Good Politics – Poor Theology

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
13th November 2009

Tagged: faith politics religion society

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Joe Hockey has followed his old sparring partner Kevin Rudd by going public about religion while serving as a member of the shadow cabinet.

For Mr Rudd this was an important attempt to regain the Christian credibility of the Labor movement.  He argued against the assumption that the conservative side of politics owned the religious vote.  He aimed to show the Christian foundations of Labor and the existence of a Christian within the party.

Mr Rudd startled those commentators who had so wrongly assumed “the religious right” of America had traction in Australia, or that conservative theology meant conservative politics.  It had been a long time since a Labor politician had so openly expressed their Christianity.

Now Mr Hockey has played the same card.  He has carefully articulated the place of faith in the secular politics of a multicultural society by confirming his own personal faith.  He has positioned himself as a defender of the faith.  Or to be more accurate, like Prince Charles, he positioned himself as a defender of faith.

His explanation of faith has all the appeal of motherhood and apple pie.  His god is full of sugar and spice and all things nice.  It is the religion of those who have no religion.  Warm positive values that he admits do not have religion as “an essential prerequisite”.  He admits that his own political values were shaped in part by the agnostic or atheist John Stuart Mill.

Mr Hockey’s faith is the religion of the middle ground – the voters of Australia.  His speech explored the religious statistics of the electorate noting the widespread belief in God and the smaller adherence to organised religion.

With inclusive grandeur he insists that Australia “must continue without fear to embrace the diversity of faith”.  But then, with nothing other than fear, he qualifies which religions are acceptable “provided that those Gods (sic) are loving, compassionate and just”.

He marginalises the extremists: the fundamentalists and the aggressive atheists.  His defence of faith from the attacks of the atheists (Hitchens and Dawkins) is twofold.  Firstly to attack religious literalists for teaching their outmoded texts instead of the values that everybody agrees upon.  Secondly he exposes the atheists’ use of a political debating technique.  They define their opponent in terms that suit themselves “usually selecting the extremes, and then send in the wrecking ball”.

This twofold ‘defence’ enables Mr Hockey to demonstrate his own mastery of this political debating technique.  For he defines religious literalists by the Scopes trial of the 1920’s, a fictional example drawn from West Wing and, of course, Islamic terrorists.  He rightly says we must not judge a religion by the misguided actions of some extremists but then lumps all who take the text of their various scriptures seriously as just such extremists. 

Mr Hockey says his own faith is inspired “by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ”.  And indeed some of Jesus’ attitudes can be seen in his views.  Jesus critiqued his contemporaries for their concern over minutiae while “neglecting the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23)  Jesus portrayed it as “straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel”.

But Mr Hockey’s expression of values, with or without belief in any particular god, scarcely defends faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus - the man who is God.  Christianity, void of Jesus’ divinity or sin bearing crucifixion - is hardly Christianity.  Such a statement is not extremist literalism.  The cross, not the golden rule, is at the very centre of Christianity.  All religions do not teach the same truth when the death of Jesus is central to Christianity and denied by the Koran.

He noticed that the Opera House is usually playing music inspired by faith.  But his kind of faith did not and will not inspire such music.  He noticed that members of religious organisations are nearly twice as likely to be community volunteers.  But his faith has not and will not lead to more community volunteers.  He noticed the decline in religious observance in Australia.  But he fails to notice that it is those who take their scriptures seriously that are retaining adherents and growing.

From the outset of his speech Mr Hockey wants to “use God as an analogy of faith in all its forms”.  Of course it is his privilege to talk this way in a free country.  But this hardly counts as a robust defence of faith.  It is post-modern religion that talks of “my” god, not out of politeness to other’s who believe in a different god, but out of a denial that there is only one God who can be known by the humans whom he created in his image.

It is great that leaders like Joe Hockey are raising the issues of faith in the public arena.  Let’s keep the conversation going.