Kevin Rudd, Christian Socialism, and the New Labor Party

The new leader of Federal Labor, Kevin Rudd, is seeking to take his party in new directions, while holding on to older core values. Such an endeavour is always a tricky affair. He has to seek to please both the electorate and those of his own party, including the various political factions. Most importantly, he has to present to the public a new face of Labor that will be a vote-getter at the next Federal election.

Although it is still early days for the new leader, he has already made a number of policy pronouncements, reshuffled his front bench, and made some newsworthy remarks. For example, last week he came out quite strongly insisting he is not a socialist. “I am not a socialist. I have never been a socialist and I never will be a socialist,” he told the Thursday Melbourne Age. Socialism is “an arcane, 19th-century” doctrine which the Labor party should abandon, Rudd said.

Of course those who have been following Mr Rudd’s political career find his remarks curious at best, deceptive at worst. It was just three years ago when he declared himself “an old-fashioned Christian socialist”. And he has also cited Keir Hardie, a Scottish socialist and labour leader, as one of his heroes. So one has to insist, will the real Kevin Rudd please stand up.

Another political hero of Rudd is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has also declared war on socialism, and has attempted to take the UK in an economic third way. However, Blair is also a proud member of the Christian Socialist Movement in the UK, which is affiliated to the Labour Party.

Indeed, in seeking to portray himself as an Australian Tony Blair, Rudd has a number of problems and obstacles on his hands. His deputy, Julia Gillard, is a member of the soft left faction, and a former industrial relations lawyer. That old school way of thinking clashes with his decision to move ahead economically. Plus her strong pro-abortion stance may – or should – be problematic for Rudd’s Christian convictions.

And if he wants to emulate Blair, he will have other problems. Tony Blair recently declared that Britain’s experiment with multiculturalism is over. Yet here in Australia the Labor Party is claiming that multiculturalism is not in fact being abandoned.

Rudd still has almost a year to get things in order before the next election. He not only needs to get clear in his own mind where he wants to take Labor, but he has to get his own colleagues on side. Differences still loom large. For example, newly appointed environment minister Peter Garrett is already disagreeing with Rudd on uranium mining policy.

So his attempts to take Labor out of its socialist past and into a more modern world will be both challenging and difficult. Many old Labor members and MPs will hanker for the old days, so the new and untested leader will clearly have interesting days ahead.

Christian Socialism

It is worth providing a brief overview of the movement known as Christian Socialism. This movement emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in England and America. In the UK, men such as Frederick Denison Maurice, and Charles Kingsley encouraged the church and workers to stand against capitalism.

Maurice sought to formulate the movement’s beliefs in his book The Kingdom of Christ (1838), which became the theological basis of Christian Socialism. In the book Maurice argued that politics and religion are inseparable and that the church should be involved in addressing social questions. Maurice rejected individualism, with its competition and selfishness, and suggested a socialist alternative to the economic principles of laissez faire.

In the US a related movement was the Social Gospel movement. The social gospel was largely about bringing the kingdom of God on earth through social reform. It was generally felt that improvements in working conditions, helping the poor and the like, was in fact synonymous with the gospel itself. Indeed, telling people about sin and salvation was usually abandoned for improving social conditions. Walter Rauschenbusch, (1861-1918) was a leading figure in this movement. Two of his books spelled out the movement’s beliefs: Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917).

The rise of fundamentalist Christianity in the US was a result of a reaction to both this movement, and theological liberalism in the churches. Christians who were more conservative and biblical-based reacted to this watering down of the gospel to mere social action, and insisted that preaching about sin, salvation and the cross of Christ were essential components of the gospel. They tended to reduce the gospel to mere proclamation however, and left concerns about social justice to the theological liberals. The rise of the evangelical movement in the mid-twentieth century attempted to redress this imbalance, making both proclamation and social action – both word and deed – central to the biblical position.

Today many evangelical Christians are once again interested and involved in political and social concerns, with believers falling along all sides of the political spectrum, although the rightwing side of politics has tended to attract most Christian attention thus far.

Rudd, Faith and Politics

After the Howard re-election in 2004, and the rise of the faith-based Family First Party, some in the Federal Labor Party woke up to the fact that they would not easily get into office if they kept discounting and ignoring the large religious voting bloc. Rudd especially realised this, and called a meeting to discuss these issues early in 2005.

In an interesting interview aired on ABC TV’s Compass program on May 8, 2005, Rudd was interviewed about “The God Factor”. (The program was aired again tonight. The full transcript can be seen here: ) Some revealing statements were made in that interview. For example, while at one point he spoke of his position as being “centre-Left,” he was asked pointedly by interviewer Geraldine Doogue about his “Christian socialism.” Rudd did not for a moment suggest that this was an inappropriate title, but instead spoke of past heroes, including Christian Socialist Andrew Fisher, a former ALP Prime Minister from Queensland.

Also in the interview he repeated the mantra of the religious left in their attacks on the religious right, that there is more to the gospel than just “personal sexual morality”. Now I happen to belong to the so-called religious right, and I can state assuredly that my interests and passions are far greater than just this one area. Of course I am deeply concerned about abortion, the disintegration of the family, and the assault on marriage. They are all vital issues and worth being concerned about. But my concerns are much broader than just those. And this would be true of most of the religious right.

While he tried to make this distinction between the religious left and right on several occasions, one of those led to another very interesting remark. Here is the full comment: “What I’m saying is that the message of Christianity and politics is not just about questions of personal sexual morality. These are in fact questions which go to the heart and soul of our responsibility to our fellow man through the agency of the state.”

I have italicised that last phrase, as I think it is quite significant. While it was made a year and a half ago, and while Rudd may have changed his views since then, it is revealing that at the heart of the socialist paradigm is the belief that the state, not the individual, is the primary means of obtaining justice and procuring certain social goods.

I and my fellow conservatives couldn’t disagree more. We believe that the main means of achieving these ends is the individual, community groups, voluntary organisations, the church and other bodies. Yes there is a role for the state, but it should not be the first or foremost body. Historically it has been the Christian churches, and religious-based voluntary bodies that have done so much work in the area of social justice.

Thus it is surprising and disappointing to hear Rudd seem to imply that the state is primarily the agency of these activities. As I have said elsewhere, the right is also concerned about helping the poor and delivering social services. It just does not have unlimited faith in the state as the major means of delivering these goods, as the socialists do. And here at least it seems that Rudd shares in their statist views.

Assessing the Options

Now there is nothing wrong with Christians embracing leftwing political and economic views. Many Christians have and many will. Of course I differ with them on many points, as I have written about elsewhere. We may all agree that helping the poor is important, for example, but the best way to achieve this aim is a bone of contention.

I would argue that the approach of socialism is a failed approach. It has been tried and found wanting. Thus Rudd now seems to rightly reject it. But will his third way approach fare any better? This is a moot point. The Scandinavian – especially Swedish – model was an example of the third way, and it can be debated as to how successful they have been. The Swedes have recently elected a more conservative government, with promises to pull back the welfare state, and re-invigorate the economy.

As mentioned, Blair has been having problems attempting such a third way in Britain, and it looks like his attempts – along with his support for Bush on Iraq – is costing him dearly. Thus Rudd will find mixed messages when he looks to other nations and their attempts to steer a middle path.

At the moment he seems to be positioning himself in a very centrist position. Thus he has said that he too will be a strong ally and partner of the US, for example. He rightly knows that a radical leftist stance will be political suicide. So in many ways he will be seeking to out-Howard Howard on various social and cultural policies, especially family issues.

As a believer he will need wisdom and our prayers. Two political leaders who both have a more-or-less conservative disposition, and make public their faith commitments, will make for an interesting choice in next year’s election. We too will need wisdom and discernment as we wade through the policies and values of the two leaders in the months ahead.

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5 Replies to “Kevin Rudd, Christian Socialism, and the New Labor Party”

  1. Little discernment necessary Bill! I won’t be voting for a political party whose leader voted to make the abortion drug RU486 available (I know that Costello voted for this too and if he ever becomes leader then I won’t be voting Liberal either).

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  2. Thanks Ewan
    However, to their credit, both men did vote against the cloning bill. So they are a bit of a mixed bag on the life issues.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Wow – you found out about the Christian Socialist. Relating it to the US Social Gospel movment is drawing a very long bow. Maurice had it roots in Anglo-Catholicism – hence Christian Socialism had some anti-democratic traditons. You need to to read the Christian Socialists with free church tendencies like the Baptist John Clifford.

    Please note that te Christian Socialist get mention in Marxism frequenty. The get labled ‘ideal socialists.’

    Michael Boswell

  4. Wow…Without wanting to sound like a sychophant, that was brilliant! It was such a satisfying analysis and voiced the exact thoughts that have been hovering in the back of my mind about Rudd. And you said it with such a fairness and compassion and benefit-of-the-doubt kind of a slant as well. I’ve been arguing this issue with a Christian minister who actually knows Rudd personally from 20 years ago and struggled to put into words the gut level feeling that I have about Rudd in a way that he could understand. The thing that rings the alarm bells for me is that he called a meeting with the others to discuss the threat of the Christian Conservative vote. Forgive my skepticism, as I’m less charitable and optimistic here than you, but I can’t help wondering if the whole thing is not just a ploy to lure more votes rather than a real commitment on his behalf. As I said, I’m just wondering this and wouldn’t jump to any conclusions til I know more facts.
    Great site. And I will definitely be blogrolling you on mine.
    Dee Graf

  5. Thanks Bill, I have been very concerned with this idea of personal responsibility in labors’ religious right. Senator Conroy seems to be even more extreme in the idea of personal responsibility rather than a collective responsibility, new Christian labor will make the truth more “truthier”, a form or Christian Orwellian paternalistic censorship.

    My tribute to the new improved DLP Daniel Mannix channelling St. Kevin of the Lodge.

    Tim Anderson

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