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The religious Right cannot hijack values

By Kevin Rudd - posted Tuesday, 18 January 2005


Historically, Australians have maintained a healthy separation between church and state. In the 1890s, our founding fathers debated whether or not the federation should have any established religion. They wisely decided, having observed the European precedents, that we should not.

Constitutional separation aside, Australians have always maintained a healthy scepticism about politicians, of whichever persuasion, invoking God, the church or the Bible as their temporal authority.

Instead we have evolved in this country a healthy political culture in which political ideas and policy proposals are debated primarily in secular terms.

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America is somewhat different on this score. Despite the formal separation of church and state devised by Thomas Jefferson, some American politicians have tended to wear religion on their sleeves in a way that does not sit comfortably with most Australians.

The none-too-subtle subtext in certain parts of the American political system is that the proclamation of personal religious faith of itself is a qualification for public political office.

Recently, however, something appears to be changing in the way in which the Australian political Right in this country is now dealing with a significant section of organised Christianity: Peter Costello's very public pre-election appearance at Hillsong, the largest Pentecostal church in this country; a Liberal MP launching his election campaign in Perth, with John Howard present, publicly declaring that people should vote for Howard on the basis that he was a Christian; and now a Prime Minister using this year's end of session valedictory address in Parliament publicly to extol the superiority of Christianity itself.

To this should be added the Coalition's national preference deal with Family First at the last election. Family First, established by the former national director of the Assemblies of God, together with other AOG leaders, allocated preferences to the Coalition in 102 of 104 House of Representatives electorates that it contested. This national preference decision by Family First resulted in bringing about Coalition wins in four and perhaps more critical marginal seats.

Is there anything inherently wrong with the leaders of a religious denomination deciding to establish a political party? Of course not. That is their democratic right. Just as it is their democratic right to allocate preferences to whomever they choose.

But in all of this, the Coalition's none-too-subtle political message is that if you are a Christian concerned about "family values" and "moral values" then the Coalition is now the natural party for you. Labor has not the slightest intention of allowing this unfolding Coalition strategy to go uncontested.

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The reason for this is because it is based on the false proposition that somehow God has become the wholly-owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party.

Jesus has not suddenly become the member for Bethlehem South, the National Party member for Nazareth West or even the Family First member for Jerusalem Central. Any attempt, dog-whistled or otherwise, by any political party to imply that "God is on their side" is as historically illiterate as it is biblically dubious.

First, neither the Liberal Party nor the Labor Party has ever purported to be a "Christian" party. That does not mean that Christians were not involved in the formation of the two main parties of Australian politics. There were many. But both parties were established as broad-based, secular parties designed to operate in a democratic and secular state - a state containing within it a large number of belief systems, both religious and non-religious.

Second, the Coalition increasingly implies that it is the natural party of family values. Family values would have to be the most used and abused term in Australian politics. The Coalition seeks to give this term some sort of religious gloss.

Labor, consistent with its secular tradition, argues that if we are going to have a debate about family values, then surely a family's ability to put food on the table is a family value; surely a family's ability to afford proper health care for its children is a family value; and surely making sure our children have access to a decent education is equally a family value.

The attempt by the Liberals to hijack the term into the ill-defined ether of quasi-religious language is designed to mask the fact that so many Liberal policies are anti-family in their effect.

Ask any working family whether they think the collapse of bulk billing is pro-family or not?

Parallel to the family values phenomenon is the broader moral values debate.

Here again we see the attempt by the Coalition and others to define this term as narrowly as possible - usually in terms of sex and sexuality.

But if our starting point in this debate is supposed to be Christianity (and therefore a Christian view of morality), then my challenge to the Coalition is as follows: isn't our preparedness to feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless a moral value; isn't our preparedness to respond humanely to those who seek refuge in this country from political oppression elsewhere a moral value; and is not our response to the 1.5 billion people around the world in abject poverty also a question of moral values?

Once again I fear that the Coalition's political strategy is to define moral values as narrowly as possible in order to mask its inaction across a much wider social and economic agenda which should equally command our moral attention.

One of the great divides in Australian politics and Christianity is whether or not our responsibility to our fellow human beings is a matter of private, discretionary choice - or whether that is something which requires the collective intervention of society through the state.

There are many fine human beings in all our political parties who are great givers of their time and money to those who need help.

Labor has a view that if social justice were to rely entirely on individual acts of charity, there can be no guarantee whatsoever that all those in need are provided with humane levels of universal care.

Those of us who are Christians within the Labor tradition are not about to readily concede the ground to those who chant the mantra of family and moral values but who are disturbingly silent when it comes to taking action through government to relieve the burden of those who cannot properly fend for themselves.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on December 13, 2004.



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Kevin Rudd is Prime Minister of Australia.

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