Members of the right-wing faction of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party - the ideological warriors who orchestrated Tony Abbott’s installation as Opposition Leader - are reportedly still angry. Although the hated Malcolm Turnbull is gone, and the “liberal” wing of the party has been weak for the best part of two decades, they now have a new enemy in their sights.
According to a recent article in The Australian newspaper (Glenn Milne, “Resentment simmers as party races to the right”, February 8, 2010), those now under the gun are members of a so-called “progressive conservative” grouping. It is said to comprise a number of avowedly Christian members.
They have earned the ire of their hard-right colleagues, Milne claimed, for “us[ing] their genuinely held Christian beliefs to showcase their self-proclaimed social conservatism”. Social issues aside, they stand accused of being “arbitrary in policy terms and held together by the glue of self-preferment”.
Sneered one (unnamed) critic, quoted by Milne: "The progressive conservatives dress themselves up in a cloak of Christianity to claim conservative status but are entirely flexible when it comes to applying [or not] any principle to policy decision."
It is more than a little ironic that at least one of Tony Abbott’s loudest cheerleaders holds Christianity in such evident contempt.
Abbott himself has been pilloried for his deeply-held Catholic beliefs by numerous commentators on the secular Left. Much of that criticism has been ignorant and unfair, as has a lot of the petty invective directed at Anglican Kevin Rudd for his regular churchgoing, and occasional allusions to his personal faith. Indeed, Rudd has copped flak from both the Right and the Left. (Sadly, in Rudd’s case, some of it has come from the Religious Right, which should know better.)
The truth is that Christianity and politics are strange bedfellows. The tenets of Christianity do not neatly conform to any party-political agenda, and, throughout the 20th century, very few electorally successful politicians in the West couched their message explicitly in Christian terms. In the first decade of the 21st century, nothing has changed.
Why is it so?
First and foremost, the “Christian” position on political issues is neither wholly left-wing nor wholly right-wing. Although in some instances the Christian way admits of a left-wing or right-wing emphasis, it is always nuanced. Unsurprisingly, this angers ideologues of all stripes - even those who profess to be Christians themselves.
My own view is that, in respect of the “Big Four” political issues - war and peace, the just distribution of wealth, human rights, the environment - orthodox Christian teaching supports a generally “left-wing” policy prescription. Conversely, in respect of a raft of vitally important social phenomena - sexual mores, marriage, drug-use, gambling, pornography, sanctity of life questions, to mention just a few - the Christian position is decidedly conservative.
On yet other issues, such as crime and punishment and censorship, Christian teaching is impossible to categorise in worldly terms.
Further, even the apparently clear-cut issues have a Christian twist. For instance, the Bible unquestionably takes the side of the poor over the rich, and posits charity as one of the greatest human virtues. But it also encourages thrift, self-reliance and obedience to (secular) law.
Most importantly, while Jesus’ sympathies were fiercely egalitarian, he was not a social reformer. His primary emphasis was upon individual salvation.
With all these considerations in mind, the great English theologian C.S. Lewis once observed that a fully Christian society would thrill almost no one. “Each of us,” he wrote, “would like some of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing”.
Tellingly, and wisely, Lewis added: “That is just what one would expect if Christianity is the total plan for the human machine. We have all departed from that total plan in different ways.”
Ultimately, the best that each of us can do is to try to obey the dictates of conscience.
The ugliest feature of modern politics in Australia is that our mainstream politicians are discouraged from following their conscience (Christian or otherwise) when voting in parliament. Not to toe the party line on a given issue is to risk ridicule, ostracism, demotion - even expulsion.
Notwithstanding pious-sounding statements to the contrary by Tony Abbott, made in the wake of Malcolm Turnbull’s crossing of the floor to vote with the Government on its ETS legislation, the situation is now as bad in the Liberal Party as it has always been in the ALP.
As a rule, cynical “experts” in the press gallery are also unsympathetic to politicians who break ranks. Disunity, they are fond of intoning, is death. Events are routinely assessed by reference to their short-term political consequences, rather than on the merits.
Thus, for example, Tony Abbott’s recent rubbishing of climate change (“absolute crap!” he exclaimed in one unguarded moment) has been depicted as a canny political triumph. True, he appears for the moment to have galvanised the Coalition’s base, and has marginally improved its standing in the polls. But let’s not lose sight of the big picture. If the vast majority of qualified scientists are right - or even partly right - what Abbott has really “succeeded” in doing is to make meaningful action that much harder for the world to achieve.
(I should here declare my personal views about climate change; they are two-fold. First, Christian theology requires Mankind to take all available steps to preserve God’s Creation: we have dominion over the Earth, which carries a corresponding duty of stewardship. Second, climate change is too fraught an issue ever to be solved by partisan politicians, let alone Adam Smith’s mythically benign “free market”; if the scientists are right, then, absent divine intervention, catastrophic climate change seems inevitable.)
I do not know what their specific policy positions are, but the men and women in the “progressive conservative” faction of the Liberal Party should stay true to their Christian consciences. They should not, however, expect praise for doing so, still less career advancement. That is not the way of the world.
My only other advice is that they change the name of their grouping. The moniker “progressive conservative” has a sorry history. The Canadian centre-right party of that name lost government at the general election of 1993 in an unprecedented massacre, losing all but two of its 153 seats.
If they have the courage of their convictions, why not bite the bullet and call themselves the Christian faction?