Life Skills for an Age of Populist Rage

Populism is everywhere at the minute. It’s particularly pronounced in the rise of Trumpism and Hansonism, but is found on the left, the right and the centre whenever people seek to win over an audience with arguments that confirm the fears, biases and prejudices of that audience but fail to take account of the breadth and complexity of  the issue being addressed. And although I try my hardest to avoid it, I dare say that in the 400 odd posts in this blog, I may well have had occasions where I too have been guilty of populism.

Populism is ugly  because it posits simplistic solutions to genuine problems, and in the process people get hurt.  Here are eight principles that may  lead us to a better path.

1) Always read/dialogue with those who disagree with you with the intention of learning from them.

For many years of my life I read only those who saw the world through the same framework that I did, and surprise, surprise, the arguments of those I opposed seemed so fragile I almost felt pity for those who held them. When however I started to read the best representatives of the views in opposition to mine I discovered not only that they frequently possessed intellectual rigour but that they helped me see the issue more clearly.

2) Be critical of power, including  your own.

Some people have a rather benign view of power, assuming that people and institutions always act with purity of heart and mind. Others have a cynical view of power, assuming that those with power always use it in their own interests. The first approach yields uncritical trust in power that treats its favoured leaders as though they were Jesus himself, while the second yields a biting cynicism that can see nothing but the devil. Yet the world I live in is one in which people which human beings are neither all good or all bad. As Aleksander Solzenhytsen put it:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” The Gulag Archipelago

I expect those with power and the institutions the stand behind them to be capable of both misplaced self-interest and enlightened other-interest and to be capable of both at the same time. This demands that I be critical, recognising and exposing naked self-interest and praising genuinely good other-interest. It demands I do the same for myself, learning to practise the discipline of self-critique.

3) Listen to the affected

The most powerful moments of change and repentance in my life have come from listening to the stories of those who were most impacted by particular policies or practices. My views on refugees, indigenous well-being, poverty, sexuality and so much more have all changed as I’ve listened to the stories of those  who are marginalised, trodden down, and exploited. They taught me to  see the impacts of policies  and practices on real human beings and impart a wisdom that only those on the underside of an issue possess.

4) Remember that our most valuable institutions were hard won but easily lost

Some of our social institutions serve to do little more than entrench the power and the interests of the elites, but the central institutions of liberal democracy that provide the foundation for the ways we  live took centuries to develop. Yet they can be quickly lost to populism. Freedom of speech, conscience and religion; respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being; the rule of law; freedom of the press;  prohibitions on discrimination against people on the basis of their religion, sexuality or gender; and the like  should be protected with tenacity. This is why  I was alarmed by the recent outbursts of President Trump  declaring the press to be “the enemy of the people”  and declaring that the judges who struck down his  immigration laws were “bad judges”. By all means let us disagree with what the press  says  and launch legal challenges to  the judgements of courts, but when we start defaming the institutions themselves, we begin wandering down a very dangerous path

5) See the yearning that lies behind the rhetoric

It has been my experience that  behind deeply objectionable and offensive ideas/behaviours frequently lie yearnings  that are good.  For example, many of those clamouring for  harsh treatment of refugees are driven by a yearning  to live in a community that is safe and that feels like home.  These are good yearnings  and by identifying them  and honouring them it is often possible  to find a shared space that allows us to identify better ways to satisfy those yearnings.

6) It matters what you value and dream about

When we are faced with difficult choices, and particularly the choice between easy self-interest and the more difficult  pathways of love, generosity and grace,  it is our values and the kind of world we dream of belonging to that provide us with the fortitude to either take the more difficult pathway or surrender to self-interest.

7)  The right to have an opinion doesn’t make it a good opinion

Everybody has the right to their own opinions, beliefs and values,  but this does not mean all opinions are equally truthful.  People should always be treated with respect, but  ideas and argument should always be open to critique, evidence and debate  and we should not be afraid of saying that some arguments are simply weaker than others.

8)  We need respectful but robust debate

On any given issue we need to treat each other with respect, kindness and generosity, but at the same time we need to be able to disagree, to push each other on the merit of our arguments  and their consequences intended and unintended.  It is debate like this that exposes the weaknesses and fragility is of our arguments and enables us to  collectively embrace that which is strong.

These principles are of course easy to lay out, but more difficult to follow. Yet in this age of populist rage I think we need to work harder than ever  to live them out.




Same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

In an article published on the Moore College website Tony Payne argues that this election is different from any other in that the legalisation of same-sex marriage will threaten the freedom of Christians to proclaim the gospel. He does so with some humility, recognising that he may well be overstating the threat.

I think he most surely is. As I understand it, there are two sets of laws under which constraints could be placed upon Christian gospel proclamation: anti-discrimination laws (from which churches and other religious Organisations currently have exemptions) and laws on vilification. Neither of these will be affected by the legalising of same-sex marriage. It is already illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of sexual orientation and likewise it is illegal to incite hated or violence against others.

The push to recognise SSM reflects a changing societal attitude towards gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Where just two generations back same-sex relationships were criminalised and same-sex orientation was seen as a pathology, today same-sex orientation is considered a morally neutral variety of human sexuality and same-sex partnerships are celebrated as a way in which same-sex oriented people may find fulfilment.

In this context it is not surprising that Christians with a conservative view of sexuality will experience opposition and even hostility. The arguments against same-sex partnerships and for the freedom to discriminate against those in such relationships are increasingly seen as on a par with arguments for discrimination based on race and gender. We should not be surprised at pressure to remove or modify the current exemptions to the anti-discrimination act that are enjoyed by churches and other religious organisations.

As a society we will need to negotiate once more how to balance freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination. How do we preserve freedom of the religious conscience when it holds to things that are offensive to the conscience of most people in the community? How do we protect people from unfair discrimination when religious conscience demands what to many appears entirely unreasonable? This will be a difficult discussion and the more-so for churches as in the past we have been in a dominant position in society during such dialogues. In the argy-bargy of sorting this through there will inevitably be overreach on all sides. We will need grace, wisdom, generosity and a willingness to apply Jesus’s instruction that we remove the logs in our own eyes.

But none of this will be happening because of same-sex marriage. It will be happening because we live in a society that has rejected the notion that same-sex orientation is pathological and that same-sex partnerships are perverted.

Will company tax cuts benefit us?

On Q&A last Monday night assistant treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer tried to explain to a man on a very low income why it was better for the government to spend $50 billion providing tax cuts to companies than it was to provide tax cuts to low income earners. The argument essentially boiled down to this: lower tax rates will leave companies with more money to invest employing people. Or as a Treasury paper put it

For a small open economy, such as Australia, per capita income is determined by the level of its terms of trade, labour productivity, labour force participation and population. Australia’s terms of trade, labour force participation and population growth are expected to be flat or declining in the foreseeable future which implies any improvement in Australia’s living standards must be driven by a high level of labour productivity.

This paper shows a company income tax can do that…by lowering the before tax cost of capital. This encourages investment, which in turn increases the capital stock and labour productivity

At least that’s what economic models show. What about real-world experience? The Australia Institute has released a paper that suggests in a real world things don’t operate anything like the economic models suggest they should. Check out the charts below. They show that in Australia’s experience cutting company taxes has not produced the bonanzas that are promised. Figure 1 shows that there is very little correlation between company tax rate and the rate of economic growth.  Countries with the highest economic growth range from those with very low company tax through to very high company tax. Figure 4 shows how company tax rate and real GDP growth have tracked in Australia over time.  bizarrely, if anything, lower company tax rates been associated with lower growth in GDP.  Figure 3 shows that declining corporate tax rates have not led to an increase in real capital investment.




I’m not an economist  and there may well be explanations for these trends that is compatible with the notion that decreasing company tax rates is beneficial, but the Australian Institute is not alone in its argument. An article by economist Jim Stanford in March new Matilda suggests a similar result in Canada. Between 2007 and 2015 company tax in Canada was cut from 21% to 15%, an enormous cut by any measure. In the same period business investment flatlined as a proportion of GDP.

So if that $50 billion over the next 10 years is not actually producing any benefit to the wider economy, where is the money going, Hmmm…straight out of the pockets of the Australian public and into the bank accounts of shareholders. I reckon there are better ways we could use 50 billion bucks.

When the House fell silent. Question time, political theatre and the rights of vulnerable children

Question time in the Australian Parliament is political theatre at its best. The chamber is packed as each side tries to land a telling blow upon its opponent. Politicians jeer across the aisle; the Speaker tries to maintain a semblance of order; government members use questions as an excuse to pummel the opposition, frequently with scant regard for answering the question asked; opposition members call points of order, protesting that the question is not being answered.

And just occasionally, a question is asked that puts an end to the cacophony of ambition, and generates a silence reflecting the serious import of the questioner. Two days ago it came from Adam Bandt, the sole member of the Greens in the House of Representatives. Pointing to the refusal of doctors at the Melbourne Children’s Hospital to release children they were treating back into the detention centre on Nauru, he asked whether there were not better ways to prevent drownings at sea than locking up children in mental torture centres.

The Prime Minister rose and stated that he would give the question the serious answer it demanded. He then proceeded to do anything but this, suggesting that the policies supported by Adam Bandt had been tried, had seen 50,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat in three years, with up to 1500 deaths at sea. Over against this, the policy of the Coalition had been tried and tested and had stopped the flow of boats and therefore of deaths. The Prime Minister’s sombre and pained tones belied the politics that were being played out. The Greens policy on asylum seekers, which calls for a combined regional approach, has never been tried and tested. When in power the ALP did not provide a coherent effort to develop a regional solution that would see nations working together to process and settle refugees, but offered only piecemeal agreements that would allow them to offload asylum seekers to poorer countries in the region.

Unlike many I do not find Question Time disgraceful. It is one hour every sitting day that is about the game of politics, political theatre in which the aim is to best one’s opponent. I love the cut and thrust, to observe the political tactics employed and see who comes out on top, and enjoy the faux outrage thrown across the aisle. But two days ago in Canberra I left Question Time agreeing that yes it was disgraceful. Not because of the political theatre going on, but because for that one moment when the parliament fell silent and political theatre was put aside, the game of politics was not. When doctors feel they have to refuse to return children to government care because that “care” is abusive, surely it is a signal that something is very seriously wrong. We had the opportunity under a new Prime Minister to strike a new approach to the question of refugees and asylum seekers, but the Prime Minister’s answer revealed that our nation will continue to brutalise innocent people even though there are better options to be tried.

Wanted. Leaders with vision

In the past few years Australian foreign policy has been marked by an increasing isolationism when it comes to the exercise of “soft” power. We have opted out of our obligations to accept asylum seekers; slashed our foreign aid budget; and have proposed some of the weakest greenhouse emissions reduction targets of the industrialised world.

It is not simply that we have weakened performance in these areas, but that we lack vision for the part we can play in the construction of a better world. The world has a growing refugee crisis, yet rather than imagining what a solution might look like, we have obsessed over how can defend our borders against the very small number of asylum seekers that make their way here. Foreign aid represents one of the best investments in human well-being available to a government, yet rather than being inspired with the ways we could relieve human misery around the globe and create a better world, we applauded the government as it slashed aid on the basis that we needed the money for infrastructure in Australia. And when it comes to emission reduction targets there is virtually no talk about how we can decarbonise our economy over the next 50 to 70 years; rather simply a focus on how we can minimise the impact on our power bills and a search for the minimum targets we could takes to Paris.

We could be so much better than this. Imagine if we are asked what it would take for the world to provide protection to all the world’s refugees, and took it upon ourselves to agitate for this outcome. Imagine if we developed a comprehensive plan for assisting nations in our region to achieve their poverty reduction targets by given dates and then mobilised our country to this effort. Imagine if we took seriously the necessity of decarbonising our economy and developed a clear strategy for making it so.

It seems to me that we have targets without vision and that this is part of a broader malaise in our public life.

There are some glimmers of hope. NSW Premier Mike Baird is increasingly proving himself to be a leader who casts big vision. If he is allowed to do it, I think Malcolm Turnbull could do the same. And on the other side of politics there are a number who can cast big vision. I think we should demand it of them.

The Times They Are A-Changing…Being the Church in a Secular, Liberal, Pluralist Democracy.

(A longer article than normal)

The centuries from the Enlightenment until the present have seen the decline of Christendom and the rise of liberal, secular, pluralist democracies. They are “liberal” in that individuals possess rights that their fellow citizens and the state are obligated to respect; “secular” in that no religion is preferred by government nor is legislation formed on the basis of religious views; and “pluralist” in that citizens, organisations, and social institutions are free to pursue their own interests and values. This has dramatically reshaped the place of the church in society and societal expectations around virtue.

James Davison Hunter notes that

pluralism in its most basic expression is nothing more than a simultaneous presence of multiple cultures and those who inhabit those cultures… In most times and places in human history, pluralism was the exception to the rule; where it existed, it operated within the framework of a strong dominant culture. If one were part of a minority community, one understood the governing assumptions, conventions, and practices of social life and learned how to operate within them.… But pluralism today – at least in America – exists without a dominant culture, at least not one of overwhelming credibility or one that is beyond challenge… For the foreseeable future, the likelihood that any one culture could become dominant in the way that Protestantism in Christianity did in the past is not great.

Hunter (2010) To Change the World. The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford University Press

The shift to pluralism is represented in the diagram below.


The small circles represent the citizens that make up a community. In a homogenous society there is a dominant culture, represented in the diagram on the left by the thick circle that surrounds the smaller circles. It is the role of social institutions such as churches, schools, and government to embody the values of the dominant culture and to ensure people do not stray outside its boundaries. In a pluralist society the strong boundaries have evaporated, members of the society have different value sets and interests (represented by the arrows inside the circles) and the role of social institutions is not to keep people within particular cultural boundaries, but to facilitate the possibility for members of society to live their own values and interests. This can be a disorienting situation. We  want to find the cultural centre, but there is not one.

In a pluralist democracy the role of government is not to dictate values and behaviours, but to coordinate society such that: 1) the various actors are free to determine their own values and pursue their own interests without infringing upon the freedoms of others; 2) the various actors in society can work cooperatively towards a common good.

Hunter identifies four possible responses to this new state of affairs. First, those who see pluralism as a threat and seek to make the culture Christian once more. Second, those who seek to make the church relevant to the concerns of contemporary pluralistic culture, more often than not by getting involved in social justice issues. Third, those who seek to withdraw into an ideal/pure community. Fourth, his own prescription, which he refers to as “faithful presence”, by which he means a commitment to the biblical vision of shalom that is enacted by being fully present to God, to others, to our tasks (in which we join with others in our culture in fulfilling the creation mandate to be world-making), and to our spheres of influence.

Though there is no biblically mandated form of government, a Christian response to Australia’s polity is well accommodated by Baptist theologies of church and state. In a Baptist understanding, the conscience can be governed by no one but God. This limits the role of the state, for it should never seek to command conscience, that is, the religious beliefs and values of its citizens, but has a far more limited role of maintaining public order so that citizens can live by the dictates of their conscience.

Consistent with this, the reformed understanding in the Kuyperian tradition argues that within any society there are multiple spheres of responsibility, including the individual, the household, social institutions, and government. These are each accountable to God for their behaviours and values, and neither the state nor the church should position themselves as the representatives of God to whom others must answer.

In light of this Miroslav Volf’s reflections on engagement in the public sphere in a pluralist society are helpful.

1. Christ is God’s word and God’s lamb, come into the world for the good of all people, who are all God’s creatures and loved by God. Christian faith is therefore a “prophetic” faith that seeks to mend the world. An idle or redundant faith – a faith that does not seek to mend the world – is a seriously malfunctioning faith. Faith should be active in all spheres of life: education and arts, business and politics, communication and entertainment, and more.
2. Christ came to redeem the world by preaching, actively helping people, and dying a criminal’s death on behalf of the ungodly. In all aspects of his work, he was a bringer of grace. A coercive faith – a faith that seeks to impose itself and its wildlife on others through any form of coercion – is also seriously malfunctioning faith.
3. When it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others (as well as for oneself) and work toward their flourishing, so that life should go well for all and that all would learn how to lead their lives well. A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate.
4. Since the world is God’s creation and since the Word came to his own even if his own do not accept him (John 1:1), the proper stance of Christians toward the larger culture cannot that be that of unmitigated opposition or whole-scale transformation. A much more complex attitude is required – that of accepting, rejecting, learning from, transforming and subverting or putting to better uses various elements of an internally differentiated and rapidly changing culture.
5. Jesus Christ is described in the New Testament as a “faithful witness” (Rev 1:5) and his followers understood themselves as witnesses (e.g. Acts 5: 32). The way Christians work toward human flourishing is not by imposing on others their vision of human flourishing and the common good but by bearing witness to Christ, who embodies the good life.
6. Christ has not come with a blueprint for political arrangements; many kinds of political arrangements are compatible with the Christian faith, from monarchy to democracy. But in a pluralistic context, Christ’s command “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Put differently, Christians, even those who in their own religious views are exclusivists, ought to embrace pluralism as a political project

Volf (2011), A Public Faith. How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Brazos Press

Points 1 rules out withdrawal from the public space, points 2, 4, 5 and 6 rule out the attempt to coerce Christian values through legislation (ie the reChristianising project), while points 3 and 4 point us in the direction of Hunter’s concept of “faithful presence”.

What the Church Can Expect from the State

In a liberal, secular, pluralist democracy the state should ensure freedom of religion, that is, it should ensure that every religious group and their members are free to believe and practice their faith. To be a secular society does not mean the state makes no place for religion, but that it does not preference one religion over another or religion over no religion. In a healthy liberal, secular, pluralist society we would expect to see many expressions of religious faith.

The corollary of this, is that the church should not expect the state to discriminate favourably towards it or unfavourably against it.

What the State Can Expect From the Church

The church is called to seek the flourishing of its community and does so on the understanding that the values of God’s kingdom represent the best way for humankind to flourish. In a secular, liberal, plural democracy this leaves the church with two instruments for engaging in the public space. First, the church has its public witness, in which by its words and deeds it encourages people toward the values of the kingdom of God. Secondly, the church has public advocacy, in which it calls on government to execute justice.

These two dimensions, advocacy and witness, should not be confused or conflated. The primary arena of the church’s contribution to a flourishing society will normally be through its witness in its words and deeds. Advocacy can play a critical and decisive role in securing flourishing, as the civil rights movement led by Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated, but we must be careful that in our advocacy we do not ask government to do that which is not its responsibility. It is not the role of government to coerce conscience and the church should not ask the government to do this. Advocacy therefore should focus upon justice while witness is the vehicle by which we promote virtue.

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