A little while back somebody on Facebook suggested that I seemed to not like the Australian Christian Lobby but not say why. I thought that was odd, because I thought it was self evident. I don’t like the Australian Christian Lobby because by not talking about Jesus and talking about issues, they are presenting a message that is not the good news of grace, but the bad news of law and morality.
But that challenge got me thinking, as did a question raised on my last Christian/politics rant, asking whether I’m suggesting there’s no place for Christian lobbying. Other people have previously also suggested it seems by being opposed to the ACL, careful when it comes to trying to “protect marriage” by legislation, and wary of government funding for school chaplaincy, that I’m advocating some sort of political quietism. My answer to this suggestion has always been that I’m not pushing for quietism, but that I think we need to be careful with how we raise issues. I think our priority, in any public “Christian” statements, should be to be Christian. To be clear about the gospel, and not making the gospel unclear by adding layers of morality. As it stands, most Christian contributions to public debate are incoherent because of several fatal methodological and philosophical/theological flaws.
First, the ACL seems to me to be a modernist organisation speaking to a post-modern world. They’ve got no sense of needing to use narrative or stories, rather than proclamation of absolutes, in order to change people’s thinking. This is why it appears that the gay marriage issue is splitting a generation in the US, and in Australia. This is also where I think the ACL ultimately fails on the communication front – their proclamations of right and wrong are too abstracted from real life, they never show the human face of what they’re talking about, but rather engage in high fallutin logical arguments about where society will head if changes are made. People want to know how an issue will change life for them. The pro gay marriage lobby has made the issue all about real couples who are wanting their real love recognised by the government. We haven’t been able to combat that because our arguments are just “this is wrong therefore don’t do it,” or perhaps worse “(the) God (you don’t believe in) says this is wrong.” This is why I’ve argued elsewhere that not only is it important to show how a moral stance relates to the gospel, because that keeps the gospel clear, it’s also important to show how the moral stance comes from a cohesive and legitimate worldview. Otherwise we’re just playing politics like it’s a numbers game, and the numbers are going to change (I’ll get to this below).
Second, the ACL comes from a pseudo ecumenical standpoint, aiming to speak for all Christians. Which is problematic because while Christians might broadly agree about moral issues, they’ll have some pretty fundamental disagreements about the root cause, and how to fix it. So, for example, reformed Christians believe that all people are totally sinful, that sin is natural, and that choosing to follow God requires divine intervention, while Catholics have a much higher anthropology where people are essentially a blank slate, and can naturally choose to follow God. There’s no way we’re going to articulate the gospel the same way when we’re talking about issues – as we saw from George Pell’s appearance on Q&A. If the ACL’s stakeholders can’t actually agree on what the gospel, or the Christian message on moral issues is, then the so-called “Christian” case is never going to be clearly presented.
While most theists, even Muslims, will agree on issues of the sanctity of life, and sexual morality, once you chuck Christian in your name you’d want to start speaking from the points of common ground for all creedal churches, which means sticking to Jesus. The fact that Catholics and protestants, and even types of protestants (so your Liberals, your Arminians who have a slightly more Catholic understanding of human nature, your fundamentalists who want to enshrine Old Testament Laws) disagree so completely on what it means to be a human, and what it means to have a relationship to God, or to live as one of his people (ie a Christian), means anything beyond this common ground is going to become incredibly difficult to articulate in a convincing, cohesive and winsome manner. If the Australian Christian Lobby isn’t speaking about Jesus then they can’t really claim to be speaking for Australian Christians, after that point we’re a very broad church, so broad that even speaking about Jesus doesn’t necessarily represent those who claim the moniker. This the fundamental reason I don’t think an ecumenical approach to social action works – but I can see that in order to mount a convincing political argument in this poll driven iteration of politics, that suggesting you’ve got a big bunch of voters who vote in a block standing behind your statements is politically expedient and a good strategy for lobbying. Which again leads me to my next point…
Thirdly. I don’t think Christians should be lobbying. The role of special interest groups in distorting the political landscape, where better organised and funded activists produce non democratic results, is a blight on the modern system, no matter how well intentioned the lobbyists are. Decisions should be made on what is the right thing to do, on the strength of an argument, whether there is one voice behind it, or a thousand. By participating in lobbying we’re not speaking against a broken system, but using it for our own gains. We’re perpetuating the broken, market driven, approach to democracy, a system the social tide is slowly turning against. And it’s seriously going to come back to bite us – either if “lobbying” becomes vastly unpopular quickly, or if a well organised anti-Christian lobby led by people of my generation as they come into positions of power run a cleansing campaign to finally remove Christianity from public life in Australia.
The idea that Christians should somehow be using political clout, obtained through numbers, to enshrine our worldview, might seem appealing in the short term, but, given the two objections outlined above – namely that there’s a whole generation of people who are watching how the church does politics, and being turned off church, and a whole generation of people listening to what the Christian voice is saying, and not hearing the gospel, we should probably be rethinking how we do political engagement anyway.
I’d argue that employing the language of “lobbying” presents a really harmful message for the non-Christian. We don’t like the tobacco lobby. We don’t like the gun lobby. We don’t like the gay lobby. We don’t like the climate lobby. We don’t like people putting special interests ahead of the common good – which is exactly what “lobbying” implies, it speaks to a strategic organising of people to push their own agenda. It speaks of an unhelpful approach to power and the state which I don’t think is really consistent with the counter-cultural message of the gospel. Particularly for those in my camp, the reformed evangelical types, who think that human nature has been broken by sin, where sin is the natural state of affairs for all people, and the Holy Spirit is required for real change of behaviour, we’re never going to be starting from the same presuppositions as other people in society, and we’ve got to work harder at defending that worldview before legislating from it.
Lobbying isn’t adopting the old Christian maxim of speaking truth to power. It’s trying to speak power to power. It’s playing a numbers game, enforcing the idea that might makes right, that somehow a majority view is what should determine how legislation gets passed. How does this work when the numbers aren’t in our favour? Though the dictionary definitions are almost identical, I wonder why the ACL didn’t choose advocacy as a definition of its work, advocacy at the very least is free of some of the special interest baggage. Especially if our advocacy is framed as protecting the innocent (which we tried with gay marriage after the horse had bolted by arguing about children needing a mother and father – this was a good argument far too late, and on the wrong legislation). Advocacy would free us up to work a bit better with people we disagree with broadly but agree with on specific issues, because it’d be more issue driven than based on arguing for some mythical cross-denominational Christian unity. Scott Stephens, the editor of the ABC’s Religion and Christian Ethics page, gave a really insightful critique of this distinction, as it relates to the gay marriage debate, in a conversation with Steve Austin on mornings last week. I don’t think the answer he puts forward to how Christians should participate in public life is on the money, it’s a little too wishy-washy, and doesn’t start with Jesus, but his diagnosis of the problems in this debate are spot on.
So there, in three nutshells, is why I “don’t like the Australian Christian Lobby” and why, when well meaning members of the ACL (and they are all well meaning, and generally lovely people, who are generally interested in serving God and his kingdom) tell me that I should join the ACL and help them do better, I answer that I’d rather stand apart from them and do my bit to speak truth to the power they’re trying to wield. Basically their policies aren’t good for Australia in the long run, because they’re going to damage the church and the understanding of the gospel for the average Australian, and they’re employing a political methodology that I think is fundamentally antithetical to Christian witness. So I pretty much think the ACL should change every word in their name to something else.
If we are going to do social engagement well, and, as history demonstrates, I think Christians have an incredible role to play in the public sphere, then perhaps we should learn from our successful forbears, who relied on the strength of their argument, building support for change from the ground up, not relying on some powerful numbers play (Wilberforce), and relied on demonstrating a better way rather than simply telling people they were wrong (so the early Christians who cared for abandoned children, and the sick, in a way that made the empire feel guilty), who participated in the process of policy making from within the system rather than holding out the carrot and stick of a voting block (Wilberforce again). Or perhaps we should sacrificially seek out the minority groups who already feel vulnerable, showing that we love them, in a way that opens us up to persecution from the government rather than expects the government to bow to our whims (like, say, Jesus), rather than shouting from our lofty perches in a way that further alienates them from Jesus, who came to make broken people whole, by grace, and only through the Spirit, not by law and holding out the false hope that a moral life, other than the perfectly moral life of Jesus, counts for anything.