CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Faith and Politics. Part 1.

Oct 17, 2006

The recent declaration by Labor MP and aspiring leader/PM Kevin Rudd that the left side of politics needs to capture the Christian vote, and that it is not the sole domain of the right, raises a number of issues.

I have written elsewhere about these matters, and can just summarise a few earlier remarks. God is of course neither left nor right, and no attempt should be made to force him into any political box. It would be idolatrous to do so.

As C.S. Lewis warned decades ago, there is always the danger of “Christianity and….”. We need to be wary of any sort of combination, be it, “Christianity and socialism” or “Christianity and conservatism” and so on.

The gospel simply cannot be tied down to any one ideology, political party or social theory.

Having said that, Christians do tend to align themselves along different parts of the political spectrum. But before going any further, perhaps a bit of background is in order for those not aware of some basics.

Definitions

The left/right division of course can be traced back to the French Revolution. Moderate and/or conservative royalists who supported the old regime sat on the right side of the Legislative Assembly, while the radicals occupied seats on the left.

Today those who are to the left of politics are generally keen on state intervention (from socialism to welfare state options) when it comes to economic matters, and critical of the free market. They tend to be critical of American foreign policy, tend to be pacifistic, tend to be anti-nuclear, and tend to champion various causes such as feminism, environmentalism, special rights for homosexuals, and so on. They are usually pro-choice in the abortion debate, and tend to look to UN and other bodies for solutions to international relations issues. As a whole, they are probably more secular as well.

The right generally supports capitalism, the use of force, limited government, emphasis on the individual, freedom and the market. They tend to be concerned about issues such as the legalisation of abortion, drugs, euthanasia, prostitution, pornography and the like. While they may not call for the ban of such things, certainly restriction is championed. Conservatives tend to want to conserve, and resist radical change for the sake of change. Better the devil you know than the devil you do not know. More often than not conservatives are religious.

The religious left therefore aligns itself with their secular counterparts on these various issues, while the religious right does the same with the conservative side of politics.

Fully liberal, or fully conservative

There is another interesting aspect to this political/religious spectrum. It is generally the case that those on the religious left tend to be theologically more liberal than those on the right. There are of course exceptions, but this is primarily the case. Thus theological liberalism and political liberalism tend to go together.

Conversely, the religious right tends, as a whole, to be more orthodox and conservative theologically speaking. It usually takes the Bible more seriously, and tends to adhere more to traditional Christian creeds and doctrines. Thus theological conservatism and political conservatism tend to go together.

As an example, most people admit that much of the Uniting Church in Australia has long ago gravitated to theological liberalism. (Conservatives within the denomination are both fighting this and considering whether they should pull out altogether.) It no longer takes many parts of the Bible seriously, and tends to have replaced an other-worldly evangelical gospel with a this-worldly program of social justice. Thus they champion homosexual rights, abortion rights, tend to be critical of the US and the war in Iraq, tend to oppose nuclear energy, tend to be anti-capitalism and big business, and so on. They are a clear example of the religious/political left, in other words.

Several other recent examples can be given. Australian columnist and resident atheist Philip Adams recently wrote a piece praising Kevin Rudd and his remarks on faith and politics. He maintained his atheism, but said he liked Rudd’s sort of Christian politics. Now Adams of course is of the radical left, so it is telling that although an atheist, he can find much good in where Rudd is coming from.

This tells us that the secular left does not so much hate all religion, just religion of the more conservative variety. It seems quite happy to jump into bed with religious folk if they share all the passion for the latest trendy leftwing causes.

Another example makes the same point. The Australian Democrats are quite a secular bunch, and they make clear their dislike of the religious right. Yet they were quite happy to have as a Senator a Uniting Church minister, because of his strong leftist views.

So again, the often-heard cries of the need for the separation of church and state by the secularists are not fully accurate. They do not seem to mind religion if it ties in with their radical political views. What they really dislike are believers who take their Bibles seriously, and have conservative theological and political leanings.

Thus most of the religious left have a different theological understanding than the religious right. Of course this is not the place to debate the merits of such theological positions. It is mentioned simply to help put this discussion into context. However, some of this will be teased out in a moment.

Back to Rudd

So what do we make of Kevin Rudd’s claims? Indeed, can anything conclusively be said as to whether either side of the political spectrum is more in line with biblical principles? Of course it depends on who you are talking to. The recent speeches and writings of Rudd give the impression that to be a true follower of Jesus, one must be on the left side of politics and oppose the Howard Government.

And of course those on the right would also claim to be the true followers of Jesus. Is there any way beyond this impasse? Are both sides right? Or wrong? Is one side more correct than the other? Or would a wise Christian position be to seek to occupy a middle ground, or a centrist political position?

Well, my reply will be admittedly biased. I suppose for sake of convenience, I can be said to belong to the religious right camp, although I have problems with such pigeon-holing, and am not happy with the term.

But I do tend to be on the right on most issues, after a stint on the radical left in my younger years. For what it is worth, my radical leftwing activism took place when I was a non-believer. Since becoming a follower of Jesus, I have rejected much of that leftist worldview. But that is just my story, and others may have an opposite scenario.

As I said at the outset, ultimately Christianity transcends all worldly political and ideological options. Yet we live in the world, and need to know how to relate our faith to the affairs of the day. That is why there is the religious right and the religious left.

So how can one assess the recent remarks of Rudd? Acknowledging my own conservative orientation, this is how I see it. Rudd makes much of the fact that (as he sees it), the religious right is mainly known for two things: it ignores social justice issues, and it concentrates on sexual issues.

That is a common complaint from the left – both secular and religious. Indeed, the Anglican Archbishop of Perth recently said just that; he claimed his own denomination was “hung up on sex”.

Is this true? In response to these charges, I would argue that if the religious right talks a lot about issues like human sexuality and the life issues, it is because they believe Scriptures also talks a lot about them. If Scripture seems to highlight these issues and take them seriously, then we should too.

The religious left will reply in two ways: no, the Bible does not emphasise these things (and that point can be debated). Or, yes, it does, but the bible also speaks a lot about the poor, injustice and the like. To which a conservative like myself might reply, yes, but the issue is not that the left is into social justice and the right is not. The issue is how best to deal with social injustice. Conservatives are also concerned about these issues, but tend to not see the solutions as being more state intervention, socialism, welfarism, and the like.

They will argue that for all its faults, the free market is doing a lot to help free many millions from poverty, to create wealth and jobs and opportunity, and to help most people make a go of it.

Of course this then becomes an economic debate, not a religious one. That is, both sides may want to help the poor, but they disagree on the best means to achieve this. Conservatives may not critique the capitalistic West a lot, because they may feel that despite many faults and mistakes, the free market is superior to the socialist alternatives. Conserve it, maybe improve it, but don’t destroy it, or replace it with some untried alternative. Indeed, conservatives would argue that the alternative has been tried, and been found wanting.

(The same can be said about so-called dictatorships around the world supported by the right. Conservatives can rightly argue that often when these rightwing governments are overthrown, the leftist replacement turns out to be just as bad, if not worse, than the original. Is a dictatorship of the left somehow better?)

Again, Christians can agree to disagree on these economic (and political) issues. But that is one way of responding to the charges of the religious left. We are concerned about social justice issues as well, but not in the same way and with the same understanding as they are.

That debate on the merits and demerits of capitalism has of course been going on for some time now, and will no doubt continue. I for one will not baptise capitalism and say it is the Christian system. But I can make a qualified defence of it as a believer, as I can make a qualified critique of leftist economic solutions, from a biblical perspective.

Part Two of this article can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2006/10/17/faith-and-politics-part-2/

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6 Responses to Faith and Politics. Part 1.

  • I also observe that those on the religious left tend to be theologically more liberal than those on the religious right. This fact in and of itself is enough to satisfy me as to the merits of the religious right/left spectrum. Theological liberalism begins with denying the authority of Scripture and the progression of such tends towards apostacy.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  • Bill,

    I’ve just discovered your website and while I haven’t delved too deeply into your postings yet, I’m interested to know what, if any, response you have made to Ted Baillieu’s stance on euthanasia and abortion. (I understand he is “pro” both.) My concern with many “conservative evangelical” Christians is that that are rusted on political conservatives, who’d never vote against the Liberals/Nationals. How would you advise Christians to vote in the forthcoming Vic state election?

    While I agree with your comment that conservatives do (I’d argue, “may”) have a concern for social justice, but that they differ from the “religious left” (your term) in their approach to dealing with injustice.

    However, I recall that at the time of the last federal election, the Saltshaker organisation distributed a guide to voting that listed the attitudes of various political parties to a range of political issues. (I’ll leave aside any comments on the value of such a checklist approach to determining one’s vote.) While there were a whole list of what one might loosely describe as “moral issues” (including several issues on which most political parties allow members a conscience vote), issues such as refugees/asylum seekers, unemployment, industrial relations (if my memory serves me well). Ignoring such issues, and campaigning on a narrow platform of moral issues, presents a distorted and narrow, and, I would argue, unbiblical, understanding of Christians’ political responsibilities. It also betrays not merely the impression that these issues are not to be addressed by the state (one possible ‘conservative’ defence of their omission; if so, why not put all one’s cards on the table?) but (what I think is more likely) that the issues don’t deserve consideration by Christians when deciding how to vote. (What if they are regarded as important issues by some/many Christians? Don’t they deserve to be informed of the parties’ stances on those too?)

    I would hope that Christian political discussions might move beyond arguing for the superiority of dictatorships of the left versus the right. Surely, “a plague on both their houses” should be our default (“normal”) attitude.

    Finally, I suggest that Christians begin to develop a more sophisticated understanding of Christian political attitudes, one that goes beyond “left/right” pigeon-holing. James Skillen’s “The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odd in the Public Square” provides a detailed and nuanced discussion and excellent evaluation of the range Christian political views in the USA that is worth very careful study.

    Geoff Wilson, Montrose VIC 

  • I find the whole idea of a separation of faith and politcs (ie separation of state and religion) as totally bizarre.

    Religion, if anything, is a belief system based on the existence of God and as such drives the fundamentals of what we believe, just as the alternatives are belief systems as well but based on the no-existence of God.

    So to try to separate the running of a country or state from what we fundamentally believe is not possible – whether we state it or not, our decisions are made on the basis of what our belief system is – so how can is be separated?

    Is that a circular argument or am I just dizzy with the ludicrousness of the separation of the state our beliefs?

    Garth Penglase

  • Thanks Garth
    Yes I need to write another article on what the phrase, “separation of church and state” actually means, going back to its historical origin in the US. And then another article on what we mean by extending the Lordship of Christ to all areas of life. Coming soon!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Geoff
    Good points indeed. As to Baillieu, he is in many ways like Kennett was: a leader of a “conservative” party, but often pushing for decidedly non-conservative positions. Thus the main political parties are mixed bags, with good and not so good folk in each.

    As to the November Victorian election, the options are not great. We know what Labor is about. The Liberals do not offer much of a conservative alternative, unfortunately. It may come down to opting for independents or smaller parties, eg. FF, CDP. Generally speaking, the Lib/Nats have more religious and conservative MPs, but that is not the only factor when deciding how to vote.

    As to the voting guide, some of that is answered in my article. Yes, it may be selective, but then again, what is the clear biblical position on, say, industrial relations? General principles can be appealed to, but is there one Christian position only on such an issue?

    And yes, I am aware of Skillen and others like him. I do not always agree with where they are coming from (how they apply the neo-Calvinist tradition to their political theory), but they do offer another perspective on the whole debate.

    Thanks for your thoughts,

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Geoff your final suggestion is one I strongly advocate. Since the importance of one’s vote in electing new officials can differ widely in how it is appropriated depending on the particular election candidacy and race, I feel it is imperative that Christians become knowledgeable about the political situation in their constituency and the values, stance and alliances of the candidates. To blindly vote any party, even Christian parties, is to put it mildy, ignorance. We are supposed to influence the world for good, but our vote is often nothing more than an economic or cultural vote, wherease it should be a spiritually motivated vote.

    I would add that while the weighting of the spiritual relevance of different issues is essentially a personal one, there are issues that are obviously scripturally more important, so I would defend an organisation such as Saltshakers advocating a vote based on their stated priorities. I personally do not allow my vote to be used to elect people who have taken a strong stance on what I would call anti-Christian issues, such as Ted Baillieu, and now former Liberal MP Steve Pringle. I believe that there are some over-riding Christian issues that must be prioritised and proclaimed as such by Christian leaders and organisations as well as by us individually.

    All the more reason that Chrisitans should have some forum to disussion the priorities of political, social and moral issues in light of the scriptures.

    Garth Penglase

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