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Kevin Rudd’s ‘muscular Christianity’

By Carol Johnson - posted Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Kevin Rudd’s essay “Faith in Politics”, published in the October 2006 issue of The Monthly, is an important statement of his world view, no doubt intended to position himself as a future leader of the ALP.

In this essay, Kevin Rudd declares his admiration for the arguments of the German political activist and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis in the dying days of World War II. He argues that, “Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer’s critique in the’30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed” and supports Bonhoeffer’s “muscular Christianity”.

There is much in Rudd’s essay that is admirable, particularly its arguments against poverty and economic inequality. However, the essay also reveals a troubling social conservatism at the heart of Rudd’s world-view.


There are two points at which this underlying conservatism becomes particularly apparent. Rudd rightly criticises the Religious Right for promoting a view of Christian morality that emphasises, “questions of sexuality and sexual behaviour”. He points out that, “there is no evidence of Jesus of Nazareth expressly preaching against homosexuality. In contrast, there is considerable evidence of the Nazarene preaching against poverty and the indifference of the rich”. So far, so good.

Rudd clearly wants to encourage social justice style Christianity and then win that vote for Labor. After all, Howard has benefitted electorally not only from the evangelical Right but also the conservative Catholic vote.

Gay and lesbian rights advocates, concerned about the political implications of Rudd’s Christianity, will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief. He clearly isn’t a member of the Moral Right. But where is the next obvious step for an advocate of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “theology of the oppressed”? Rudd claims he wishes to read up the ethical implications of the New Testament in order to support those Bonhoeffer terms, “the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the reviled”. He wants to support those experiencing “otherness”.

Yet, Rudd pointedly doesn’t go on to make the obvious argument that gays and lesbians are currently an oppressed and reviled “other” in Australian society.

As recent Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission online discussion papers make clear, same-sex couples are denied the most basic equality with de facto heterosexual couples in federal legislation. That, after all, is why it is Labor policy to systematically remove discrimination against gays and lesbians (other than in regard to marriage). However, Rudd’s inherent social conservatism seems to block him from spelling out the next, logical, step in the arguments in his essay. There seem to be limits to whom this Labor Good Samaritan will explicitly define as a reviled stranger in the Australian body politic.

(After all, in the Bonhoeffer context, let’s not forget that the gay rights symbol of the pink triangle originated in Nazi concentration camps).


So while he may not be a member of the extreme Religious Right, Rudd is conservative enough to side-step an obvious opportunity to use his Christianity to support same-sex rights.

There is a second point at which Rudd’s social conservatism becomes obvious. One of the strengths of Rudd’s essay is that, unusually in much recent Labor thinking, it explicitly acknowledges forms of capitalist economic inequality. He clearly sees the need for some state checks on market inequalities, especially labour market ones. Rudd even cites traditions of Christian socialism.

The essay contains an important call for checking rampant individual self-interest in the name of equity (and sustainability). Rudd also argues for broader forms of social inclusion that would, for example, encourage compassion towards asylum-seekers, NESB migrants or Indigenous peoples. He’s particularly strong on opposing the government’s recent asylum seeker legislation while merely critiquing Howard for hypocrisy in supporting English-language citizenship tests but cutting funding for English classes. Nonetheless, he seems to suffer from an inherent hierarchy of oppression which privileges more traditional forms of economic inequality, for example, class ones, over other forms of social inequality (and doesn’t see how they interact).

This privileging of the economic is revealed in Rudd’s argument that Howard’s “radioactive language” of social exclusion is predominantly aimed at “distracting the body politic from the reality of his faltering program for government”. Elsewhere, Rudd has spelled this out more explicitly: “Part of Labor’s challenge is to hang a lantern on the problem by exposing John Howard’s culture wars for what they are: a masking device which distracts from the debates he doesn’t want to have,” for example, between “individual reward and social responsibility”.

Undoubtedly that would be a good debate to foster but you are wrong Kevin. The culture wars aren’t just a distraction or even just a clever wedge (although the latter is one effect). Like Kim Beazley, your own brand of social conservatism, which privileges issues of economic inequality and downplays other forms of social power, is blinding you. It leads you to underestimate the diverse ways in which Howard manipulates the fears of “mainstream Australians” while claiming to protect their privilege and their identity. It prevents you from seeing that, unlike Labor, John Howard takes issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and increasingly, religion, just as seriously as he takes economic ones.

In fact, he has been winning elections on that basis for ten years now.

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About the Author

Carol Johnson is a Professor in Politics at the University of Adelaide and has written extensively on Labor governments and also on politics and gender. She has a particular interest in the politics of emotion. She is the author of The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke (Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1989) and Governing Change: From Keating to Howard (Network Books, Nedlands WA, 2007).

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