Anthony Albanese

Why you should want all politicians to bring their religion (or lack of) to the table

Australia’s Opposition leader Anthony Albanese was interviewed this morning by ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly about revelations that Pentecostal Prime Minister Scott Morrison actually practices what his church preaches — even in the workplace.  This follows Peter Van Onselen’s piece in the Australian this week, an excerpt from his book by the ironically named Hachette Media. Van Onselen, at least, sought to understand how Pentecostal theology might inform some of Morrison’s positions — unlike the real hatchet job performed by Fairfax media which in a sort of dog whistly ‘expose’ styled manner, raised the spectre of a deranged PM worrying about how social media might be a tool of the devil, a piece built on a video of Morrison’s appearance at an ACC conference last week, and outlined as much as it possibly could about Morrison’s religious beliefs (without any particular understanding of the significance of his words and actions).

Here’s the transcript in full of the bit about Morrison’s religion from the Radio National interview.

KELLY: Anthony Albanese, can I ask you about the Prime Minister’s faith? Because it’s again a matter of public discourse. A video is out there, it’s emerged, of his address to the Australian Christian Churches National Conference recently where he spoke of how he is doing God’s work and how he sometimes uses the evangelical practice of laying on of hands while embracing people who have suffered trauma or natural disaster. Now, religion is a private matter. We’re a secular nation. The Prime Minister is giving speeches about his religion and his practice. Are you comfortable with that?
 
ALBANESE: I think you’ve given my answer in some of your question. For me, faith is a personal matter. I respect people’s own spiritual beliefs. But it’s also important that we have a separation here of church and state.
 
KELLY: And do we have that? I mean, the Prime Minister says he doesn’t consider The Bible to be a “policy handbook”. But he also spoke in this speech, or in recent times, of how his pastor told him to use what God has put in your hands, do what God has put in your heart. I mean, I’m not suggesting that speech had any policy content at all. But does it mean the Prime Minister needs to be more open and transparent about how evangelical Christianity influences his politics? Or is it private?
 
ALBANESE: Well, I have no intention of making comments on the Prime Minister’s faith. That is a matter for him. I think that the separation of church and state are important. I think that the idea that God is on any politician’s side is no more respectful than the idea that when someone’s sporting team wins it’s because of divine intervention. I think that, for me, that isn’t appropriate. But I’m not going to comment, and have no intention of commenting, on Scott Morrison’s personal faith.

I think it’s worth, as religious people — but also just as Australians — interrogating some of the claims made in that interview and checking where they might lead us.

First, in Kelly’s question (that Albanese says answers her own question) is the claim “Now, religion is a private matter. We’re a secular nation. The Prime Minister is giving speeches about his religion and his practice.”

Religion has almost never, in the history of the world, been a ‘private matter’ — that it is viewed as such is a product of a particular (and very contestable) understanding of what it means to be a “secular nation.”

Albo describes himself as “culturally religious” — he doesn’t attend church or have any sort of public faith (except when courting the Christian vote). This idea that religion is private has seeped into the fabric of religious conviction in Australia in ways that are profoundly damaging — especially to Christianity. That description alone makes him only marginally equipped to comment on how religion actually works — like a non-driver giving mechanical advice, or a non-coffee drinker who likes the smell of coffee working as a barista. I would hope that Albo, as a non-church goer, does not feel like he needs to pretend to be anything other — or to act without integrity — as he seeks to serve our nation and lead his party in developing its policy platform.

I’ll try to, briefly, make a case against this understanding of religion — particularly Christianity — but there’s plenty I’ve written in the past that makes the case with more substance. Here’s a bullet point summary.

  1. The Bible says humans are made in the image of God — while this has been vital to the development of western democracy and Australian values (as Scott Morrison said in his speech) in a bunch of really helpful ways (this is pretty established history, for an overview/version of this argument see Tom Holland’s Dominion), it’s actually also (more significantly) a description not just of what humans are but what humans are for — we are made to represent and rule over God’s world as reflections of God’s nature and rule in the world. This is, fundamentally, a public function, and a religious one. Religion, for Christians, was never meant to be private.
  2. The Bible makes this claim as the defining understanding of our humanity for the people who believe and live by the Bible in a contested world — the claim in Genesis is especially powerful for God’s people, Israel, when they’re captured and living in exile in Babylon (and also before exile, while they’re hanging out with people from other countries, and even in Rome). Babylon (like Egypt, Assyria, and Rome) has a national mythology that says the king — the ruler — of a military-dominion machine is the only ‘image of God’, and that people from other nations can be treated however you want; the Bible says people from all nations are ‘exiled’ from the life of God and this function as image bearers and so they should be loved and blessed, rather than destroyed.
  3. The civic life of nations for the vast majority of history, and still in many places around the world, is inherently religious, and this religiosity has always been inherently public. A nation’s shared religious framework is part of guaranteeing the social-political order; this is reinforced in architecture (church buildings, temples, political buildings incorporating religious imagery), cultic statues, national mythology and culture. It is a product of the multi-cultural/pluralist/global west — and to some extent the Protestant Reformation, that religious choice exists within nation states giving rise to the ‘separation of church and state’ and the idea of a secular sphere that is not controlled by the gods. .
  4. The Christian — like any other religious believer — is right to challenge the idea of ‘the secular realm’ if to acknowledge a secular realm is to create a space where God (or for other religious people, the gods) are somehow absent — to make such space is actually to deny the fundamental nature of God (the Christian God), or other gods as understood in other religions. Some part of ‘the secular’ is a recognition of the possibility of ‘no god’ or the contest between representatives of various truth claims about God.

To ask a religious person to operate as though ‘faith is private’ is to, essentially, ask them to operate without integrity — either to behave as though their fundamental beliefs about reality are not true or important, or to behave as though that truth depends on the belief and practice of others. The conditions of secularity arose more with an explosion in the number of possible beliefs within a nation — that needed to be accommodated — than the rise of non-belief; and yet the rise in non-belief is also part of the story (this is, in a nutshell, Charles Taylor’s thesis about secularism in its realist sense in A Secular Age (as opposed to the narrow sense in which it is used in this interview. Tom Holland, in Dominion, says secularism itself is a product of the Christian influence on the west; it is, as others have said “a Christian heresy.”

There are better ways to tackle politics in a pluralist/multi-faith secular context than to argue that people should act with no integrity between belief and practice by bifurcating themselves into public and private personas — especially if the very essence of religion — in this case being a ‘practicing Christian’ not just a western, cultural Christian secularist — is public.

If the Prime Minister is Christian I’d want to know about his religious beliefs in order to form a fully realised picture of the man — to get a sense of what integrity should look like for him, and what fruits his beliefs might produce in the public life of our nation as he serves in public office. This isn’t to say I agree with Morrison’s beliefs or practice, simply that he shouldn’t be punished for having them (much like with Folau and his tweets).

While it can be viewed this way — especially in a post-religious society that still has various aspects of previously public religiousity sprinkled through civic life (like the Lord’s Prayer in parliament), religion isn’t just a hat, a crucifix, or a hijab we pop on for special private occasions or when entering a ‘sacred space’ — it isn’t just a checkbox on the census, or a cultural affiliation, or set of private convictions with no bearing on actual life. It’s a prime motivator for behaviour — and thus — for politics, especially because it shapes one’s convictions about truth and goodness.

For people who believe in a God who is “almighty” (pretty rudimentary, credal, Christian belief), the “grounds of being” (pretty rudimentary monotheism), who for Christians is the one “in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being,” and who proclaim a political message that “Jesus is Lord” (by which we mean ruler of the earth and the heavens — every inch), religion touches every aspect of our life, public and private — and we kinda want people to know and understand that about us, and how that might motivate our actions as we seek to represent the God we believe in and worship.

Albo’s answer included the statement: “But it’s also important that we have a separation here of church and state.” 

And yes. This is important. It’s historically been important in western democracies after the Protestant Reformation because of sectarian favouritism, conflict, and competition. The reason we don’t have an established state religion (though our monarch is the head of the Anglican Church), or a religious test for office, is that all religions are equally valid in our state institutions, as is having no religion at all. It is important that we don’t say only those sanctioned by the Pope (Catholic) or the Queen via the Archbishop of Canterbury (Anglican), or any other religious leader can occupy roles in the government — but that isn’t to say that religious people should not act as religious people when participating in public life.

Kelly’s follow up question is a good one: “does it mean the Prime Minister needs to be more open and transparent about how evangelical Christianity influences his politics? Or is it private?” 

I believe Scott Morrison absolutely should be more open and transparent about how he integrates his faith and his policy because I believe this would make the motivations behind his good policy decisions clear, but also open him up to be more accountable (to a higher power perhaps) for policy decisions that don’t represent integrity between his religious beliefs and practice; or, it would at least help us to find religious beliefs and practices that align with our values as we seek to elect leaders who will govern with integrity. Personally, while I acknowledge the scourge of people smuggling, I find Australia’s treatment of refugees under Scott Morrison’s leadership appalling. Refugees are made in the same ‘image of God’ as the rest of us. When Scott Morrison says “It’s so important that we continue to reach out and let every Australian know that they are important, that they are significant. “Because we believe that they are created in the image of God.” — unless he also extends that importance and significance to every person still in detention in various forms, he is operating as more Babylonian than Christian — in that the Babylonians were very unlikely to see non-Babylonians as anything like image bearers of God. Nationalism, limiting the “image of God” to “every Australian” is not Christian — I’m sure Morrison would affirm the image bearing dignity of each refugee; I’m not sure a deterrence policy built on the dehumanising of others aligns with that affirmation though.

I’d love to see a robust application of the belief that all Australians are made in the image of God to our First Nations peoples — especially connected to the idea that God appointed people to be custodians of the land (and more than just lip service in the form of acknowledgements of country like the one he gave in his speech).

I’d like to see us think about how our nation’s natural resources might be used to uphold the dignity of all of us, not just be to accelerate the wealth gap between our richest and poorest people, especially I’d like to see it invested in improving the educational, economic, and health outcomes of our Indigenous population (and to see these changes improve the incarceration rates of Indigenous people, and so lower Indigenous deaths in custody). I have concerns about our role as image-bearing stewards of God’s world and the climate — made to co-create the conditions of life and flourishing.

I am concerned about many areas where I find it hard to reconcile Morrison’s policy platform with the teaching of Jesus and I’d like that to be fair game for critique, or at least engagement and theological disagreement to be expressed from the standpoint of different Christian traditions, rather than Morrison being able to conveniently push those public dimensions of the Kingdom of God into the private sphere — and I’d like people to be able to interrogate the way different theological systems produce different fruit and assess their truth and goodness on that basis.

While Albo wasn’t prepared to comment on Scomo’s faith — I think both of them should be accountable to the God they claim to worship (or religious affiliation or commitment they claim to have); and both of them should be scrutinised around areas of integrity — surely we want leaders whose ‘outer person’ matches the ‘inner person’ — who do lead from the heart and from the head, even while seeking to lead a nation where we all recognise that our government governs for people of many faith traditions, including those who have no faith tradition at all. To insist otherwise is to insist not on ‘secularism’ as the default position of the state, but de facto atheism. And to play that game — as a religious politician (or public) simply reinforces the same misunderstanding driving this series of questions, and objections, to Scott Morrison’s religious faith.

We’ve got to stop playing that game and start seeking to genuinely understand one another while genuinely seeking to live public lives of integrity.

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