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What fuelled the crisis in the West?



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.

Thomas Cole's 'The Fall of Rome'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.

The narcissism that Kelly highlights, too, is matched by altruism among today's young Australians. Cultural movements and their intellectual currents cannot easily be arranged in straight lines with firm edges. They are subtle, comprise interwoven and often conflictual strands, and wriggle like eels.


"Like the Roman mobs deprived of their bread, some have turned on the political parties that have allowed this to happen, some have sought witchdoctors, some have found scapegoats, and others have opted out."


My major criticism of Kelly's argument is that it neglects more immediate and notable reasons for the present loss of trust in political institutions throughout the West, namely the discrediting of economic liberalism, the most noxious expression of individualism in contemporary society. According to this economic ideology the good of society is defined by economic growth, and that economic growth is furthered by individuals competing economically with minimal government regulation. Human worth is measured by economic success, and unfettered competition benefits the whole of society. This outlook was promoted by institutions, business and governments.

This promise, of course, was always a con. Unregulated competition, whether in economics, sport or life, leads to the powerful and wealthy becoming more powerful and wealthy and others becoming more marginal. Governments that accepted its promise were led to neglect their responsibility to ensure that the making of wealth benefits all their citizens, particularly the most vulnerable among them. Instead they vilified and punished the economically vulnerable. Australians need only to think of the 2014 Budget. Ultimately the gross inequality and self-interest that resulted has made those disadvantaged unable or unwilling to contribute economically, so putting under pressure continued economic growth.

In the West people have recognised that they have been conned by the institutions, business and media that have benefited from and promoted this ideology, and that the governments they trusted to act fairly have colluded in increasing inequality. Like the Roman mobs deprived of their bread, some have turned on the political parties that have allowed this to happen, some have sought witchdoctors, some have found scapegoats in those of different races and origins, and others have opted out of the political process.  

This situation has little to do with religious belief, much to do with greed. In the United States, certainly, those profiting from the ideology have worked hard to persuade some religious groups to collude with them and to browbeat church leaders into silent acquiescence. But Pope Francis is a more authentic representative of Christian values when he denounces the effects of gross inequality and insists that economics must serve the common good, particularly those most disadvantaged. An approval score that any politician would die for suggests that his path might be worth following by politicians of any religious or secular stripe who wish to remedy political alienation.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

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Andrew’s critique of Paul Kelly’s article in The Australian might be better understood after reading the actual article, a link to which I’ve provided below. I’ve admired much of Paul’s writing, especially his books, and more especially ‘The End of Certainty’ so, to me, this recent article of his is a great disappointment. Paul berates those who seek to construct a ‘progressive morality’ based on reason rather than ‘dogma [or] revelation’ and calls them ‘secular fundamentalists’. He condemns it for being ‘a set of values and a way of relating to others’, as if the old moralities which it seeks to replace are not. He quotes an eminent psychologist who is distressed that the vast majority of academics seem, by his calculation’ to be ‘left wing’ and describes this as ‘an existential threat’ without seeking to understand why. He asserts ‘the vanguard of the new morality are the elites’, as if the rearguard of the old moralities are not. I could go on, but I’ll exceed my quota. Suffice to say that I’m disappointed because this article is a long way from being Paul at his best. < www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/paul-kelly/new-progressive-morality-rapidly-taking-over-from-christian-beliefs/news-story/c5f0c19f4f73d088f546fbd6b884befe

Ginger Meggs | 18 July 2017  

The greatest con that erodes Christianity in the modern world may be gender equality and modern society's efforts to establish the inanity of such an oxymoron as normality or reality. In Christianity all generic human beings are created equal in God's image. Gender, however, defines vast differences between individual human beings rather than equality. In the same way, other genetic traits such as skin, hair and eye colour do the same, while at the same time recognising equality in the domain of God's creation. Without gender differences (inequalities) human society becomes colourless and meaningless and without them Humanity would be long extinct. Perhaps Christianity suffers most because Humanity has replaced the divine with the human in its quest to become the only God.

john frawley | 19 July 2017  

"This situation has little to do with religious belief.” Not directly, But religious belief binds us together, and makes us a family. It gives us a sense of our place in the world, and the meaning of life. When we are deprived of these, we fall back on our primitive self-centred instincts, often with disastrous results. Religions , like our biological family need to find their place in the greater picture, and recognise that reality is more complex and is made up of many such ‘families’ which need to evolve and unite like the limbs and organs of our body, to function at a higher level than each can manage on its own. Only then will we find the peace and harmony we want and need. The fear of moving on and allowing our traditions to evolve is our greatest obstacle to progress.

Robert Liddy | 19 July 2017  

An article in today's Australian (19 July 2017) written by Cardinal Pell's biographer, Tess Livingston, reports Vatican sources who believe Pope Francis is destroying Western Christianity through his hatred of the USA in concert with the God-forsaken South American States; his distorted views and lack of appreciation of the realities of uncontrolled European migration in the hands of criminal human traffickers; his sackings of Vatican department conservative officials without consultation; his failure to confer with his cardinals; his political meddling which he is powerless to back up with an alternative. If all this is so, the Pope needs to enter the realm of reality in a big hurry. He is here to serve as the earthly representative of Christ's Christianity not as a social engineer without alternative practical solutions to the world's political woes.

john frawley | 19 July 2017  

Paul Kelly and those of his persuasion may very well end up being the contemporary Chicken Littles of the cultural commentariat: the sky is not falling in. The Catholic and Liberal Protestant churches may well be haemorrhaging members due to both the horrific, ongoing paedophilia crisis in the first instance and a watered down theological gruel in the latter. I am interested that, in America, where religious trends are usually twenty years ahead of us, there has been a growth of Catholics in the South, as evidenced by the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The growth is due to an influx of Hispanics, who are the fastest growing demographic in the country. They have a different slant to the declining Irish-Americans of the North. Eastern Orthodoxy is also growing rapidly in the States. Many converts to Orthodoxy are ex Southern Baptists, Anglicans etc. Orthodoxy has outlasted the ghastly Communist society of Eastern Europe, and, like Polish Catholicism, has a strong heart. Orthodoxy may well be in the process of redeeming Russia. Harsh Monopoly Capitalism was very alive in the 19th Century as shown in the recent documentary 'The Victorian Slum'. The British Labour Party was more influenced by Methodism than Marxism. Cardinal Manning supported the London dockers when they struck for a fairer wage. Christianity and a decent economic ethos are not dead in the West but they urgently need revival.

Edward Fido | 19 July 2017  

Ginger Meggs: “….Paul berates those who seek to construct a ‘progressive morality’ based on reason….” Nowhere in the article does Paul Kelly say that ‘progressive morality’ is based on reason. It’s based on appetite. Therefore, unlike dogma, which is based on reason, ‘progressive morality’ should be classified as a prejudice.

Roy Chen Yee | 19 July 2017  

"This situation has little to do with religious belief". It has very much to do with a relatively abrupt awareness that the cornerstone on which people's view of themselves, of God, and the world could no longer be relied on. Religion, which once purported to be a divinely inspired and guaranteed and exclusive basis for all these things is now being recognised as just one very human and flawed interpretation of the reality emanating from God. Each interpretation is made according to the situation and degree of spiritual development of the community that embraces it, and each tends to think it is the only such interpretation. Extremists think any other interpretation is either just wrong, or perverse. But only when we all recognise that God calls every person to start from where they are, with whatever resources they have, will we be able to unite and combine as One Great Family of God, and live together in Love, Peace and Harmony

Robert Liddy | 20 July 2017  

If people are created in the image of God, they will sense with the intellect inherited from God that man does not live on bread alone but on other non-economic matters that ‘come from the mouth of God’. The theme of Paul Kelly’s Easter article is about divisions in society occurring because these non-economic values are publicly disparaged by influential groups. As Barack Obama said in his ‘clingers’ comment in 2008, people who continually short-change themselves by voting against their own economic interests may be forced to find, and become hardened in finding, solace in their habitual cultural truths, ‘guns and bibles’. This is because a cynical Republican Party uses their values to hold them hostage as they have no voting alternative in a Democratic Party that is openly contemptuous of those values. But emotional compensation (although lazy) is not intrinsic to religiosity. Rerum Novarum shows that religion has long affirmed bread to be important. Kelly doesn’t address the ‘important omission’ because Easter means that reality is not malleable. It doesn’t mean that the cultural conservative who works in a restaurant on a weekend doesn’t want penalty rates as much as his culturally radical colleague.

Roy Chen Yee | 20 July 2017  

"The Australian" (which is often parodied by Richard Ackland ["Gadfly" in "The Saturday Paper"] as the "Catholic old-boys' Club") has, for some time, behaved as if it is a defender of "traditional Catholics and their values". Accordingly, last weekend it published an over-long and over-excited piece from America which ferociously took the side of Cardinal Pell in his current legal process. That was paradoxical because whilst, on the one hand, it excoriated a "public hysteria" which (it alleged) seeks crucify Dr Pell, yet it regrettably exacerbated the problem with a case that's "sub judice". Ms Livingstone is never so florid or inflammatory, but, as Pell's biographer, she's hardly a dispassionate witness. After all, in any political environment (whether it's Canberra or Rome) it's easy to find critics of the regime, whether they're measured or hyperbolic; and Ms Livingstone, in a desire to find a "story") has seemingly done that. At all events,for John Frawley to use the Pope as a relevant argument in dealing with Dr Hamilton's essay draws just such long and irrelevant straws. Paul Kelly tends to pontificate, almost infallibly, and the Hamilton critique is pertinent and warranted.

John Carmody | 20 July 2017  

Thanks for this fine article Andy. Politicians generally have a great attachment to ensuring economic growth at any price. But there are important things that are neglected when this is the case. However, in unforeseeable ways, the weather, and our priorities, can change.

Pam | 20 July 2017  

Thank you Andrew. Quite apart from Paul Kelly's Christian-pagan longing to re-establish Aristotle as the Christian philosopher", he has indeed sidestepped the need for the kind of critical exposé you suggest that identifies the noxious roots of the pervasive global distrust of political authority, in managerialist neo-liberal economics. But Kelly’s "culture of narcissism" argument all too conveniently sidesteps the impacts of "corporate narcissism" on two prominent fronts: 1. the mass media and his own newspaper and his newspaper's owner involvement in feeding rampant individualised celebrity as if Australians should be proud of one who renounces his citizenship in order to extend his American holdings. And 2. The disgraceful "corporate narcissism" among senior office bearers of Christian churches that has been exposed world-wide for its Machiavellian loss of moral compass. Your suggestion that the resultant culture of greed "has little to do with religious belief" cannot be sustained; it is all about a mis-directed religious belief, an entrenched idolatry, that signals an inner apostasy of Christian churches. This should not be excluded from any Christian analysis of our current political co-responsibilities within the unfolding crisis of the West. Did not Rerum Novarum intimate a similar critique and Christian democratic challenge?

Bruce Wearne | 20 July 2017  

Yes, the neo-liberal push, now so triumphant with its growth agendas - for population increase, consumption excesses, and technologies that, among other pressures, seek to revolutionize society's perception of its future (eg as in Yuval Noah Harari's articulation of 'Homo Deus'.) All that missing in Kelly's writing together with a failure to even mention threats to civilization from environmental degradation.

Len Puglisi | 20 July 2017  

The commentary and so many of the responses remind me of Teilhard de Chardin's image (maybe it was a question): do we live as so many rising eddies on a descending current? What I like to think of as an anthropological faith seems to me the only hope of being liberated from the fatalism of the image. As individuals we need to ask ourselves what is really worthwhile in life, and this with the help of exemplars presented in history thus far. The current will continue to descend, such is science and entropy, but here and there is success (think) of the salmon in quest of prolonging life) and from there we might promote twos and threes to live justly with tenderness, and most of all with a humility that accepts that we have to wager on the worthwhile. Only in the end, one way or the other, will we know that this or that was the "ought to be of life".

Noel McMaster | 20 July 2017  

While I agree that the current state of political life here in Australia is in a sorry state with politicians of all sides seeming unable to speak or act in the public best interest this has little to do with the decline of Chritianity but rather the abuse of Christian ethics by politics leaders who claim faith but have little understanding of the teachings of Jesus . There is too much emphasis on dogma determined by church leaders and religious ideology and failure to understand scripture in the light of contemporary times. I agree with Andrew Hamilton that the major reason for disillusionment with politics is the failure of neo liberalism and press of today

Ray Cleary | 20 July 2017  

I've always found Paul Kelly and Andrew Hamilton's thoughts most informative and constructive. Not to say I always automatically agree but I'm challenged to think so bless them both. The 'narcissism' in current and immediate past, economic thinking is something I've grown up in and no doubt been moulded by. I reckon Christ's gospel challenge evident in the Sermon on the Mount and the living example of St Francis, become the go-to 'shining lights' to move us on from our self-centered selves and the pseudo-arms length greed-politics we vote for. Our tendency to tribalism seems to constantly dominate our public choices when the hip-nerve is threatened. Andrew's article is wonderful to me - as often the case. Pleased to read John (?Jack) Carmody's comments; and a little confused by John Frawley's offerings but bless them both. Robert Liddy....spot on!

Chris Halloway | 20 July 2017  

Greed is the the root cause of most of the problems plaguing the United States at this time. The current administration is intent on enriching the wealthiest at the expense of the poor and the most vulnerable members of society. The economically vulnerable are being "villified and punished." The actions and attitudes of many political leaders are not in harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ, yet they proudly proclaim their faith, and twist the teachings of the Bible to justify oppressing the poor, and assert their alleged moral superiority. This galling hypocrisy causes others to doubt the sincerity of all Christians, and even Christianity itself.

Janice Leilani Smith | 21 July 2017  

No Roy, Paul Kelly did not say that 'progressive morality' is based on reason. A few commas in the right places were needed in what I said. But neither did he say that it was based on 'appetite'. Are you really suggesting that the rest of us who don't accept your particular version of 'revelation and dogma' can have no basis for our morality other that 'appetite'?

Ginger Meggs | 21 July 2017  

It's not so much 'greed' per se Janice, after all it's been around for a long time, but rather institutionalised greed, the creed of the economic liberals, which is what, I think, Andrew was driving at, and is what was entirely missing from Paul Kelly's article.

Ginger Meggs | 21 July 2017  

Neo con it is. (I have not read the article; it is behind a paywall). Niall Ferguson in his first Reith lecture suggests that the success of the West, staring with England in 1688, was down to robust institutions. So, for example, we speak of the "Rule of Law". But the Rule of Law is becoming a "Rule of Lawyers". In other words, the compact between members of our society has been corrupted by the powerful no longer being answerable to a common ideal, which was monitored by regulations and enforcers - the neo con red tape. Alistair Mant in his book "Intelligent Leadership" - well worth a read - speaks of Binary and Ternary modes of operation of people. Binary mode is win-lose, master-slave. Ternary mode is purpose based, in which people work together to achieve a goal. I think these models are useful. Neo-cons have been destroying the ternary mode, because they only believe in win-lose. And society as a whole understands that the once robust institutions are no longer. Parliament politicised the public service, removing its purpose to give fearless advice. We expect politicians to make policy decisions, but why do they now make technical decisions - often against evidence - which are inadequate, because they do not listen to the engineers and scientists and others on the ground? The purpose that some policies are pursued is to win by defeating the opposition - clearly Mant's binary mode - rather than working out what has to be done for our society to survive and sustain itself. The worst of the Church happens when binary mode dominates, such as protecting the institution from scandal; the best when it serves as the Body of Christ, a community caring for all whoever they are. People leave the church because it is no longer a community. I believe that where there is community, there is the church.

Peter Horan | 21 July 2017  

Thanks for stimulating and thoughtful article.

Name | 23 July 2017  

Spot on, Peter Horan! The law, the underwriter of Judeo-Christianity, sworn to protect all aspects of human life, individual freedom, societal cohesion and the guardiansship of public morality in Western Society, has become the great destroyer of its own societal principles. And all in the name of human rights!

john frawley | 25 July 2017  

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