I can’t be the only Christian who’s been told “Religion has no place in politics”. It’s a widely-held view, and one expressed to me most recently by a journalist from a national newspaper whilst interviewing me for the upcoming “Living with the Enemy” (“LWTE”).
Here in Australia there has been criticism of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Roman Catholicism interfering with his decision making.
I’d like to ask him: How many of your policies does your god disagree with, Mr Abbott? If the answer is ”none”, is he an elephant stamp or an estimable deity?
The religious justification of political acts sends a shiver down my spine.
Closer to home, in the trailer for the upcoming LWTE one of my conversation partners says, in a similar vein,
If people have religious objections, they can have those religious objections, but they can have them somewhere else.
The point of all this is clear. Religion, it is argued, should have no place in public debate. It ought to be excluded from the voices and opinions that are listened to as we come to make decisions on the big issues.
I want to take 4 posts to make some brief initial response to this basic position. My outline is this:
- It’s a rejection of democracy.
- It’s an alienation of a significant portion and of our population.
- It’s willfully blind to the great positive contribution Christianity in particular has had on Western society.
- It’s naïve about the biases and untested assumptions that every contributor to our public debate has.
I won’t be writing long essays, just the beginnings of the basic response to the position; some things to think about and some ideas about how to reply.
So first the most basic response.
To deny any voice, religious or otherwise, is a simple denial of democracy.
Western liberal democracies function under what I will refer to as the democratic contract. Most simply put, there is a contract between individuals in a democracy that accepts that we all get a say in our government in return for allowing that government to legislate in ways that we may not agree with. Our right to elect whoever we choose is also our implied to consent to submit to government by those that the majority choose to govern (in whatever way we, as a society, have decided that government will be elected). My implied consent to be prepared to be governed by someone with atheistic convictions which I do not agree with is the matching implied consent of my opponent to be prepared to be governed by someone with religious convictions.
And that’s the beauty of democracy. We may not like what someone believes, we may think that there is no logical or consistent basis for their beliefs, we may even think their position is dangerous, but we’ve all agreed to subject those beliefs and ideas to public debate and assessment rather than silence them. My right to be part of public debate and even influence government is my opponent’s right. When he seeks to remove my right he is actually undermining his own right.
Now there is always a risk in this. No-one needs reminding that Hitler came to power through the ballot box. But that’s the decision we’ve made together. Ideas we don’t agree with are rejected by public scrutiny and discussion but not by silencing and excluding them.
Further, it misunderstands the “secular” nature of Australia (and similar provisions in other countries). Here in Australia, s.116 of the Constitution states the following:
Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.
I think it’s safe to say that Tony Abbott hasn’t sought to establish a religion or impose religious observance. Yes, his religion may have influenced his opinions and our legislation but that’s a different matter (and one we’ll deal with in the 4th piece in this series). However, what our opponents in this debate are advocating is a form of religious test as a qualification for office. Now that’s ironic.
It comes down to this: as electors we’ve contracted with each other to decide things by election. Excluding any voice from that process, however much we might disagree with or dislike it, is to actually reject the process itself.