During his recent appearance on Channel 9’s Today (December 6, 2009) Tony Abbott bristled at Laurie Oakes asking him whether he believed in evolution. It wasn’t the topic of evolution that annoyed Abbott. Rather, he was annoyed that Oakes was asking him “religious” questions which Abbott believes Rudd has managed to avoid. The exchange drew forth this rather stunning claim by the new Liberal leader:
But the point I'm making, Laurie, is my religious views, are … personal, they're not out there in the political market place … I mean, if there's one person who's put religion front and centre in the public square, to use his phrase, it’s Kevin Rudd.
With this reply, Abbott - the alleged “mad monk” - seems to have abandoned an important strand of his own Catholic faith. Indeed, claiming his religion is “personal” makes him sound, well, Protestant.
Now, far be it for me - a paid-up protestant theologian - to tell Catholics how to be Catholics. But I worry when this particular Catholic politician starts ditching one of the things that some of us Protestants believe that Catholics got right (and which we Protestants got wrong).
It’s a massively broad generalisation, but one of the dividing lines in Christianity has been that Protestants have been shy of the “public square” while Catholics have never hesitated to claim their share of it.
Protestant clergy getting jailed for civil protest could be quite confident of being rebuked by their own religious constituencies (even before the politicians got in on the act) and told to keep themselves to “spiritual” matters.
True, Catholic priests and nuns engaged in the same civil protests may well get Popes and Cardinals off-side. But for different reasons. Popes and Cardinals don’t mind priest and nuns protesting in public: they just want to be sure that they are protesting about the right things! At its best, Catholicism has never ceded the “public square” to politicians while keeping itself to the supposedly “spiritual”. After all, it was a Catholic who provoked Paul Keating’s famous objection to “meddling priests”.
Of course, it would be hard to draw such a neat dividing line down the middle of Australia’s churches today. In many ways, the emergence and massive political influence of the (largely protestant) American religious right in the 1980s dissolved that line once and for all, both in the US and elsewhere.
Even in Australia most churches are nowadays committed to entering the public square and making their voices heard. Quite rightly they don’t give a toss about politicians telling them to keep out. After all, the public square belongs to the public - not to the politicians.
Of course, the fact that the churches are confident to enter the public square does not mean that the population at large - any more than the irritated politicians or pseudo-neutral secularists - welcome them there. Just look at the national debate about religion and politics over the last decade. There is a latent national sentiment inherited from the theories of modern liberalism and Australia’s own history of sectarian politics which tells the churches to keep in their place. Politicians know this sentiment is there. They will tap into it whenever the political need arises.
Tony Abbott knows it’s there: and he made a pitch for it for all the world to see in his answer to Laurie Oakes. No, he isn’t a closet old-fashioned Protestant. He’s a politician. Like all clever politicians, he knows how to tap into public sentiment and massage it for his own purposes.
The irony is that Tony Abbott hasn’t previously hesitated to let his Christian faith inform his policy positions. And, to his credit, he hasn’t hesitated to go against public opinion in doing so.
In his new position as alternative Prime Minister, Tony Abbott would best serve public debate by quickly jettisoning this “personal” view of faith and religion. He would give greater leadership to public debate by overcoming his new nervousness about putting religion out there in the public square. This suggestion may jar with card-carrying secularists. But do we really want as our political leaders, men and women who shield their most basic convictions from the public, protecting - even hiding - them behind the spurious idea of the “personal”?
In the end, the issue is not Tony Abbott’s religion or Kevin Rudd’s. It’s about creating a public square which is genuinely public. After all, the best antidote to any allegedly pernicious influence of the churches or of Christian politicians on national policy is not for Christian politicians to keep their faith personal. Nor is it for secularists to insist on relegating religion to some private realm. Instead, it needs to be debated in public. If Tony Abbott’s faith is actually a faith worth having, then he owes it to all of us to be a good Catholic and place it in the public square.
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