Tag Archives: partisan politics

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Christian, is there room in your church for an ____ voter? Would they feel welcome?

Our desire to verbal process the world, and our almost frictionless ability to process the world verbally in front of crowds of people on social media is a funny modern novelty. My wise old dad, he’s 60 soon, once said to me that for the vast majority of his life in ministry he’d have had no idea how his friends and ministry colleagues voted; politics just weren’t a thing that mixed with the pulpit.

How quaint, I thought.

And then I decided I’d dearly love to not know how a preacher votes. In a great twist of ironic fate, an article might come out elsewhere in a couple of days where I explain not ‘who I vote for’ but ‘how I vote’ (I’ve covered this in depth here previously). You may think you can guess how I vote from what I write, and what sort of moral matrix or grid I appear to filter things through, and that would, I think, represent a failure on my part. My prior training as a journalist, my career in a not-for-profit ‘apolitical’ lobby group, and my current vocation all require, I believe, a certain sort of objective detachment from the cut and thrust of party politics; a detachment that means it would be inappropriate for me to hold my job and be a member of a political party, or obviously partisan.

I’m not saying I’d love preachers and Christians to not be engaged in political issues — I’m with sociologist/theologian James Davison Hunter on the criticism of a modern attitude that leaves complex social and political issues to politicians and lawmaking; I’d love the church to be modelling an alternative vision for life together as the kingdom of God in this world, and for us to speak winsomely on political issues in the public square as ambassadors for Christ, trying hard to persuade our neighbours of the truth, goodness, and beauty of life with Jesus as king. I’d love us to be participating in, or creating, institutions that seek ‘political change’ or to impact the public, or commons, in positive ways as a way of loving our neighbours and testifying to the lordship of Jesus. I’d love us to speak widely, beyond just the few issues that seem to be identity markers for ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ politics to model what ‘Christ centred’ politics looks like; where there is no inch of life in this world that Jesus does not declare ‘mine!’

But I’m concerned, with James Davison Hunter, about ‘the culture wars’ (he coined the phrase back in 1991 in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America). He described these wars as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” and emerging from opposing “assumptions about how to order or lives – our own lives and our lives together in this society.” It’s fine to morally disagree with people, across political, philosophical, and religious lines — the art is figuring out how to live in disagreement, and listen to the other, without adopting a winner takes all approach to wiping out those who disagree with you. Our desire to wipe out the other, the ‘culture war’ is a product of a polarisation that treats ‘other’ as enemy, and then justifies their extermination, or forced conversion via the threat of excommunication or exclusion from ‘society’.

Here’s what Hunter wrote in 1991:

But there is still another factor that contributes to the polarisation of public discourse and the eclipse of the middle. The polarisation of contemporary public discourse is in fact intensified by and institutionalised through the very media by which that discussion takes place. It is through these media that public discourse acquires a life of its own; not only do the categories of public rhetoric become detached from the intentions of the speaker, they also overpower the subtleties of perspective and opinion of the vast majority of citizens who position themselves “somewhere in the middle” of these debates…

“Middling positions and the nuances of moral commitment, then, get played into the grid of opposing rhetorical extremes.”

The problem with this last bit is that if this grid exists, and people place themselves in a position to listen to voices that reinforce their particular cultural convictions (including a position on ‘the other’), then nothing that is said, whether extreme or ‘middling’ is ever heard properly, it simply reinforces the polarisation. This is damaging for society at large, but it is even more deleterious to the project of unity in Christ within a church community. Is it possible for a church in this cultural climate to be a place where individuals from the left and right come together in fellowship, in a way that allows both left and right — all our politics — to be transformed by our union with Christ, through the Spirit, shaped by the ethics of Jesus’ kingdom as revealed at the cross?

What makes this vision for church community even trickier is when Christians leaders, or individuals, adopt combative positions in the culture war in ways that alienate the other, or worse turn the ‘other’ into an ideological enemy to be defeated rather than embraced.

What also makes this difficult is where the ‘culture wars’, politics, and the media have gone since 1991. Hunter describes the general tone of public discourse, in 1991, pre-social media as: “…elitist, sensational, ambivalent, suspicious of new voices, and intensified and further polarised by the very media by which such discourse takes place.”

This was before social media, which exists to serve up users more of what they want, which tends to be ‘more of what they have expressed an interest in’ that the algorithm can measure, which tends to be ‘more of what they already think but packaged in more sensationalist and titillating ways that retain attention by amplifying feelings (especially feelings of outrage)’… The mass media was bad for polarisation — targeted, algorithmically driven, social media that fragments right down to the individual level is worse. I wrote a series about social media, outrage culture, and virtue back here. Especially when the sort of positions that Hunter suggests represent the majority, de-escalate polarisation, and cultivate virtue and civility, the “middling positions’ that involve nuance take time and attention and space to think and process were hard enough in traditional media contexts, but are anathema to our infinite scrolling through social media newsfeeds.

Mark Zuckerberg once described the ‘self interest’ at the heart of Facebook’s newsfeed by saying:

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

This is also why you’re likely to see more online about New Zealand than about religious killings in Nigeria; this is the algorithmically perfected editorial policy of most major commercial news services — such services exist not for civic good, but for profit. Our media platforms serve up stories that appeal to their audiences. It’s now on us, the public, to cultivate the sort of consumption of media, and lives, that de-escalate the culture wars — especially those of us in churches where we’re first focusing on relationships in church.

In a 2018 interview about where these wars have gone since Hunter coined the term, he said the cultural conflicts in this war have amplified and intensified, and this is because ‘culture’ is actually profoundly important — it sits upstream from politics and law because it shapes our moral imagination.

“That’s because culture is not a marginal concern, as many educated people profess to believe—even as they often espouse their own dogmatic cultural positions. Rather, culture is “about systems of meaning that help make sense of the world,” Mr. Hunter says, “why things are good, true and beautiful, or why things are not. Why things are right and wrong.” Culture “provides the moral foundation of a political order.”

It’s not just Hunter who predicted the culture wars in ways that seem prophetic now, especially with the addition of social media.

Back in 2006, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a prescient piece about the polarised nature of two-party politics, and how the two parties rely on such polarisation fuelled from within, and by a war footing of sorts, to continue to exist. This leads to the destruction of public, political, conversation — and especially shapes how we see ‘the other’.

“The flamers in the established parties tell themselves that their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious too. They rationalise their behaviour by insisting that circumstances have forced them to shelve their integrity for the good of the country. They imagine that once they have achieved victory through pulverising rhetoric they will return to the moderate and nuanced sensibilities they think they still possess.”

Sadly, he predicted what might happen if his invented ‘moderate coalition,’ the ‘McCain—Lieberman Party’ (Republican senator John McCain and Democrat senator Joe Lieberman), did not get ‘absorbed’ into the policy platform of one of the major parties. This was pre-Obama, and certainly pre-Trump.

“The McCain-Lieberman Party … sees two parties that depend on the culture war for internal cohesion and that make abortion a litmus test. It sees two traditions immobilized to trench warfare.

The McCain-Lieberman Party is emerging because the war with Islamic extremism, which opened new fissures and exacerbated old ones, will dominate the next five years as much as it has dominated the last five. It is emerging because of deep trends that are polarising our politics. It is emerging because social conservatives continue to pull the GOP rightward (look at how Representative Joe Schwarz, a moderate Republican, was defeated by a conservative rival in Michigan). It is emerging because highly educated secular liberals are pulling the Democrats upscale and to the left. (Lamont’s voters are rich, and 65 percent call themselves liberals, compared with 30 percent of Democrats nationwide.)

The history of third parties is that they get absorbed into one of the existing two, and that will probably happen here…

But amid the hurly-burly of the next few years… the old parties could become even more inflamed. Both could reject McCain-Liebermanism.

At that point things really get interesting.”

And, so, Brooks predicted Trump. The collapse of the political middle into a zero-sum culture war that sees the ‘other’ side as an enemy to be polarised, whoever or whatever the other side stands for. A politics filled with political actors who’ve lost touch with the ‘moderate and nuanced sensibilities’ that produce stability and a ‘commons’ of sorts between right and left, in exchange for an entrenched flame war.

And here we are 13 years on from Brook’s piece. And the flames are burning. And violent political language and battlelines being drawn begets violence in the real world. I highlight that link only because it was particularly pugilistic, and it appeared in my Facebook feed for no reason that I could fathom. You might say ‘that’s just hyperbole’ — but it’s hyperbole that fits a trend that has been recognised and described for some time, and while it’s the nature of the business of Aussie politics, with our two party system, for politics to involve a certain sort of adversarial ‘theatre’ and an ‘us v them’ mentality, in order to divide and conquer… that’s not the business of the Aussie church.

Political idealists, especially partisan ones, whether left, or right, are now turning on the centrists — those who try not to play the culture war, or who seek moderation in all things — idealists on the extremes are increasingly suggesting that to adopt a ‘neutral’ or ‘apolitical’ stance on an issue — to not speak or act — is to adopt the status quo. This is not just a new type of ‘culture war’ against the middle, which was previously just eclipsed (Hunter) or encompassed (Brooks). It’s a deliberate move to exclude the middle in the name of the greater ideological conflict between the poles.  It’s an insistence that to be moral one must pick side, and that to be a moderate is to attempt to sit on the fence on all things. It is to insist that the ‘other’ is evil or complicit, and to stay on the fence makes one complicit too. This classically works better from the left, who tend towards systemic views of evil, and to annoy the right, who tend to see evil as an individual, personal, choice — where if you aren’t making it, you aren’t evil… but that’s changing the more the conflict ramps up, the more there’s an apparently clear ‘us’ and ‘them’… Quite apart from this turn towards resentment of the moderate position being a damaging move when it comes to individual conscience (you ‘must’ choose a system that tells you how to think), and our creatureliness (we must act on every injustice to be moral, if to not act is to participate in evil), and our limited ability to know and form thoughtful positions on many, often competing issues (ideology is a nice shortcut to deal with this), these idealists would say (and do say) that to listen to the concerns of the ‘other side’ is to legitimise those concerns (not simply to see the ‘other’ as a human worthy of love, attention, and understanding). This move is a move to dehumanise or dismiss every other who does not share your convictions. Christian idealists of any variety — those who ‘baptise’ a particular political stance as representative of the kingdom — would have us eradicate political difference as part of the kingdom of God; this makes Christian ‘how to vote’ cards, from the left, or the right, very simple to produce because voting as a Christian, and participating in the polis as a Christianis quite simply a matter of adopting the ideological platform, and fighting the opponent. I think this approach is wrong for a bunch of reasons alluded to above — but I think it also reinforces the culture war by amping up polarisation — the way to minimise the rapid run to the poles is to resist those forces that fling us there. It’s to engage in careful listening; to pursue understanding, and to arrive at conviction making sure you’ve charitably understood the position of the other. This is where the best sort of disagreement is possible, the sort that actually has the possibility to persuade the other, not just to re-convict them of their prior convictions (in other words, it’s not just a more virtuous, less vicious, strategy, it’s also more effective). Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, talks about the polarisation of left and right and how each group tends to assess morality using different categories and frameworks that mean we often use the same words to talk past one another. He talks about how we humans are less purely rational and in control of our decision making than we might think, and how ‘wars’ and ‘tribalism’ feed our decision making instincts, which are profoundly ’emotional’ — he talks about our emotions as a rampaging elephant in our decision making and our reason as the rider trying to tug on some reigns.

He says, in The Righteous Mind, “the persuader’s goal should be to convey respect, warmth, and an openness to dialogue before stating one’s own case,” he says our inability to understand another person’s point of view, to see the world their way, is at the heart of the polarising force of our political ‘culture war’ — suggesting we should seek this as a baseline for political and moral conversations, or arguments.

“It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.”

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathise across a moral divide.

It is very difficult. Imagine being called to not just ’empathy’ but to ‘having the same mind’ or ‘the one mind’ or the ‘mind of Christ’ with people where there’s a moral or political divide (ala Philippians 2:1-11). Imagine having to navigate that! Haidt even envisages the goodness that such a community might bring to this fracturing world, he’s not specifically describing the church, although he kinda, sorta, is.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).

I think it’s very possible to be partisan and a Christian. I’ve often suggested one of the best things individual Christians can do to embrace James Davison Hunter’s motif of ‘faithful presence’ is join a, any, political party and then be part of policy discussions. I just don’t think the church — be it a denomination, institution, or local gathering — should be marked by a partisan approach to politics. And I fear, because I know how too many leaders of churches vote (both on the left, and on the right), that we are buying in to culture wars in a way that buys into the devil’s hands. The best form of Christian community is one where partisan Christians who are seeking to maintain a faithful presence in our political and cultural institutions shaped by convictions about Jesus and his kingdom, and personal convictions about how that plays out within and against these institutions, whether on the right or the left, can come together in fellowship in a way that models the way forward outside the community of believers — our ability to unite, to listen, to co-operate, and to disagree with one another with love and charity might be a beacon and a blessing to our neighbours. And yet, there seems to be no will to extricate ourselves from the culture wars — especially when it comes to the way Christian leaders (myself included) use social media. This is the sort of time when people say ‘you’re talking in generalities, prove it’ — and at this point I’d suggest that our denomination’s recent statement on abortion, while it adopts a position I agree with, had the unfortunate effect of equating a vote for or presence within the Labor Party as being a participant in evil, and I’d point to this cultural warrior, a Presbyterian minister, who wages the culture war in a media channel that is famously partisan, and I’d ask — could anyone outside the hard right comfortably attend a church where such views are linked inextricably to the pulpit?

Is this what we want?

I am certain that I’m perceived by many to be partisan when it comes to politics; I’ve been described by a dear Christian brother as ‘the left’s form of the ACL’. I felt misrepresented (if the interview I mentioned up top gets published you might see why), and like I was being interpreted through a particular grid, at that time, but I certainly do embrace issues and positions championed by the left (I’d like to think I also do that with the right). I’m distressed that taking a position, a political one, on an issue — even a moderate one — is seen as divisive and a reason for breaking fellowship. And I’ve experienced this as people exited our church community over my (and our) stance on the postal survey. Other friends who don’t buy in to the culture war have experienced a similar ‘exodus’ — these exoduses always end up creating little tribes within our church networks; little homogenous political communities, or demographics, that don’t have the opportunity to be the alternative polis modelling life across divides that we so desperately need. So I apologise and repent for those times when my rhetoric has fuelled partisan division, rather than calling us to a better conversation (note, I’m not apologising for convictions on issues, or for saying things people disagree with).

I fear that part of the alternative community that the church offers to the world is a community where people come together from different positions and backgrounds, with different convictions about political problems and solutions, and find unity in a king.

I fear that church is meant to be a community where people can belong and find their commitment to certain civic goods re-shaped, re-ordered, and transformed by the king — in ways that simultaneously affirm and invert good and not so good things about ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘centrist’ solutions.

I fear that the church is meant to be a place of re-imagining and re-imaging life in ways that might re-animate our political right, political centre, and political left, and yet we are a place that too often has our imagination co-opted by a political ideology from the world, rather than by the life, death, resurrection and rule of Jesus.

I fear that our rhetoric and culture war fighting as ministers, preachers, or vocally partisan Christian punters fuels the division of our society into tribes even as we call people to follow the king of the universe.

I fear that whether a church leader is known for being partisan in any political direction, that the climate that creates is a drawing in of people who agree with that stance, at the exclusion of those who disagree.

And yet, I am also hopeful.

I hope that church communities can emerge that are the sort of communities Haidt describes — committed to truth, and to listening to the other.

I hope that our churches might be communities that are not ‘apolitical’ or defined by a particular partisan outlook — but rather be models of places where people can come together finding unity in Christ and his kingdom, to be sent as ambassadors into the institutions and political parties of our world.

I hope that we can lead the way for our wider community who so desperately need models of rich, loving, disagreement and co-operation around what we hold in common.

I hope that we can practice listening not just to one another, but to our neighbours who are not like us — that we can model ‘loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.’

I hope that we can steer clear of playing the culture war and power politics game that so defines our civic life now, in favour of patient listening and the pursuit of nuance and wisdom.

I hope that we can look to voices not just explaining the cost of extremes, from the other side — ie listening to those voices we most naturally exclude, but also that we might listen to those voices who are pushing back against the idea that understanding the other is evil, unnecessary, or to be complicit in some horrid status quo (the status quo that conservatives are inherently seeking to uphold and defend).

I hope that we Christians can affirm that there are good things in creation, and in this status quo, things that have been hard won through the influence of Christians in our politics (both on the left and the right, and for progressives and conservatives). I hope that we can also admit that there are areas where progress towards our vision of the good, true, and beautiful — towards the kingdom of God, or shalom, are still possible and that the way forward isn’t simply to shift to maintain some vision of political utopia that we achieved in the past.

I hope that as well as listening to the voices we might normally exclude from our thinking — the voice of ‘the other’ — we might listen more to voices like James Davison Hunter who diagnosed and predicted this cultural problem almost thirty years ago. Here’s something he wrote in his more recent To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World:

 “It isn’t just the Constantinian temptation the church must repudiate but, more significantly, the orientation toward power that underwrites it. The proclivity toward domination and toward the politicisation of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supposed to offer.

A vision of the new city commons, rooted in a theology of faithful presence, certainly leads to a repudiation of ressentiment that defines so much of Christianity’s contemporary public witness.

Yet it also leads to a postpolitical view of power. It is not likely to happen, but it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilisation. This would not mean civic privatism but rather a season to learn how to engage the world in public differently and better.”

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12 Great ideas on Faith and Public Office

The Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s worth learning how to wrap your tongue around the multiple syllables, or trying to remember the acronym (CSSRS). It’s based at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland (where Queensland Theological College also resides), and is headed up by Dr Leigh Trevaskis. A top bloke with PhDs in science and theology. It’s aiming to provide an interface between the academic world and the classical Christian faith, and has regular events and a website that will (hopefully) have increasingly valuable content as these conferences take place and fill the digital airwaves (pixelwaves?) with content.

The Centre just held a conference on Faith and Public Office, I tagged along in my capacity as a member of the Presbyterian Church’s committee that thinks about the intersection between faith and public office (and to write a news story about the day that will maybe one day feature in the Eternity newspaper). I don’t want to steal the thunder of that story too much, but a 650 word news story (I can still write in less than 6,000 words) is bound to miss some goodness from the stellar line up of panelists. It was a terrific conference, and I’ll be keeping an eye on upcoming CSSRS events.

galileotrial
Image: The Trial of Galileo, a picture of faith and public office coming together in a possibly not so helpful way, and the banner image of the CSSRS.

1. A beneficial public square is a public square that hears all voices. A public square that silences dissenting voices and views, or establishes a common denominator that excludes richness is a path to catastrophe.

This was a sort of universally agreed upon point. Former Deputy PM John Anderson gave the opening speech, kicking off a theme that carried through the day. The public square benefits from people of faith bringing their views to the table – not just ‘natural law’ arguments or arguments based upon an agreed upon set of common assumptions – because hearing all views is vital to a liberal, secular, democracy. The suggestion that views need to be evidence based and speak only of things that everyone agrees on, especially when it is used to silence faith based voices, is not secular but secularist.

If only voices that speak according to an already established general consensus are allowed to be heard, then that consensus will never be able to shift. Anderson gave the example of voices from outside agreed upon norms that have achieved great change, and present examples that should be heard in order to provoke thought. He suggested William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and secular ethicist Peter Singer would all be ruled out of contributions to public life on the basis of the assumption that conversation must start with common agreement, rather than seek it.

In speaking of the need for a better public square, many of the contributors acknowledged the challenges presented by social media, as well as the tendency for people to shout down views they’re opposed to with increasingly vitriolic methods. But more on that below.

2. Public life, and public office, based on reason, evidence, and the rule of law alone is not enough to stoke the fires of the imagination.

We need a more comprehensive narrative and a fuller view of humanity that speaks to the heart and soul, not just the mind. The conference was co-sponsored by UQ’s Law School, and the head of the Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington opened the festivities with the observation that public life becomes soulless if it just emphasises the bones and foundation of the rule of law and rationality. If that’s all we have, she said:

“The aching of the soul finds no relief in secular politics; civic life has become a farcical drama”

Others observed that the imagination will only be fired if people in the public square introduce counter-narratives that both have a place for the use of the imagination and the heart, and fire those parts of our humanity up in the process. These aren’t exclusively the domain of the Christian, but the Christian has a pretty good story that’ll do this.

3. We need virtuous heroes to speak into this public square to remind us of what has shaped the good parts of where we are today.

It’s not really enough to just be a good political strategist. A few of the panelists, especially those closest to the political scene, moved the discussion about the ideal politician from someone bound by duty to represent the will of the public, to someone elected on the basis of virtue. Fiona Simpson spoke about virtuous servant leadership using Kathleen Patterson’s model of servant leadership, which lists the virtues as:

  1. agape love
  2. humility
  3. altruism
  4. vision
  5. trust
  6. empowerment
  7. service

I’m all for virtue ethics. I found her presentation interesting when it was paired with Michael Cooney’s presentation on The Faithful Partisan in Public Office. Cooney is Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and former speechwriter for Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He’s a church going, card carrying, member of the Labor movement. He talked about a few things but his basic thesis was that the pursuit of political neutrality, or fence sitting, doesn’t really serve anybody all that well. There’s a bit about the implications of this when it comes to commentators trying to appear objective below, but he suggested there’s a real moral challenge for partisan stakeholders when they’re participating in a party that requires holding to a party platform you might disagree with. There’s some interesting ground to unpack here on the Catholic roots of the Labor Party and its approach to ‘excommunication’ versus the Coalition’s less strident position on floor crossing outside cabinet. But Cooney spoke about the challenge of being a faithful partisan – in being both faithful to God and the Party – he talked about political martyrs, those who disagree with a party’s position, and walk away. He said it’s easy to find your way out of politics, with integrity via martyrdom. What’s harder is finding your way still in. Staying in the party. He discussed this harder way using a political dilemma, the Dirty Hands metaphor. This is for cases where a political actor is forced to choose between two bad options. Cooney doesn’t think martyrdom in the face of dirty hands is the best way to serve the public, or a partisan ideology. It’s not enough to just wash your hands of situations like this to avoid being confronted by the mess of structuring messy lives via politics. He quoted this article by Michael Walzer which posits a “suffering servant” leader as the ideal actor through messy dirty hands scenarios, one who knows they are sacrificing themselves and the cleanliness of their hands, for the sake of others. For Cooney (and Walzer), the virtuous partisan political decision maker navigates the dirty hands that come from being involved in the system by being someone of virtue, conviction, and conscience, someone who we can be confident acts as rightly as they can because when they do the wrong thing, they know and believe its a wrong thing, not the best thing. Importantly, Cooney made the point that the partisan doesn’t just operate on behalf of the party, but also the partial. He said “the party is not your city” – partisan participation in politics isn’t just a question of “right politics” but the “good society” and the way to really achieve that, as a partisan, is via humility and repentance. Rather than opting for martyrdom, he suggested partisans should be penitents rather than saints. This is his picture of a political hero.

John Anderson’s vision of the virtuous political actor – the hero – is somewhat embodied by William Wilberforce (and the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury), but also drawn from a speech by Churchill. He loves the way Wilberforce approached politics seeking to bring about social good as the fruits of his faith, rather than detaching them in a secularist sense.

This is what it looks like to be remembered as a virtuous hero. Churchill’s hero, and Anderson’s, is mindful of history and speaks truth to people who are all too willing to forget history – in this context people who are wilfully ignorant of the fact that a liberal secular democracy – and all the things we love about the system – is, historically, the fruit of Christian principles about human dignity being applied to politics.

“One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. This culture is the embodiment of everything the people of that society hold dear: its religious faith, it’s heroes… when one generation no longer esteems it’s own heritage and fails to pass the torch to its children, it is saying in essence that the very foundational principles and experiences that make the society what it is are no longer valid. This leaves that generation without any sense of definition or direction, making them the fulfillment of Karl Marx’s dictum, ‘A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.’ What is required when this happens and the society has lost its way, is for leaders to arise who have. It forgotten the discarded legacy and who loves it with all their hearts. They can then become the voice of that lost generation, wooing an errant generation back to the faith of their fathers, back to the ancient foundations and bedrock values.” – Winston Churchill

What’s interesting, I think, is that all these models of talking about virtuous servant leadership talk a little around the example of Jesus, rather than self-consciously being shaped by the example of Jesus. As much as we need to keep acknowledging the gap between our leadership and Jesus’ perfect servant leadership, we are being transformed into his image, and we are united with him by the Spirit (this isn’t necessarily the lynchpin of Catholic theology, and Cooney, at least, was speaking as a Catholic). Jesus is the real virtuous suffering servant, who embodies the true forms of Patterson’s virtues and remembered human history perfectly, drawing on it in order to speak rightly. Anderson did make a bit of a deal about his political heroes consciously seeking to base their actions in the Gospel, and the imitation of Christ, but he turned to Churchill, rather than Jesus, to provide the framework.

In the panel at the end someone, I think the ABC’s Scott Stephens, made the comment that virtues are taught by example. By story. Not by rules and regulations. We need more people leading by example.

4. Winsome and thoughtful contributions that assume the validity of our faith based framework are necessary, because actions are shaped by ideology.

I think it’s interesting given point 2, above, and the desire expressed by the speakers for truth-speaking, virtuous political actors and a public sphere that accepts all voices, that so many Christian voices buy into secularist assumptions and speak into the public sphere using natural law arguments, or arguments devoid of soul, imagination, and an attempt to articulate the divine mind. We’ve accepted the secularist position as the secular position without challenging its assumptions. And now. It’s coming back to bite.

Dr Joel Harrison is a law lecturer at Macquarie University, he spoke about the problem this presents in the legal sphere, where jurists now reject any transcendent rationale for behaviour in the real world, the legal system is increasingly dismissive of reasons for behaviour that are not based on common assumptions, and (in a technical sense “more immanent”) evidence based (meaning empircal, science based or logic based) models, for human flourishing. Harrison cautioned that we need to find ways to speak into this world, but we also need to be modelling winsome alternative visions of the good that accommodate a sense of the transcendent. Part of the reason he gave for the legal system moving this way is how poorly such alternatives have been argued in the legal sphere, and in past cases. He suggested contributions that re-introduce, or assume, the validity of the Christian narrative might be a way forward. He suggested Nicholas Aroney’s presentation on The Role of Oaths in Public Office was a good example of what this might look like. It’ll be worth a read when it gets released or published.

5. We must match political arguments with an ‘eloquent life’ in public

Anderson quoted Wilberforce’s epitaph. Which I love.

“He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men.”

6. The media’s pursuit of ‘objectivity’ leaves the media commenting on and highlighting questions of political strategy rather than substance and issues (lest they be seen to take sides).

Cooney made this point as he spoke about the common belief that somehow fence-sitting or non-partisanship is somehow a greater good, or a more ethical and virtuous position. Cooney’s broader point was that rightness and wrongness can’t easily be assessed from a disinterested position or the centre. He suggested that in not actually digging to the bottom of issues (to avoid being accused of being partisan) the media has to comment on less substantial issues.

7. The media has a self interest in defining the public and reflecting the public’s views back at itself as a new orthodoxy. This process is dangerous.

Scott Stephens, from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal, gave a terrific presentation on the nature of the public, and the public press, and the public square. I hope it gets published somewhere because he crammed three hours worth of great content into 45 minutes. He outlined the process by which the press enlarged, empowered, hollowed out, and then dismembered the public. Here are a some of the questions he raised (and largely answered, though some of them remained questions, and a couple of the points he made that outline this story of the relationship between the media and the public. These are in quote marks to show they come from Scott, but they’re hastily typed notes, not verbatim.

The rise of the public happens alongside the rise of the media. The media never tires of repeating this story, because the media is the hero of the story. The heroic narrative is the story of the throwing off of the old order, the regime of monarchy and church. The press fuelled the revolution, then gradually took its modern form, where it became the medium by which common ideas were debated.

If the popular press is a plebiscite in permanence, then what happens is the press becomes the vehicle that extracts what people think, and turns around and tells people, “this is what you really think”… ?

The more people see themselves reflected in the public press, the more interested they become in the public press. In order for the popular press to be the popular press, the people need to become actors in the public square.

How does this help when it comes to issues that are extraordinarily complex? When you actually want expertise not populism?

This all led to opinion polling, which enshrines the plebiscite in permanence function. When polling started there was a rapid uptake by the public. People polled responded more than 80% of the time, but there was a slow uptake from the media. Now. 6-7% of people polled respond to polling requests, but the stories about opinion polls are the major drivers of stories.

8. Journalists have adopted cynicism as something intrinsic to the role of journalism, this is dangerous to the ‘public’

This is another part of the media story which explains why giving the press the role we have is a little dangerous to both those in public office, and those of us who make up their “public”…

Young journos who came of age during the cold war really wanted to get back into “muckraking” – not offering the sort of faith to public figures that they’d had in the past, but instead to view public officers with skepticism and distrust. Inspired by Watergate (and All The Presidents Men) the journalist became the modern hero. At the expense of the politicians. Keep tabs on how many ‘-gates’ we have these days as journalists hunt for their own version.

Cynicism became a journalistic virtue. Once you take cynicism and disrupt the big channels of communication, and begin to disaggregate the way people get their information, that’s the perfect storm. You’re supercharging it. It’s a climate of suspicion and doubt.

More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common. All journalists want their moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.

9. The church might have a role to play (along with an ethically minded public broadcaster) in shaping the public square in a way that is beneficial to society and especially for voices at the margins.

This was perhaps my favourite quote from my favourite presentation at the conference…

Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.

This is probably a good way of articulating a big question that I’ve been grappling with both in my own head, and in some recent posts. This is the virtuous and heroic thing for us to do, according to the views of public heroism outlined above, but it’s also the thing that will ensure we maintain a voice at the table even as the public shifts away from us.

10. Social media might be part of the solution. But it is dangerous.

A few speakers, both in their presentations and in the panel discussion at the end, expressed a sense of dismay about the state of the public square, and the way social media seems to be an amplified version of some of the problems with traditional media, where people angrily clamour at one another belting out screeds using keyboards that are sent to wide audiences via ubiquitous screens. There was a sense of optimism from some people that social media could be a game changer, and I believe it could be something the church (and the public broadcaster) use to play the role Stephens articulated above. But it’s a question of creating a platform that genuinely invites all voices to be heard, and that’s harder than it sounds. Cooney, who often belts out partisan opinion pieces in a couple of hours for the ABC’s The Drum, and a few others, acknowledged that there are heaps of online platforms that function just like Q&A, where people go hunting for an ideological champion. People on the panel generally agreed that The Conversation is a pretty good model of what this sort of platform looks like (even if it is a little high brow).

Michael Cooney reckoned the biggest game changer in social media is that it changes the way we receive content. It’s not the concentrated editorial policy of a publication with an agenda (and he, as a partisan, acknowledged there are commercial media outlets both sides expect favourable treatment from), but articles shared by friends and people you follow as trusted curators. I think this is certainly true if you can navigate the noise of Twitter. But Facebook is a little more pernicious. The “filter bubble” effect means you’re just as likely to become entrenched in your views on social media as you are in the mainstream (see this piece on coverage of the Israel v Palestine conflict in the newsfeed of various Facebook users), unless you deliberately give voice to people you disagree with, or who have a different perspective to you, and pay attention to them. This means combating the default settings of Facebook’s algorithm (and to an extent, Google’s search algorithms).

The question I wanted to ask the panel was:

Given that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says his social media platform functions with the underlying principle that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” and given online media is increasingly curated via algorithms that create this ‘filter bubble’ that are designed to give us what we want to see, how might we play the role Scott Stephens suggests as “keeper of the moral ecology” – the giving and protecting of voices, especially marginalized voices, in an age where new media exists in a ‘filter bubble’? What does this look like?

This, I think, is the question the church absolutely needs to grapple with if we want to play a significant role in the public square, and even, I think, if we want to have a voice in the public square into the future.

11. We need more silence. The Media (and social media) operate as Kierkegaardian “irresponsible speech”

Scott Stephens spoke about Kierkegaard’s (very negative) view of the press, and the sense that moral thought is something that comes through silence as a person considers what is right and true, not through simply speaking opinion without any responsibility or obligation being attached to your words. Both the media and social media function as noisy echo chambers that don’t give people the silence they need to consider moral questions, and worse, they simply entrench opinions people already hold (this is even more dangerous if the social media world is shaped by algorithms and filter bubbles, but Stephens didn’t get to speak much about that). He did speak about the problem with the media as typified by panel discussion shows…

The debate itself, the nature of the conversation, destroys the conversation. The way in which the conversation is had pulls down all sides. It’s about appealing to one’s constituents rather than persuading. All people do is appeal to their constituents so audiences now expect a champion to speak for their point of view well, not to be persuaded. WE don’t get the best versions of the arguments but cardboard cutouts. You already know what people are going to say. The point is that an already fractured audience can look at the panel and say “there’s my champion” and “there’s the person I love to hate”

12. Politics is a tricky business. And we need more people of character. More prayer. More understanding. And more politicians following the ‘golden rule’

In her opening address to the conference, the head of UQ’s Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington, talked about how people of faith in public office have come up with a common agreement about a golden rule that guides their contributions to public life. I tried to capture as much of this golden rule as I could, but I missed a couple of bits.

The Golden Rule involves always showing respect for the other, acknowledging the limits of one’s understanding, listening patiently, using precise language, trying to understand the experience that led to the other person’s views, looking for mutual agreement. Praying for leaders. Not using inflammatory words or derogatory names, not delighting in difficulties, not assaulting character or falsely assuming motives, not demonizing, not questioning the patriotism of others.

Derrington quoted a prayer from Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, as a prayer that is a model for how faithful office bearers might pray.

You who are over us,
You who are one of us,
You who are also within us,
May all see you-in me also.
May I prepare the way for you,
May I thank you for all
that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Give me a pure heart-that I may see you.
A humble heart-that I may hear you,
A heart of love-that I may serve you,
A heart of faith-that I may abide in you. Amen.

I like this. One thing I was reminded, hearing from various people engaged in public life, in various roles, in a most excellent conference, was that one way the church is meant to serve those who serve us — be they people of faith or otherwise — is through prayer. Faithful prayer because we have a virtuous suffering servant as our true king, who marks out our true citizenship, defines virtue by example, and calls us to live where we are as exiles who live good lives for the sake of our neighbours and enemies. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 2…

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”