Religion and Politics: A Sensible Comment

There is an astonishingly sensible comment on the Op-ed page of The Age today, by John Roskam, entitled “Politicians find religion a cross to bear”.

It is very interesting to read, especially in the light of criticisms of Tony Blair and the Church in relation to his reception into the Catholic Church (finally) just before Christmas (for interesting comment on that, see here and–even more interestingly–here).

Here are some snippets from Roskam’s article:

Tony Blair was right when a few weeks ago, on the eve of his conversion to Catholicism, he said that any British politician who talked about religion ran the risk of being regarded as a “nutter”. He drew a comparison with the United States where politicians were not afraid to discuss their faith…

In this country, a politician speaking about religion also faces the risk of something worse than being thought a nutter. It’s just as possible that anyone who admits that their religion influences the way they vote in parliament will be accused of being a dangerous theocrat intent on introducing the moral majority into Australia.

The evidence that a politician who talks about religion faces such a threat is widespread. It is obvious in the treatment of Tony Abbott, tagged by the Canberra press gallery as the “mad monk”, to the way the ABC has labelled Catholic social groups, such as Opus Dei, as semi-secret organisations.

There are a number of contradictions in the way that religion and politics is treated in Australia. The first is the inability of much of the media to appreciate that a secular viewpoint carries as many moral assumptions as does one determined on religious grounds…

It is impossible for anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, not to approach policy questions without some moral framework. Morality simply cannot be taken out of politics…

Separation of church and state does not mean, and was never intended to mean, that anyone with religious convictions was disqualified from participating in politics.

…So far Kevin Rudd has defied Tony Blair’s pronouncement. The new [Australian] Prime Minister has proved to be no less religious than his predecessor — if anything, Rudd has been more willing to talk about religion than was Howard, most notably in his description of himself as a Christian socialist.

Having made much of his Christianity during 2007, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, religion has on the Prime Minister’s policies during 2008.

Yes, it will be interesting. I believe that Rudd is more (or possibly less) than simply religious–he is possibly the first really theologically articulate prime minister Australia has ever had. Check this out, if you want proof.

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2 Responses to Religion and Politics: A Sensible Comment

  1. Tom in Vegas says:

    Many wonderful points are brought up in this post. Here, in the U.S., many political candidates speak freely of their religious propensities and affiliations. That is good but only to some extent. Fundamentalism – or neo-fundamentalism – guides a few of these potential public servants to do some rather illogical things (George Bush associates his decision to going to war with Iraq with some kind of devine revelation).

    In short, I agree completely that politicians should not be expected to secularize their morals just to please the irreligious. It’s politicos who practice some kind of a fundamentalist ideology that we have to watch out for. They often make very poor decisions that secularists use to validate their own agenda.

    Great post Schutz.

  2. Peregrinus says:

    “The effect which religion has” on the Prime Minister’s policies will only be noticed if, or when, it is controversial. But that will be just the tip of a large iceberg.

    As Roskam points out, politics and morality are inextricably linked. It is simply not possible to take political action without an explicit or implicit moral framework Secularists would be the first to object to any suggestion that only a religious person can be a moral person, and they would be quite right to make that objection. All politicians bring a moral framework to bear in the decisions they take. The important difference is not between theist and atheist politicians, but between those who talk about their moral framework and those who don’t.

    On the whole I prefer politicians who do talk about their moral framework to those who don’t; it helps to inform my vote.

    But, of course, in a western democracy, there is a substantial shared moral framework – shared by liberal and conservative politicians, shared by theist and atheist politicians. It puts the dignity of the individual at the center of political action, and sees the state as the servant of the individual, rather than the other way around. And, where a politicians religious convictions lead him to (say) oppose internment without trial, nobody sees that as “the effect which religion has”, even though that is precisely what it is. A religiously-inspired political stance will only be notices if it runs counter to the general political culture, and this will only be in a minority of instances.

    At first glance a large proportion of those instances will be seen to have some direct or tangential connection with sex – gay marriage, abortion, legalization of prostitution, etc. This is partly because (some) religious attitudes to sexuality are counter-cultural, but I believe it is mainly because our society, and our media in particular, are obsessed with sex. Religiously inspired political stances on the war in Iraq, or on workplace relations, are noted, but they don’t command anything like the same attention, and when people speak of “the effect which religion has” on a politician’s political stance, this is not what is normally in their minds.

    When people speak of religion and politics, they will quite often move quickly to specifics such as gay marriage. Quite frankly, this is a marginal issue. A society which legislates for divorce on unilateral demand, and which assimilates the status of cohabiting couples to that of married people, has already long since abandoned any aspiration to reflect Judeo-Christian conceptions of marriage in its legal institutions, and I don’t think the civil recognition of gay marriage, if it happens, will represent a significant new departure. Anyone who is seriously interested in how his religious beliefs affect Kevin Rudd’s policies is going to have to take a much broader view, and to pay attention to policy areas which are not normally considered to have any particular connection to religion.

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