Monday, February 18, 2008

Christian Gets Elected, Uppity

You have to feel for Christians in modern Australian society. Making up a meager two-thirds of the Australian population, they frequently find themselves exposed to the cruel tyranny of the remaining minority. New Liberal MP Scott Morrison devoted his maiden speech to the horrors of this secular oppression:

"Australia is not a secular country — it is a free country," he said.

"This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society.

"As US senator Joe Lieberman said, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not from religion."

Lost in the ecstasy that must come with giving voice to a well-honed persecution complex, Mr. Morrison seems to have confused himself about the target of his invective. It scarcely needs to be said: "the freedom to follow any belief system you choose" is a secular ideal! For Morrison, though, there doesn't seem to be any interest in understanding the ideologies that he feels come into conflict with his. Those who believe in the separation of church and state must also, by his reckoning, believe that "faith has no place in the political debate of this country". The idea that it is possible to support religious plurality and church / state separtion doesn't seem to have crossed his mind.

But to demonstrate just how far he has missed the mark in this speech, we need only point him towards the evidence (the bane of every believer...). It is simply beyond question that those societies in the history of the world that have best preserved religious freedoms have been the avowedly secular societies. Anyone who supports freedom of religion must accept the central tennet of secular ideology: that the government has no right to make "any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion". The corollary of this is that there must be limits (legal or self-imposed) to the range of religious ideals that can be legitimately advocated or enforced by elected representatives.

As a consequence of the imposition of these limits, we facilitate not the restriction of religious freedom, but rather its preservation. In limiting the power an MP has to give leverage to his religious ideals, we are protecting the freedom of his constituents - who may hold a different set of religious ideals - to give leverage to theirs. It is only when we prevent the possibility of those in power from giving preference to one religion over another that the "freedom of religion" Morrison invokes earns any meaning. Those countries that have most successfully abolished the secular principles against which Morrison inveighs (let us say, Saudi Arabia) are not renowned, afterall, for their tolerance of religious plurality!

But I think that I am probably taking him too literally at his word, here. I doubt very much that Morrison was interested in using his speech to investigate, with any sincerity, the consequences of secular policy. I think, ultimately, that he just wanted to winge about people who disagree with him:

"In recent times it has become fashionable to negatively stereotype those who profess their Christian faith in public life as 'extreme' and to suggest that such faith has no place in the political debate of this country."

There is, I think, a legitimate debate to be had about the role of religious belief in public life. Few would argue that becoming an elected member of parliament disentitles one from the right to practise a religion, much less from the right to "profess" it. But this is where Morrison - and other Christians harbouring persecution fantasies - get misled: there is a significant distinction between believing an opinion to be wrong or misguided, and believing that the opinion has no right to be expressed in the first place. To disagree with the public statements of Christian politicians is not to disagree with the idea that politicians have the right to make public statements about Christianity!

Ultimately, it needs to be recognised that religious beliefs should not be entitled to a privilaged position in political discourse. If your religion is integral to your political philosophy, then you have to accept that those beliefs can (and should!) be made the subject of debate. To believe in the right to express religious belief is to concede the possibility that it may be met with criticism. Ultimately, Mr Morrison wants it both ways: he wants the right to discuss his religious beliefs openly, but he also wants to prevent these beliefs from being discussed critically.

And this is the crux of the matter: the often conflicting aims for religious MPs between their duties as public servants and their duties as believers. To the extent that they are fulfilling their role as public servant, they are welcome to wax lyrical about their religion for as long as they wish to anyone willing to listen. Doing so, however, should imply recognition of the fact that their seat in parliament is not a pulpit from which spiritual maxims can doled out without right of reply: it is part of an ongoing dialectic. He has the right to argue that the Christian faith can be used to establish and reinforce "the principles of our liberal democracy upon which our own nation is built", others have the right to argue that it doesn't.

And that, Mr. Morrison, is how a secular democracy works.

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