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Churches could hold key to salvation for the Left

  • 30 October 2006

After 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 So the model that many progressives have operated on is out of date and irrelevant.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