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Scott Morrison’s Liberal Secularism: is it a good or a bad idea?

Thursday, 4 April 2019  | Paul Tyson




Note: This is the second in a series on Scott Morrison’s faith and politics by Paul Tyson. You can read the first article here.

As recent discussions in the Australian media have shown, different commentators come to remarkably different conclusions in their evaluation of the relationship between Mr Morrison’s religion and his politics. This area is prone to vociferous ‘go nowhere’ disagreement because, I think, there are at least four different sets of underlying understandings of how religion and power should – and should not – be related within the Australian polity. If these underlying differences are not acknowledged people tend to talk past each other rather than to each other. So, using Mr Morrison as our catalyst, let us quickly unpack four different approaches to faith and politics.

Four approaches to faith and politics

Firstly, some people find Scott Morrison’s religion, and its relation to his politics, sensible and largely admirable. Here, personal moral and religious conviction – particularly of a conservative Christian hue – is seen as a fine and attractive attribute for a political leader. These admirers also seem to accept the idea that the basic logic of contemporary political power in Australia is pragmatic, adaptive and firmly secular. And that this is a good thing. This stance is liberal, in that it is strongly committed to personal freedom in matters of faith and morality, and also pragmatic in relation to how power in the context of secular democratic government best works. Let us call this approach conservative liberal pragmatism.

A second group – typically less religiously inclined than the first group – may not care for Mr Morrison’s personal religion, and may or may not like his policies. Yet they hold that every Australian’s private religious convictions can be whatever they choose, provided they are kept discrete from public concerns. Practically, Mr Morrison maintains a strong separation between his own religion and his actual policies, so his religion is of no public interest. Even so, this stance may well concede that it is just smart political craft for the Prime Minister to harness the fact that he does have deep inner convictions when he promotes his policies to the electorate. So long as Mr Morrison only uses the form of personal conviction, and does not (in the final analysis) impose the substance of any particular personal conviction, all is well. This type of complete disinterest in Mr Morrison’s religion is a secular pragmatist stance. This is a functionally materialist stance when it comes to public policy, even if people who hold this stance have private religious convictions.

To a third set of people, there seems to be a shocking dissonance between the hard-edged political pragmatism of Mr Morrison and at least some of the core moral commitments entailed in the teachings of Jesus. The fact that Mr Morrison publicly professes his personal fealty to the Lordship of Christ is what makes this apparent dissonance so jarring to this sort of person. This third category finds it problematic that Mr Morrison’s claimed personal religious allegiance does not seem to bear on his policies. Mr Morrison’s clean disconnection between his discretely personal moral and religious convictions and his active exercise of public power seems to strip the public square of all substantive moral commitments and remove from it any sort of transcendent horizon of higher meaning. People with this sort of angst are typically moral realists, as they do not think morality is simply a matter of private conviction, but a real feature of reality. Here, however incomplete our moral understanding is, there really are such things as right and wrong, and these moral realities are more fundamental than simply what works and what practically advances my own or my nation’s competitive self-interest. Such people are often also theological realists who do not think we can reduce religion to being a merely human construction whose only proper sphere of operation is in the realm of private conviction. Theological realists believe that God is real, over and above religion itself, and that there is a divine standard of justice that stands above all human power. I will call this family of people theological moral realists.

A fourth group are agnostic or atheist moral realists. Whether morality and God have an origin beyond human subjectivity and religion, they either don’t know or deny. But existentially they have an abiding commitment to public morality. Politics, as the art of seeking to build flourishing human communities defined by justice, goodness and universal dignity, is how these people understand what power in the public square is really all about. To this group, Mr Morrison’s amoral pragmatism and his subjectively intense but publically irrelevant religion seem tied together. To this family of people – let us call them existential moral realists – our Prime Minister’s faith and power setup fails to be genuinely morally serious, and smacks of politically manipulative hypocrisy. The ‘realist’ aspect of this sort of stance is every bit as serious about public moral reality as group three is, but they treat moral reality as a humanly originated and natural reality rather than a divinely originated reality.

It is clear that little resolution has yet been made between disagreeing commentators concerning the way Prime Minister Morrison’s faith interfaces (or does not interface) with his politics. This is because such disagreement has not yet managed to cross the internal discourse boundaries of broadly pragmatist understandings of modern liberal secularism on the one hand, and broadly moral realist understanding of how power in the public square should operate on the other. Of course, bits of the four outlooks can be incoherently mingled within any one commentator, but until we recognise what the really hard underlying differences between pragmatists and moral realists are, and how those underlying differences impinge on the very hard problems of liberal democratic secularism, we are not going to get far.

In parenthesis, I think it is no accident that a man of strong personal faith is our current Prime Minister. In our day of very pragmatic, individual prosperity-focused, security-concerned and economico-centric political norms, it is almost necessary that we have leaders of sincere and strong personal conviction. Leaders of inner conviction can make our prevailing political norms at least functionally palatable to the polity. Non-religiously defined leaders are not at a hopeless disadvantage here, but I think we are going to see more leaders like Mr Morrison, not less, in the future. While I am in a parenthetical space I would also like to disclose my own stance on the substantive matters we are trying to discuss here: I am a theological moral realist.

Understanding Liberal Secularism

Let us take a quick plunge into the deep-water problems that I believe Mr Morrison’s particular type of religiously inflected conviction pragmatism presents.

Liberal democratic secularism is a very complex political lifeform, produced by a range of historical contingencies and intellectual influences. It has many genuine virtues, but like every lifeworld shaping political framework, it is fraught with its own particular problems and its own distinctive self-destructive tendencies. If we want to protect what we value in liberal democratic secularism, we had better understand it well.

The first thing to note is that there is more than one type of liberal secularism and that all political lifeforms are constantly mutating. Luther’s strongly theologically defined two-kingdom model of civic power is very different to Locke’s conception of religious toleration. John Stuart Mill’s conception of the absolute sovereignty of the private individual on all matters of meaningful belief and of the public arena being only concerned with utility is very different to Locke’s vision of political life. John Dewey’s translation of Mill into a strongly pragmatic ideology again shifts the ground in important regards on classical utilitarianism.

Shifting intellectual currents shape the way we think of faith and power, but so also do the ever-shifting contingencies of history. In recent times the post-war boom era in Australia (1949–1971) was a period of heavily state-funded infrastructure building, in an era heavily inflected with the tacit respectable cultural norms of broadly Christian morality. Things shifted strongly away from culturally Christian norms from 1964 as the Boomers came of age and left the churches in droves. The 1960s to the early 1980s was defined by broadly Progressive and Humanist conceptions of state-building, and an egalitarian and collective conception of the common wealth. This was then displaced, after Mr Fraser, by the rise of a politics more concerned with personal prosperity and economico-centric politics. In the passage from Mr Hawke to Mr Howard we saw the steady rise of the neoliberal security state focused on the promotion of private wealth and increasingly Hobbesian conceptions of absolute protective power. After a rapid succession of internally ousted prime ministers (and what does this signify other than a serious ambivalence about the goals of power themselves in our times?) the inner tensions of the pragmatic neoliberal security state profoundly situates our present understanding of the relationship between the private and the public spheres of life. This is the context in which we are now trying to think about morality, religion and power.

It should also be pointed out that undergirding the entire modern liberal trajectory is a somewhat Protestant rejection of the medieval integration of theology with public power. It is this drive to separate religious authority from civic power that has been the basic engine of modern liberalism. This has led to the pragmatic autonomy of political and commercial power from higher meaning in our times. And yet, a residual religious moral realism has never left Catholic social and political thinking even though it has undergone profound transitions over the past half a millennium and has many forms of expression today. Equally, theological moral realism for the public arena has never simply been a Catholic thing. Though I am Anglican, my own sympathies lie with Chesterton’s distributism on matters of such public importance as economic morality.

The central point of the above very quick sketch of liberal secularism’s intellectual, historical and religious histories is to underline the genuine complexity of the terrain. For this reason it is wrong to simply denounce an opponent in this arena by criteria they themselves have never accepted as valid. The problem of how to locate a viable relationship between personal moral conviction – often religiously grounded – and public power within secular liberal democracy is not at all simple.

The problem with Scott Morrison’s Liberal Secularism

Let us now think more concretely about the relationship between pragmatic secular power, moral commitments and religious faith in the context of contemporary Australian politics. Prime Minister Morrison’s distinctive approach to pragmatic liberal secularism highlights our present situation, so that will be the focus of my brief concluding comments. But I want to make it clear that I am not here interested in whether Mr Morrison himself has virtuous or reprehensible moral convictions, and I am not here concerned with whether his Pentecostal Christianity is an example of good or bad religion in the public arena. I want to push past those questions, important as I think they are, and try to get to the underlying hard problems of the relation of morality and religion to public power in our Neoliberal times.

Mr Morrison’s militarised offshore indefinite detention regime is, by design, cruel and inhumane towards those asylum seekers who find themselves the object lessons that will deter prospective people smugglers and other would be ‘illegal’ arrival asylum seekers. This tough and unflinchingly enforced policy stance is a clear political winner for Mr Morrison, and gives his government the upper hand over the Opposition if they are not prepared to be as unbendingly boarder security focused as Mr Morrison is. This situation has a number of very significant features as regards the relationship between pragmatic political power and personal moral conviction in our democracy. But to better understand the moral significance of this situation I want to take us back to two other conservative politicians, Nick Greiner and John Howard.

Back in the early 1990s Nick Greiner delivered a Deakin Lecture titled ‘Australian Liberalism in a Post-ideological Age’. This lecture pointed out that politics was no longer defined by inflexible commitments to political ideologies of the Left or Right. In the early 1990s, Mr Greiner assured us, government was firstly concerned with successful economic and social infrastructure management. Voters have little interest in political theory and just want to know which team of politicians will be best able to make Australians as individually wealthy and personally happy as is practically possible. We are now too mature and too sensible for dogmatic metaphysical commitments to political ideologies. This does not mean the older socialist and conservative ideological categories entirely disappear, but they are backgrounded to questions of successful economic management and are not treated as sacrosanct by politicians or voters any more. We have now entered a great and promising age of politically flexible economically focused pragmatism. This was a distinctly liberal era because the freedom of the private individual to pursue whatever legal approach to happiness and meaning they choose was really the only sacred ideal that survives in our post-ideological times.

In general terms, I think Mr Greiner accurately discerned the post-ideological norms of Australian political culture in the early 1990s. Under these conditions, securing economic prosperity for ideologically disinterested individual Australians, by whatever means worked, became the first concern of political policy. Until 9/11.

With the War On Terror, national security became as electorally important to Australians as personal wealth and private liberty. Under John Howard a renewed state-sanctioned commitment to the Anzac legend was strongly amped up, and a radical shift in post 1970s immigration policy was effected. The commitment to universal human rights as applied to boat arrival asylum seekers shown by Malcolm Fraser was radically revised under Mr Howard, and ultimately reversed under Mr Morrison.

By the time of Operation Sovereign Borders, the central political goals of good governance were wealth, security and private freedom. In moral terms, these goals are pretty selfish and prone to being savagely callous towards the poor and the alien. That is, they are not easy to promote to the electorate as good goals. So they need to be sold to us as practically necessary goals, and preferably sold to us by someone who can enable us to feel good about ourselves whilst pursuing the necessary hard line pathway of strong government. Scott Morrison was born for this moment.

It is no accident that the liberal secularism of Scott Morrison is religiously inflected and couched in the ethos of strong private moral conviction. But is this the best way of pursuing liberal secular democracy? And will we, at some point, have to choose between pragmatically pursing our own economic interests and security, and having a public political culture that is seriously morally concerned? Is pragmatism marketed to us with personal conviction actually compatible with any serious conception of public morality? Should a politician of personal religious faith be concerned about morally defined public goods? Does the public square need a careful yet serious integration of the moral realism of strong personal faith with the common good, within liberal secularism? Is liberal secularism itself facing some sort of fundamental moral crisis? These are the big questions Scott Morrison poses for us. They are not easy questions to answer. But there is a central problem we need to recognise and address before, I think, we will make any real progress towards viable answers to the above hard questions.

The underlying political difficulty for us in contemporary Australia is our determined refusal to face the incurable tension between individualistic wealth and safety-focused pragmatism on the one hand, and serious collectively concerned moral realism on the other. Religion, as always, is intimately enmeshed in the inherently complex relation of the responsibility of each individual to stand alone before God (and this supports a certain type of individualism) and the prophetic tradition advocating collective justice as a function of right worship (and this supports a certain type of moral collectivism). No-one expects contemporary Australian politics to abandon its modern commitment to giving secular political power full democratically accountable autonomy from ecclesial authority. And yet, pragmatism really does oppose moral realism and this is a genuine problem for theological realists who, in the final analysis, find the source of morality in God.

Wherever one stands on Mr Morrison’s faith and his politics, unavoidably, there are demanding tensions that need to be carefully addressed concerning the way we as the polity of Australia think about power, faith and morality.

Paul Tyson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.


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