Churches could hold key to salvation for the Left


Churches could hold key to salvation for LeftAfter three decades that have seen neo-liberalism and social conservatism become dominant, where can we expect a new progressive politics to come from? What social movement or popular yearning could generate such a politics in an affluent society characterised by profound loss of meaning?

When we consider the existing major social movements, it seems to me that the new politics cannot be found in environmentalism, crucial though the environment movement is to our future. Nor can it be found in the social democratic model of the trade unions, important as they are in protecting the interests of their members. ACOSS and the welfare sector are to be admired for standing up for the underprivileged, but in an affluent society welfarism cannot be expected to motivate far-reaching political change.

But, despite the suspicion of many progressives, the churches could be the answer. Traditionally, the churches have attended to and represented the deeper aspects of life, those that transcend the individualism, materialism and selfishness that so characterise modern affluent societies. It is in this transcendent concern that I believe we can find the roots of a new progressive politics—not in the institutions of the churches themselves but by rediscovering those aspects of life that, at their best, the churches articulate and cultivate.

The old model of the "Left" is based on the idea that the principal problem of modern society is material deprivation. In a past era this was justified, but in rich countries like Australia the opposite is the case. So the model that many progressives have operated on is out of date and irrelevant. The principal social and personal problems we now face arise out of the sicknesses of affluence—over-consumption, wastefulness, materialism, selfishness, and loss of meaning.

For decades we were promised that if only we attended to the economy and pursued higher incomes, then we would be happy. But the tragedy is that we are not. In fact, now that most people in rich countries have conquered material deprivation we see a rash of psychological disorders and a pervasive emptiness in everyday life. This is the great contradiction of modern society.

The churches remain the repository of the deeper understanding of life that once motivated some elements of the Left. There has always been a tradition in the Left to focus on alienation, the sense of the loss of self. And we can use this idea to understand the way in which modern consumer society deprives people of the opportunity to pursue a more truthful, a more authentic life.

There are many people in the churches who still cleave to that stream of progressive thought. Although I have no connection with it, it seems to me that this is particularly true in the Catholic Church.

What the Left desperately needs is a new approach to mChurches could hold key to salvation for Leftorality. The error of post-modernism, which grew out of the broad academic Left and now dominates Western society, is that it has no metaphysical foundation for a moral critique. Without a metaphysics that is common to humanity, any moral stance must be relative and therefore be contestable and lacking in conviction.

Yet there is a pervasive sense throughout society that we live in an era of moral decline. People want firmer moral rules that apply to them and others, particularly ones that govern sexual and personal relationships. And in a way that’s the fundamental problem of modern society; it’s crucial for people on the progressive side of the fence to acknowledge these concerns and engage in moral debate, which means developing new foundations for moral law.

The anxiety and yearnings which ordinary Australians have about moral decline have been recognised and articulated by people that I fundamentally disagree with, by those on the Right who often distort that moral anxiety for right-wing political purposes. The Left, for want of a better word, really needs to get over its fear of engaging in moral judgment and moral argumentation and to go back to the community with a moral vision so that the Right can no longer monopolise and distort those sorts of concerns.

Churches could hold key to salvation for LeftAfter all, every political debate is a moral debate. If you open up a newspaper on any day, in virtually every story there is a moral argument going on, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

That applies particularly to economic issues; economic issues are really moral questions rather than analytical ones. So we need a new politics of morality, one that is rooted in some of the traditional concerns of progressive people, in social justice, in the maldistribution of power, and the way in which that affects the capacity of people to pursue a truly fulfilling life.

The churches have been re-entering political debates. Usually progressives regard this as a dangerous thing, because the most newsworthy stories concern sexual and reproductive questions where the churches often line up against the progress made by the liberation movements of the '60s and '70s.

Of course, church and state must remain separate but I regard the re-entry of the churches as a good thing. For example, quite unexpectedly, Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen spoke out strongly against the Howard Government’s IR legislation. More predictable but no less welcome criticisms were made by the Catholic bishops. Some on the Left have trouble acknowledging this support, because these Anglican and Catholic leaders have been opposed to the extension of gay rights, for example, and are seen as the enemy.

Churches could hold key to salvation for LeftSo there are re-alignments occurring that challenge our usual assumptions about where various groups stand. There should be more of this on the Left. When we at the Australia Institute produced a report three years ago, expressing alarm at the way in which teenagers in Australia are exposed to huge amounts of pornography, particularly extreme and violent content on the internet, many of our supporters were surprised and disconcerted.

Yet we believed, on the basis of our analysis, that this trend is very damaging. Some of our supporters wondered why we would have entered into territory that is more often associated with those of the moral Right. The answer is because it is a very important issue causing widespread concern in the community and a progressive voice was desperately needed. But perhaps there was a deeper puzzlement: why would the Australia Institute engage in any moral issue because doing so means making moral judgments? The answer is that we are no longer afraid of making such judgements, even in the case of the most difficult questions concerning sexual behaviour, because they are of enduring importance to ordinary people.

Churches could hold key to salvation for LeftThe same can be said about our recent work on the sexualisation of children in marketing and popular culture. Although traditionally seen as an area of concern for the moral right, there are just as many parents with progressive political views who view the premature sexualisation of their children as very disturbing.

If it had been the so-called "usual suspects", such as Fred Nile or Family First, saying these things, everybody would have yawned and said, "Oh yes, they would say that." But because we at the Australia Institute are on the progressive side of the fence and are not supposed to talk about those things, let alone object to them, when we do analyse them and take a position, it attracts a lot of attention.

There is a fundamental contradiction within conservative politics nowadays, exemplified perhaps by John Howard. On the one hand, there is a strong element of moral conservatism which speaks to the moral anxiety and moral concerns of ordinary Australians. On the other hand, it also espouses economic liberalism which exacerbates the anxieties.

Moreover, giving free rein to the market very often leads to an erosion of moral values—the work we have done on youth and pornography and on the sexualisation of children is an illustration of that. So here's a real contradiction in the heart of conservative politicians; it astonishes me that a moral hard-liner like Tony Abbott can resolutely refuse, time after time, to reign in the market forces that exacerbate the problems he complains about.

Churches could hold key to salvation for LeftThis contradiction in modern conservatism leaves a gaping political hole that must be filled. It must be said that there are contradictions in the Left too. While often being in favour of more regulation of the economy, including labour markets and income distribution, the Left has traditionally been strongly opposed to governments intervening in moral issues.

So I would argue that the Left too needs to accept that government, expressing the wishes of the citizenry after a proper debate, should also take a stronger role in some of those areas of moral concern where the Left has traditionally been too afraid to tread.

These moral concerns, spanning both personal behaviour and broader social trends in the market, are the traditional grounds of the churches. I don’t believe we should look to the churches, as institutions, as the source of a new progressive politics. But I believe that the answers will come from perceptive, inspired and compassionate individuals, whose political ideas combine social analysis with a direct apprehension of the transcendent insights that underpin all deeper human yearnings.



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Existing comments

In looking to the churches for a morality based in a "deeper understanding of life", but without church institutionalism, would not the Left simply be looking to the the morality of Jesus -- compassion, peace and justice? And ultimately, that love for others exemplified in Jesus himself?

An ethic drawn from the churches may remind the Australian left of the great split of the 1950s and 60s, with athestic/secular socialism pitted against 'anti-communism'. Perhaps the Labor movement is still to overcome tensions between religious values and atheism.

Yet there cannot morality based in a "deeper understanding of life" that is separated from the faith the nourishes that deeper understanding.

Brian McKinlay | 31 October 2006

The old power models employed by the left are dead; they are a pale shadow of their former selves. Well said Clive.
Frank Patterson | 31 October 2006

I have to say I agree with the post-modern idea of moral relativism. The problem with the old certitudes of the colonialist era was that they were western certitudes. It's all very well to say that their is no longer a "metaphysical moral compass", but that old compass was skewed in favour of an elite. Far better to use a "Global" Positioning System.
Amanda Bunting | 31 October 2006

Brian McKinlay, I do not agree with you at all. You say "there cannot (be) morality based in a "deeper understanding of life" that is separated from the faith the nourishes that deeper understanding."
People can draw a deeper understanding of life from sources other than faith-life.
Faith sustains some people, sure, but for others it is a sense of family, a connectedness to the environment, a belief in the the principles of human rights and freedom, as outlined though not practiced by the UN. The certitude of your answer Frank illustrates precisely what continues to hold some people back from embracing, or re-embracing their christianity (or other faith too.) Perhaps for you there are answers to be found in faith, but these can be found elsewhere, for some people.
David Hodder | 31 October 2006

At last, at last, a Voice!
mauren hastings | 31 October 2006

Clive Hamilton,
What a well written piece; sane and most timely.

So often the the Church's counter-cultural witness is misunderstood as something backward and negative in today's society; believers seen as delusional for the most part. Having a faith in something without evidence in today's world, smacks of a low IQ, or fundementalism.

However, conversations and debate about the big questions of life and and truth, and the struggles of peoples lives is a start to challenge our deeper selves.

People gain their morality from many different sources now. The Churches coming out and identifying the malaise in todays society, whilst a necessary voice, can no longer challenge on their own. But representitives from all denominations, political leaders and all men women of good will tired of success spoken about only in terms of the bottom line, is the key to helping people identify theiir deeper concerns.

The task is how do we get our people of this nation to view the changes in society with discenment,recognsising the inability of a materialist culture to bring true staisfaction.

Our country is prosperous definately, but life enhancing and life giving? I would say not. People are impoverished in all sorts of ways; loss in all it's forms being a significant reason. We are a grieving nation; grieving for the ties that bound family together a generation ago,for broken relationships, divorce and it's fall out, loss of children through abortion or the loss of children never born. Contraception that gave choices but delivered infertility.

We share freedoms of which we have never seen the like, but choice seemingly has served to enslave, separating us from our truest selves.

Relativism is a formidable opponent you can always find something or someone to confirm your own selfish personal truth, whereby everything looks OK.

Australia Institute keep countering the culture with the other side of the story.

For every choice there is a loss.

therese van kints | 31 October 2006

I have been a bember of a trade union, the ALP and the Catholic Church for most of my adult life and in that time, 40yrs, I have noticed only one issue that thoes organisations have been in direct unresolveable oppositin to each other. In my discussions with people of the left and and the church,an in reading their publications of both I have often wondered how these two groupings,the left and the church,particularly the catholic church, are not in some form co olition so close have been their policies. I would be interested to know how many of the leaders of both groups get together and discuss their common ideas.
Kevin Vaughan | 31 October 2006

Would it be too cynical or extending Clive's analysis too far to suggest the economic liberalism that exacerbates the anxieties of modern life will continue to deliver political power to the conservatives who also proclaim moral conservatism.
It may be a fundamental contradiction as noted by Clive, but is it also clever politics?
We definitely need some "perceptive, inspired and compassionate individuals" to come forward and provide an alternative to our current politicians.
Peter Doyle | 31 October 2006

I'm not sure that saying "People want firmer moral rules" is the right way to put it, and so to think about it. Rather, 'greater clarity / depth / commitment / guidance', are things we seek, and these are importantly different from the things which can be framed in legalistic terms (our move away from such a framing *can* be a positive thing, a deepening, I believe); such language is given to the error of confusing living in attention to the transcendent, with a particular form(s) of instantiating it (and perhaps this has been post-modernism's 'partial truth', which is missed by its pop versions).

Continuous to that point, I appreciate that you, Clive, spoke of "a metaphysics that is common to humanity". The Right within the Church I've known, makes the same point, without that qualification, and so their metaphysics is sectarian and lacking depth through the same confusion mentioned above. I think such a metaphysics is discernable, even granting irreducible differences between wider faith traditions (and it need not amount to a simplistic religious pluralism, though it can equally encompass pluralism). A sense of truth, beauty and goodness which are transcendent, is not a sense of those things as summed up finally in a register of what particular things and ways consitute their presence; rather it points to a spirit in which we need to live, a spirit we need to culturally reclaim. The faith traditions are in "common" in asserting these values as somehow real and relevant and authoritative for us, however they fill out the metaphysical or religious details.
Matthew Bishop | 31 October 2006

a nicely timed piece that addresses a real vacuum in political debates on issues that affect personal and social life. His argument for the entrance of church as organisations to the moral debate in society can only be healthy.

Further to the comments of Brian McKinlay and David Hodder.
The Church as I see it is always a community and so it has must have some institutional arrangements. Brian is right to ask what is left other than an ethic if we talk of faith without its institutional features. In answer this the focus can be shifted from Church/State, to that of church/society.
Church/State separation is so well-established that I do not think it is threatened. That of the role of Church in society is different, more dynamic, and less resolved.
David Hodder touches on this by referring to features of the public presentation of belief that repel rather than attract. This can also be felt from within the churches. What is interesting at the moment is that the authority of public statements is questioned by members of many of the churches. This has created a more complex relationship of church/society.
Church public commentary is no longer monolithic nor can church leaders assume instant agreement from within. It is possible that within the faith quite divergent views will emerge. Faith itself offers a more complex face in relation to social/moral issues. It is faith based but also dynamic and vibrant This debate in itself is a recommendation for entry of church organisations into public debate where there is real social division. I am thinking here of the Christian faith but I believe the same observation applies to all religious faiths.
Which is not to deny that there are plenty of regressive and oppressive viewpoints emanating from religious groups. My proviso is that it is not healthy when churches become part of the political machinery of state

eric snowball | 31 October 2006

Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is, or should be, what our churches are upholding. Our pollies are only interested in winning the next election. That's why our planet is facing such a major problem. Our pollies aren't interested in our future; it;s up to us and our church leaders to lead the pollies.
Bob | 01 November 2006

I enjoyed reading this article. I was a reader of Eureka and have followed articles such as this.

I would like to know whether I am Left or Right. I used to be a card carrying member of the ALP ( after Whitlam got tossed out). But now I front up to hand out how-to-vote cards for local ALP candidates. At the same time I am a regular attendee at St John Vianneys Church and am the President of the Vinnies conference.
Further, I am concerned about the lack of Priests and support the contention that Celibacy or Sex should not prevent people from being trained for the Priesthood. We are all God's children. i find the Male dominated Church to be a stumbling block. There are quite a few women who would make good priests (if given the chance).
Another issue I have is that of Homosexuality. Of course for me at age 71, sex is passe. However, I contend that Relationships are the most important issue, irrespective of Hetero or Homo. Maybe I should be Excommunicated :)
Hal Keegel | 01 November 2006

Hal Keegel wrote, "Maybe I should be Excommunicated?" Or maybe you should be commended - maybe thinking hard about what is true, about what is pejoratively dogmatic outside and within oneself, about what might be universally true or not, about whether one is wrong in their assured commitment or lack of, maybe these are a form of the love of truth, or as a Christian might see it, a love of He who is Truth. The arguments of the Left and Right over truth, both within and without Christianity, leave truth a casuality to partisan one-upmanship. If fluffy catechesis is the cause for meaning leaving churches, it is equally or moreso true that this ugly vice, especially among the Right, is a cause for many not wanting to enter. It's a shame that bullyboys always get the attention, and that truth ironically lies with the quiet and skeptical.
Matt Bishop | 01 November 2006

Many of the proplems of the Church go back to the 19th century when Humanists and Marxists claimed that Traditional moral values could exist without the spiritual and lifestyle disciplines that are the base of Christian values. In England and Australia politicians regarded clergy as "The Protectors of Public Morality" John Howard in paying for School chaplains still reflects this attitude.
John Ozanne | 03 November 2006

Very interesting article from someone who I regard as one of the best voices in Australian life today
Nick | 08 November 2006

I very much appreciate these thoughtful comments. They have helped me think through the issues more clearly.
Clive Hamilton | 09 November 2006

Make Gardsasil compulsory--clive- you'll have them rolling in the aisles--after all--only 2% catastrophic side-effects and inability to breed must be [morally[sic] equivalent to the total attendance each year.
Why not try man is born in sin and the devil exists too...
An adult would weep...
[would suggest you might wish to check the action of fluoridated water over many years--we actually had local dioceses attacking the world recognised authority on cancer--when he suggested not a european country has bothered with watching intelligent people being poisoned...
Compulsory medication is delusional. ..
much obliged..

mcpherson robert | 12 September 2007

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