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Culture Wars and Partisan Politics: how should Christians vote?

Sunday, 15 May 2022  | Tom Barker


There is no doubt about the veracity of Scott Morrison’s deep and personal Christian faith. As a proud Pentecostal, the Prime Minister has taken many opportunities to ensure that Australians know he’s a fervent follower of Jesus, whether it be his address to the Hillsong Conference in 2019 or his sermon-esque speech at the Australian Christian Churches Conference last year. Perhaps there isn’t a more apt example than his 2019 election victory declaration: ‘I have always believed in miracles’.

Growing up, the Liberal Party was almost interchangeable with the ‘Christian’ Party in my church circles. That’s why my interest in politics began when Scott Morrison took the reins from Malcolm Turnbull in 2018. I remember my elation the night he was sworn in, assuming that to have a Christian Prime Minister would mean a What-Would-Jesus-Do? approach to leadership.

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However, the following years turned my newfound hope into cold cynicism. Where concern should have been extended to the sick asylum seekers in detention centres, Morrison repealed legislation to get them treatment in Australia. Where allegations of bullying and misogyny in the Liberal Party were rampant, the Prime Minister’s Office allegedly sought to discredit those who spoke up (see for example here, here and here). Instead of providing a moral compass for the nation, Morrison has perpetuated a moral vacuum.

While Labor, the Greens and countless minor parties also don’t have it all sorted when it comes to their internal culture or policy framework, my focus here is on the Liberal Party because its leader, Scott Morrison, spruiks his faith as being intrinsic to his Prime Ministership.

This has taught me that, as Christians, we need to view politics through a paradigm that transcends partisanship, and that is founded in our understanding of God’s character. Or else, we are at risk of being lured into following those who use Christianity as a brand of identity politics on both sides.

The 2022 Election campaign has been a poignant reminder of how culture wars have provided a vehicle for those who want to espouse Christian values. The Federal intervention in the NSW Branch of the Liberal Party in installing candidates was controversial enough before Katherine Deves was preselected for the seat of Warringah. What on the surface began as her advocacy for banning transgender women from women’s sport quickly snowballed into an avalanche of resurfaced tweets, including references to the Third Reich and repugnant commentary about transgender people.

Whilst Deves does not profess to be a Christian, Morrison has backed Deves’ candidacy despite these revelations, and has sought to leverage discourse around it to amass support in must-win multicultural seats in NSW. It has even been alleged in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that a Liberal source said that Deves’ backdown from her apology was orchestrated by the Prime Minister’s office as to help Morrison keep the issue in focus (the Prime Minister’s Office denies this). The consequences of shallow culture wars like this can be fatal, with Triple J Hack reporting that calls to the LGBTQ+ Helpline, QLife, had increased by 56% in the week following the news coverage.

This followed on from the debate over the Religious Discrimination Bill, which was struck down by the government in February after members of its moderate faction crossed the floor to ensure protections for LGBTQ+ children. The desire to implement federal legislation to address religious discrimination is not new, and has been a signature piece of Morrison’s legislative agenda since he became leader. In spite of all this, Morrison has restated his commitment to passing the unamended Bill just this past week. Where compassion should have been extended to transgender people, they were used as cannon fodder in the pursuit of wedge politics.

One group that has actively campaigned for the advancement of the Bill is the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), and in particular its Managing Director, Martin Iles. Just a few weeks ago they launched a campaign targeting those Liberal MPs who crossed the floor to vote against the Bill, mailing out leaflets to their respective constituents saying they ‘failed to vote to protect people of faith from discrimination’. I fear this retributive and perhaps misleading approach to addressing concerns about religious discrimination is not in accordance with the values we should adhere to, and neglects issues which may be of greater concern at the coming election. Of the six ‘issues’ outlined by the ACL on their website, it is telling that the first on the list is ‘Gender and Sexuality’, whilst the last is ‘Poverty and Justice’.

Much of the campaign commentary so far has been on these culture wars. How much of it has been about restoring humanity to the processes for asylum seekers? Or on how we desperately need to implement measures to protect women in Parliament and prevent domestic violence across the country? Or on the over 100,000 people who are homeless? These issues may not be on the agenda of our media or politicians, but they can be on yours as you cast your vote.

This isn’t to say that the Liberal Party has a monopoly on this approach, as Kevin Rudd repeatedly invoked his Christian faith both as Opposition Leader and Prime Minister. In his 2006 essay, ‘Faith in Politics’, he declared that ‘the biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear’ to end John Howard’s Pacific Solution, drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan. However, since Tony Abbott’s  ‘stop the boats’ strategy proved to have electoral potency, the Labor party has spoken in unison on matters of offshore detention and our treatment of asylum seekers. Kevin Rudd’s election commitment to end the Pacific Solution was short-lived, as offshore detention centres were brought back under Julia Gillard’s leadership. Ever since, both parties have engaged in a race to the bottom, with ‘boat people’ now ingrained in the national vernacular. It has been pleasing to see Labor announce they will abolish Temporary Protection Visas and return the Murugappan family to their home in Biloela. But what makes their treatment cruel, whilst the treatment of all those who arrived since 2013 is acceptable? Unfortunately, for both parties, this is about putting domestic political priorities over humanitarian or international obligations.

Moreover, the implementation of a wage subsidy scheme during the COVID-19 lockdowns was a policy urged by Labor and the Unions before the Federal Government introduced JobKeeper. It demonstrated just how important it is to maintain a living safety net for Australians who could not work, whilst also proving to be an effective stimulus. Despite this, Labor has dropped any commitment to review unemployment benefits, leaving some of our most vulnerable Australians on a mere $46 a day – well below the poverty line. Why? Again, this may be another example of putting political priorities over doing the right thing for the country, in fear of scare campaigns that label them as enabling ‘dole-bludgers’.

As voters, we do not have to conform to a binary political lens that sees one party as ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’, but rather we should critically discern how each party’s platform aligns with our values.

I believe a crucial way we can distinguish how we as Christians cast our vote from those around us is to be selfless with it. How would our vote differ if, instead of looking for what helps us the most, we sought to make sure our vote counted the most for others who desperately need it? Paul called on the church of Philippi to ‘do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit… in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others’ (Philippians 2:3-4). I think we should do the same.

When discerning which policies we should prioritise, we should be guided by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Does the attempt by both sides of politics to galvanise Christian support in the name of culture wars truly reflect the nature of God, or are there broader humanitarian concerns that should be paramount?

Whilst Jesus upset the political establishment of the Roman Empire, it was never for his own ambition, because he had greater things in mind. When casting your vote, consider stepping back from discourse about Christianity vs ‘the World’, and refuse to engage in the black and white partisanship of Liberal vs Labor. Rather, form a framework that is based upon your personal understanding of the character of God that imitates the selflessness of Christ.

 

Tom Barker is a Law and Arts student at Macquarie University and is passionate about the relationship between faith and politics.

 

 


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