Monday, May 9, 2005

Resisting the 'Religious Right' in Australia: The 'Religious Left'?

I've just watched a most fascinating half hour TV interview with Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd on the ABC program Compass. The default anti-war spokesperson for the Labour Party, Rudd has decided to announce that he's running on a platform that is on the side of God [or something to the effect].

This is fascinating for me because just last week I was reading "God Under John Howard", a webdiary on the possibility that the Religious Right politics in the US would similarly affect Australia. It's argued that this has already started happening, with both John Howard and Peter Costello attending well-publicised Hillsong concerts to pull for votes. And yes, I've only now learnt that Hillsong is not only a singing group, but is actually a very big evangelical church. BTW, Howard and Costello, PM and PM-wannabe, are from the Australian Liberal Party, the incumbent centre-to-right party. The Labour party, with lovely members like Gillard I highlighted the last time, are the centre-left. This is contrasted to the Democrats in the US, who are the liberals with centre-left ideals; and the Republicans, conservatives with centre-to-right views. They have a leader called George Bush. You can call him Chimpy.

Rudd's objective is simple: he wants to make the point that the incumbent has claimed God for themselves, and he wants to re-claim this 'contestable space' too. He feels that his party is losing votes with the demographic of voters who see themselves as evangelicals, and now he's going to give these people an alternative to vote, for Labour. And also, he can't ignore the rise of the new church-linked political party Family First. So, I guess in a sense, it's like "Oh no you don't. You're not the only one who's claiming to speak for God, I speak for God too." The situation in the US is a little different from the Australia context. In the US, the Religious Right is not only a religious demographic, it's also a very big business empire. Focus on the Family etc. make a lot of money, and with that comes political clout and the ability to lobby folks like Chimpy.

In Australia, there isn't really this 'big business behind the scenes' thingy, I think. If I understand what Rudd's trying to do, he's just reaching out to those who feel comfortable that there are those on the Left who're also Christians, not just on the Right. While I'd prefer an anti-war guy like Rudd compared to pro-war Howard (on this issue per se), and I would probably hope Rudd is a moderate on issues of faith, I'm not exactly sure this is the way to go. Does one counter the Religious Right with the Religious Left?

The problem I have with this is that firstly, I come from a POV of the separation of Church and State. In Matthew 22:21, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Sure, I think that if Christ's teachings were to directly become public policies, they would be a good thing. However, there's a catch: whose interpretation of Christ's teachings is really what was intended in the first place? Even worse, what does one do with verses in the Bible that supports slavery etc. I just don't know, especially with artificially created wedge issues like abortion and gay issues. It's very easy to twist matters of faith into your own political agenda. And it can quickly lead to corruption if one's not careful.

The second problem I have is: what does one do with folks from the Non-Religious Left/Right? Surely they have an equal say in matters of public policy. What happens when policies appear the way they do just because a particular faith seems to see it as such? What about other faiths? Religious faith per se doesn't necessarily result in better policies, any more than the age, skin colour, or gender of the politician should necessarily affect outcomes of policies. I need to introduce Randy, a professor at Singapore's NTU who argues the opposite. It's an interesting read. Link of the transcript is now available: Kevin Rudd: The God Factor


Ali said...

Firstly, only someone like you would find 'Compass' interesting.

And I really don't see people voting for Howard just because he's a Christian. I didn't.

Because Australia is largely a Christian country, religion in politics will always be there. It doesn't really matter to me if they twist God's word into their own way, because I have control of who I want to vote for.

When it all comes down to it, political people will usually sway to the majority.

jeffyen said...

haha, I like reading maps, which requires a compass!

You are a discerning, smart and careful voter, so that's good. Personally, I'd just vote for whoever is better looking/prettier!

The reason why I'm interested in the Aussie situation is because there are signs that Singapore may also be facing similar issues soon (or at least that's the impression I got from reading a recent editorial in the daily corporate newsletter/newspaper.) The recent casino debate has for the first time brought a 'religious' dimension to the debate. Future issues like stem-cell research may attract controversy in a similar manner.

But you bring up an important point. What happens if enough people want their politicians to be 'religious'? (Or rather, to belong to their particular faiths?) With a plural society like Singapore, that poses a delicate problem.

Anyway, reading a recent Compass transcript, it seems to me like this is quite new to Australia also. If you're bored... Family First: A Federal Crusade.