ALLAN PATIENCE. The ALP and the religious right in Australian politics

Nov 14, 2019

The religious right is casting a darkening cloud over Australia’s democracy.

The so-called Australian Christian Lobby, the evangelical Anglican Archdiocese of Sydney, Scott Morrison’s Horizon Church, the fundamentalist Hillsong mega-church and its off-shoots, the preachers of the grotesque “gospel of affluence”, and a motley range of defensive and reactionary Christian sects are spooking politicians of all stripes and many in the ranks of the commentariat. The religious right in Australia is almost exclusively Christian: it does not welcome Muslims, Buddhists, or followers of other faith traditions unless they convert to its particular brand of Christianity.

 A central claim of the religious right is that its followers are being persecuted by the dominant libertine secularists in politics, business, the media and in the country’s major cultural institutions. Its leaders – for example, Lyle Shelton, Martin Isles, Fred Nile, Margaret Court, Israel Folau ­– are adept at arrogating religious authority to themselves based on a narrow interpretation (or basic misunderstanding) of scriptural hermeneutics. They portray themselves as the moral underdogs fighting a mighty battle against the forces of evil in an increasingly immoral society. Self-righteousness is their speciality.

Evangelical and Pentecostal versions of Christianity are by far the main sources of support for the religious right. Their followers’ central belief is that the Bible is inerrant – that it is the final, absolute and irrevocable Word of God. It must be literally believed.

These beliefs are not shared by the old mainstream churches where biblical, historical and theological scholarship is, mostly, rather more sophisticated. However, it is noteworthy that it is the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches that are growing in vast numbers while the old mainstream churches are in decline – in some cases, terminally so.

Like all cultic movements, the members of the religious right assert that their fundamentalist approach to Christianity represents the only way to be truly Christian; that all the rest is sham, rank hypocrisy, or of the anti-Christ. The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney’s declaration that any of his fellow bishops who do not believe what he believes (and by implication all others in the church who do not share his beliefs) should leave it, is illustrative of the harsh exclusivism that characterises this kind of religiosity. 

There are now calls in Labor ranks for the party leaders to embrace the religious right. There are even suggestions that it’s time to compromise – including, perhaps, walking back from commitments to issues like same-sex marriage and equal rights for women and members of the LGBQI communities. It may also mean acceding to demands for legislative protection for religious freedom – for example, the legal right to discriminate against non-believers employed in church schools and hospitals.

This is not the best way for Labor to deal with the religious right. There are two steps that could be taken towards a better strategy.

First, many in Labor’s ranks have to understand the dangerous political and cultural pitfalls associated with the philosophical superficiality of modern secularism (see, for example, Charles Taylor’s magnum opus, A Secular Age). It is arguably the case that probably a majority of ALP members are unquestioning secularists – or old or “new” atheists.

Modern secularism’s ideological complicity with materialist, rationalist, and scientistic (or positivist) ethics needs to be a rigorously interrogated. (Indeed, it’s time to recall Max Weber’s direly prescient warnings about the ruthlessness of the “iron cage of rationalism”.) The simple fact is that modern secularism’s epistemological (belief) structures are the equivalent of many of the world’s other faith traditions. From this perspective, the late Stephen Hawking can be seen to be a positivist fundamentalist and Professor Brian Cox can be seen to be positivism’s tele-evangelist.

Second, Labor needs to be radically transparent about – and fiercely proud of – the Christian origins of its central values and policy commitments to equality and social justice. In the Sermon on the Mount (see the Gospel of Luke, 6:20-38), Jesus outlined what a decent world could look like: the poor will be afforded dignity; the hungry will be fed; the reviled will be respected. And he levels a trenchant warning against the wealthy: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

Jesus’ central message was to do to others as you would have them do to you (an ethic at the heart of all the great faith traditions – except, that is, for modern secularism in its neoliberal individualist guise). Jesus’ message (and the message of the other great faith traditions) is precisely the ethic that drives all good social democratic and democratic socialist thinking.  (See Luke Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life: Political theology and the case for democracy.)   

Labor should be ready to publicly identify closely with the values Jesus was advocating; its religious bone fides are there for all to see; it need not be cowed by the shouty self-righteousness of the religious right in contemporary Australia. This will require identifying leaders in its ranks whose religious beliefs are intelligently and confidently held and undogmatically articulated.

Penny Wong’s very private but profoundly held Christian beliefs should be an inspiration to others in the party to recognise the intimate links between modern Labor values and their Christian origins. Meanwhile, leaders with other religious affiliations whose values also resonate with modern Labor values, need to be respected and valued, to demonstrate Labor’s sensitivity to religious values across the board. For example, Ed Husic (one of the most decent and intelligent MPs in the entire federal parliament) exemplifies much that is great about Islam and its relevance to Labor today.

The religious right is a dead hand lying heavily on the heart of intelligent Christianity in Australia today. It is a source of hatred for all beliefs systems that do not conform to its rigid moralising. It is amplifying Islamophobia and other contemptuous religious and non-religious prejudices across Australian society. Labor must call out this religious cancer eating into the contemporary Australian body politic by recognising its own religious indebtedness.

Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.

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