A tough time for secularists and liberals

Over the last few months there has been a robust debate in Australia about the role of religion in public life. Political commentators point to the success of the Liberal/ National Party Coalition (our ‘conservatives’) in appealing to the ‘Christian subculture’ – seen to be a crucial element of Prime Minister John Howard’s electoral success in October.

Australia is an extremely secular country, but it also contains a stunning array of Christian and other religions. Not only do leaders such as George Pell and Peter Jensen maintain a visibility in political debate, but the newer churches are now being heard. The largest of these is Hillsong, situated in the ‘bible belt’ of Sydney, with 20,000 people attending their services each weekend. It is part of the new look Assemblies of God, and, with denominations like the ‘Christian Outreach Centres’ they have begun to realize the impact they can have on the political life of the nation by working together to form a critical mass. Certainly, a number of clergy from that tradition have become shrewd political operators, and are now a force to be reckoned with.

The Federal Treasurer made a very public appearance on the platform at Hillsong; even the Prime Minister, John Howard, had done so well before the election campaign began. Howard, originally a Methodist, has attended church with his Anglican wife for many years. Ever the pragmatist, he is on record as saying that his Christian Faith is more about ethics and morality than ‘the metaphysical aspects’ of religion. Nonetheless, an increasing willingness to speak openly about one’s religious beliefs is the order of the day among government MP’s, ranging from conservative Catholics to Pentecostals and evangelicals.

Recent surveys have shown that even secular people like the idea of political leaders being motivated by a religious faith.

During the election campaign, the Labor Party, for all of its historic connections with the Irish Catholic diaspora and the liberal Christian Left, seemed intent on making itself unappealing to people whose religious faith is foundational to their lives. There are many card-carrying Christians in the Labor ranks, but they tend not to be noticed behind the blustering Opposition Leader, Mark Latham. He comes from a very secular Labor tradition, and obviously enjoys sniping at religious people, especially committed Christians. Latham is now struggling to hold on to his leadership. If he goes, there are a number of experienced contenders who are practising Christians. In any case, because of the political vigour of the Christian right, no Labor leader can afford to be so publicly ‘in your face’ in his sneering attacks on religion.

In the lead-up to the election, the Assemblies of God and their supporters established a new political party, ‘Family First’, which did surprisingly well in the polls. There is a tradition in Australia of minority parties having the balance of power in the Upper House (the Senate), and this was clearly a prize for which Family First strove. They did win seats, but not enough to hold the balance of power. However the other thing about elections in Australia is that because of our preferential voting system, minority parties can influence the result in local electorates when the two major parties are close, by simply directing their preferences to the candidate whose beliefs and policies are ‘pro-family’.

Secularist commentators speak pejoratively of the ‘Christian Right’. But it is clear that while on bioethical issues they are conservative, ‘Family First’ is not necessarily going to support the Government in areas like industrial relations, health and education.

As Christmas approached the debate about religion and public life took a different form when the ever so politically correct Lord Mayor of Sydney, Ms Clover Moore, was seen to be making Christmas less Christian and ‘more inclusive’, out of a concern not to offend ‘minority groups.’ When she was attacked for using the dumbed down ‘season’s greetings’ rather than anything overtly Christian, she foolishly made reference to the sensitivities of Muslims who now live in Australia. This may not happen in Britain, but there was a huge and welcome outcry from the Muslim community. ‘We love to see Christians celebrating Christmas,’ said Keysar Trad, the president of the Lakemba-based Lebanese Muslim Association. ‘We love Christ and Mary.’

‘What purports to inspire tolerance instead inspires hostility and intolerance,’ Waleed Aly, a member of the executive of the Islamic Council of Victoria, wrote in The Australian newspaper. He explained that Jesus is a revered prophet to Muslims, and that the ‘anti-Christmas campaign’ is not Islam but ‘aggressive atheism’.

Journalist Miranda Divine pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald that both conservative Christianity and moderate Islam are under attack by the zealots of secularism. ‘They share a desire to stem the tide of intolerant anti-religious fundamentalist secularism. It is a world of empty materialism, patois and degrading hooking-up sex . . .’

Muriel Porter wrote in the Melbourne Age about friends of hers who took their young son to see the Myer Christmas windows. He was engrossed by them, carefully following the story of The Polar Express – a story he knows well – from scene to scene. Then he came to the window depicting Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. The nativity tableau was quite new to him. ‘So what’s the story here then?’ he asked his parents.

Porter went on to complain that the boy belongs to ‘the second generation at least that has almost entirely missed out on learning the basic stories of the Christian faith, the religion that shaped Western civilization.’ She attributes some of the blame for this to the churches. ‘While the lives of women in particular and families in general have changed dramatically since the 1960s, the churches by and large have failed to listen, let alone lead.’

Then, as might be expected, she says: ‘The Catholic Church’s blanket ban on artificial contraception, the Anglican Church’s hard-fought but only piecemeal concessions to female equality, all the churches’ resistance both to more fluid family structures and to homosexual partnerships, have combined to give Christianity a gloomy, life-denying, out-of-touch image. There has been no great temptation for secular people to seek the God the Christian churches preach.’

So, the answer is for the churches to embrace the liberal agenda? Come now! Even some local secular writers believe it is precisely the coalescing of liberal Christianity with secular humanism that is to blame for many of the problems we face.

Might it not be that the real conversation is already being had out there in the marketplace where so many are searching for God and where ordinary Christians and public figures witness to their faith, while liberal Christians and secularists console each other over their sure and certain demise?

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane