Restoring 'Faith in Politics' (2006)

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In October 2006, Kevin Rudd (who subsequently became leader of the federal Opposition in Australia) wrote about the relationship between Christianity and politics ('Faith in Politics').

In brief, his quite complex argument suggested that: :

  • the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had opposed Hitler, should be studied [see comment]. Bonhoeffer:
    • rejected the idea of Two Kingdoms (ie that the Gospel only applied to the inner person, and that the outer person is subject to the state rather than to the Gospel's message);
    • criticized the Church for concern only with metaphysical abstractions and individual sins while ignoring social evil; and
    • called on it to speak out in defence of the defenceless in the face of a hostile state;
  • organized Christianity in the US [as in Australia] has tended only to support conservatives - an issue raised in God's Politics by Jim Wallis;
  • Christianity started as a religion of oppressed peoples, and was subsequently challenged in (a) developing a theology for times in which it was supported by the state and (b) coping with a rising secularism over the past two centuries as a result of science, secular humanism and modern and post-modern philosophies [see comment];
  • Christianity should take the side of the marginalized and speak for the powerless [see comment] - on the basis of both Old Testament prophetic literature and Jesus' example. While policy can't be derived from this alone, it is a 'light on the hill' to shape policy, which might affect:
    • the balance between the rights of capital and labour;
    • the notion of a just war [see comment], and state use of violence;
    • protecting / restricting citizens' freedoms; and
    • capital punishment;
  • many Christians engage with the state only of the basis of: seeking the Christian vote; and expressing views about sexual morality and family values [see comment]. The alternative is to accept the Gospel as both spiritual and social (and thus partly political - as politics is the way society exercises collective power). The Gospel says not only that individuals must be born again, but that when judged people will be asked what they did for the hungry and naked;
  • there is a need to look beyond superficial political debate - and ask who are the 'voiceless';
  • Australia's 'values' debate neglected the neo-liberal / progressive issue. The former value liberty, security and prosperity, while progressives also value equity, community and sustainability. Neo-liberal values are an aggregation of individual values, while progressives advocate also considering others. Social democratic values restrain individualism [see comment] - and this is needed as rampant individualism is destructive (eg the effect of 2006 labour market reforms on families) ;
  • social democracy, which has been called 'Christian socialism' for 150 years, had a role in founding Labor Parties and seeks to enlarge society rather than contract it to the interests of individuals;
  • Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, was said to:
    • mask self interest with appeals to 'duty to the nation';
    • have acted unethically in not supporting global collaborative efforts to deal with climate change (the Kyoto protocol);
    • be hypocritical in advocating that migrants learn English while cutting funding for this;
    • use inflammatory language to maintain power at all costs despite failing programs;
    • lack truthfulness (about Iraq's WMD, prisoner abuse and wheat-for-weapons scandal); and put national institutions at risk by making departments complicit in the political interests of government rather than serving national interests [see comment].
  • the purpose of the church is to speak robustly to the state on behalf of those who can't speak for themselves [see comment] (eg in relation to:
    • industrial relations laws that redistribute power from the weak to the strong [see comment];
    • the environment (especially climate change) as the earth can't speak for itself and the scientific evidence is clear so it is now time for action [see comment];
    • global poverty where lack of progress on the UN's Millennium Development Goals is an ethical failure [see comment]; and
    • asylum seekers for which the Pacific Solution is a cause of ethical concern [see comment]);
  • the noisy debate about militant Islamism and terrorism is too superficial to deal with this complex problem. While Islamism is a problem because of its commitment to violence jihad and unwillingness to engage in discussion, underdevelopment in much of Islamic world breeds resentment and jihadists [see comment];
  • the English language is important for the social inclusion of migrants. Also civil institutions should be formally involved in re-settlement;
  • the church should not accept political deceptions, or Australia will wind up with a polity estranged from truth. Rather it should speak truth to the state;
  • an alternative 'light on the hill' involves:
    • considering what Australia can do for others by taking a lead in; climate change; the Millennium Development Goals and regional poverty; and redesign of the international order to prevent genocide; while also
    • emphasizing again values of decency, fairness and compassion.

Rudd's primary argument was that institutionalized Christianity (the church) should take the side of the poor and voiceless by becoming involved in politics.

While the essay mentioned many important questions, it will be suggested below that:

  • Rudd oversimplified many policy issues and this: (a) makes them seem just a matter of moral / ethical choice about which churches might authoritatively express an opinion; and (b) raises doubts about the effectiveness of policy proposals that would emerge from such assumptions; 
  • rather than becoming involved in politics, churches could be more effective in helping the poor and the voiceless by motivating / empowering individuals to help themselves and one another;
  • judging others (eg for presumed abuse of power) invites assessment of oneself by similar standards; and
  • there is an entirely different sense in which it would be desirable to restore faith in Australian politics - and this requires stronger institutional support to the political system rather than simply more 'virtuous' political leaders.


Serious institutional problems have emerged in Australia's system of government that will be considered further below.

For example, democratic institutions are under stress because of:

  • growing complexity which makes meaningful debate difficult and policy failure (as well as misunderstandings that can potentially lead to conflict) more likely;
  • globalization which reduces the local impact of domestic politics, and encourages ill-informed political leaders to act on the basis of domestic paradigms in arenas where those paradigms are less appropriate;
  • destruction of supporting institutions for short-term political advantage; and
  • the rapid growth of insubstantial political populism - which at worst might involve electoral support for mere confidence tricksters.

In such an environment it is unrealistic to simply blame a lack of morality or poor ethics for problems that are arising. Yet Rudd seemed to oversimplify many issues which makes them appear just a matter of moral / ethical choice (ie of 'good' versus 'evil') about which the church might express an authoritative opinion. In particular:

  • it was argued that the interests of the voiceless be considered in considering the notion of a 'just war'. However deciding who is voiceless would be complex when one starts to deal with the idea of 'pre-emption' (ie a small conflict now hoping to prevent conditions emerging in which a larger war could emerge). It is very clear, for example, that (a) those who advocated military action in Iraq saw this as 'pre-emptive', ie as a way of heading off much greater future conflicts (see The Second Failure of Globalization); (b) their ability to publicly communicate this was poor and (c) the apparent failure of that effort has now precipitated (and perhaps amplified) the type of major conflict they originally feared. It is valid to criticize such judgments and the way they are implemented and to propose alternatives, but going down the conspiracy theorist's road (by simply labelling them 'moral' failures) is merely a way of avoiding the issue. The fact that the Iraq invasion was typically discussed only in terms of Iraq's WMD, rather than in terms of the geopolitical issues involved, illustrates the serious deficiencies emerging in Australia's political and government systems generally;
  • the failure of global efforts to deal with poverty is not simply a moral issue as was suggested. The biggest question is how this can be achieved - and, as argued in Competing Civilizations, cultural factors (which are universally put in the 'too hard' basket) seem to be a major factor in the ability of any society to achieve material prosperity, and in difficulties in developing a global order in which all might reasonably be expected to succeed (see The Second Failure of Globalization). Similarly:
    • it is inadequate to suggest that the underdevelopment of much of the Muslim world is the main complication that needs to be considered in confronting Islamist extremism - because certain cultural factors (eg enforcement of moral legalism and broad world views that make this seem reasonable) seem to be both (a) a major factor in that underdevelopment (eg see comments in Competing Civilizations and About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science ) and (b) a motivator of Islamist extremists (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism);
    • the issues involved in dealing with refugees and asylum seekers are not simply moral as Rudd implied (see Complexities in the Refugee Problem). For example, there seem to be (about) 20m refugees in the world, a situation that can't be corrected by encouraging people smugglers. Rather, to solve the problem, it is necessary to confront the causes of economic and political dysfunctions in countries that generate refugees, and also the inadequacies in the global economic and political environment (see speculations about Solving the Global Refugee Crisis).
  • the science related to climate change is not yet so clear that it is unethical not to act; as Rudd argued. While there may be evidence that there is a problem, it is anything but clear what should be done about it (see Climate Change; 'No time to lose' in doing exactly what?). The real danger seems to be that political populists are latching onto simplistic theories, and perhaps wasting time and resources on ineffectual initiatives or failing to deal with the whole of the problem;
  • Rudd dismissed Christians concerned with sexual ethics and 'family values' as mere conservatives - ignoring the huge practical implications of such issues. For example:
    • child sexual abuse seems to be a widespread problem throughout the community that has been swept under the carpet;
    • the public acceptance of homosexuality appears to provide an indirect endorsement of child neglect and abuse;
    • as considered further below, social problems seem to be emerging from a breakdown in the ethical basis of interpersonal relationships (eg poverty appears to flow on to succeeding generations in single parent families, while sexual abuse of children seems largely associated with families in which children live with adults who are not their biological parents);
    • individuals tend to 'inherit' from their families and communities: attitudes to education; business aptitude; and ability to make wise life choices. Those who come from dysfunctional families faces major obstacles.
  • Australia's labour market reforms (based on the 'Work Choices' legislation) are seen to be a result of neo-liberal philosophy which favours the rich and disregards the adverse effects on working families. However those reforms probably can't be commercially and economically effective as the basis for employer / employee relations, because (a) they involve a heavy level of federal regulation and control and (b) contracts are unlikely to give employees the commitment to an enterprise's success that real business flexibility requires (see Is 'Work Choices' a Good Choice for Work?). The key issue regarding those reforms seems to be one of competence, not one of morality.

When issues are treated over-simplistically, what confidence can there be in public policies derived on the basis of those assumptions?

Churches' Role

Supporting the Marginalised: What Should the Churches Do?

Rudd's suggested  that the purpose of institutionalized Christianity (the churches) is to take the side of the poor and marginalized mainly by becoming involved in politics. This seems very dubious.

Christianity's founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was reportedly interested in the welfare of the poor (and everyone else) but he apparently gave effect to this by speaking TO them (ie teaching them how to live), rather than speaking FOR them to the political elites of his day. He also:

  • lived in an unequal society (eg where slavery was legal), yet he focussed on liberating those who were slaves to sin (John 8:34);
  • indicated that there were advantages for individuals in both poverty and suffering (eg Matthew 5; Mark 12:41-44), that wealth could disadvantage the wealthy (eg Luke 25), and that they could benefit by divesting themselves of it (eg Mark  10:21-25; Luke 6:24);
  • instructed his followers to do good (eg aid the poor) in secret, and avoid seeking public praise for such actions (eg Matthew 6:1-3); and
  • stated that he was uninterested in a kingdom of this world (Luke 4:5-8; John 18:36).


  • the disciples whom Jesus nominated as the rock on which his church would be built taught that those in inferior positions should accept injustice without complaint (1 Peter 3:18-20) .
  • Jesus restrained rampant individualism (not through social democracy as Rudd's essay suggested) but rather by his two great commandments (ie to love God and to love others as ourselves - Matthew 22: 37-40) - which do not only apply to the political domain as social democracy does;
Huge human welfare gains have come from  bringing individuals into the 'Kingdom of God' that Jesus proclaimed as a way to give effect to the spirit to the moral Law as an alternative to the legalism advocated by the Jewish religious authorities of his day. As individuals voluntarily helped one another, societies could ultimately rationalize giving them a large measure of liberty. The overall effect was to create advantages in economic problem solving - see Cultural Foundations of Western Dominance. 'Seeking first the kingdom of God' (Luke 12:31) really did produce material benefits (and also increased political and ecological impacts).

Thus helping people and influencing the behaviour of societies as a whole through the apparatus of the state is possible and necessary, but is also beset by complexity and uncertainty. It is thus unlikely that political lobbying is the best way in which Christian churches can help the hungry and naked, especially because:

  • it is very difficult for institutionalized churches to know what they should say to the state - because the latter deals with issues that are much more complex than can be understood or evaluated in terms of religious principles that were meant to apply to individual behaviour. Rudd's essay noted the complexity of the issues related to Islamist extremism, but it:
    • ignored the fact that the core characteristic of Islamists is the view (which Rudd also apparently advocates) that religious considerations should drive politics (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism);
    • suggested that churches should speak 'truth' to the state about many other issues that also too complex to be just ethical choices. The way in which issues are oversimplified (and so made to seem mainly 'moral' questions) was considered above;
  • some institutionalized churches have been failing to bring people to the 'Kingdom of God', and political entanglement would further divert them from that task. In relation to this it needs to be noted that the rampant individualism of the 'me' / baby boomer generation has contributed to the emergence of severe social symptoms - and also threatens Australians' material welfare because it pressures the state to restrain individual liberty (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty). In part the problem could be that many churches:
    • have long allowed the credibility of their message to be undermined by claims about the the 'superiority' of knowledge derived through reason (though this fails in complex systems) and science (which helps explain how things are, but not how they got that way);
    • have become fixated on politics by involvement in delivering government-financed welfare programs [1]; and
    • have found it easier to treat state action as the source of, and preferred solution to, societies' problems.
Moreover how could one guarantee that church engagement in politics would merely result in messages going 'upward' (ie to affect political judgments)? Could not the state be co-opted to create a human moral Kingdom (ie by enforcing the moral assumptions of community or political leaders), and thus erode the liberty that can be the fruit of the 'Kingdom of God'. Consider, for example, the 'political correctness' phenomenon and that a political leader announced that Australian politics would in future simply be about values, which seemed like a proposal for priestly government. And, as noted in Continuing the Separation of Church and State, enforcement of moral legalism seems to be a factor in the historical failure of most Muslim dominated societies.

While government actions should never be accepted without question and Christians (or anyone concerned about others' welfare) should take part in political affairs, it is necessary to consider the nature of Nazism before accepting Rudd's claim that it was Bonhoeffer's resistance to Nazi abuse of power that provides a model for political activism by Christians under all circumstances.

Hitler's political ideology (ie National Socialism), which appeared to be based on very dubious perceptions of German history, was presented as a quasi-religious 'intellectual' work and then ruthlessly enforced.

Nazism was apparently born of a difficult time in German history as a consequence of:

  • the 19th century challenge of economic modernization to which the German solution had led to friction with Britain's empire and to World War I;
  • defeat in that War which had left Germany with unstable government and ruinous reparations; and
  • the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Hitler surveyed this scene and intellectualized an explanation and a solution which he recorded in Mein Kampf. This was based on quasi-religious assumptions about the superiority of Aryan people, the harm inflicted on them by evil 'others' and the inadequacy of socialism and democracy. This, like the ideologies of conspiracy theorists and those of other totalitarians (including modern-day Islamist extremists), appeared to be 'idealistic' rather than 'realistic' (ie Hitler constructed a world view in his head which at times had little relationship with reality). His ideology was also 'closed' (ie did not depend on anything outside itself) and absolutist (ie justified extreme action). Those who have studied Hitler's books, conclude that he read not to learn from others, but to confirm what he  thought that he already knew [1]

In those dark days his grand-sounding theories and charisma convinced his early supporters who had no basis for questioning his intellectual credibility and who repressed those with other explanations and solutions.

Teutonic tradition, it can be noted, had placed greater value on society as a whole than on individuals, and relied on the world view of 'great leaders' to provide guidance to society as a whole, rather than relying on individual rationality which has been the tradition of Anglo societies.

One observer has suggested that tyranny can usually be traced to intellectuals who meddle in politics despite their lack of real world knowledge - and, if so, then this might be the criteria that Christians (and others) should look for in deciding when taking a stand against autocratic political leaders might be warranted.

Judging Others

Casting the First Stone

The accusation of poor ethics, a lack of truthfulness and abuse of power that Rudd directed against Australia's Prime Minister invites reference to what Jesus said about judging others.

"Do not judge others, or you also will be judged. For with the words that you judge others, so you will be judged, and you will be measured by the same standards that you apply to others. Don't look for the speck in your brother's eye while ignoring the plank in your own." (Matthew 7:1-3)

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7)

While there are undoubted defects in Australia's national government, including making departments complicit in the political interests of government as Rudd noted, these seem little different to defects that emerged earlier under various other (state and federal) administrations (see Decay of Australian Public Administration).

Thus such abuses of power seem to have become standard practice (and thus a systemic problem), rather than being a peculiar failure of the federal government.

The case that the present author is most familiar involved Queensland's Goss administration (in which Kevin Rudd held prominent politically-granted positions). It remains the top contender for the hotly-contested title of Queensland's Worst Government for its abuse of power and incompetence in the self-righteous pursuit of half-baked theories. Once again:

  • the source of these difficulties appeared primarily systemic rather than evil intent;
  • there was no interest in anyone who tried to speak 'truth' to the state (as that said state simply refused to listen to anyone but political cronies and 'yes-men'); and
  • as in the case of Hitler's Germany (and the French Revolution, China's Cultural Revolution etc), there were disastrous consequences from assuming that ruthlessly enforcing the insights of 'great leaders' was needed to overcome society's problems.
Restoring Faith

Restoring Faith  in Politics

Public faith in Australia's political system is being eroded for many different reasons, which Australia's Governance Crisis attempts to describe.  This refers to:

  • declining practical potency of democratic institutions for reasons that were briefly mentioned above;
  • weakening of the administrative support to elected governments as a result of politicisation and attempts to use 'business-like' methods to undertake governments' non-business-like functions;
  • inadequate evaluation of Australia's strategic interests (eg the simplistic debate related to the invasion of Iraq);
  • federal - state financial imbalances that lead to irresponsibility, buck passing, duplication and complexity;
  • politically motivated appointments to the Judiciary;
  • attempts to politicize the head of state ('Crown)' whose apolitical character is the foundation of the Australian representative system of government;
  • erosion of the moral foundations needed for a legal system that assumes individual liberty.

These difficulties have diverse causes, such as:

  • history and High Court decisions;
  • the growing complexity and interconnection of issues;
  • Australia's colonial origins and traditional dependence on resource wealth and imitation of others' policies;
  • a limited public understanding of the global political, cultural and economic environment and of the nature of government;
  • idealistic intellectual fashions; and
  • efforts to gain political advantage.

These difficulties can not be made to disappear by ignoring them and assuming that all that is required is more 'moral' political leaders or trendier political ideologies.

Rather what is required is a serious redevelopment of the institutional support to Australia's democratic political process probably involving the following components:

  • apolitical institutions that are vastly better informed to provide:
    • practical leadership and understanding of complex public policy issues to the community; and
    • serious inputs to debates amongst its elected representatives (eg see alternative suggestions in relation to National Competition Policy review);
  • Public Services that are politically independent, experienced and subject to real professional accountability to provide support in policy analysis and implementation;
  • the development of techniques for dynamically managing the increasingly complex relationships amongst traditionally-completely-separate policy issues (see comments on Progress? in Brisbane's Transportation Monster).  Arguably this requires enhanced cross-disciplinary communication through both: (a) purposeful / cohesive public services; and (b) well-developed networks amongst civil institutions that provide raw material for public policy debates;
  • a federal system in which power and finance match responsibility, and powers are not centralised unilaterally (see Fixing Australia's Federation);
  • a republican model (if this is what the community wants) that preserves the apolitical character of the head of state (see Republican realism);
  • clearer separation between the public and private spheres;
  • political leaders who don't seek the 'mantle of heaven' (ie don't proclaim themselves moral / ethical authorities) - see Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics and Celebrating a New Evangelical Religion: Atheism;
  • new apolitical institutions, operating under democratically endorsed protocols to accelerate economic and community development and thus enhance support for enterprises and individuals without involving government,  as suggested in An Alternative to Market Fundamentalism? and A Case for Innovative Economic Leadership
  • apolitical mechanisms, also operating under democratically endorsed protocols that can reduce the need for complex regulation as a way of responding to societies' challenges .

Such institutional reform is arguably what is needed to genuinely restore faith in politics. The alternative is continued steady slide towards a true 'banana republic' status (as Argentina did under the influence of idealistic political populists, and as Venezuela currently appears likely to do under Chavez), and a growing risk that struggling governments will abuse their power.

In a reformed environment the focus of churches would presumably best be on seeking to ensure that the ethical foundations for moral relationships are built into individual consciences responsible to God - an outcome that would be the result of carrying forward Jesus' great commission (Matthew 28: 19-20).