The day of the 2010 Federal Election I cast my vote then took my eight year old son to his soccer match. Lachlan’s team was made up of kids from the Christian school he attended, which meant the majority of the parents at his game that day were evangelical Christians. When conversation turned to the election I commented that I had voted for the Greens.
The response shocked me. Mouths dropped open and with exasperated voice a number of the parents asked how I could possibly have voted for the Greens. After all, they were in favour of same-sex marriage! I pointed out that they were also in favour of a strong international aid program at a time the major parties were reducing aid; that they were in favour of considerate treatment of refugees at a time when both major parties were playing some pretty ugly politics with refugees; and that on balance these things swung my vote. It didn’t help. In the eyes of some of these parents it was as though I had voted against God.
So, how should we vote? I see four patterns.
First, some vote purely out of tradition. Their parents voted Liberal and they vote Liberal. Always have, always will.
Second, some vote out of self-interest. Their vote will go to the party that they believe will put money in their pocket and public services at their disposal.
Third, some vote for their moral vision. Their vote will go to the party that they see representing their values.
Fourth, some vote for justice. Their vote will go to the party they believe will do most to promote a just society.
No prizes for guessing that I sit in category 4 and my critics that Saturday belonged in category 3.
I’m not here to spruik for the Greens, the ALP, the Coalition, Family First, or any other party. What I do want to do is open up a simple question: what should influence the way a Christian votes? I’d like to suggest that we need to bring together two things: a Christ-shaped vision for what our communities can be and a clear understanding of the role of government.
First, the gospel gives us a vision for what our societies can be. The message of the gospel is not that our soul can go to heaven when we die but that God is at work to redeem and renew the entire creation. That means renewing and redeeming individuals, communities, economic, social, cultural and political systems, and the planet itself.
Second, government has an important but very limited role to play in moving society toward this vision.
For most of western history we got this horribly wrong. From the conversion of the emperor Constantine until the peace of Westphalia we saw the church and state working in tandem to try and command a Christian society into being. It was an unmitigated disaster.
Cromwell’s England was painted like this
Pointless enjoyment was frowned upon. Cromwell shut many inns and the theatres were all closed down. Most sports were banned. Boys caught playing football on a Sunday could be whipped as a punishment. Swearing was punished by a fine, though those who kept swearing could be sent to prison.
On Sunday most forms of work were banned. Women caught doing unnecessary work on the Holy Day could be put in the stocks. Simply going for a Sunday walk (unless it was to church) could lead to a hefty fine.
During his time as head of government, he made it his task to ‘tame’ the Irish. He sent an army there and despite promising to treat well those who surrendered to him, he slaughtered the people of Wexford and Drogheda who did surrender to his forces. He used terror to ‘tame’ the Irish.
And so the very first call for freedom of religion recorded in the English language came from the founder of the Baptist Church, Tomas Helwys, when he wrote a tract calling on the king to protect the religious freedom of Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists.
Christendom gave way to pluralist liberal democracy. This severely limits what the government can and can’t do. To say a society is liberal means there are fundamental freedoms and rights that must always be respected. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience to name a few. To say it’s pluralist means we accept that we will not all think the same, believe the same or live the same way. In a society such as this the role of government is to ensure every individual and every group is able to share in he benefits of society while pursuing the lifestyle and the values they choose.
In other words, the role of government is to facilitate the common good, ensure public goods such as education, infrastructure and health systems are accessible to all, and to make sure every citizen and every group of citizens is treated justly.
So what does this mean for voting? For me it means I ask two questions
Which party will ensure public goods for all citizens?
Who is excluded, vulnerable or oppressed in our national/globalcommunity? Which party will secure justice and inclusion for them?
The question I won’t ask is which party will legislate my personal vision of morality. It is not the role of the government to force people to live by Christian ethics. It is the responsibility of Jesus followers and the church to live in such a way that people see the merits of following Christ and living his way. I will endeavour as best I can to live virtuously and I will vote for justice.
It’s the first day of campaigning for the Federal election and the Coalition has signalled the tone of its campaign. Given the internal division that has made it near impossible for the PM to set policy directions (and no this is not lefty over-reach. John Howard and Andrew Bolt have said much the same) it’s perhaps not surprising that they are announcing little in the way of policy, and a lot in the way of fear-mongering,. Just one day in and they have declared Bill Shorten and the ALP the enemy of our economy and of the tradies ute.
Surprisingly, the ALP is also following an unorthodox route, eschewing the classic “small target” approach and making significant policy announcements. On early indications then we’re in for a battle between fear and promise.
The Coalition may just pull it off, particularly if they can gain traction with their claim to be superior economic managers…except that this too is spin. Take a look at the charts below. These show the historical record on tax, spending and economic growth.
The first chart shows the average amount of tax collected by each government since Whitlam, with Coalition governments coloured blue and ALP governments red. The biggest taxers are the two most recent Coalition governments.
The second chart shows average annual Commonwealth Government spending per government as a proportion of GDP. Top of the pops was the Hawke-Keating government, followed by the current Coalition government.
The third chart shows average annual real GDP growth for each of the last four governments. Our strongest growth occurred under the Coalition government of John Howard and our weakest growth under the current Coalition government.
There’s not really enough in these charts to argue which government was the best manager of the economy, for each faced differing global economic circumstances. Hawke-Keating took Australia through very substantial economic reforms; the Howard government had the good fortune of being in power when global demand for our commodities went through the roof; the Rudd government had to deal with the global financial crisis.
What the charts do suggest is that there is not that much difference between the ALP and the Coalition when it comes to overall “economic management”. Australia has done very well under all governments in the last 30 years.
Where politics does matter is in how the benefits of growth are distributed and how we position ourselves in a world facing some serious challenges. On these matters it looks like a great chasm is opening up between the parties.
As we gear up for a federal election I’m already hearing people characterise the Labor Party as big taxers and big spenders and the Coalition as the party of lower spending and lower taxes.
The chart below shows government receipts and payments as a proportion of GDP from 1975 until the present. The black line represents government payments, the coloured bar tracks tax receipts (red for years an ALP government delivered the budget and blue for the Coalition), and the gray bar non-tax revenues.
The highest taxing government in Australia’s history was the Howard-led Coalition, which had average annual tax revenues of 23.5% of GDP. The next highest taxing government is the current Abbott-Turbull-Morisson Coalition, which has collected an average of 22.2% of GDP in tax each year.
If we turn to spending, represented by the black line in the chart, the Hawke-Keating government was the biggest spender, reaching a high of 27.6% of GDP in 1984-85 and an average of 25.7% of GDP over the course of its period in power. The next highest taxing government was the current Abbott-Turbull-Morrison Coalition, which has spent an average of 25.1% of GDP each year. The spending of the Coalition led governments of Fraser and Howard and the Rudd-Gillard Labor government were almost identical: an average of 24.1% GDP for Fraser, 24.2% under Howard and 24.3% under Rudd-Gillard.
The Howard Government budget surpluses were not achieved on the back of rigorous cost-cutting or having superior economic management but by having the highest tax revenue in Australian history. China’s booming demand for Australia’s resources saw an increase in company profits and wages, which in turn meant the volume of taxes also increased. Tax revenue from company tax increased from 17.1% of government revenue in 2001/02 to 27.4% in 2007/08.
The arrival of the Global Financial Crisis brought this boom period to an end and had the double whammy effect of decreasing tax revenues while requiring the government to spend more to keep the economy stimulated.
So as we approach the next election let’s abandon the myth of a tax-and-spend Labor versus low-tax-low-spend Liberals. If we can get past the ideological rhetoric we can possibly have serious debate about what things we want to fund and the tax revenues we need to raise to fund them.
Freedom of religion, conscience and speech are at the heart
of a free society. They protect us from an ideological totalitarianism which
demands everyone believe, speak and act in the same way. The price of any of us
enjoying these freedoms is that we respect the freedom of others to believe
things we find unreasonable, to hold morals we find objectionable, and to say
things we find offensive.
Religious conscience and behaviour extend beyond what happens during the rituals and liturgies that take place inside churches, mosques and temples. Religion goes to identity, belonging, and lifestyle. It is to belong to a community who seek to live out the values of their faith in all of life and encourage their fellow congregants to do the same. The faith to which I belong, Christianity, calls me to live all of life in response to the grace, wisdom and love of God.
When churches establish schools it is usually an extension of their understanding of themselves as communities of faith. Religious schools are not simply places where children learn mathematics, science and the humanities, but faith communities seeking to cultivate a particular way of life, faith and being. Parents send their children knowing this to be the case, and for many, because they want their children to be raised as members of their faith community. In this context, the right to hire teachers who cultivate the values and lifestyle of the school and to fire those that don’t may be harsh but it is part and parcel of the operation of the school as a conservative religious community, and should, in my opinion, be protected.
Yet having said this, we must remember that freedom can be abused, and it is here I believe Christian conservatives need to ask hard questions. We abuse our freedom when when we don’t extend the same freedom to others that we demand for ourselves. The vocal opposition of certain parts of the Christian church to the marriage equality legislation seemed to me a prime example of this, as is the continued campaign of hysteria, misinformation and fear around gender identity, as is the insistence that secular schools allow Christians to proselytise their students by teaching Scripture.
And freedom is abused when it becomes a cloak to injure and harm others. My more conservative Christian friends often tell me they seek to “hate the sin, but love the sinner”. They are good people who genuinely mean it. But they are failing spectacularly to implement.
Moral discipline is essential to any well-lived life. We insist a person must not use their phone while driving; that no matter how fiercely someone angers me I must not surrender to the desire to hit them; that a husband remain sexually faithful to his wife. Conservative expressions of Christianity likewise argue that those who are not in an opposite sex marriage are called to be celibate. The road for the unmarried believer who longs to be in a lifelong sexually and emotionally intimate relationship can be very difficult, but to ask someone to live this way is not a surrender of their personhood.
Yet conservative churches, schools and other religious parachurch
organisations have not, on the whole, disentangled themselves from a long history
that declared LGBTIQA+ people broken at the very core of their being, depraved
in character, and an abomination to their God. LGBTIQA+ people in conservative churches and religious schools are continuallyrejected, marginalised and alienated not because they have behaved in a way that violates Christian values but because their very existence is perceived as a threat. And so, LGBTIQA+ people who grow up in conservative churches commonly tell stories of being psychologically destroyed and socially isolated.
We must hear this. Harm is not the exception for LGBTIQA+ people in conservative churches. It is the norm. Conservative churches and schools are very rarely places which affirm and celebrate diverse sexual orientation, while at the same time helping their LGBITQA+ members walk a path of sexual self-denial that conservative theology demands, find their worth in God and experience deep and meaningful community.
And when LGBTIQA+ people are suffering so awfully at the hands of churches it is abusive to ignore and/or glibly dismiss the challenge to conservative readings of Scripture that are coming thick and fast. As I noted in a previous blog, the theology of sexuality is now an intra-evangelical debate. Yet the reflex I observe in most conservative churches is to pretend it doesn’t exist.
So I say to my conservative brothers and sisters in Christ, yes you have a right to religious freedom and I’ll stand with you in asserting that, but in the absence of a deep sorrow and repentance over the damage your churches are doing to LGBTIQA+ people, your claims are hollow. Silence in the face of ongoing marginalisation, rejection and abuse is not enough. If pastors and church leaders are not willing to patiently, courageously and systematically challenge the awful weight of spoken and unspoken bigotry in their own congregations, they expose a church committed to its own narrow interests but not the interest of it’s most vulnerable.
The public defence of religious freedom without public repentance
over the harm perpetrated against LGBTIQA+ people reveals a hypocrisy that
is bleedingly obvious to those outside our churches but to which those
inside conservative churches are blind. And the tragic irony is that it may well
be our own unrepentant hearts that exhaust the patience of our society to the
point that religious freedoms will be stripped away and we find ourselves
inside an ideologically totalitarian secularism.
If ever there was a time to heed Christ’s call to remove the
log from our own eyes that we might be able to remove a speck of dust from the
eyes of another it is now.
NOTE: On Nov 5 references in this article to “gay and lesbian” people were changed to a reference to LGBITQA+ in recognition of the broad range of sexualities that have been marginalised. A few minor changes have been made to other sentences for the purpose of clarity.
I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to speeches made at the United Nations General Assembly, but there were two speeches this week that were important for all of us, one by US President Donald Trump and the other by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern.
President Trump’s speech was yet another announcement that the US was abandoning internationalism. For the last 2 years international relations have been fracturing as the United States has withdrawn from international agreements such as the Paris Accord, abandoned the international consensus on trade, and sought to redraw the shape of alliances such as NATO. President Trump has made it clear that the only interests that count for America are those of America.
What was different about this speech was the laughter that greeted President Trump’s boasts about the accomplishments of his administration. They weren’t, as he would later claim, laughing with him, they were laughing at him. This should concern us all.
Throughout history empires have established their preeminence and built an international order through the possession of overwhelming military force and a willingness to use it against those that step out of line. Like the empires before it, the US has also developed overwhelming military force and has been prepared to use it. But at the same time it established a legitimacy grounded in its vision of what America stood for – freedom and prosperity for all, the championing of human rights, and the rule of law.
Some argue that the rhetoric of freedom and prosperity is empty, an illusion to mask the reality that the US has followed the violent path of every Empire before it. Others won’t tolerate a word of Criticism of the United States, convinced that reality matches its rhetoric. I believe the truth lies somewhere inbetween these. And that has been enough to sustain a global order in which more people enjoy freedom, respect for their rights and prosperity than at any other point in history.
The laughter that greeted President Trump at the UN suggests that the US has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the nations of the world. prior to this we had seen global leaders disagree with President Trump and seen their frustration and anger at his isolationism, but this was the first time (of which I’m aware) that they have expressed derision.
Here’s the scary question. Once the emperor loses legitimacy in the sight of his subjects what is left but violence? Are we on the cusp of an era in which our stumbling after an international order marked by the rhetoric of America’s idealism will no longer be a brake on the naked use of violence?
This is why Jacinda Ardern’s speech was so important. She called for a reinvigorated internationalism grounded in kindness and collectivism. Here was the voice of legitimacy grounded in a vision of what we can be together and that calls us to be the best version of humanity that we can be. Prime Minister Ardern’s reflection was born out of New Zealand’s status as a small nation in a remote part of the world. When you’re small and remote you realise just how much your wellbeing depends on how others being generous, just and kind. Perhaps leaders like her can keep the flame of hope alive until current race toward isolationism comes to end. I hope so.
Today’s most important news is going to be overshadowed by the exposure of cheating in the Australian cricket team. I love my cricket and I am extraordinarily disappointed that our team has been caught cheating. Like people all over the country I will follow the story and share my outrage with friends and colleagues,
But I don’t want to miss the most important news story for the day: the federal government is about to cut Social Security payments snd support services to 15,000 asylum seekers living in Australia. The vast majority of these people arrived in Australia over five years ago and are still waiting for their claim for refugee status to be assessed. Their lives are held in limbo, citizens of nowhere, unable to put down roots because they don’t know whether they’ll be sent back to the country whose persecution they have fled. History suggests that the vast majority will be found to be refugees. They are men, women and children who have fled unimaginable violence and terror and cast themselves upon Australia’s mercy.
Discussions of asylum seekers in Australia have always proven problematic in the past, unleashing debates about whether our policy settings were only attracting more people and leading to more deaths at sea. This is not in play here. Australia’s policy of turning back boats is very clear and what happens to these people living in Australia will make no difference to that.
We are left only with the simple reality of men, women and children in need of our care and protection. They don’t have families to turn to for assistance. They have us.
The government is planning to make cuts to the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) program that provides a basic living allowance (typically 89% of Newstart allowance, equating to just $247 per week), casework support, assistance in finding housing, and access to torture and trauma counselling. People waiting for a decision about their claim for protection receive these supports.
An alliance of close to 100 civil society organisations, including the Refugee Council of Australia and Australian Council of Social Service, is calling on the government to urgently reverse their position to cut income support for people seeking asylum from 1 April 2018.
I find it incomprehensible that we would deny access to torture and trauma counselling to people who have been through extreme trauma; that we would consider cutting back a basic living allowance that already has people living below the poverty line; that we would strip away from parents the ability to provide the most basic care to the children.
The cheating by the Australian cricket team disappoints me. This disgusts me.
I’ll be contacting my representative in Federal Parliament today to ask him to take action on this.