Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Friday, March 03, 2006

Righting Religion

There is a lot of fear among the left about religious types. It's rarely made explicit but it's an undercurrent of an awful lot of writing about concerned leftys about the "rise of the religious right" and the threat this supposedly poses to Australia's generally secular government system.* There was an extremely revealing post by AnonymousLefty mid last year which is worth quoting in full (so sue me :):
Organised Religion
Finally, as we were on our way to MrsLefty's parents' house, we passed a hippy modern fundy church, filled with happy-clappy fundies on their big Saturday night out. And it reminded me of a fear I have sometimes regarding the culture wars.

Guys, the religious people are much better organised than we are.

They meet every Sunday. For hours at a time. They constantly talk about this stuff. And, whilst we think these sorts of issues are a matter of fairness and justice - they think they're about HEAVEN or HELL. Souls. Eternity. That's motivation.

But mainly, it's their being much better organised that scares me. What kind of agnostic gets up at 9am on Sunday to meet with other agnostics to confirm that we're not sure what we believe in at this point? None of us, that's who. Stubborn belief in a specific religion is always going to win out over stubborn non-committalness, I fear. The only thing we've got going for us is that we've got sex, violent video games, and logic/science on our side. Otherwise we'd be stuffed.

Rarely is the fear that secular leftists have of religious types so openly expressed. It's not a particularly rational or logical fear, despite his claim that atheists have a monopoly on rationality and logic, but it's a very widespread one.

How can I say that it's not a rational or logical fear? Surely the religious right is running the country! We're on a slippery slope to a theocracy here aren't we? Take La Trobe professor Denis Altman in The Age last week:
The real threat in contemporary Australia to secularism is revealed in Danna Vale's apology in Saturday's Age in which she positions "mainstream Australia" against "Muslim Australians", implicitly suggesting that "mainstream Australia" is de facto Christian. She and Costello voted on opposite sides on RU486, but the move to restrict abortions is only one of a long series of issues in which the threat to secularism comes from conservative Christians and their supporters within the Government.

The Government has frequently acknowledged Catholic and evangelical concerns in its appointments and policies.

And he goes on to give a huge number of concrete, material examples of Theocracy-lite laws being enacted by the present government at the behest of religious leaders. Uhhh, actually he cites precisely two before rambling on about random stuff unrelated to the point he was apparently trying to prove:
What sort of model of a secular state did the Government offer in appointing an archbishop as governor-general? The fate of that particular appointment was its own reward. Does Costello's own opposition to gay marriage accept that religious doctrines should not influence public policy?

The Governer General appointment is laughably unimportant. No one would have known the guys name if he hadn't said/believed some really dumb things about paedophilic priests. The gay marriage thing is a weak example of a Christian-imposed law. For one, as Andrew Sullivan wryly noted recently 'the one thing that can unite Muslims, Jews and Orthodox Christians is hatred of gay people', which is in direct contrast to Altman's point that Christian morality is opposed to the views of Muslims and antiethical to multiculturalism. More importantly, the law didn't actually do anything other than confirm the status quo and was really an attempted wedge to show Labor as being 'politically correct elites' out of touch with 'ordinary Australia' which is (according to the analysis at the time, but I can't actually google any stats) opposed to Gay marriage - probably more out of a residual conservative predjudice of the unknown than any Christian ethic.

But if I have to give the scaremongers one point, I spose I can give them that. But that's all. Australia is in no danger of becoming overrun by the religious right. In case he didn't notice, ministerial control over RU-486 was removed recently in the face of a campaign by vocal pro-life groups. Abortion is still (in practice) legal. Divorce is no fault. The last oppposition leader was an atheist (something you'd never see in the States). We're not gonna tell unmarried partners that they can't live with thier kids (the story is actually a bit less sensationalist, but still). Sodomy, alcohol, porn and prostitution are legal. And... I'm desperately trying to think of another issue on which there is the remotest possibility that theocratic laws could be enacted. The fact of the matter is that the government doesn't spend very much time legislating on hot button moral issues and on all the issues - save gay marriage - where they could, conceivably, anyone who is looking for signs of theocratic laws will be disappointed. And they won't just find an absence of 'Christian laws' they'll find an almost complete absence of meaningful debate. The secular-law side won, convincingly.

So the fear of the religious right and religious fundamentalism is unjustified from a practical perspective. If there is a 'enact religious laws' movement in Australia it's losing and it's not gaining more than the faintest hint of power. But it's unjustified from another perspective. Most Christian fundamentalists have no desire to try and get their morality turned into law. Before I continue I should also clear up the proper definition of a Christian Fundamentalism. It's belief in:
  • Inerrancy of the Scriptures
  • The virgin birth and the deity of Jesus
  • The doctrine of substitutionary atonement through God's grace and human faith
  • The bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • The authenticity of Christ's miracles

  • A definition which includes myself so I'm at least a bit qualified to speak on the issue. The New Testament does a pretty good job of establishing that a nation's laws are irrelevant to a person's morality. You can hardly imagine a society more hostile to the message that early Christians preached than one which regularly imprisoned, tortured, exiled and martyred believers. And yet there was no movement to change the nature of that authories. There was an injunction that 'it is better to obey god, rather than man' where laws directly stopped an individual from being a practicing Christian, but the other side of the coin - that the government should be used to actively promote Christian ethics - was completely absent. Romans 13 contains the fullest New Testament discussion of a Christian's relationship with government and it's pretty much an expansion what Jesus said ('render unto Caesar') - pay your taxes and obey the law (other than where they prevent religious belief, as explained elsewhere).

    My point is that there's no reason to be afraid of religious fundamentalism from a social policy perspective. It's a personal belief system which doesn't, in any way, mandate that practicioners attempt to enact their beliefs into law. There does exist in America a political movement - Dobson, Robertson et al. - which uses religion as a tool to gain political power. But that's a political, not a religious movement and there's no signs that it's gaining serious traction in this country.

    *Note that I am limiting my comments here purely to the Australian scene, obviously there's different situations in other countries.


    • Some thoughts from another "Christian fundamentalist" (I dislike the term fundamentalist because of the associations it has, but since you have defined it reasonably well, I will go along with your definition for the sake of debate):

      1. Political fundamentalism is not as big an electoral problem for the left as many of the left think it is. In South America, where Pentecostalism has been growing like wildfire over the past thirty years, research on voting behaviour found that while Pentecostal ministers tend to endorse conservative candidates and parties, their congregations actually vote for socialist candidates more often than not.

      2. Despite the high media profile of political fundatmentalism, political fundamentalism is at best marginal to the fundamentalist movement in Australia. Groups like Catch the Fire Ministries and Family First are regarded as oddballs and slightly nutty even by most fundamentalist Christians. Mainstream fundamentalist churches focused on winning over non-Christians understand that politics of any flavour is a turn off. Even when a church like Hillsong invites politicians along, it always invites one from each side (and conveniently ignores both Family First and the Fred Nile's Christian Democrats, who are both a little too daggy and unsuccessful for trendy and success oriented Hillsong).

      3. Many fundamentalists are actually in awe of the secular intellectual left. The latest trends in many bible colleges ape whatever was in vogue in the Arts faculties ten or fifteen years beforehand. At Tabor College in Melbourne's east, the big deal now is planting "post-colonial churches, as opposed to the trend for "post-modern" churches a year or two ago. Fortunately for the left, most of the students at places like Tabor College get summaries of these ideas that simplify them in the most flattering ways. My friend who is an elder in a self-described "post-modern" church says it is "post-modern" because they meet in a home and focus on relationships rather than programs. The attachment to labels like "post-modern" and now "post-colonial" is more to do with the aspirational intellectual cachet of these terms and the craving many fundamentalists have to be accepted as intellectually relevant.

      By Anonymous Former Blogger Joel, at 11:44 PM  

    • Hey, we athiests and agnostics can be oppositional to Christianity et al. if we want to (and there are some other points you have ignored, such as the increasing dominance of religious groups providing 'privatized' social services, welfare, housing, employment assistance, family planning etc etc).

      Although we are committed to liberalism and the idea that we can all get along and resolve our differences in the public sphere, we do have fairly serious differences of opinion after all. If nothing else, religions all focus on conversion of other citizens in a highly organised (if 'private' manner) to their point of view, and we have good reasons to desire the propagation and supremacy of OUR chosen meme by turn.

      By Blogger Communista, at 11:22 PM  

    • @Anthony
      "Although we are committed to liberalism and the idea that we can all get along and resolve our differences in the public sphere, we do have fairly serious differences of opinion after all. If nothing else, religions all focus on conversion of other citizens in a highly organised (if 'private' manner) to their point of view, and we have good reasons to desire the propagation and supremacy of OUR chosen meme by turn. "

      Absolutely, but debate the real issue (different beliefs) and don't try and create a bogey-man where none exists.

      Hello again :). No debate here. Agree with (1) & (2) and (3) is interesting.

      By Blogger Jeremy, at 7:06 PM  

    • Culturally, Australia is simply not fertile ground for a US-type grassroots conservative movement. Michelthwait and Wooldrige make a good case that the American experience is unique and not something for Australian progressives to lose sleep over.

      Still it's worth noting that Evangelicalism is the one growth religion in 'mainstream' Australia, and it's growing in areas which now discernibly vote Liberal (e.g. eastern Melbourne's married-with-kids mortgage belt).

      Australian evangelicalism also increasingly draws methods and material from the US - Dobson's books for instance are staples of Church and Christian bookshops in Melbourne. But like Jeremy pointed out it tends to cluster at the 'traditional values' end of the spectrum, away from aggressive activism. There's no constituency down here for a Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell figure, let alone a Patrick Henry college.

      Although you do see a lot of Messianic Judaic, creationist annd apologetic material floating around, again mostly of US origin.

      By Blogger John Lee, at 9:40 PM  

    • Joel - particularly on (1) & (2) - very well said. (I don't know about (3), not spending a whole lot of time with Bible college types...)

      By Blogger John Provis, at 9:55 PM  

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