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Whose right; whose life? The place of religion in politics

By Shane Wood - posted Tuesday, 23 November 2004

The abortion debate seems to be alive and well in Australia once more. I saw a recent headline in the newsletter of a prominent single issue lobby group with close links to the Catholic Church that boasted proudly that the recent “Federal Election Results [were] pleasing”.

This group prides itself on its attempts to ensure the election of pro-life candidates and the defeat of pro-abortion candidates. Akin to this group’s views on most issues, the newsletter provides a very simplistic analysis of the election results in a number of seats. There is a great deal of post hoc, ergo propter hoc in the piece. It would fail a secondary school clear thinking exam.

Apart from that failing, the group seems to put forward a simplistic view of what success means in an election such as we have just had in Australia. There is no mention of the personal qualities, abilities or professional qualifications of any of the candidates that this group claims to have helped to get elected. Nor indeed is there any mention of the policies of the political parties they represented on a whole range of other social and political issues that are relevant to the voters. As long as they claimed to be anti-abortion they were deemed to be acceptable.


This group, like so many others professing a pro-life stance in this country and elsewhere, has narrowed the definition of “life” to suit its own purposes and has conveniently ignored those here and overseas whose “right to life” has been severely curtailed, if not taken away completely, by the actions of our politicians in the recent past. While mentioning some examples from the time of the Howard Government, I would be able to level some of the same criticisms at previous Labor Governments as well.

The election results so proudly boasted about by this group have seen the return to power (with an increased majority and a favourably disposed Senate), of a government that has presided over the most shameful mistreatment and prolonged detention of hundreds of innocent men, women and children in detention Centres both on and off shore. Where is the support for the asylum seekers’ and refugees’ “right to life”?

This government has participated in the illegal invasion of another sovereign nation, the destruction of its infrastructure and the killing and maiming of innocent members of its civilian population on the basis of what we now know to be false information. Where is the support for the Iraqi people’s “right to life”?

This government has presided over an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor in Australia (including an increasing number of working poor) while at the same time boasting of record surpluses in the treasury coffers. Where is the support for the poor in our midst, and their “right to life”?

This government has watched the health and general living standards of many, if not most, of our Aboriginal Australians remain amongst the worst in the world, while giving scant attention to Aboriginal people’s calls for inclusion, recognition and real participation in their own affairs. This is the government that promised, in the words of one of its former Ministers, “bucket loads of extinguishment” when it came to issues of Native Title. Where is the support for the Aboriginals’ “right to life”?

According to some commentators, including Nicholas Tonti-Fillipini, the recent election results in both America and Australia show the re-emergence of faith, and the opinions of those who profess a faith, as a force to be reckoned with in the political arena. In a recent article published in The Age (November 8, 2004) he spoke of the hope that this would see an end “to the prevailing materialistic, discriminatory attitudes among journalists and editors” towards those of faith.


He went on the describe some of the qualities that belong to those who profess such faith-based views. They are “inherently humble” for one; they express a “love for all mankind” for another. He went on to say that “warmongering by a nation state has no right to claim religious justification”. I found myself somewhat confused. Surely this is not what we have seen in the recent election victories of John Howard and George Bush? There was no hint of humility in the assertions by these two leaders that they would have “done the same thing again” in relation to the invasion of Iraq. The religious language surrounding the Bush push into Iraq to defeat the “forces of evil” could not be missed. God bless America; to hell with the Iraqis. Not much “love for all mankind” evident in these two camps.

As has been the case with the distortion of the definition of “life” and “right to life” by the many pro-life groups, it seems to me that the scope of faith, and by logical extension religion, has also been distorted. Religious leaders who might have been inclined to raise their voices in an attempt to provide a more balanced application of broader religious views were pre-emptively struck by the Prime Minister early in the year and told quite plainly to keep their views to themselves. (Unless of course they were willing to criticise Labor Party policy: then they were welcome to shout from the parapets.)

Christianity is not a religion that is tied to “the book”. It has a belief in a person who is not just an historical figure, but a continuing and powerful divine presence, whose Spirit continues to invite and draw human beings into evermore intimate relationship with the divine and with each other. This means that there is a continuing dynamic and dialogical development of Christian thought and praxis, as individuals in communion with the larger church engage in discernment about how best to respond to new situations. This discernment takes place in the light of the example and teaching of that same person, Jesus (scripture), and the application of the inherited wisdom of the past (tradition).

This has led, for example, in the Catholic Church, to the development of a large body of social justice teaching that has been more formally expressed over the last 110 years since the publication of Rerum Novarum in 1891. So for the views of those of faith to be limited to the ones expressed by the conservative, evangelical right is tantamount to holding up Sir Les Patterson as the embodiment of the modern Australian male. To our shame, there are still elements of truth in the Humphries caricature; but it is not the full picture.

So for those like Tonti-Filippini to suggest that the election results demonstrate the fact that religion and religious views are now becoming influential (and ought so to be) is to tell a partial truth. In Australia, it is clear that in some electorates, some religious views have made an impact. However, where this has been the case I would suggest that they are the views of a small group of conservative, fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. This is not even the whole picture of one religion, let alone of “those of faith”.

If the result of taking this group’s narrow religious platform seriously is going to give us more of what the previous Coalition Government delivered, and if Tonti-Filippini is right and religious views will be taken more seriously in future, then it is time for those who have a more holistic view of what it means to hold a Christian view of the world to become more visible, vocal and vehement in the pursuit of a more just society both at home and abroad. As Arundhati Roy reminded us recently in her Sydney Peace Prize lecture, “There can be no real peace without justice. And without resistance there will be no justice”.

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About the Author

Brother Shane Wood currently lectures on the Broome Campus of the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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