Christians on the Left

Rendering unto Caesar: Christian MPs in the ALP 

Lindsay Tanner’s announcement that the Labor Party is Greens-lite drew barely a whimper from the media. Under pressure in his inner-city electorate, Tanner was jolted by the high green vote in Tasmania’s state election. Writing in the Fairfax newspapers, he pleaded with his constituents, accusing the Greens of “relentlessly feed[ing] off Labor’s need to make compromises in order to marry progressive reform with majority government”. After all, Labor and the Greens are pursing the same ends. “For all our flaws”, wrote Tanner, “Labor remains the only worthwhile option for achieving progressive change through parliamentary politics”. 

Many saw this as an attack on the Greens, entirely missing the patronising snub to  “Labor voters who aren’t tertiary educated”. On a close reading of Tanner’s piece, these voters form an amorphous mass, with few valid priorities of their own. But since Labor needs “the implicit support of a majority”, they must be cajoled into voting for disguised progressivism. In this way, the people who matter, “typically either tertiary educated or undergoing tertiary education”, will come into their inheritance. Tanner calls them “Labor’s natural supporters”. His gripe is with the Greens’ tactics, not their objectives. 

Exhausted after eleven years of opposition, federal Labor tends to steer clear of navel-gazing. If they arise at all, philosophical questions fall victim to spin and obfuscation. Judging by the limp reaction to Tanner’s piece, this is fine by the media. A senior minister can declare the ALP a continuation of green activism by other means (apologies to Clausewitz), and deliver a sweeping rebuff to “working families”, without the slightest controversy. 

Most journalists seem happy to trade in trivia, but should the progressive consensus come under challenge, all hell breaks loose. Threaten their pretensions to moral authority and they turn into feral inquisitors. 

Witness the very different treatment of Tony Abbott’s rise to the Liberal leadership. We saw another round of agonising about the role of religion in public life. Much of it was hectoring, shallow and condescending. Few journalists buck the conventional view that secularisation is just a given. Attempts to defend religion-based morality are seen as risible at best, deranged at worst. On top of this, most are ill-informed about religious teachings or what they offer public policy. Then there are the partisan blinkers. Journalists have no interest in exploring the moral dilemmas confronting Christians in the Labor Party, even if they are thornier than those facing Coalition members. 

Rarely are Labor’s Christian MPs called on to reconcile their faith with membership of a party that diminishes the role of religion in national life. Driven by the Left, where Christian influence is weakest, the ALP’s social agenda is actively secular, if not anti-religious. In the “ethics agenda”, encompassing issues like marriage, euthanasia, reproductive rights and technologies, adoption, sexual identity, drug use and parental authority, the Left pushes reforms onto Labor’s priority list with little internal resistance. Caucus Christians may wrangle a conscience vote, but these routinely end up in progressive victories. Increasingly, opposition to progressive causes, if it occurs in the ALP, is motivated by pragmatic politics rather than conviction. 

When asked explain themselves, Christian Labor MPs resort to three expedients, none of them convincing. 

The first is to assert that religious faith is “a private matter”. This position is based on the contradictory logic that the same values can be positive and enriching in private, but negative and harmful in public. It assumes that expunging Judeo-Christian morality from substantive law results in value-neutral outcomes, rather than laws inspired by a competing vision of human nature and society. Which principle dictates that religion-based morality must be confined to the private sphere, while secular ethics can invade every aspect of life? 

This leads to the second expedient: separation of church and state, a commonly cited but poorly understood concept. Section 116 of the Commonwealth Constitution, for instance, simply prohibits “any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance …” This targets laws conferring exclusive rights and privileges on particular churches or denominations, or comparable institutions. There is no blanket injunction against laws embodying religious principles. A bill, say, to reintroduce elements of fault into divorce law, is no less constitutional because it is inspired by religion, than a bill banning coal-fired power stations because it is inspired by environmentalism. Such bills stand or fall on whether they attract enough support. Blocking the legal expression of religion-based morality is less about the separation of church and state than the suppression of church by state. 

Third, some profess a Christian commitment to Labor’s “social justice” agenda in fields like welfare, industrial relations and the environment. The same people who invoke Christianity on these public issues, however, typically plead the “religion-is-a-private-matter” defence on the ethics agenda. And notwithstanding support from some church leaders and agencies, the social justice agenda is essentially a secular cause. Christian faith is incidental. It’s in the ethics agenda that distinctively Christian positions enter in the political arena, and here Labor MPs run for cover.   

None of this would concern Tanner, a non-believer representing the inner-city, where, according to the last census, the number of atheists can be double the national average. For many of his colleagues though, it has come to whether they are rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and then unto Caesar what is God’s.

John Muscat is a co-editor of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

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