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

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

  1. Steven Westbrook says:

    The lust which some religious people have for preserving a priviliged power position to enforce conformity seems odd for a religion originating from someone suffering for not being “quiet” and confronting the authorities of the day.

  2. Peter Donnan says:

    Intelligence and Conservative Christianity are not commonly associated. By their signs you shall know them:

    * Conservatives pop Satan into the conversation very easily
    * Their literal translation of bible involves intellectual dilemmas- Noah’s arc contained animals of every kind that would take modern zoologists decades to collect, even with modern planes, tracking, storage etc but many conservatives believe the Arc contained animals of every kind
    * Linking money and religion is not a problem but is integral – tithing, tax relief for ‘charities’
    * Linking bushfires with divine retribution for same-sex marriage is a Folau classic
    * Authoritarian, rules-based conservative organisations choose who can belong and who can’t.
    * “There’s a conservative Catholic lobby on K Street in the nation’s capital called The Catholic Information Center. William Barr is a former board member. Current board members include President Trump’s White House Counsel, Pat Cipollone, and Leonard Leo, who’s also a vice president of the right-wing Federalist Society and who’s earned the sobriquet “Trump’s judge-whisperer” because of his powerful influence on Trump’s choices for appointments to the bench, including Brett Kavanaugh, another right-wing Catholic.” NY Times, 14Nov19
    * Forum posting NY Times: “Sorry if I’m rude to the faithful laity, but arguments about conservative vs. progressive trends in the Catholic Church seem like Nero fiddling while Rome burns. These are really trivial issues ( I know, I know) compared to the Church’s existential issues of constant, widespread and clearly systemic pedophilia, massive and gross financial corruption, and membership numbers that are in free-fall. A year ago, I asked a local priest, “Why do you need a larger parking lot?” “Ah, it’s for the size of the funerals,” he responded. “We need more space for the funerals.”“Not for baptisms?” I asked.He looked at me sadly and said, “No, not for baptisms.”


  3. Charles Lowe says:

    The religious Right believe in a divinity of authority and consequently, in our cosmological “need” to comply – unexceptionally – with it.

    Just like we expect 0 – 6 y. o.s to.

    I suggest that we adults need to establish and proclaim a set of secular ethics. And to invite all other adults to openly subscribe to it.

  4. Peter Freeman says:

    Dr Allan Patience
    great to read your work
    from an old friend
    Peter Freeman

  5. Ray, You might try John Gray’s “Seven Types of Atheism” on the problems of secularism, ethics and morality. It is a recent paperback from Penguin.

    • Ray Hehr says:

      Thank you Jerry for your reference. I have read Straw Dogs but not Seven Types of Atheism. I have previously read several Google reviews of SToA. I understand Gray’s view on atheism being an inverted form of Christianity because he believes humans tend to deify something even if it’s themselves. I personally think that this human need for supernatural agency develops from from our evolutionary need to learn thing to survive. If we do ‘this’ action we get ‘that’ beneficial result. Hence the rabbit’s foot charm or the lucky underpants phenomenon. This is what Dawkin’s calls the short-circuiting of our thinking. Also, what we generally believe to be good works and charity stem from an innate compassion. When an atheist has ethical concerns for others, such as Humanists do, it stems from this innate quality found in all animals and is not necessarily a hark back to Christian teachings as Gray often suggests. Humans can’t help being compassionate and therefore ethical because we hate pain and suffering. This is the common link between atheism and religion. I tend to think Shopenhauer got it right with his view on compassion.

  6. Ray Hehr says:

    I find arguments like this piece against secularism very odd. This article starts off discussing the ‘religious right’ then suddenly turns to argue against rationalism with no real justification for the change in target. There is an argument given that secularists are just using religious structures.
    “The simple fact is that modern secularism’s epistemological (belief) structures are the equivalent of many of the world’s other faith traditions.” What is the argument here? That religious belief structures are generally bad. Or that belief systems are the property of religions and shouldn’t be misappropriated by secularist? Or that secularism uses only the bad form of epistemological structures? I don’t know. Is Brian Cox considered a secular ‘tele-evangelist’ simply because he discusses science topics on TV in an engaging manner? Stephen Hawking is a Positivist Fundamentalist? I am a secularist and I don’t understand this argument. I don’t think secularists hold a belief system at all. Holding and arguing the ‘view’, as secularists like Richard Dawkins etc do, that society runs better without a diversity of religious ethical beliefs impacting social policy outcomes (commonly held ethics set aside) is not a form of secular fundamentalism, in fact, it’s libertarianism. It is a view that allows all decisions to be made on behalf of everyone in society, including those who don’t want religious ethical restrictions placed on their lives. At the end of the day religious people can choose to live their lives as they wish and can ignore libertarian laws, but if ethical beliefs are enshrined into our laws then we are all bound and restricted by these ethical beliefs, even the rationalist secularists. I refer here particularly to abortion and euthanasia laws as examples.

  7. J.Donegan says:

    That’s a splendid summary Dr. Patience. Your conclusion, having been stated, becomes the more obvious and needed to be said, so thank you.

  8. Peter Johnstone says:

    “The religious right is a dead hand lying heavily on the heart of intelligent Christianity in Australia today” – yep!

  9. Philip Carman says:

    Regardless of your own prticular political affiliations, any Christian should understand that Jesus was a man of the poor, the downtrodden and the reviled, in a society where very few ruled over so many, with the absolute power of life and deaath over their slaves. Jesus’ teachings gave the poor and downtrodden the hope of life beyond their suffering and gave them the power to love their oppressors rather than fear them… What a lot of anti-Jesus theists are in power right now. They have no idea of their own barbarity or their soulless stupidity, bathed as they are in their own self-rightiousness. As a non-Christian, but a lover of Jesus’ story, I can only pity them, while doing everything possible to ensure they are removed from positions of power or even influence.

  10. Evan Hadkins says:

    The Uniting denomination ran a brief campaign, “The ACL doesn’t speak for me” during the marriage equality debate.

    Most Christians are happy to disagree with the right-wing – but not to indulge in the kind of personal attack and nastiness that is now so much a part of politics. (Most Christians are middle class and subscribe to niceness as a virtue.)

  11. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    I’m surprised to find this essay published absent any mention of Tawney and the social radicals of the 19th-20th century, whence, surely, cameth our political-secularist-philosophical salvation, or the hope of it.
    The Golden Mean was most elegant: Do unto Others only as you would have done unto yourself; often couched negatively: Do not do to others what you would not have done to yourself/One’s-self!

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