians as to their natural fairness and moral superiority, and now justifies the erosion of separation of Church and State on exactly these grounds.
Roll out the list of Howard’s faith-based funding. The Job Network system has many “great Christian welfare agencies”. Christian organisations like Centacare get funding to counsel people on their marriage problems. The School Chaplaincy program, which is a particular bugbear of mine, is exclusively Christian and designed to make it impossible for other faiths to participate. And finally, school systems. You see, according to Howard, federally funding only secular government schools is “sectarian”. Extending funding to private religious schools brings “justice” to the system.
Finally, Howard reiterates the Song of Praise for Christians in Australia. He even has the hide to call them the “silent, toiling” masses – blatantly pandering to a martyr complex that evangelicals just love to cultivate. He flat-out confirms he is promoting a Christian view of society, and that there will be no goddamn heathens opening Parliament with their Satanic prayers (such as happened recently in the US). In fact, he all but hands the Parliament over.
Still with me?
Rudd also trots out the census stats. He acknowledges, at least, that different Christians have different views. (Gosh, who’d have thunk it?) These different views, he asserts, have just as much right to be heard, and to be addressed, as any other. (Remember this one – we’ll come back to it in later posts, when we talk about the Exclusive Brethren.)
He does a nice little dance between flattering the audience and reminding them that they’re not the only voice out there. Listing a series of Christian charity initiatives – which, by the way, does not include any evangelical groups – he praises their efforts as instrumental in helping shape Australia, he immediately follows up by reiterating the efforts of other unnamed groups, and reminding people that we’re (allegedly) a tolerant and diverse nation.
In fact, let’s take a look at that. In his speech (which went for about 36 minutes), Rudd hammers the point about tolerance, equal rights, non-discrimination and diversity nine times. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from outrageously flattering the audience. To hear Rudd tell it, Christians are so absolutely essential to the wellbeing of the nation that it’s a wonder any of the rest of us can get anything done.
He finishes up with a speech that seems to be straight out of the New Labor textbook – hard heads on the economy, soft hearts on the social sphere. It’s unashamedly schmaltzy, and ends with a clumsy paean to that most “visionary” of books, the Bible. Compared to Howard’s slick marrying of Neocon economic rationalism and the necessity of Christian (read : evangelical) influence on society, Rudd looks decidedly uncomfortable.
The real interest in Rudd’s speech, however, is in what he does not say. He professes to be a person of faith, but he won’t spell out just what faith, other than to intimate it’s some kind of grass-roots, individual-conscience Christianity. There’s no mention of RU-486 or stem cell research, no appeal to the Christian conscience of politicians. He does slip in a little barb at WorkNOChoices that’s designed to hit the audience where it hurts – how, he wonders, can one plan to take one’s family to church if one’s employer can change shifts and holidays around however they like? There’s a big section on climate change, and he makes a point of talking about the science as done and dusted, contrasting Howard’s “well, we don’t quite know” speech rather effectively. But mostly, he concentrates on bread-and-butter issues – balancing work and family, affordable housing, foreign aid to impoverished countries, literacy and numeracy skills and education funding (in this he’s no different from Howard – all schools get funding, public or private).
So, at the end of the day, we have a Prime Minister who says he will push a “Christian” agenda in secular society because it’s the right thing to do, and an Opposition Leader (or, as he described himself, an “alternative Prime Minister”) who’s willing to pander – but only up to a point, it seems. Howard’s stance looks pretty clear – and whether you think he’s a true believer or a shrewd manipulator of the market (as Marion Maddox, author of the marvellous God Under Howard, asserts), it potentially spells trouble.
As for Rudd, well, he’s being a bit more cagey. Let’s poke him some more, shall we?