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Politics and religion are not warring states

Andrew Hamilton |  30 October 2006

Politics and religion are not warring states Religion and politics are often treated as two nations separated by a demilitarised zone. Any sortie across the boundaries is best dealt with by an artillery barrage.

But both religion and politics are ultimately activities engaged in by human beings, often by the same person. When thinking about the relationship between religion and politics, it is helpful to ask whether people with religious convictions have a place in politics, and how they act appropriately there.

I am tempted to argue provocatively that there is no place in public life for people who are not religious. Of course, I refer to "religious people" in a special and a very broad sense. They are people who work out of considered views of what constitutes a good society and a good human life. They hold these views strongly enough to associate with others in realising them. They may ground these views in explicit or implicit philosophies, as well as in religious faiths in the more narrow sense of the word.

By this definition, non-religious people, for whom there is no place in public life, are those who have no views on what makes a good society, but who see public life and politics instrumentally. They see politics as the business of governing. For them, values, beliefs and truth are subordinated to securing and holding power, and to implementing whatever policies are willed by the government. In public life, they see religion as a commodity to be put to use.

Politics and religion are not warring states I believe that public life in Australia has been corrupted by this instrumental view. I agree with those who have deplored the use of religion by politicians as a political counter. But on the same grounds, it is equally deplorable for religious people to use religion instrumentally. To promise support to political candidates on condition that they accept and vote for legislation that endorses a moral position supported by one’s church, is also to make religion a commodity. It puts truth out to trade, and debases it.

If we begin with the more neutrally expressed axiom that politics is only for people of conviction about why human beings and society matter, we then face the complex question of how people with such convictions may properly act in Australian political life.

We should expect that people in public life will press actively, and through their community groups, to embody their vision of society. Churches and religious bodies have a responsibility to do so. They should criticise policies that in their view injure society.

We should also expect politicians to press their view of the good society and the conditions under which it can be embodied, when they argue for priorities in policy and about particular legislation. They should also be open about the grounds on which they base their argument. In this respect, at least, Mr Abbott seems exemplary. This openness will lead people to ask whether the view of society on which the politicians base their case is reasonable, and whether the priorities and the legislation that they propose will be conducive to a good society.

Politics and religion are not warring statesPeople of different views can share conversation and responsibility for society only if they respect clear rules of engagement. In democracies, these assume that elected politicians represent all their constituents and not simply those whose allegiances they share. They also seek the good of all Australians.

This good includes centrally the freedom of people to recognise and to act on what they see as true. It follows that legislation that limits peoples' right to act in accordance with sincerely held views about a good human society will need to show that this behaviour damages society. It will also need to be supported by broad consensus. This means that the proponents of such legislation need to rely on persuasion, not on manipulation.

Finally, we should expect that people in public life will experience tension between their own convictions about what makes a good society, and what is prudently possible where their views are not supported by consensus. In democracies where the interaction between strongly defined political parties mediates public conversation, politicians will experience the same tension between their own moral judgment, and their respect for the effectiveness of their party. Politicians deserve respect for living with that tension; respect decreases if they never vote against their party on moral grounds.



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Submitted comments

I think Tony Abbott does an excellent job in 'taking' a position and not being afraid to own where from, and for why, he holds that position. Well said Fr Hamilton.

andrew johnson 17 October 2006

Tony Abbott should stick to trying to achieve only what is "prudently possible", and not what he finds desireable.

Maryanne Malleson 18 October 2006

I think Kevin Rudd is opportunist, like so many other politicians, jumping on the flavour of the month bandwagon.

Judy 18 October 2006

Kevin Rudd has put a seriously argued case in his attempt to think through the significance of Bonhoeffer's theology and discipleship for Australian politics today. His attempt to chart a position on the relationship of faith and politics tkaes account of our post-christendom context in a way that has not been seriously attempted by a practicing politician in Australia in recent times.

Bonhoeffer is not flavour of the month by any means in a theologically uninformed society like Australia. I think he has shown a degree of courage in so publicly grounding his arguments in an explicitly Christian framework.

Doug Hynd 19 October 2006

Politics and Religion are not warring states in which he contends politicians deserve respect for living with tension between their own moral judgement and the effectiveness of their party. Glaring example (in my view) is John Howard, he does not possesss this tension, for him all is subordinated in holding power.
Though I disagree with Tony Abbott views, I do believe he does have this tension.
Great comment as usual by Andrew Hamilton and Eureka St.

Illona 19 October 2006

NZ perspective:
Religion and politics is a subject that is often not discussed at length for fear of causing offence. Well done Andrew for raising this topic. Unfortunatley, little is widely published in the public domain regarding the positive effects of the two (social services agencies, social capital & democracy etc). Instead the public are negatively programmed towards religious associations in political / public life and as you stated - used as a commodity (rhetoric). Media have a great influence on how people act and think. I also agree that politicians with a religious/spiritual association are better utilized within existing parties. The provision of conscience voting in NZ allows for politicians to act accordingly. Some of our (religious people's) best work however is in the "bottom up" strategy effecting change with the people we personally mix with. Legislation is not the total solution. Unless we are able to change someones heart and improve understanding - joe public will always find a way around the legislation. :)

Christine McCullagh 26 October 2006

what politics have indicated their religious affiliation?

cassie hanak 06 February 2008

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