Pastoral politics

Alexander Downer recently put his boot into the churches for not sticking to their pastoral last. The subsequent exchanges of opinion echoed past debates about the right and duty of the church to buy into matters of state. About this little new was said. The question was addressed in the 19th century when the separation of church and state was in train. People living in the 19th century, or a bit earlier, would find helpful many of the contributions to this latest debate.

The more interesting question concerns the relationship between the evolving 21st-century state and the human beings whom it serves. What kinds of public conversation do we need to encourage to ensure that the policies and administration of government encourage humane values? What kinds of public conversation do we need to encourage to ensure that the policies and administration of government encourage humane values?

When the question is put in that way, it seems almost self-evident that the contribution of any group that works out of a vision of human flourishing and has a moral perspective should be sought and welcomed. It also seems axiomatic that such groups will normally be critical of what is being done. For any vision of a humane society can only be imperfectly realised.

Why do governments fail to welcome such moral comment? A true but superficial answer is that we all react badly to criticism. But at a deeper level, it may be that the modern state is under pressure to assume the functions of a church. This development would make criticism from independent moral agencies unwelcome but also make it the more necessary.

To describe government as church is playful—we can amuse ourselves with easy political parallels to cardinals, acolytes, doctrine, sermons, curia, collections and cant. I have in mind something more nebulous than this: the way in which Western societies see the business of government as being to protect the free choice of individuals and their material prosperity. Policy and its execution are seen as controlled only by the will of government.

The difficulty with this view is that the belief that we are more than isolated individuals, that our well-being is measured by more than financial criteria, and that government policies must be guided by humane values, is still extant. Furthermore, societies become difficult to govern when these beliefs are seen as illusory. So it is important for governments to convince people that even such of its choices as the incarceration of children are morally justifiable and humane.

Thus governments are compelled to construct and proclaim the simulacrum of a humane moral universe in which they do not believe. They can find support from media companies whose financial interest lies in maintaining the myth of economic individualism, and in which cost-cutting privileges opinion over enquiry.

The bad faith inherent in this construction of government inevitably makes governments suspect and resent those who appeal to a long tradition of humane and communitarian values. It also makes the contribution of such groups the more important if people are to be subjects and not merely the objects of policy.    



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