I have written often about the intersection of faith and politics, and how Christianity might fit into the world of partisan politics. And I have written often about Christian politicians, both here and overseas. All this becomes even more pronounced given our brand-new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.
Much to the chagrin of many on the secular left, he is the first ever Protestant evangelical Christian running the country. And worse yet (at least in the eyes of some), he is a Pentecostal to boot. He regularly attends the Horizon Pentecostal mega-church in Sydney’s south.
Yes, we have had other politicians who were/are Protestant evangelicals. Think of John Anderson who was the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party from 1999 to 2005, or Peter Costello who served as Treasurer in the Howard Government from 1996 to 2007. Many other evangelicals served various roles in government.
But now we have an evangelical and a Pentecostal sitting in the Lodge. That will be just too much for many on the left and many who despise religion – at least of the conservative variety. But their complaints will be nothing new: they have long moaned about the Christian presence in Parliament.
Recall back in 2007 when the leader of the Australian Democrats, Lyn Allison, complained that there were too many Christians in Parliament and that they didn’t reflect the rest of the nation. Given that back then, as today, the majority of Australians still identify as Christians, that was a rather foolish thing to say.
And for those who want religion never to intersect with politics, things are now even worse. Not only is Morrison decidedly religious, but for the first time ever we have a Jewish Deputy Liberal leader. So the top two jobs have a clear religious ring to them.
As to Morrison, now that he is our Prime Minister, everyone wants to know all about his faith. He has never tried to hide or downplay his Christian beliefs. In his February 14, 2008 maiden speech to Parliament he sought to spell out his faith convictions. He said in part:
Growing up in a Christian home, I made a commitment to my faith at an early age and have been greatly assisted by the pastoral work of many dedicated church leaders, in particular the Reverend Ray Green and pastors Brian Houston and Leigh Coleman. My personal faith in Jesus Christ is not a political agenda. As Lincoln said, our task is not to claim whether God is on our side but to pray earnestly that we are on His. For me, faith is personal, but the implications are social—as personal and social responsibility are at the heart of the Christian message.
In recent times it has become fashionable to negatively stereotype those who profess their Christian faith in public life as ‘extreme’ and to suggest that such faith has no place in the political debate of this country. This presents a significant challenge for those of us, like my colleague, who seek to follow the example of William Wilberforce or Desmond Tutu, to name just two. These leaders stood for the immutable truths and principles of the Christian faith. They transformed their nations and, indeed, the world in the process. More importantly, by following the convictions of their faith, they established and reinforced the principles of our liberal democracy upon which our own nation is built.
Australia is not a secular country—it is a free country. This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society. As US Senator Joe Lieberman said, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not from religion. I believe the same is true in this country.
So what values do I derive from my faith? My answer comes from Jeremiah, chapter 9:24: “… I am the Lord who exercises loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things, declares the Lord.”
From my faith I derive the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfil their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way, including diminishing their personal responsibility for their own wellbeing; and to do what is right, to respect the rule of law, the sanctity of human life and the moral integrity of marriage and the family. We must recognise an unchanging and absolute standard of what is good and what is evil. Desmond Tutu put it this way: “… we expect Christians … to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.”
These are my principles. My vision for Australia is for a nation that is strong, prosperous and generous: strong in our values and our freedoms, strong in our family and community life, strong in our sense of nationhood and in the institutions that protect and preserve our democracy; prosperous in our enterprise and the careful stewardship of our opportunities, our natural environment and our resources; and, above all, generous in spirit, to share our good fortune with others, both at home and overseas, out of compassion and a desire for justice.
There he tried to walk the fine line between appearing to be “too religious” and demonstrating the place of faith in public life. He of course did not quote John 3:16 and demand that everyone convert to Christianity. He is not a theonomist, and he recognises that faith in a secular culture has a rather uneasy relationship.
And that has always been the case. How far does one go, especially when conflicts arise between faith commitments and serving the will of the people? This can often be a tough ask for people of faith in public office. Mind you, even secular politicians have to at times decide if they will run with the will of the people or stick with their core convictions.
And that is also simply a problem of representative democracies. On the one hand we look to strong leaders who will stand up for their convictions, and act on principle and not just political expediency. But on the other hand they are OUR representatives, and we expect them to represent what the people want – at least within reason.
The Christian politician especially feels this dilemma. How far do they go in pushing their own faith convictions (which I would argue are for the most part also good for the nation), and when do they have to leave them behind and allow the people – or the Party – to get what they want?
A great example of all this was the recent Parliamentary vote on marriage. In early December of last year, after the homosexual marriage plebiscite, Parliamentarians voted on the matter. How the “no camp” voted – or did not vote – is quite revealing.
Many of the ‘no’ politicians were Christians, but not all of them. And when it came time to vote, very few actually stood strong. Only four in fact voted against the bill:
And ten others abstained from the vote:
Bert van Manen
Why did so many on the ‘no’ side not vote? Well, they would say they were between a rock and a hard place. They were personally strongly against fake marriage, but they also were voted into office to represent their electorate. So what do you do when the two conflict? Which way do you go? Many of them felt that the best thing to do in that case was to simply not vote at all.
Thus Morrison and others abstained from voting, while some others in the ‘no’ group actually voted ‘yes’! For example, Peter Dutton opposed the redefinition of marriage throughout, but at the end he said that he would ‘respect the will of the people’ and he ended up voting for it.
So that is the dilemma for conservatives, especially Christian conservatives. Do you stick to what you know is right, even if the majority of your electorate thinks the opposite, or do you give up your convictions to respect the wishes of the people?
One Christian on the social media chastised Morrison for abstaining, citing Matthew 5:37 which says: “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” Well, that is true for the most part, but may not be the last word on how believers are to operate in the political arena.
As is so often said, politics is the ‘art of compromise’. And that is not always a bad thing. Often you do have to compromise somewhat to get a bill through, or to see some legislative outcome achieved. That is simply how politics in a democratic nation operates.
This may not be ideal, but really, what are the alternatives. A dictatorship is one option – but not one I would recommend. Another, as mentioned, is a form of theocracy where only laws based fully on biblical law are permitted. The problems of this should be obvious: should Australian law only feature legislation which includes stoning to death rebellious children and those caught in adultery?
Now, the discussion of how Old Testament law ties in with the New Testament, and how laws specific to ancient Israel tie in to modern pagan nations is a huge one. I will not enter into all that here. Suffice it to say that most believers recognise the binding nature of the moral law (eg., the Ten Commandments) while not seeing Israel’s civil laws (and penalties) as being binding on secular states today.
So my question remains: what does a strong Christian do when his core beliefs are challenged by a vote, a bill, or a party line, etc? There are different options here. Some would say that the best way forward is to flee the major parties and join a small Christian political party. That is one option, although the chances of any member of these parties getting elected is always going to be very slim indeed.
Another option is to join a smaller conservative party, which may also be based on Christian values, but does not present itself in that fashion, such as Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives. Again, electoral success is somewhat slim, but that is a legitimate option for many Christians.
Another major option is to stay in the two main parties and hope to have some real influence there. That of course is the path chosen by Morrison, Anderson, Costello and many other Christians over the years. These Protestant Christians have joined with many conservative Catholics like Abbott who have sought to do the same.
One can always ask just how far one can go in this direction. For example, one can ask just how much of a conservative Christian agenda was achieved when Abbott held the top job. This too is a very complex issue, and plenty of Christians will have differing views on this.
Some say we need to get even more involved, including having greater influence in local branches. Yes, getting more Christians into politics, and into Parliament, is one way to go. Again, just how effective all that will be can be a moot point.
Sure, as I said in my article yesterday, I am thrilled to see Turnbull gone, and things can only get better – at least to some extent – with someone like Morrison at the helm. But as I also said yesterday, there are many folks in the Federal Liberal Party who will NOT want to see the party regain a more conservative stance. Many are happy to keep pushing it to the left, as was Turnbull.
And as I recently said in another article, we have the problem of conservative Christian politicians not voting on key matters because they want to prolong their stay in Parliament. But as I said then, what is the point of having good conservatives and Christians in office if they keep voting the wrong way – or not at all – to ensure that they survive? Why seek to stay on if at key moments you will not stand up and be counted?
So these are just some of the problems we encounter when we have Christians trying to be salt and light and do some good in the political realm, all the while facing very real restraints, such as party platforms; colleagues of different persuasions; the will of the electorate; the need to sometimes compromise to achieve a good outcome further down the road; and so on.
None of this is easy, and it all can get quite complicated. And some believers, despairing of all this, will simply opt out. They will quite wrongly say that there is no point for Christians to have any involvement in politics, it is all Satan’s territory anyway, so just pull out and have nothing to do with it.
I do not buy that counsel of despair – and thankfully neither did other great Christian parliamentarians such as Wilberforce. God set up government, and he expects his people to be salt and light in it, as in every area of life. We should seek to extend the Lordship of Christ into the political arena, the social and cultural arenas, and so on.
Abstaining from all political involvement is not the biblical answer. But neither is putting all our faith and hope in politics, as I have so often said. Politics cannot save – only Christ can. But in a fallen world God has ordained the state, and he expects his people to have some godly influence there.
It will never be easy. That is why at the very least we must pray fervently for Morrison. He really is in a tough place right now. He, like all believers, are always in a tough place when involved in political life. But being the Prime Minister makes his task even more difficult.
And the secular left, be it in politics, the media, and elsewhere, will be baying for blood: Morrison’s blood. They will NOT want him to succeed, and they will do all they can to thwart him, undermine him, oppose him, and seek to remove him. So please pray for our new government.
Morrison will need the wisdom of Solomon, the boldness of Jeremiah, the mind of Paul, and the power of Christ as he seeks to lead Australia, yet also stay true to his core Christian beliefs and convictions. It will not be easy, and he will be strongly tempted to capitulate, to weaken, to go with the flow, and to water down that which matters.
Please pray for Scott Morrison.