Politicians can bring faith back into public discussions by focusing on the golden rule of treating others the way you wish to be treated, attendees at a Carlton Church of All Nations forum heard last Friday.
ABC Radio National’s Andrew West was one of the speakers at the ‘Conversations that make a difference’ event. It was organised by the Church of All Nations in partnership with the Banyule Network of Uniting Churches and the Centre for Theology and Ministry.
“Politicians don’t want to talk about whether they went to Sunday school, but they may wish to talk about the fundamental principle of the golden rule,” Mr West said.
“So you offer them a platform in an election context. You have to make it an attractive proposition for politicians to address this question of the golden rule.”
Mr West was joined by Prof Janet McCalman, a social historian from the University of Melbourne. She offered a historical overview of faith in Australian politics and explored how religious beliefs informed political leaders’ engagements with public issues.
“We need to distinguish between what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar,” she said.
“I think there is a conflict between people taking their truths from a higher order and seeking to impose them on others who don’t share them.”
Christians are currently overrepresented in Australia’s political system, with a greater proportion of religious believers in parliament compared to the general community.
Prof McCalman believes religious perspectives can add value to the public sphere if they are shared ‘in a secularised way’. However, she warns against ‘religious fundamentalists’ who seek to enforce their views on the rest of society.
“We’ve got too many religious people in parliament at the moment of the ‘wrong type’,” she said.
“Over time it has been very damaging, and it still is.
“We are threated in every religion by fundamentalism and that is a very real danger to democracy – the belief that authority outside the secular, everyday society is superior to rule of law and the rule of parliament.”
Mr West disagreed with Prof McCalman’s assessment of religion in Australian politics, arguing that most politicians are reluctant to discuss their personal faith in public.
“I don’t think it’s common for politicians in Australia to talk about their faiths,” he said.
“We only think about it because two of the last four prime minsters – Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott – were much more public about their faith.”
While Mr West hopes to see greater religious representation across all political parties, he believes it is unhealthy to have parties that are aligned with a specific religion.
“Pope Francis doesn’t like what he calls ‘confessional states’,” Mr West said.
“He doesn’t like states that are officially Catholic, officially Lutheran or officially Christian. He believes, as I do, that the best forms of religion have converts, not conscripts.
“But I think it would be marvelous if more people of faiths were involved in all of the political parties, particularly the Labor Party because it is an alternative party of government and people of faith have an enormous contribution to make.”
Prof McCalman hopes to see greater conversations about social justice and what she calls ‘goodness’ – the values of caring for our neighbour and giving back to society.
“There’s a hunger in young people for idealism and for something to believe in,” she said.
“I think sometimes we need to dial the dialogue back to goodness. For many, goodness is the most powerful thing in the Christian message.”
The forum hopes to be the first of a series of talks that bridge the gap between Christian faith and contemporary public issues.
The next ‘Conversations that make a difference’ event is scheduled for October and will focus on eco-theology and sustainability in the technological age.