Christians and politics – a deep devastation or glorious triumph?

Just over a week ago was election day in Australia. After being behind in the polls for years, the Government was returned with a small majority.

This was seen by most pundits as an important election, charting a course for Australia’s future. Christians seemed to be more active than in any previous election that I can recall. For some christians, the return of the Government was an unexpected triumph and even a miracle. For others, it was a defeat for their hopes, leading to despair.

The stark differences raise important issues.

Why most christians supported the government

The re-elected government is on the conservative side of politics, with some extremely right wing members who deny climate change, espouse conservative social values and tend to have hardline social welfare policies. Others in the party are more centrist.

The opposition tends to be more socially progressive and supporting greater equality.

In this election, the government introduced few new positive policies and its campaign was based on what it saw as the negative consequences of an opposition victory. It seems that most older christians supported the government based on fear:

  • fear that opposition policies would reduce the value of their investments, especially superannuation;
  • fear that opposition environmental policies would reduce their standard of living;
  • fear the the opposition would not manage the economy as well as the government;
  • for some, fear that the Australian way of life was under threat from asylum-seekers, immigration, Muslims whose national loyalties are under suspicion by some, and from political correctness which is seen as favouring minorities and preventing free speech.
  • Many christians seem to have been concerned that the opposition, plus a left-leaning minor party, might end the present arrangement that allows churches to do religious teaching for a lesson a week in public schools.
  • Although abortion and gay marriage were not a significant part of this campaign, and neither party proposes major changes to present laws, there is almost certainly a lingering suspicion of the more progressive approach of the opposition, and an inherent preference for conservative social ethics.

A growing movement of progressive christians

But a significant change in this election was the number of more progressive christians who voted for the opposition because of a range of policies which they saw as being much more following the teachings of Jesus:

  • The strongest concern was probably for the future of the world and those populations which will be (and already are being) seriously affected by climate change. They saw this concern as caring for God’s earth and love for our neighbours, and they noted that the opposition’s climate change policy was much more effective and humane, and had a stronger scientific basis.
  • Many christians, and most major churches, have been horrified by the government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers which has led to long periods in indefinite detention, suicides, depression, rape, self harm and despair among those kept imprisoned. Australia’s policy has been condemned by the UN, and many christians see it as deliberate torture.
  • Christians have also been vocal about reductions in Australia’s aid programs to poorer countries and the ongoing failure of government and society to achieve reconciliation and equality for Australia’s indigenous peoples.
  • The government is seen by many christians as favouring the rich and deaf to the needs of the poor, with crackdowns on welfare cheats but not so much on tax fraud by the rich, and taxation policies which favour the rich.
  • Likewise they see the government as blind to the harm being done to the environment, especially Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef and the food bowl of the Murray Darling basin, by mining, land clearing, and over exploitation of rivers and aquifers.
  • Finally, many christians were angry at the government’s eventually effective “scare campaign” which they felt was based on greed and dishonesty.

One important expression of this new mindset is Common Grace, a movement of Aussie christians “passionate about Jesus and justice” which focuses on four key justice areas of Justice for people seeking asylum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice, Domestic and family violence, and Creation and climate justice. Common Grace sought to raise these issues in the christian community during this election (and previously)

How would Jesus vote?

Of course, I don’t know how Jesus would vote if he were a citizen of Australia, but his teachings give us a clue. Here’s my guess at how he would view the issues raised in this election:

  1. Jesus spoke a lot about the perils of wealth and a life where retaining wealth was a major goal (e.g. Matthew 6:24, Luke 12:13-21, Mark 10:23, Luke 6:24). He often sided with the poor and oppressed (e.g. Luke 4:18, Matthew 25:31-46). So it is hard to see how he would approve the government’s emphasis on wealth and self, and its approach of offering little support for those who are poor or disadvantaged.
  2. I think Jesus would generally support a fairly conservative sexual ethic, but he would express it in a sensitive and loving way (e.g. Luke 7:44-50, John 8:10-11), and he wouldn’t give it the overwhelming emphasis some christians do (e.g. Matthew 21:31-32).
  3. We have no real indication of how Jesus would view environmental degradation, but we might guess that he would value his father’s creation more than many people do today. And I think we can be sure that he would be angry at our disregard for environmental degradation that harms people, especially the poor, as will occur with climate change.
  4. Jesus very clearly said his mission included release for prisoners and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-21) and he wants his followers to do the same (Matthew 25:31-46). So I feel sure he would be angry with Australia’s inhuman treatment of asylum-seekers and our weak concern for Aboriginal health and welfare.
  5. Finally, Jesus spoke out for truth (Matthew 5:33-37, John 8:32, John 14:6) and against deceit and hypocrisy (Matthew 7:15-23, Matthew 23:1-39). He questioned the motives of those in power (Matthew 23:1-39, Luke 14:7-14). The Bible says “fear not!” more than a hundred times. So I feel sure Jesus would oppose parties or individuals who seek power for power’s sake, who try to instil fear and who tell lies or half truths to gain power. These behaviours seem to be endemic in politics, but this election it seems that the government was most guilty.

My subjective conclusion is that in this election the government fell foul of Jesus’ teachings significantly more than the opposition did.

I find it particularly galling that our Prime Minister, well-known as a committed christian, would lead a party whose policies seem so contrary to Jesus’ teachings on wealth and human welfare, and build a campaign around fear and untruth.

Christian maturity and voting

Christians will never totally agree on how to vote. Even if we agree on which policies are ethical and beneficial, we’ll likely prioritise the issues differently.

But I feel disturbed that so many christians appear to have allowed fear, materialism and/or a narrow understanding of Jesus’ teachings to lead them to feel unconcerned about some glaring problems in Australia’s public life. Regardless of how they choose to vote, I would expect all christians, including our Prime Minister, to express genuine concern over the harm currently being done to the environment, asylum seekers, indigenous peoples and the poor.

Kohlberg says that fear and uncertainty tends to drive people back from a mature and outward-looking approach to a self-focused or tribal attitude. I feel concerned that many christians may have fallen into this trap this election.

And so ….

And so, I was one of those christians who felt devastated when the government won the election on such an unchristian platform and attitude, more concerned than I have ever felt before about an election result.

Two responses to the election give me some hope:

  1. A number of prominent christian ministers wrote to the Prime Minister as a fellow christian, urging him to reconsider some of his views in the light of the teachings of Jesus, and telling him in a positive and encouraging manner that they would be praying for him. It is possible that, now he has won an “unwinnable” election, he may feel able to break free from the more conservative influences in his party. We can hope, though I feel it will require as much of a miracle as he said his victory was.
  2. Many christians, and others with similar values, are unwilling to wait for the next election to put things right, and are talking of starting to organise independently now to influence public opinion and the government. I have never been politically involved before, but I intend to be part of this movement if I can.

Photo: Common Grace. Common Grace is a “diverse movement of Christians who are passionate about Jesus & justice”, set up in Australia just a few years ago to inform and advocate on four main justice issues – climate change, domestic violence, Aboriginal reconciliation, and asylum-seekers. We support Common Grace financially and by joining in events. Common Grace was active in the recent Australian election, advocating for a more just and less selfish vote by christians.

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  1. I’m not a churchgoer but I was equally disappointed by the election result, and by Australians in general.
    A policy of fairness was rejected in favour of policies of self.
    I found it interesting that Chris Bowen said on tv that Labor had lost the votes of “people of Faith”. I wonder why. He obviously thought that was a big issue. Maybe there are more conservative Christians than progressive ones.
    What were the “conservative Christians” upset about ? Gay marriage was supported by both parties in the end. I find it difficult to believe that real Christians would oppose more care for cancer sufferers or better teeth for pensioners. Were they concerned about the Royal Commission into child abuse that was introduced by Labor and saw that as an attack on Christianity ?
    Maybe Bowen was also including Muslims in his definition of “people of faith”.
    If conservative Christians were a factor in this election result, then my opinion of them has significantly declined, but I think we need to know exactly what their objections to change were.

  2. I think for conservative people, christian or not, it was fear – fear of the unknown, fear of losing life savings, etc, not anything really rational.

  3. I don’t know if you watch the ABC program Q&A, but last night there were questions raised of “parental rights” being invaded, presumably this means the right not to have their children associating with gay teachers or students in Christian schools, and also the fact that the LNP are more broadly financially supportive of religious schools than Labor are. So follow the money again.

  4. All this assumes that the Christian vote was decisive which is not necessarily the case. There were other factors like the Adani mine, changes to investment deductions and the death tax scare which played a part.

  5. Yes, I wondered how big the “christian vote” might be. But I think the issues you mention (“parental rights” and gay teachers, etc) may be felt outside the christian community. After all, Israel Folau has been supported by many outside the christians.

  6. I think most support for Folau outside the Christians came for not what he said, but his right to say it.
    It’s doubtful whether atheists/agnostics believe in heaven and hell anyway so I can’t see them supporting his actual views about a range of people going to hell, but they may feel that in a democracy his right to free expression has been breached.
    Maybe you are right about gay students and teachers being regarded with antipathy in the population, even though the gay marriage vote was passed, the result was 62-38 which indicates a level of doubt. I really doubt if this was an election issue though, it’s more likely to be bread and butter issues like jobs etc.

  7. Gay marriage was the majority vote, but there was a sizable opposition to it and many who didn’t vote at all. I think there is a quite large number, certainly large enough to swing a close election, who broadly fit into the category of being uneasy about a lot of things like free speech, freedom of belief, longing for the old ways, uneasy about losing their superannuation, etc. It may not have been well considered, but I think that sort of thinking forms a decent sized, though fuzzy, voting bloc.

  8. Whatever the demographics, Labor seems to be changing its direction, from “wealth redistribution” to “wealth creation”. Of course you have to agree that wealth has to exist before it can be redistributed, but one wonders if this is the end of Labor’s social spending agenda.
    It seems to depend what faction is in charge of the Labor Party. I suspect that the Left will continue to press for social spending if they get into government, but Labor will be talking jobs and industry to appeal to the middle class in the run up to the next election and tax reform and social spending will be off the agenda.
    That leaves the Greens with the big spending, big taxing agenda. They only marginally improved their vote this election to the detriment of Labor I assume. It will be interesting to see if the Greens improve their vote as an indication that people are interested in a “fairer” society.

  9. The crazy thing is, Bill Shorten is part of the right wing while Albo is left, yet it was Bill who was adventurous, too adventurous as it happens, while Albo is being more careful. And the sad thing is, even their “adventurous” policies were only part way towards what is need for effective climate action and humane treatment of asylum-seekers. The only major party with a decent climate poicy is the Greens, and they are seen as too radical. So it is hard to see how anyone will know what a fairer society is.
    I went to a conference this week which outlined how dire the world situation is, We need to be told that our lifestyle MUST change, and there will be a cost, albeit not beyond what we can afford.

  10. I’m afraid most of the media are ignorant of the costs of climate change action, and the constant questioning of Shorten as to costs was juvenile.
    No one knows what the actual costs will be, because it depends on how companies respond to emissions reductions. If they just go out and buy foreign certificates then it will be expensive, but if they act to become more efficient then it will benefit them and the country in the long term and those costs will turn into credits.
    I feel that Shorten handled the costs question badly. If he had said something like the above then people would be more likely to understand, but he was evasive and people took that as being untrustworthy.

  11. Yes, agree totally. I think he was probably being advised not to say to much and present a bigger target, but it worked against him.

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