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Is there a Christian way to vote? Voting Your Values

Thursday, 23 June 2016  | Gordon Preece


Does any party have a moral and spiritual monopoly on Christian votes? Is there a Christian way to vote? This article answers negatively, affirming the right of Christians to conscientiously vote for any of the main three parties respectively, and outlining biblical principles for voting across a range of Christian values. 

Christians make judgements concerning their priorities on a spectrum of more personal (e.g. sexual and bioethical), social (e.g. economic, workplace, indigenous, refugees) and environmental (e.g. climate change) ethics.

1.Personal/Individual Ethics

For conservative Christians, the Liberals’ personal and individually oriented ethical priorities often appeal. They are likely to stress individual dignity and personal responsibility, and hence law and order aimed at punishment and deterrence. Economic policies seek to provide incentives for getting off welfare, doing hard work and economic growth - ‘Jobs and growth’. They also advocate for lower taxes to reduce disincentives, and believe that cutting corporate taxes will create jobs and a bigger pie of wealth. However, how can you cut corporate tax when many pay nothing or next to it?

More Christians vote Liberal across the denominations. This is true even in the Uniting Church, which is often seen as ‘the Greens at prayer’. There may be a gap between their social justice agencies and local church members or census tickers.

An emphasis on individual and cultural conservatism often goes with supporting traditional sanctity of life, family values and sexual standards. But a change of leadership from PM Abbott’s robust Captain Catholic moralism to PM Turnbull’s small ‘l’ liberalism and small ‘c’ Catholicism muddies the waters here. Yet part of the price of Mr Turnbull’s return to leadership was adherence to a plebiscite on gay marriage, despite his personal support for a change. The Liberal Party has also vowed to defund Safe Schools next year.

Waleed Aly’s excellent What’s Right?, questioning whether conservative cultural values are used to camouflage neo-liberal economic policies, also nuances the meaning of ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’.

Many Christians see the Liberals as more accommodating of individual conscience and therefore more conducive to Christian moral stands through, for instance, crossing the floor. This could be exercised soon by the Liberal Right on gay marriage, whatever the outcome of the Plebiscite vote.

The Liberals are also seen as stronger on national security, investing $50billion in new submarines. This is another human life issue, though clearly at the more public end. Would that we had conscience votes or even a parliamentary debate on declaring war, like in the U.K. Our parties are often in lockstep on national security issues.

The Liberals don’t formally have tight Cabinet solidarity like Labor, especially on Gay Marriage (where dissent against a binding vote will lead to expulsion from Labor by 2019). But it happens informally - if you oppose the Liberal PM’s and party position, you often get locked in your own tiny cabinet. 

2. Social Ethical Priorities

On social ethical issues, Labor’s workplace policies, against abandonment of higher Sunday penalty rates, appeal to many Christians. The Liberals, for all their Catholic cultural conservative values, still subtly support WorkChoices, a neo-liberalism contrary to Catholic Social Tradition (which Labor agrees with but fails to acknowledge) with its concern for fair pay, freedom of association (unions, protests) and family time. Liberals succumb to pressure from big business for a 24/7 working and consuming society. The Liberals had a costly Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Labor wants one into the Banks. Neither form of corruption commends itself, but you do the sums on which costs the most.

On refugees, the social credentials of Labor, though maybe marginally better than the Liberals - especially the deterrence-only Mr Dutton - are deeply disappointing, despite some party dissent. Encouragingly, many Christian Liberal ‘wets’ believe that family values apply to children in detention as well as the womb.

Some Catholics refer to the total body count method in ethical prioritising. But by that measure the biggest issue is not abortion (a shameful 80,000+ p.a. in Australia) or possible euthanasia (more a State issue), but climate change. The largely Conservative Catholic Liberal front bench largely opposes abortion and euthanasia, but turns a blind eye to Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudate Si. Climate change is still the critical earthly issue, affecting billions.

Ethical investing advisers use the long-term grandchild test to escape short-term egotism, and I now have a grandchild. This demands decisive and determined bipartisanship, but you’d never guess from the second Sky News election debate (Why Sky News? Another sign of privatisation!), where a bipartisan silence was sponsored by coal interests.

Economics is also part of the social sphere. Liberals are commonly regarded as having better economic credentials than Labor, though Keating and Hawke globalised our economy. But the Liberals talk more about our national debt. Yet both parties were party, as David Marr points out, to pulling $70 billion from the taxation base through unaffordable cuts to upper and middle classes taxes in a massive form of middle-class (Labor) and upper-class (Liberal) welfare.

Meanwhile the poor, people like Duncan Storrar on ABC’s Q&A in May (despite unworthy Murdoch Press attacks), are utterly impoverished. This is worse for single parents, largely mums, in a savage cut announced on the day of PM Gillard’s famous misogynist speech, which Vinnies CEO John Falzon rightly called a worse misogynist attack on poor mothers and their kids. Even the Business Council has lobbied for an increase, recognising that the rate is so low, and rental and public transport costs so high, that it acts as a disincentive to seeking work.

While Labor’s super-system was exploitable by the rich burying much of their wealth in a tax-free future, the Liberals increased the incentives. Both parties now at least recognise the need to chip away at these to retain a progressive tax system.

The real debate is about who is best equipped to lead our economy and society into a transitional future that is less dependent upon mineral profits and taxes and that addresses major generational justice issues. Among these are housing affordability, negative gearing, rising homelessness and high education fees.

Liberals rightly warn that saddling the next generation with massive national debt is disastrous. But the danger is to narrowly define debt and privatise it onto the most dependent. Norman Huon writes in the Sunday Age that, if PM Turnbull persists with Abbott’s agenda, ‘his legacy will include increased HECS debt, an increasing divide between well-resourced schools and those in poorer areas, exclusion from home ownership in the absence of wealthy doting parents, a deteriorating environment and continuing collapse of our reputation as decent global citizens – some commitment to future generations’.

Despite my small business roots and sympathies, more than entrepreneurial nimbleness and agility will be needed if we so privatise our secondary (abandoning the bipartisan full Gonski needs-based education funding system) and tertiary education systems, following the American way when that way is increasingly recognised as a dead-end debt disaster.

Similarly, maintaining Medicare, a Labor mantra, is less likely under the Liberals, despite their protestations. There may be a case, though, for added payments by the better off. Otherwise, as Toby Hall, CEO of St. Vincent’s Health, argues, a time will come when Christian non-profits like his can no longer subsidise health for the poor.

Overseas aid is an important social issue that cuts across Left and Right amongst Christians, from Micah Challenge & Common Grace to the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). Hence the major parties have given bipartisan support to increasing aid to 0.5% of gross national income (the UN recommendation is 0.7%), though the deadline for this has been continually revised. Gillard Labor slowed the increase but the Hockey budgets cut approximately $11 billion in aid, including ending AusAID. Treasurer Morrison cut $224 million more. Labor will restore that $224 million and deliver $800 million more in aid than the coalition. Labor will also add $150 million p.a. to the UNHCR to support refugees. But this is just a start to the emergency rebuilding of the aid budget. The UK conservative leader Mr Cameron vowed not to repair the budget on the backs of the poor, and has largely succeeded. His coalition counterparts should follow his example to help restore a bipartisan 0.5%.

As Tim Costello notes, aid is a security issue. So is climate change, according to the US Defence Department. So are educational inequality, unemployment and impoverishment among Muslim youth. Multi-billions spent on submarines don’t address these issues upstream, but deep and downstream.

3. Environmental Ethics

The third arena is environmental ethics, the Greens’ home ground. Conservative Catholics and Evangelicals of the ACL and News Ltd argue that Christians should not vote Greens - see, for instance, Angela Shanahan’s ‘Christians must boost immunity to Greens virus’ and Andrew Bolt on Greens’ attacks on Christians’ religious liberty. But many younger Christians in particular, and the older Uniting Church especially (like their Coburg minister who foolishly endorsed the Greens candidate in our electorate of Wills), find the Greens’ policies the best alternative to the bipartisan indifference of the major parties to refugees, climate change and Newstart poverty for 100,000 single parents. The major parties share in the slashing of the renewable energy target, and line their pockets with donations from developers, pokies and fossil fuel industries. The Greens will: raise renewable power to 90% by 2030; increase Newstart by $50 a week (and keep single parents on the higher payment); establish a federal anti-corruption commission to restrict corporate donations; and raize offshore detention centres and use savings to raise refugee intake to 50,000 p.a.

Section 41.2.2 in the Greens National Charter and Constitution states that ‘where, the views of elected Members are in conflict with The Greens' policy, then the elected Member may vote according to their conscience’. But there was little democratic transparency in the election of otherwise impressive leader Dr Di Natale. He also, like Bill Shorten, shows scant regard for any religious qualms or liberty of conscience or speech, within or without their parties, or allowance for conscience votes, or religious discrimination exemptions on sexual ethics, likely setting a bad precedent on bioethical issues as well.

Though 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 social and environmental ethics.

Human life issues need balancing 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, despite our shared bioethical concerns. As Francis Schaeffer wrote in Pollution and the Death of Man, we can be co-belligerents on environmental and other issues with those whose presuppositions differ.

Conclusion

Sadly, much Christian propaganda is highly selective in its use of Scripture and ethics, emphasising one of personal, social or environmental ethics to the exclusion of the other. We cherry-pick in our use of biblical and Catholic ethical traditions, favouring the social over the personal/bioethical or vice versa, and often ignore the environment sustaining personal and social life. 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.

My Ethos Business ethics partner 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 voting on Saturday. You can download the Election Voting Matrix in Word and PDF formats for your convenience and use.

Being more respectful of and prayerful for each other and our various penultimate political views and parties, and using a less bellicose, belligerent tone, without ‘party spirit’, would also help.

Gordon Preece is the Chair & Executive of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne Social Responsibilities Committee, and Director of Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity and Society.

                                                                                                               

This article first appeared in the June edition of The Melbourne Anglican. Used with permission.


Comments

Geoff Westlake
July 8, 2016, 6:23PM
So where is a party that has all three Christian concerns? Moral, Social, and Environmental?

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