There are many theories as to why the so-called “centre” in Australian politics has moved so far to the right that even moderately progressive views are shrieked at as “dangerous”. There are probably fewer theories as to how and why the radical, genuinely anti-authoritarian teachings of Jesus Christ have been successfully kidnapped and hung out to dry by the so-called “Christian Right”. But both shifts – and certainly the consequences of those shifts – matter.
As far as the politics go, the analysis closest to hand would be that the get-rich interests of the right-wing parties are not only unchallenged by the conservative and further-right media, but avidly supported by them. The Morrison Government, for example, delays an election announcement, sets aside $174million to advertise itself, meanwhile lavishing taxpayer dollars on the very media that will mindlessly support their policies while ruthlessly pillorying any and all policies of the “leftist” opposition. Bingo!
The mystery may be greater as to why in cynical, secular Australia we currently have as our Prime Minister – however briefly – a man likely one of the most theologically conservative leaders in the developed West. Yes, President (“Grab them by the pussy”) Trump plays the evangelical card, but only because it wins him votes from those who think it irreligious (!) to protect those at risk from poverty, wars, gun freedoms, domestic terror, a lack of health care – or climate change. Scott Morrison, though, is the evangelical “real deal”, at least by his own account. That means he believes that Jesus died on the cross for his, yours and my sins and that in sacrificing himself Jesus “restored us to friendship with God” – though only if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. He likely also believes that those who do not find this theology plausible, who are neither “saved” nor “born again” in his version of Jesus, will likely burn in hell for all eternity. It is tempting to laugh; tears may be more appropriate.
For those of you adrift from the theology wars and their direct impact on our body politic, there are in the West today far more Christians than not who find the very idea that a loving God would require a human sacrifice “of his only Son” to restore a friendship (union) that would otherwise be broken, worse than primitive. Yes, there was death; but there was also life. Life. They may also find the exclusiveness of this theology shocking. So few saved; so many abandoned. Even the followers of Jesus’ own Jewish faith “lost”, not found. Where is the love in that? More significantly, what psychological effect does that inner image of a ruthless God have on believers – and their political trajectory?
The hallmarks of political and religious conservatism include a strenuous commitment to a narrow range of “answers” and an equally strenuous resistance to any change that challenges the authority or entitlements of “the select few”. The irony is, of course, that the historical Jesus seems to have been a mighty big political thorn in the side of the conservatives of his day. We know that conservatives have defended themselves against the demands of “the rabble” with every means at their disposal since time immemorial. The Roman-ruled violent and oppressive times of Jesus were no exception.
Preaching against and breaking laws of purity and exclusivity, rebuking the rich and those who worshipped status or success, inviting into his close company those on the margins, healing indiscriminately, socialising and teaching with women, defying those too certain of their answers: this relentless challenging of worldly authority is almost certainly why Jesus was, indeed, most cruelly killed. He died for love, quite literally.
Do these profoundly different views of Jesus – and of God – matter in a largely secular country like Australia? I think they do. The alliances between the most conservative wings of Anglo-Catholicism, Roman Catholicism and the entire body of evangelicals, including Pentecostalists like Morrison, are forged and deepened through their overt political crusades. The hyper-aggression that has marked Australian politics since conservative Catholic Tony Abbott’s time in power reflects this.
Conservative theology not only defends itself against progress on social issues; it virulently attacks all signs of such progress. There’s something darker here, too. Being “saved” is a highly individual experience. It’s between you and God with Jesus as your intermediary. There is little care for outsiders and no social message beyond strident efforts towards conversion. Like all forms of fundamentalism, it offers an almost unimaginable degree of certainty, demanding in return a matching depth of conviction. You are saved, not least from further enquiry. Dogma makes its own sense and any degree of open-mindedness is not only unnecessary but dangerous. It precludes any genuine understanding of or respect for other faiths. They are wrong, their adherents at best misguided, at worst, condemned. Does this offer a needed measure of reassurance? We can presume so. But at what price? I have worked with many, many refugees from Christian fundamentalism who have suffered appallingly first from fear of a damning God or later because of family members willing to shun them for testing such teachings against their conscience and experience.
Progressive and moderate Christians – like those in other faiths who have been spared fundamentalist indoctrination – are more likely to focus on the teachings within their faith that guide actual conduct: serving God by serving humanity.
The “Golden Rule” of loving-kindness towards others – treating them as you wish to be treated – is at the heart of every faith. This plausible reflection of Jesus’ own life and conduct makes even more sense in a global, multi-faith world when you see “that of God” within all beings, without exception. And when it leads to inclusive social justice, rather than social or religious exclusivity.
The vast majority of political conservatives in Australia are not “bible bashers”; on the contrary. Their worship is nakedly of status, privilege, and any promise of power to which they believe themselves entitled. They may, though, be more vulnerable, as a group, to ideological arguments that shore up their tribalism: fearing “the other” in all his and her many forms; fearing the social progress and openness, even the curiosity about life’s meaning, that religious conservatives equally rail against.
Ironies abound here. Life is hard for many, even those of us living with relative privilege. Our sorrows are real. What we turn towards, what we turn against, shapes our identity and influences everyone around us. If I’m even half right that the politics of fear (not least of sharing the “wealth” we clearly have) worsen when darkened by a theology of sin and blood sacrifice, of the “saved” and “not saved”, and of a God whose judgements are terrifying, then maybe that was also known to the remarkable man we know as Jesus. The most common one-liner in the Bible, Franciscan Richard Rohr tells us, is, “Do not be afraid.” Someone counted. It’s there 365 times. Lessening our fear, meeting one another more justly and lovingly? I guess then we’d all be saved.
Interfaith minister and social activist Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick has written a number of internationally published books. They include Seeking the Sacred and also Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love. You are welcome to find her on her public Facebook page.