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Paul Kelly and the decay of public trust

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 13 July 2017

On the 24th April this year I was critical of an article written by Paul Kelly for the Weekend Australian bemoaning the loss of Christian values. I pointed out that Christianity was more than a value system and that it actually confronted our values as the faith changed with time. Kelly has followed up this article in the Weekend Australian of July 8-9th with a similar but much better article entitled "The Decline of Christian faith linked to mistrust of politicians."

His beginning is promising as he flies into the face of the PC status quo:

In the litany of words about the census the core issue has been avoided – the almost certain link between the generational decline in the Christian faith as guide to the common good and the collapsing relationship between the people and the political system. The reality is staring us in the face. Yet it cannot be spoken, cannot be discussed because there is no greater heresy and no more offensive notion than that the loss of Christian faith might have a downside.


This is nicely put. Public figures dare not say anything about religion for fear of offending the gatekeepers who defend the absolute ideal of inclusiveness.

Kelly links the fall of Christian faith to the lack of trust that people have in politicians. He goes on to link that lack to rising individualism, narcissism, and a false understanding of freedom. My criticism of his previous article was that he seemed to make no attempt to consult theological authorities. In this article he quotes well-established figures such as George Weigel and Christopher Lash as well as other commentators.

Kelly quotes Weigel writing about America:

The first step is to recognise that American politics is in crisis because our public moral culture is in crisis. The second step is to recognise that American Public moral culture is in crisis because of a false understanding of freedom. And the third step is to recognise that the false notion of freedom evident across the spectrum of American politics is based on a false idea of the human person and human aspirations.

Weigel, an American theologian, is obviously referring to the displacement of the Christian understanding of morality, freedom and the human person. The irony of America is that it is one of the most Christian of nations but it is often the case that that Christianity is only skin deep because it has been subsumed into the national narrative introduced by the founding fathers. Those who do we attend Church go to find a balm for the soul in the turbulence of life, it is not to stand under authority and certainly not to join a community to whom they might have to answer.

Americans came to this crisis because its seeds were already in the thought of the founding fathers of the nation who were more influenced by Enlightenment ideals than the Church. We in Australia were not so unfortunate but nevertheless have breathed in tainted air from American cultural hegemony. We have been dragged into America's experiment that is now devastating its public life and ours.


Part of the problem with freedom and individualism, that I am tired of saying came from the European Enlightenment, is that all authority is suspect. Only the autonomous rational subject has authority; we are each and every one of us creators of our own souls masters of our own destiny and beholden to no other authority than the self. The authority of the Church is mistaken for authoritarianism. This rejection of authority applies to the political as well as the religious. Kelly is right when he points out that this crisis of authority makes governing harder. We no longer see ourselves as community but as individuals who only look out for the self. This fractures political life.

Kelly wants to blame what he calls "progressive ideology". He has a point. When Julia Gillard told us that marriage "was just a piece of paper" and when she gave her "men with blue ties" speech that drove a wedge between the sexes, I knew we were in the realm of "progressive ideology" and that this was an unappetising aspect of leftist politics.

However, Kelly's expression of a conservative ideology that absolutizes the values of the past misses the core driving force of Christianity that is itself progressive. It is progressive in that it looks to the dawning of the Kingdom of God within the Christian community and more widely in the whole world. In doing so it leaves behind old formulations of morality and law. We no longer stone adulterous women to death and we accept Gentiles into the community of God. The Christian community constantly moves into a future that we do not see in the power of the Holy Spirit. For Christians salvation is transformation

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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