What's missing in Rudd-Abbott debate on faith in politics


Faith and politics debate begs deeper questionsIn a recent speech to a Young Liberals gathering Tony Abbott responded to Kevin Rudd. Mr. Rudd had written in the Monthly magazine about the relationship between Christian faith and politics. The speech also indicated that the debate on this issue will centralise the exigencies of politics, but leave in soft focus the logic of faith.

Mr Rudd used the example of the heroic German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to insist that Christian faith has a proper place in public life, and to claim authority for an approach that identifies the core of faith with Jesus’ commitment to the marginalised, vulnerable and oppressed. The Church’s function is "to give power to the powerless, voice to those who have none, and to point to the great silences in our national discourses where otherwise there are no natural advocates." He contrasts this view of the Church’s role with other approaches current in Australian public life.

From this perspective, he reflects on the debate in Australia between neo-liberals and progressives who focus respectively on the individual and the community. He identifies the present Government’s policies with the former, and claims that in its embrace of the Christian right it uses Christian faith for political purposes. He then offers a critique of government policies.

Mr. Abbott does not respond theoretically, but by critique. He claims that Mr. Rudd also uses Christian faith for political purposes by offering a view of Christianity tailored to support Labor policies. His view emphasises social morality, while neglecting issues of personal morality like abortion and stem cell research. He implies that the strong electoral support for the Coalition by church goers has inspired Mr. Rudd’s interest in Christian faith.

He also challenges Mr. Rudd to embody his rhetoric in policies, claiming that most Christian voters are concerned with issues of personal morality rather than with war or industrial relations. On issues like war and asylum seekers, there is no one view among Christians. They require a prudential, conscientious decision by politicians.

Both article and response show how Christian faith can be brought into political debate. In revealing the different ways in which politicians can use faith, they leave silent the ways in which Christian faith sees political life, and so how Christians might evaluate politicians’ claims. They do not explain why Christianity has a personal and social morality of a particular shape, why that morality includes social justice as well as charity, and what space Christian faith allows to conscience.

These questions demand a more complex account of Christian faith than that provided in Mr. Rudd’s emphasis on Jesus’ practice or in Mr Abbott’s emphasis on moral law. Such an account will recognise that God is the main actor. God loves the world and each human being in it, and wants a flourishing world in which the dignity of each person is respected. In a broken world, this means beginning with the most neglected. The life and death of Jesus Christ represent both a beginning of wholeness, and a way of life that expresses it.

Faith and politics debate begs deeper questionsThe vision of the world offered in Christian faith is based on God’s love for each human being. In this vision, it matters that in our personal lives we act as if each human life is precious. It also matters that our public policies and practices we also respect the value of each human life, beginning with the most neglected.

In Christian faith personal morality and social morality are woven together seamlessly. The details of a moral code are fleshed out by asking what is entailed by considering ourselves and all other human beings as equally precious. This is the premise on which, for example, opposition both to abortion and to the Iraq war is based.

Christian faith requires both personal charity and social justice. God wants the world to flourish in a way that benefits each human being, beginning with the weakest. Because institutionalised relationships are normally shaped in part by greed and fear, they form a world in which people are marginalised. To help the world to flourish, then, we need social policies that dealt with these distortions. Personal charity is indispensable, but is not enough.

Mr. Abbott and Mr. Rudd both appeal to the role of conscience. They agree in insisting that politicians must base their decisions on what they see as the common good, irrespective of the position taken by the churches. Mr. Rudd also invokes conscience when considering issues like abortion and embryonic research, while Mr. Abbott does so in respect of issues of war, industrial relations and social morality.

The place of conscience in Christian faith is complex. Conscience is the reasoned moral judgment we make about what we should do in particular situations. It is sovereign in the sense that we must do what we believe to be right. Acting conscientiously, however, guarantees that we act rightly. It does not mean that what we did was right or that it expressed what is entailed in the unique value of each human being. If we act in a way that regards the welfare of some human beings as expendable in the interests of others, our decision may be blameless. But it will be inconsistent with Christian faith. The fact that we then justify our decision theoretically does not make our theory a legitimate version of Christian faith. This is true both of both social and personal morality.

Politicians certainly must work within the framework of a secular society. We might also expect that they will commend their personal vision of the good society, and that if they are Christians, that this will be based on a conviction that each human being, beginning with the weakest, is precious.

It is good that Mr. Rudd has opened a discussion of the relationship between Christian faith and politics. It will be important that both sides of that relationship are represented accurately in the discussion.



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Existing comments

you will not convince people that deliberately torturing,shooting,bombing is equal to preventing social misery by humane surgical abortion.no similarity.
danny rose | 06 February 2007

A thought provoking piece. I think that what we see in the Abbott/Rudd commentaries is the increasing dichotomy we are also seeing in issues of Faith and Politics in the United States. I think many Christians (conservative or progressive) are continually identifying themselves by their respective responses to secular issues of social policy rather than their distinctive Christian identity. Put another way Christian politicians are willing to stress concerns shared in common between their personal religious conviction and their political party allegiance, whether this be an affirmation of pro-life policy by Abbott or an anti-workplace reform policy (in the interests of the marginalized or potential disadvantaged) by Rudd.

The classic writings of Bonhoeffer or H. Richard Niebuhr are no doubt receiving a resurgence of interest precisely because (and perhaps this is a little cynical) politicians are becoming significantly more savvy as to the way religious conviction can be turned into votes without compromising a political party ideology.

I think perhaps here we need to look for something more consistant on the part of politicians who are appropriating the rhetoric of religion. I think by appropriating various religious teachings to achieve a political end politicians need to ask themselves the question of whether their stance on behalf of religion is an appropriate and positive stance? Furthermore, is it a representative stance of their given faith community? Or the stance of a minority or vocal group within that community?

Bernard Doherty | 06 February 2007

Invading Iraq and killing innocent Iraqis was not, nor could ever be, justified under any definition of a 'just war'. Killing innocent unborn babies is a great tragedy. This does not mean that women who endure the termination of the of the lives of babies within their wombs are responsible, rather that SOCIETY has forced this action upon them. I agree with the author when he writes that 'In Christian faith personal morality and social morality are woven seamlessly together'.
Claude Rigney | 06 February 2007

How are issues of abortion and stem cell research questions of private morality? Surely both these issues represent the values of our society, in all their complexity. The fact that both are issues that evoke passionate debate surely shows they effect us as a community.

I am left with an uncomfortable feeling after reading this article. It is all very masculine. There does not appear to be space for women's ways of knowing and deciding on issues of morality and ethics. Conscience must be a matter of the heart and of passion as wel as the mind and the will.
Pushstorm | 06 February 2007

'The' Abbott is one big black pot calling a kettle black.

Either he is afflected with an emerging sign of Old Timers or he thinks that Joe Citizen is a fool as most pollies of his bent do.

Ninja | 06 February 2007

I usually enjoy Andrew Hamilton's writings, so I was somewhat disappointed that he seems to accept,
without question or qualification, the Church's official stance on abortion. Of course the Church should be concerned to ensure that each human life is treated as precious, beginning with the weakest, but it seems that with regard to abortion, the Church's concern also ends there! Most women who opt for abortion are NOT in a powerful, privileged postion - anything but. Some are in very vulnerable, disadvantaged situations. Some face a lifetime of unending work and possible heartache caring for a seriously ill or disabled child. In our society, even
bringing up "normal" children can cause you to become overworked, overstressed and socially isolated. In fact, I would say that Fr Hamilton's words about treating the
"welfare of some human beings as expendable in the interests of others" can more aptly be applied to how the Church hierarchy seems to regard parents!

Cathy Taggart | 07 February 2007

Your are right Danny Rose. There is no comparison between abortion and the Iraq War. Abortion is the greater sin by far - the deliberate State sanctioned murder of the innocent. No genuine Christian can condone abortion.
Ewan McDonald | 07 February 2007

The point I was trying to make (in my last post) was one that I think really needs to be made: that it's not enough to insist that abortion is wrong because the life within the woman is valuable and precious, it's also important to give women the message that THEIR lives are also valuable and precious! Of course, in Australia very few women have abortions because their lives are literally in danger, but surely
"life" in the fullest sense - the life which Jesus said he had come to bring - is much more than physical existence. Presumably, most women who consider abortion fear that having the child could mean their lives become an endless struggle to provide for their own and their child(ren)'s basic needs, or that the demands of a child - especially if the child is likely to have a serious disability - will mean the end of all the hopes and dreams they had for their life, and maybe even undermine their physical health, and so on.

In our society, which expects an awful lot from parents but gives them very little real help, support or recognition, these fears could often be well-grounded. I'm really asking that Church leaders take a more holistic view of this issue, and focus not just on the foetus/unborn child, but on the needs and well-being of the family that the child will be born into - and to be much more PRACTICAL in providing help! Is this too much to ask?

I often think that the only genuine Christian response to abortion is not to make it illegal, but to make it unnecessary!

P.S. I realise that if you print this I would have had rather a long "say" on this matter, but I think that it is vital that we look at this issue in a more holistic and REALISTIC light!
Cathy Taggart | 07 February 2007

Cathy, I agree with you on abortion especially your second last paragraph.."I often think that the only genuine Christian response to abortion is not to make it illegal, but to make it unnecessary!"...Another point I would like to make is, "who are we to judge others on their decisions on abortion" We are not in their shoes. Something about throwing stones comes to mind. Surely it is a matter of their conscience...
Patrick Sawyer | 07 February 2007

Like Cathy Taggert, I was disappointed in this contribution from Andrew Hamilton. I thought he was far too soft and accomodating of Abbott! For example, he described Abbott's response as a 'critique' of Rudd's reasoned essay, but for me it sounded more like the sort of moralising dogma which Abbott uses to impose his particular narrow version of morality on all of the rest of us. What irks me (and I suspect many others) about Abbott's religiosity is that it is all about controlling others less 'moral' than himself. In contrast, Rudd's religiosity seems to be about what drives him in assisting others less fortunate than himself. It is not Abbott's 'pro-life' position that irritates others, but his arrogant intent to impose his view on the rest of us.
Warwick Dilley | 07 February 2007

I am currently enrolled in a Masters Theology at ACU and am interested in reading this document
Joan Hendriks | 08 February 2007

I am gratified by the thoughtful responses to my article. I hope these reflections may carry on the conversation.
Doubtless this contribution, too, will be masculine. It is not easy to turn such qualities on and off. One of the advantages of this facility for discussion, though, is that it allows a variety of perspectives to find voice.
In my article, I distinguished between personal and social morality. I deliberately avoided speaking of private morality. In my understanding, to speak of persons implies that we are shaped by a network of connections and relationships, so that anything we want and do affects other people. We cannot then speak properly of a private morality.

I do find the difference between personal and social morality useful, because some moral issues like war affect society directly, while others are directly tied to our personal or domestic life. To distinguish them, of course, is not to suggest that one category is morally more significant than the other.
Many contributors focused on my sentence ‘This is the premise on which, for example, opposition both to abortion and to the Iraq war is based’. They took me to mean that I believed that abortion and the war against Iraq are both wrong and equally wrong. My argument was more limited than that.

I claimed that when churches oppose on moral grounds both abortion and the war against Iraq, they base their opposition to both in the belief that each human life is precious in God¹s sight. This fundamental belief is shared by Christian critics of their churches’ moral positions on abortion or war. The critics do not argue that human beings are expendable, but say that we can simultaneously recognise the value of each human life and approve of killing in particular circumstances.

In this discussion a couple of points have been raised to which I would like to return at greater length in future editions. The first is the assumption that to judge that some behaviour as wrong entails judging or condemning the person who does it. This assumption is common, and I regard it as deplorable. If we believe that abortion or making war is wrong, we should assume that those involved in these activities are acting in good conscience.

We should also enter sympathetically into the human predicament that leads people to act in this way. This is true of women who find abortion a moral necessity. It is also true of many wars, where it is the poor enlisted on each side who kill the poor. In both cases, blame is a much less appropriate response than a resolution to change society.

The basis for refraining from judging people is the basis for making judgments about right and wrong – the value of each human being. That is also the reason for assuming in public conversation that, even in the face of evidence, politicians mean what they say, and so for taking it seriously.
The second point concerns moral positions taken by churches. It is evident that members of churches often hold moral positions that diverge from that taught by their churches. What are we to make of that divergence?
In churches there are structures by which the implications of faith for living morally are spelled out. The validity of this teaching does not depend on the unanimous consent of the members, although widespread disagreement with it demands honest reflection.

I don’t find it helpful to speak of the ‘offical church position’, presumably in opposition to the grass roots or popular position, because the differences within communities are generally felt at each level of church life. Resolution of them requires serious and open reflection on the nature of the Gospel, not simply the replacement of one set of church officers by another.

Andrew Hamilton | 09 February 2007

Dear Danny,

Abortion is not deliberate? Strange statement, seeing all the red tape and appointments that have to be kept before this act is accomplished.

Whose misery? Certainly not the misery of the one who did not have an opportunity to draw breath, to partake in this grand mystery of living. Maybe, the misery you speak of is that of the selfish ones who do not want to share God's blessings with others, the aborted.

Thou shall not kill - has no caveat.
Hugh Girod | 09 February 2007

Thank you Andrew for taking the trouble to reply to our responses – I think it will certainly help to further the conversation. Since I was the one who used the term
“official Church stance", perhaps I
should explain why I felt a need to make this distinction. I realize there are differences of opinion at all levels, but my concern is that people at the grass-roots level (and especially women) have had NO input into the development of Church teaching over the centuries, and still have no real say.

This sometimes has caused the Church (i.e., the hierarchy) to seem completely out of touch with the realities of people’s lives, particularly with regard to issues around sexuality and reproduction.

What I find particular difficult and even painful is the feeling I often have that the two things which most define my life and my sense of who I am – my Christian faith (in the Catholic tradition) and my experience of family life – cannot be reconciled.

I totally agree that we need to resolve differences by serious and open reflection on the Gospels, but what I also hope and pray for is the recognition that when change is needed, God doesn’t always choose to go through the “correct channels”!

Cathy Taggart | 11 February 2007

Andrew, you make a very good point that to judge that some behaviour as wrong does not entail judging or condemning the person who does it. But as you say it is quite common.I would be interested to see your future writings on this issue.

Now see the very next entry from Hugh-"the selfish ones"! Sounds like a judgement to me. I also think Hugh that "thou shalt not kill" has mitigating circumstances as for instance in war as Andrew has pointed out or say someone in a desparately abusive position whose only way out would be to injure or even kill to escape.

I think we can be too black and white in our understanding of issues. Life is not usually that simple. We make decisions every day that are based on often conflicting information and in good faith we make what we think is the best one.

I am musing now, but should we even define abortion as wrong? What purpose does it serve? Perhaps if we concentrate on the positive instead of the negative no one would feel the need to abort as Cathy has already suggested.

In the end abortion is a solution to that person's "problem" (who cannot see any alternative) and as you say Andrew, we should not judge that person for using that solution in good conscience. What purpose does it serve to tell them you think it is wrong?
I think we should help people to make judgements but not tell them what judgement they should make. After all we have been given free will...

Patrick Sawyer | 12 February 2007

Pollies Please note::: "Better to be a Christian without saying it, then to proclaim it without being it"
Peg Saunders | 13 February 2007

Many thanks for your article Andy and for the stimulus that it has provided. I wish to say that we must broaden the discusison from "faith in politics" to "faith in life" - it is at the lived level of our beings when we meet and listen to each other openly that truth lives.
Barry Soraghan | 20 February 2007

When Rudd begins to take the welfare of the unemployed as seriously as the employed, I will begin to take him seriously
Invig | 28 April 2007

The article says...We might also expect that they will commend their personal vision of the good society, and that if they are Christians, that this will be based on a conviction that each human being, beginning with the weakest, is precious....................

What do they think that the Bible say.. In trying to have freedom there must be rules. our rules have been logic of what has worked through centuries of experience., and in our stupidity we have replaced it with our rights and discrimination under which we can do anything...

The bible says that there should NOT be sex before marriage or adultery, and we see that sexually transmitted diseases are also on the increase, and could this be because we now teach our children that it is ok to have sex when you are ready, and when you feel like it with as many people as you want.. could this be why the bible says no sex outside marriage, not with standing the millions of children who are born to different daddies, and who have no father image who in turn are more likely to end up on drugs and in courts.. Maybe, just maybe the bible knew what it was talking about, and that logic and experience of centuries of what works and what doesn't should not be thrown out for what seems to be destroying our society...
Only 30 years ago what was considered middle of the road is now counted as the far right... Christianity was considered good, health and normal and gave us more freedom, but now this thinking is now counted as the far right Christians. hmmm funny how we now have much more crime, hatred, bulling, and fear, I wonder why???
If we don't follow what the bible says and its morals, then how can we say that we are a Christian..
Gaye | 20 August 2007

As an atheist and an Australian, this does bother me. There is a growing number of Australians (as per last census) that express no faith as their religion. I don't like to see any potentially loaded morality questions like these when they can (and should)be made on a non-denominational humanist basis. Why resort to such a potential buffet such as the bible when we're supposed to be a secular democracy? Politicians should be very careful when they start wielding the sword of faith because it is a two edged blade. While christians may read this and argue, how would you, Rudd or Abbott feel if a Muslim held office and began referring to the koran for his take on morality? Or any religion that conflicts with yours? To run such a religiously diverese country as Australia, there really is no room for the people at the top to push theirs and alienate the others. I'm not saying give up your private belief but overt calls to faith potentially inflame an otherwise tolerant society.
Mark | 10 December 2007

Gaye - America is overwhelmingly the most fundamental practising Christian nation on Earth. And there are exceedingly high rates of murder, incarceration, hatred...

You oversimplify the issue to an alarming degree. There is so many complex interplays in our increasingly global society.

Say what you want about the decay of society but like anything, there's two sides. Women have far more rights then they did 50 let alone 200 years ago.
Mark | 10 December 2007

The only way to evaluate what a politician believes is not by listening to their rhetoric, but by looking at their voting record in parliament. Most of us know politicians all use words like candy floss but their voting record reveals what they really stand for.
Jan Butler | 09 June 2010


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