EARLIER this month, when Centacare (a Catholic agency) received a modest role in the new pregnancy support helpline, the shadow health minister Nicola Roxon said that she was "very concerned that Mr Abbott appears to be putting his own religious views into Government health funding decisions". Last year, when Parliament removed the Health Minister's veto over the abortion drug RU486, Kim Beazley suggested that a Catholic ought not to be in this job because, he said, "it is not wise to place people in portfolio positions where their moral convictions are challenged".
Far from echoing this demand, the new Opposition Leader has published a 5000-word essay, called Faith in Politics no less, stating that politicians should take religion more seriously. Still, it's safe to predict that no one will call for his resignation on this account because Kevin Rudd invokes religion to support the secular Left not to oppose it.
In the October issue of The Monthly, Rudd said that today's Christians should emulate his hero and role model, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and take the side of the marginalised and the vulnerable against an oppressive government. Bonhoeffer's religious faith motivated him to work against the Hitler regime, one of the most evil tyrannies of all time. Rudd seems to think there is a parallel between this and campaigning against the Howard Government over Iraq, Kyoto, border protection and Work Choices.
In his essay, Rudd identifies five different varieties of politician saying to people "vote for me because I'm a Christian" and denounces four of them. The only acceptable way to seek a Christian vote, he says, is to preach a social and even a political gospel as well as a spiritual one. Jesus didn't quite say that the best way to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely was to vote Labor, but Rudd would have us believe that this is what he really meant.
In fact, the only senior politician who has tried to "commandeer God for political purposes" is Rudd himself. As The Australian's editor-at-large Paul Kelly pointed out recently in his Acton Lecture, "Howard does not project as a leader implementing God's will ... Howard is a secularist who believes governments should reflect values but not embrace any religion". It's Rudd, not Howard, who says that the church should "point to the great silences in our national discourse" in what Kelly says "goes beyond any Christian vision advanced by any other federal political leader of a major party for many decades".
There's a catch though. It's not Christianity's ethical teaching on issues such as abortion or research on embryos that politicians should particularly heed. These, Rudd says, are just "matters of ... individual conscience". Rather, it's the social teaching against war, poverty and environmental vandalism that, more importantly, he seems to think, "affects the totality of society". He's even made the far-fetched claim, in a recent Radio National debate, that "the starting point with Christianity is a theology of social justice", such is his mission to shame Christians into voting Labor.
In the gospel according to Kevin, it seems that the rich young man was told to follow Jesus by giving away taxpayers' money, not his own. To be fair, bodies such as the former Catholic commission for justice and peace have also converted Christians' personal obligation of charity into the demand for ever more government action to relieve poverty, it's just that Rudd's pitch is more brazen and self-serving.
Shortly after becoming Labor Leader, Rudd assured The Age that he has "never been a socialist ... and ... never will be a socialist". He had previously called for the socialisation objective to be removed from Labor's platform. An early test will be whether he actually pursues this now that he is in a position to do something about it. Christians, after all, are supposed to value consistency.
He must have forgotten that in 2003 he had told The Australian Financial Review that he was "an old-fashioned Christian socialist". In Britain, the Christian Socialist Movement declares, in its constitution, that "the Kingdom of God finds its political expression in democratic socialist policies". It has recently called for the "redistribution of resources", "greater regulation of transnational corporations", a "currency transfer tax", and higher income taxes. British Christian socialists have "reservations about the emphasis that work is the best form of welfare". Rudd needs to explain how he can be a Christian socialist but not a socialist given that, on this evidence, the main difference between socialism and Christian socialism is the degree of preachiness.
For the record, I respect Rudd's Christian faith. For some years, to the annoyance of the whips, he was the Labor mainstay of a parliamentary prayer group that met on sitting Monday nights. My complaint is against Rudd accusing others of using religion for political purposes when he is blatantly doing so himself.
Back in 1994, Rudd said that he "had a long-standing personal policy not to publicly discuss questions of personal religious faith". That had clearly changed by the time Labor lost the 2004 election, in part because of Family First preferences. For Rudd, trying to prove Labor's Christian credentials had become a political imperative. More recently, to boost his campaign for the leadership, it became important for him to demonstrate that his personal religion was no challenge to Labor's existing policies. Based on his Faith in Politics essay, far from subverting Labor's contemporary mistrust of traditional religious values, it would seem that Rudd's personal faith offered Labor the chance to present its existing policies as a version of Christianity in action.
Preferring that troops not be sent overseas to fight, that environmental benefits did not have to be weighed against economic cost or that unauthorised arrivals might not need to be detained is hardly a uniquely Christian characteristic. It's human nature to avoid decisions of this type. Christians are called to seek the good in people but not to ignore human weakness or assume evil has ceased to exist. That's why there is no single, authoritative Christian position on the Iraq war, climate change, or border protection. On these issues, what mostly matters is what's likely to work out for the best in an imperfect world. Reluctantly perhaps, a Christian could conclude that sending extra troops to Iraq, for instance, might make more sense than leaving the sectarians to their own murderous devices.
Despite the Christian socialist heritage that Rudd is seeking to invoke, voters seem to have concluded that any affinity between Labor policies and Christian values is more by accident than design. The comprehensive Australian National University 2004 Australian election study shows that the category of voters by religion to identify most strongly with the ALP rather than with the Coalition was actually the "no religion" category. People with no religion identified with Labor over the Coalition 35.5 per cent to 28.4 per cent. Catholics, traditionally Labor supporters, identified with the Coalition over Labor 44.2 per cent to 35.8 per cent. Anglicans, traditionally Coalition supporters, identified with the Coalition over Labor by a massive 51.1 per cent to 27.3 per cent.
At the 2004 poll, 49.5 per cent of Catholics voted for the Coalition compared to 40 per cent for Labor; 59.4 per cent of Anglicans voted for the Coalition compared to 30.1 per cent for Labor. By contrast, those of no religion voted for Labor over the Coalition 40 per cent to 34.3 per cent.
It's a small thing, perhaps, but only one of 87 Coalition members of the House of Representatives failed to take an oath on the Bible in 2004, compared to 30 of 60 Labor MHRs who took an affirmation rather than an oath. With dead accuracy, it seems, Lindsay Tanner declared on the Sunday program in late 2004 that Labor was "the party of the socially progressive secular society".
Deputy Opposition leader and former shadow health minister Julia Gillard was clearly referring to Labor's Christian deficit when she told the ABC's Compass program in 2005 that "people can joke about whether or not Kevin is a God botherer. But I think what Kevin is trying to do is he's trying to deal with a political issue". On the same program Rudd all but admitted that his caucus working group on religion in politics was aimed at winning over Christian voters rather than evangelising Labor MPs. The consequence, he said, of Labor failing to connect with religious voters was "defeat and defeat".
Rudd's challenge is not to attack the Government in terms similar to those used by Christian social justice groups. Rather it's to make Labor policy more sympathetic to the practical concerns of people who think religion matters. Does he, for instance, share his shadow health minister's concerns about the involvement of Centacare in the pregnancy support helpline; is he troubled, as the Australian Medical Association appears to be, at Catholic health care's delivery of public hospital services; will he repudiate Labor's 2004 policy to reduce funding for some independent schools; is his party now genuinely enthusiastic about, as opposed to supporting through gritted teeth, the Government's school chaplaincy program?
Rudd will need policies rather than rhetoric to show he is interested in Christians' values rather than their votes. So far, he has been happy to identify with church concerns on the social justice issues which are Labor's political strength. He's been extremely cautious on life issues which are a political minefield for all politicians, but especially Labor ones given the strength of the Emily's List group.
The depth of a politician's convictions is usually measured by how far he's prepared to take them when they work against his immediate political advantage rather than for it. By this standard, Rudd's backbone as a Christian in politics (as opposed to the undoubted sincerity of his personal faith) is yet to be tested.
In the November issue of The Monthly, Rudd said that "right-wing Christian extremism has become John Howard's religious handmaiden in his political project to reshape Australia". In fact, Kim Beazley himself has just exposed the shallowness of Rudd's accusations about "economic fundamentalism" by stating, in his first post-leadership interview, that Howard and Rudd both naturally "stick to the centre".
The Government has allowed a private member's bill overturning the Northern Territory euthanasia law, prevented the ACT's proposed heroin trial, banned gay marriage, encouraged more independent schools, and boosted the incomes of low and middle income families because of its own convictions, not to court the so-called "Christian Right". On these issues, of course, the Government's policies have pleased some Christian lobbies. Equally, others have questioned or opposed the Government's policies on issues such as Iraq or border protection.
This Government never has, never would and, in my view, never should adopt any policy because of religious arguments. Governments, unlike individuals, cannot act on the basis of faith, only reason. The difference between the Government and many of its critics is that its senior members think that the values of the Ten Commandments are as much common sense as religious dogma.
It's good the new Labor leader doesn't feel bashful or embarrassed about his faith. I hope his example helps to attract more Christians into the ALP and into public life generally because religion seeks to bring out the best in people. More MPs with decent values and carefully considered convictions are likely to improve the quality of government.
Rudd can hardly be faulted for playing to what he thinks are his political strengths or for scoring as many points against the Government as he fairly can. I just wish he would stop feeding the myth of the Christian Right without at least some hard evidence. Not only does it unfairly smear Christian people who just happen not to agree with him on some political issues but it makes him look two-faced when I'm not convinced he is.
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