Talking about community

If politicians speak of the church and politics, they usually stir the dogs of war. Lindsay Tanner and Tony Abbott recently gave more thoughtful speeches about the place of the churches in public life, which merit a reflective response.

Tanner developed the argument set out in his book, Open Australia (Pluto Press, 1999). He believes that in Australia, such phenomena as a high suicide rate, loneliness, endemic poverty, chronic unemployment, drug taking and alcoholism disclose a disturbing level of alienation. This breakdown of trust affects the quality of a society and eventually affects economic growth.

Tanner argues that the cause of alienation is the individualism that has accompanied economic growth and social liberation since the 1960s. When we conceive that our identity is constructed by the exercise of individual choice, communal enterprises and unselfish commitments appear quixotic. So, since the 1960s, movements and institutions that appeal to shared meaning have been in decline. At the same time, people who cannot find the happiness promised them suffer from alienation.

Tanner believes that the way forward is to maintain the freedoms that have recently been gained, while encouraging communal values. The government’s role is to facilitate participation in society. It should also encourage communal organisations, which provide access to participation.

This is the background to Tanner’s reflection on the social role of churches. Like other community institutions, churches have been weakened by contemporary individualism. Dogmatism and social activism alike have failed to stem their decline. But they have a bright future if they encourage altruistic relationships and communities in which people can participate in society. He counsels them not to allow dogma or prejudice to lure them into opposition to particular kinds of relationships: they should rather look only to the quality of relationships. He regards this emphasis as in keeping with the core beliefs of Christian churches.
Tanner’s argument that churches are caught in the great conflict between individualist and communal constructions of the world is persuasive. His call for a politics that encourages participation in society and supports communities is also welcome. His argument, however, poses two questions to churches. The first is whether churches can accept the inclusive focus on the quality of relationships that Tanner suggests. The second and deeper question is whether the bargain which he proposes to churches is sustainable: by accepting the gains in individual freedom that individualism has brought, and complementing them with communitarian values, will churches find an assured social position?

Although the offer is attractive, the nature of churches makes me sceptical. People belong to Christian churches because they accept a story about God’s relationship to the world through Jesus Christ. That story contains a distinctive view of what is important in human life, of why human beings matter, and of what human society should be like. The story and its implied view of humanity cannot be reduced to a few general principles, like the love of one’s neighbour. Nor can the commitments of churches to society be discharged by a generalised commitment to create community. They must embody in their communities the distinctive view of human relationships that flows out of their story, and commends them to the broader society. So, although the Christian story suggests that any community should be based on respect and acceptance of people with different moral perspectives, questions about sexuality and respect for life will be resolved in conversation with the Christian tradition, and not only with the surrounding culture.

Tanner’s proposed pact between churches and society also assumes that the individualism in our culture will be content with the liberties already won, and that churches can simply accept the present range of individual freedom as a done deal. This assumption is unlikely.

If our culture endorses expanding the area of individual decision, we would expect to find constant pressure at the boundaries of freedom. Pressure to make traffic laws optional, to abolish restrictive labour laws, to increase freedom for genetic experimentation, to legalise euthanasia and partial birth abortion are only some of the causes we might expect to find supported. It is also natural for those who advocate such causes to dismiss those who oppose them as authoritarian, and to try to marginalise them. If, as I would argue, the desire of governments to act in ways that deny the human dignity of those affected, like asylum seekers and the people of Iraq, flows from the same cult of free and untrammelled decision, we would also expect them to try to marginalise their critics.

If churches and other groups believe that some areas of individual freedom are bought at the expense of a humane society, they may press to limit them. In turn, they will be criticised as authoritarian and out of touch with their individual members. For this reason, no matter what accommodations and qualifications are made on particular issues, a sunny relationship between an individualist culture and a communitarian church is unlikely.

Tony Abbott assumes that there will be conflict between the vision of humanity implicit in the Christian story and the reality of Australian society. His perspective is that of the Christian politician, the member of a government that has to deal with a situation which he personally deplores. He offers as an example the widespread practise of abortion. After making distinctions and allowances, he claims that the high number of abortions in Australia betrays a disturbing lack of responsibility in society. Like Tanner, he sees in society an emphasis on individual choice with no consideration of consequences and a disregard for relationships. He argues, however, that governments cannot act to limit choice unless there is public support based on a strong view of humanity and society.

A change in public attitudes requires education and advocacy. Abbott therefore asks why, in the face of a public crisis as significant as that of Aboriginal life expectancy, Christians press him regularly about asylum seekers, but never about abortion.

The response to Abbott’s speech was instructive. Those opposed to any limitation of individual freedom to terminate pregnancy dismissed his views and tried to marginalise him as a man intruding in women’s lives, as a Catholic in public debate, as an individual in a tolerant government. The reaction was what you might predict whenever a public person or community group argues for any restriction on the freedom of choice.

The response, however, sharpens the question Abbott addresses to churches. Why are Christians so hesitant to engage in public education and advocacy about the clear social ills involved in abortion, while being so ready to take public positions on the less morally clear issue of asylum seekers? The imputation is that silence betrays a cowardly compromise with culture.

It would be possible to respond defensively by arguing that the attitudes of churches to abortion are well known. Furthermore, members of Christian churches are actively involved in pressing for legislation that enacts respect for life in all its processes.

One might also reflect more deeply on the comparison between attitudes to the issues of abortion and of asylum seekers. This kind of comparison is often used as a wedge to divide members of churches in their opposition to government policy, and so to marginalise church advocacy for asylum seekers. But there are good reasons why politicians face particularly insistent pressure about the treatment of asylum seekers. However one weighs the relative moral gravity of abortion and the abuse of asylum seekers, the moral responsibility of current Australian politicians for the treatment of refugees is more grave and pressing than it is for tolerating abortion. For they have passed legislation and countenanced regulations that manifestly destroy the lives and the mental health of asylum seekers. For this they have a direct responsibility. In the case of abortion, their responsibility is less direct. They have only failed to legislate to change an existing state of affairs.

These arguments, however, do not explain why members of churches are silent about abortion. Some critics suppose that churches are infected by the same individualism that they oppose. Morality then becomes a matter of choice: depending on their political tastes, people choose between rafts of individual and social values. This kind of selectivity would be disturbing, because it politicises churches, and fatally weakens commitment to the Christian story. Although there can be argument about many aspects of what respect for life entails, the argument within churches is properly conducted within a shared vision and tradition.

Public silence on particular issues, however, need not reveal a selective adherence to principle. It may be strategic. There are many reasons why people will remain silent on issues about which they feel strongly. Leaders of churches, for example, may be reluctant to advocate restrictive legislation because they are seen to represent authoritarian institutions. To see men leading movements to limit women’s freedom, too, is a little distasteful.

Other reasons for public silence reflect the fragmentation of moral vision in society. Those who work with asylum seekers, for example, make alliances and friendships with good people who share a common ethical vision about the humanity of refugees, but who may well differ passionately about the proper respect for the processes of life. Effective advocacy for a shared cause may suffer when partners engage publicly on opposed sides of a bitter public debate.

Finally, silence may also mark the recognition that it is a serious matter to limit human freedom. Australian policy towards asylum seekers shows how serious its effects can be. Furthermore, those affected by such measures are normally the poor and resourceless. The wealthy can circumvent them. If we believe that we shall create a better Australian society by restricting women’s freedom to abortion, it will be essential to address the aspects of society that make abortion seem a necessary choice. To do this will involve changes in family policy, industrial relationships, and the support of community groups that will be costly and far-reaching. But without them, pressure for legislative change will be ineffective. It will be an exercise in blame that neither benefits society nor represents a Christian vision.

Tony Abbott’s reflections complement those of Lindsay Tanner on the role of churches in an individualist culture. His example of abortion shows that the relationship between churches and culture will necessarily include conflict. Tanner’s inclusive vision reminds churches that they must represent a comprehensive vision of society, and not be confined to negative positions on single issues.  

Andrew Hamilton sj is Eureka Street’s publisher.



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