Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


What fuelled the crisis in the West?

  • 19 July 2017


Most political comment focuses on current situations, ignoring the broader social and cultural currents that flow into them. A recent article by Paul Kelly in the Australian was welcome for taking a larger view. It has the virtues and limitations of such writing, and one crucial omission.

Kelly makes the case that the decline in Christian faith made evident in the recent Census is in large measure responsible for the widespread loss of trust in the political system throughout the West. He argues that the eclipse of faith has led to the loss of shared values in society found in earlier generations. It reflects itself in the growth of narcissism and the exaltation of individual choice and individual rights. To these qualities can be attributed the fragmentation of politics and the mistrust of institutions and political parties in the West.

Kelly raises important questions, not least whether and how social cohesion and a public ethic can be nurtured in societies where Christian faith has become marginal. This issue has engaged philosophers and theologians for 200 years and remains pertinent to current debates about citizenship.

Kelly is right to acknowledge gains as well as losses for society in the emphasis on individual freedom. It has encouraged movements to remove discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender, making these political as well as ethical questions.

This success, however, suggests that there is continuity as well as discontinuity in the relationship between the moral principles of Christianity and 'progressive' values. Christian individuals and groups — Martin Luther King for example — often sponsored movements to liberate vulnerable minority groups from discrimination on the basis of their identity. In doing so they were inspired by Christian values commended in their churches.

This example illustrates the inevitable limitations of broad brush arguments such as those that Kelly makes. Lack of trust in politics and institutions, for example, is not new. From the Roman Empire to contemporary China any authorities who do not ensure an adequate supply of bread to their citizens can expect to meet distrust, unrest and probable replacement.

Nor can societies easily be characterised by large generalisations. The wartime generations of soldiers whom Kelly describes as the most amenable and modest were often deeply alienated from their governments, and after the 1914 War were seen as potentially seditious by British politicians. Women's experience of wartime employment, too, had a major part in animating movements for gender equality.