Is it sectarian to ask Kevin Rudd questions about his real convictions? Does it provoke religious hatred to seek to know the difference between a socialist and Christian socialist? If it was not sectarian for Rudd to write a 5,000-word essay for The Monthly last October proclaiming the importance of his religion to his politics, how can it be sectarian to probe exactly what Rudd meant?
On the ABC's Insiders program on Sunday, Labor frontbencher Stephen Smith accused me of "making outrageous attacks on Kevin and Kevin's religion", of bringing "religion on to the floor of the parliament" and of perpetrating "the most blatant example of divisive sectarian politics that we've seen since the '50s and '60s". Making such a toxic charge is evidence of Labor's desperation to gag debate about Rudd's credibility.
For the record, I admire the fact that Rudd is a serious Christian. At the swearing-in of the new parliament in 2004, fully half of his lower house Labor colleagues chose to take an affirmation rather than an oath on the Bible. Under these circumstances, it takes guts to declare that Christianity has a role in public and private life.
For several years, to the consternation of his party's whips, Rudd was the Labor mainstay of a parliamentary prayer group that met every sitting Monday night. Late last year, Rudd joined the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer in opposing the recent legislation to permit human cloning. I just wish he'd declared his position soon enough to influence his Labor colleagues' votes.
My problem is not with Rudd trying to attract more Christians into the Labor Party. My issue is Rudd's attempt to present Christianity as merely an endorsement of the ALP's present policy positions and Christians as little more than Labor activists on Sunday. Rudd's claim, articulated on Radio National in November, that "Christianity begins with a theology of social justice", is just plain wrong, as Rudd must know.
Perhaps Rudd was trying to lull his secular humanist colleagues into a false sense of security about what a Rudd-led Labor Party might do. It's more likely, however, that this was another example of Rudd's tendency to try to be all things to everyone and to hope that no one will notice.
Rudd is perfectly entitled to stress the ALP's "Christian socialist" tradition. He can tell the Australian Financial Review (as he did in 2003) that he's "an old-fashioned Christian socialist". He can tell The Age (as he did last December) that he has never "been a socialist and - never will be". What he can't credibly do is complain about being asked to explain how he can be not a socialist and a Christian socialist at the same time.
Perhaps Christian socialism is radically distinct from ordinary socialism. Or perhaps the distinctions are too subtle for those who aren't Labor true believers. Either way, it's reasonable to ask the alternative prime minister how he reconciles these apparently conflicting positions.
Rudd has described himself as an Anglican who "never resigned from Rome". None of my many friends on both sides of that great divide imagine they can straddle it. Again, it seems that Rudd is trying too hard to attract every Christian's vote.
It's not surprising, when his leader is under pressure over dealings with disgraced Labor godfather Brian Burke, that Smith should find fault in others. In politics as elsewhere, offence is usually the best defence. Still, Smith can't credibly argue that it provokes religious hatred to question the inconsistencies in his leader's position but that it's all right to declare that a Catholic should not be health minister, as Kim Beazley did in parliament last year.
Since becoming Health Minister, I have described our abortion rate as a tragedy and wondered what can be done to bring it down. The upshot of this was legislation removing the health minister's veto over the abortion drug RU486 amid a plethora of claims that a Catholic couldn't be trusted to make this decision on an ordinary rational basis. It should not have been beyond Smith's wit to realise that someone whose political prospects are thought to have been harmed by his faith would not lightly criticise a fellow MP with the capacity to make being a religiously committed politician less contentious.
As Smith should know, Rudd's problem is not his Christianity but his credibility. On the political implications of his faith, as on his now notorious series of meetings with Burke, the best way to stop the questions is to answer them.