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Does Any Party Have a Moral and Christian Monopoly?

Tuesday, 27 August 2013  | Gordon Preece

In the 2007 election the Christian vote, or Kevin Rudd’s ‘Bonhoeffer effect’, was widely seen as crucial. Rudd’s Bonhoefferian approach to identifying with those suffering ‘below’, convinced many Christians, challenging the claim to a Liberal Party monopoly on representing ‘the Christian way’. In 2010 the ‘godless’ Julia Gillard held power aided by Greens (and independents). The Greens were regarded as equally godless by many conservative Christians, yet many younger Christians regarded them as the most humane on refugees and most ecologically aware and responsible. Does any party have a moral and spiritual monopoly on the so-called Christian vote? This article answers negatively, affirming the right of Christians to conscientiously vote for any of the three parties respectively, outlining principles for voting across a range of Christian values. 

Balancing and Prioritising Personal, Social and Ecological Ethics in Voting
Christians make judgements concerning the priorities they give to personal (e.g. sexual and bioethical), social (e.g. economic, workplace, indigenous and refugees) and environmental ethics (e.g. climate change).  

For conservative Christians the Liberals’ personal ethical priorities appeal, particularly Tony Abbott’s robust moralism on bioethics and homosexuality. Many Christians also feel the Liberals are more accommodating of individual conscience and therefore more conducive to Christian moral stands, crossing the floor etc. This is formally true, and has been so in practice for Liberal Wets or moderates like Judy Moylan, a Catholic, who spoke frankly on her disappointment with both parties on refugees recently on ABC’s RN Drive. Other Christian Liberals supporting or who supported asylum seekers include Russel Broadbent and Bruce Baird. Baird’s stand may have cost him the mooted Speaker’s position and led to his resignation.  

Sadly, the very design of our Parliament Building with both sides severely separated makes it daunting to cross the divide. This is very different to the compact English Houses of Parliament, more like our old Parliament House, which makes it relatively easy to cross sides. It happened with many Labor members voting against Tony Blair’s Iraq War and many Conservatives voting against David Cameron’s Gay Marriage legislation. As Churchill said upon rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after WWII, “We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us.” 

While the Liberals don’t formerly have the same level of Cabinet solidarity as Labor, it happens informally. Impeccable sources tell me that a prominent Coalition Christian during the ‘Tampa’d’ election and ‘Babies Overboard’ days, appeared shocked by the Howard government stand. The PM’s office kept refugee issues away from him. Yet publicly it appeared he was for the government position, as part of cabinet confidentiality. Did he speak up in cabinet? We don’t know. Roy Williams’s In God We Trust? asks if not why not? 

When an organisation I ran gave its 2006 Faith & Work Award to this man upon his retirement, I was asked by one young person why we were giving it to such a conservative. I replied that while his party was not mine, he had great integrity that was recognised across party lines. After he spoke, the young lady said to me, “I see why now.” 

Second, on social ethical issues, Labor’s workplace policies—especially the repealing of WorkChoices—appealed to many Christians at the 2007 election and still do. Questions are asked whether Abbott has really abandoned his previous support for WorkChoices, a support contrary to Catholic Social Tradition with its concern for fair pay, freedom of association (unions, protests) and family time. But again, Abbott may have toed the party line not his own more Santamarian convictions. Bob Santamaria, while anti-Communist, was not overly enamoured with Capitalism. Abbott’s family-friendly paid leave scheme has won plaudits from feminists like Eva Cox and alienated the business sector paying for it. But business pressure is already building for a range of policies that resemble Work Choices such as the abolition of weekend penalty rates. Whether Abbott’s more conservative, less neo-liberal side can resist remains to be seen.  

On refugees, the Rudd and Gillard governments’ retreat from their previously more humane policy in a race to the bottom with Pentecostal Scott Morrison and the aptly or perhaps inaptly named Catholic Abbott, is deeply disappointing. Rudd’s October 2006 Monthly article spoke for the voiceless: the planet, workers, future generations, indigenous people, refugees. This moral vision propelled him into office, but upon backtracking from key parts, became his albatross. Rudd absolutised climate change as ‘the fundamental ethical challenge of our time’. But he then temporarily shelved a carbon tax. Gillard then promised not to have one. Now Rudd has brought forward carbon trading by a year. Climate change is still critical, demanding bipartisanship, but has become a political football. Ironically, Labor uses a market-based approach, the Liberals a State-based one. 

Guy Rundle rightly said that “the degree to which Bonhoeffer has become someone to quote back at Rudd has been remarkable.” He did it himself. Even I, having suggested Rudd speak and write on his hero Bonhoeffer in 2006, can’t resist using Bonhoeffer to measure Rudd’s policies. But I tried to apply all of Bonhoeffer, compared to one-sided Christian reactions to gay marriage: Rudd might also ask regarding gay marriage, WWBD? (“What would Bonhoeffer do?”) Rudd could express Bonhoeffer’s biblically based ‘view from below’—the perspective of those who suffer; like the Jews, and gays, in Germany. Rudd is therefore right to seek to minimise gay suffering, and his government did so with my and most Christians’ support (including ACL) by eliminating discriminatory legislation. But Bonhoeffer also clearly upheld Scripture’s prohibition of homosexual practice. He saw our embodied humanity, expressed as male and female, as something not simply subject to the social re/constructions of ‘man come of age’. Instead it is an expression of God’s trans-cultural creation mandate (see my article; contrast Mark Lindsay on ABC Religion and Ethics site). However, I agree with Rudd that we need greater church-state separation on marriage: secular Town Hall legal marriages and sacred church and mosque marriages after. 

Similarly to Rudd, Abbott can be evaluated by his ethical tradition — the Catholic tradition. This includes the ‘progressive’ Catholic Social tradition and the more ‘conservative’ personal, sexual and bioethical tradition. Abbott’s conservative endorsement of the latter and rejection of gay marriage comforts conservatives. I respected the more principled Abbott when health minister. Yet there is great difficulty implementing Christian bioethics in a pluralist society. Abbott’s opposition to abortion and the RU486 morning after pill have been linked to his alleged ‘misogyny’ (in Gillard’s strong terms) and ironically to DLP Senator John Madigan’s bill to remove Medicare funding for sex-selection abortions, largely of females. As Ethos’ researcher Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke says, “Equality begins in the womb” (available here) Yet I can’t agree with Abbott’s claim that abortion is an absolute issue and refugees merely relative. Both are serious life issues, but biblically, much more is said about refugees than abortion (see my earlier article).  

Economics is also part of the social sphere. Liberals are widely regarded as having better economic credentials than Labor. Yet the Howard-Costello governments’ golden era for the Australian economy was prepared by the Hawke-Keating governments opening up the global economy. Liberal squandering of the surplus on ‘middle-class welfare’ like baby and super bonuses for the rich as much or more than the poor can be compared with Labor’s failure to maintain its foolishly promised surplus and the Rudd government’s understandably rushed—and occasionally botched—implementation of its important GFC stimulus strategy. We’ve forgotten what the GFC was and is still like for many in the world. The real debate is about who is best equipped to lead our economy and society into a transitional future less dependent upon mineral profits and taxes.

Sadly, many Christian propagandistic tracts are highly selective in their use of Scripture and ethics, emphasizing either personal, social or environmental ethics to others’ exclusion. They cherry-pick in their use of Catholic and biblical ethical traditions, favouring again the social over the personal/bioethical or vice versa among Catholics of both major parties. Would that Christians took seriously the breadth of biblical concern in the Law and the prophets (not just the Right appealing to the Law and the Left to the prophets).  

The third arena is that of environmental ethics; where the Greens’ strength lies. But there have been public statements by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), Cardinal Pell and Angela Shanahan that Christians could not vote Greens (e.g. “Christians must boost immunity to Greens virus,” The Australian, 12/6/10).

There have also been strong statements from Abbott and ACL against preferencing Greens, with Abbott arguing that they are not mainstream, are against the growth economy (as if that is a sacred cow). Though the Greens have policies on gay marriage, euthanasia, abortion, cloning, and restricting religious freedom that concern many Christians, they have other policies on poverty, refugees, climate change, and transport that arguably comport well with Christian ethics.

Christians like Lin Hatfield-Dodds, head of Uniting Care, and Jim Reiher have been Greens candidates, following pioneer WA senator and Anglican Christabel Chamarette. The human life issues have to be balanced with environmental issues to get a consistent life ethic. Human life, though uniquely imaging God, is bound up with the life of creation. Fr. Frank Brennan considers “Why a conscientious Christian could vote for the Greens” (here) despite bioethical concerns. Fellow Jesuit Andrew Hamilton rightly notes, echoing Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man, that we can be co-belligerents with those whose presuppositions differ.

(My partner in the Ethos Business think tank Chris White put my three categories for a comprehensive Christian ethical approach to voting—personal, social and environmental ethics—into an easy framework to help guide Christians in their voting. Hopefully his grid (here) will contribute to Christians making a more ethically informed and balanced vote and being more respectful of and prayerful for each other and their political views and parties, without showing a fractious ‘party spirit’.)

A shorter version of this article has also appeared in TMA (



Byron Smith
August 28, 2013, 1:17AM
"Many Christians also feel the Liberals are more accommodating of individual conscience and therefore more conducive to Christian moral stands, crossing the floor etc."

For Greens senators and MPs, every vote is a conscience vote: "where, the views of elected Members are in conflict with The Greens' policy, then the elected Member may vote according to their conscience."
- §41.2.2 in the Greens National Constitution
Adam W
August 28, 2013, 1:32PM
Thank you Mr Preece, I appreciate your work. One objection: "Yet I can’t agree with Abbott’s claim that abortion is an absolute issue and refugees merely relative. Both are serious life issues, but biblically, much more is said about refugees than abortion (see my earlier article)."

That's on par with claiming that Jesus never himself denounced homosexuality: superficially true but substantively false and misleading. Please treat the issue of abortion with the utmost care in this debate. Votes will ride on it.
September 3, 2013, 1:40PM
I find the idea of 'the Christian vote' a fascinating one. We know that around 30% of Aussies say they identify with Christianity but less than 7% attend a church. So what is this 'Christian vote'? Does it vote first on moral issues, or economic? Is it enamoured by political leaders, or conscientious in its deliberation? Does it wait till polling day to make up its mind? Is it influenced by the direction that cardinals and pastors direct? I'd love to know!

This article entirely focussed on the 3 'majors'. But one would hardly describe the Greens as a 'major.' Certainly they have taken up the vacant spot of third option for the moment - which is being strongly contested.

One thing is for sure... like it or hate it, Rise Up Australia is attracting a lot of publicity and it will be interesting to see how well they do. They are after 2% of that 7% of regular church people "the Christian vote"... if they get that, then frankly they will end up with seats in the senate.

Finally... Abortion is state based legislation and won't be a big issue in this election. The only relevance is that abortion is part of the broader 'conservative' philosophy, Yes abortions are funded by Medicare making it a federal issue, but neither side will go near it this time around as the gay marriage topic is front and centre).

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