No. 55 – 23 April 2007
By Stephen Chatelier
The recent discussions surrounding faith and politics have been observed with much interest by the media, politicians and church leaders.
For the media, it is a contentious –and therefore desirable – topic. For politicians, it is about capturing votes. For church leaders, it is about having a voice in society. Out of these three key stakeholders, it is the church that needs to be most discerning in its response the latest developments.
Many Christians who may have felt increasingly disempowered in recent years by the strength of the Religious Right, have been suitably encouraged by Labor Leader, Kevin Rudd’s recent musings.
Rudd in his writings for The Monthly and media interviews, has essentially argued two related points. First, God is not “owned” by any political party; and second, social justice issues, not only personal morality, should be a concern for Christians.
After allowing the new Labor Leader some time, Tony Abbott eventually engaged in the discussion at the Young Liberals’ Conference on January 27 this year. Abbott delivered a speech titled, “Rudd’s Religious Sales Pitch”, where he accused Rudd of hypocrisy. That is, Abbott believes that Rudd has been politicizing the issue and is striving to declare the ALP as the “party of choice” for Christians.
Understandably, both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott argue their case with a good dose of political rhetoric. Inevitably, when discussion of the right Christian response to social issues takes place in the context of the political arena, politics will take prime place over theology.
Regarding his interview with Geraldine Doogue on ABC’s Compass in 2005, Rudd suggested that it “has got more hazards for me internally [within the ALP] than anything that you may calculate may be advantageous for me beyond the party. I just think I’ve got a responsibility to start talking about these things.”
While there may be some truth here, this comment must be placed alongside the motivating factor for Rudd to set up the Labor parliamentary discussion group called Faith, Values and Politics. In the same interview, Rudd made clear that politics was the driving force in his setting up the group: “I’m doing what I think at this time in Australia’s political history is right. And that is to engage this debate about faith, values and politics and not to vacate the ground for the other mob.”
Whether it is avoidable or not, the reality is that discussion surrounding the faith-politics nexus is being divided down party lines.
This is where the danger for the church lies. Once a polarization occurs where the ALP represents the socially liberal Christian and the Coalition the socially conservative Christian, the church will find itself playing a political game rather than a theological one. On such a playing field, the church can only lose.
For many, the distinctiveness of the church has always been its strength. Jesus told his disciples to be “in the world but not of the world.” The letters from the Apostle Paul consistently exhorted his readers to “no longer conform to the patterns of the world.”
Rudd’s hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writes in his letters from prison during World war II: “The world that has come of age is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age.” Bonhoeffer recognized the need for the church to be distinct from the world – indeed, distinct from the state – if it was going to have real influence.
Many contemporary Christian commentators are now reflecting on the problem of Christendom rather than any triumph in Christendom. American theologians William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas have been singing that tune for years. They believe that the church must consist of “Resident Aliens” – the title of their most well-known book.
In a recently published Australian book, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, author Alan Hirsch suggests that if the church is to once again experience growth, it must set itself free from the mindset of Christendom. He argues that, historically, the church has been more effective when it has been on the margins of society rather than at the centre as instituted by Constantine.
The key here is that the church is on the margins. The extraction of the church from society is not the answer. Rather, when the church is on the margins, it is at the very place where it can speak prophetically to a nation’s political situation. The church in Australia needs to position itself where it can be a voice both encouraging and critiquing political parties of all persuasions.
The message in all this is that while the church is undoubtedly political, it is defined by its allegiance to the triune God. It must, then, exist outside of any politically designated boundaries of Left vs Right, Conservative vs Liberal, ALP vs Coalition.
Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are politicians. Their motivation is thus politically based. The benefit in their debate is that it is evidence of the diversity of views amongst Christians. Yet neither represents the Christian view. As Kevin Rudd has declared, “No political party owns God.”
Christians must respond to the current debate bearing in mind that it is primarily a political one. If the church is to succeed in its mandate to work towards establishing a new Kingdom, it is vital that it remembers its distinctiveness. Its political contribution to society is that it offers a radically different system distinct from the politics of the world. Playing on the political field will result in the church aiming for the wrong goals.
Stephen Chatelier is a high school humanities teacher who writes about faith and politics on his blog, gerrymander.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.