Confronting Unanticipated Consequences – Overcoming Political Superficiality.

In our most recent post we observed how the Liberal Party’s latest “rising star”, the member for Dickson (Qld.), has confirmed the Liberal Party’s well-established tactic of “getting legislation through” – by whatever means – in order to close ranks and thereby close down public debate that is an ongoing threat to party unity.

Mr Dutton seems oblivious of the fact that he, and the rest of his party, is in ongoing historical retreat from framing a comprehensive policy platform concerned with the most important economic nexus in the Australian polity. I am referring to the most productive institution in the Australian economy – the family household. Presumably he and a good number of his parliamentary fellows on “both sides” assume that offering a clear and unequivocal policy framework to ensure justice for marriage, family and household is simply too contentious to be discussed and debated openly. The Liberal Party in recent times has floated the idea of keeping such discussion behind closed party-room doors. And there is an another instance in which they are oblivious of what they are actually doing to starve electors from active participation in what is in fact debate that is vitally concerned with our own lives. He and his colleagues, and his opponents, regularly confirm the fact that their way of “doing politics” is now all washed up.

And this may be one symptom of our “crisis” in the West, but their failure to openly address it is a cause and consequence of our ongoing national political instability. And this too is why his party is suffering ongoing disunity. Disunity is to be expected when a political party strives to stay in power by transforming itself into a public relations firm.

Mr Dutton says that he believes that legislation for “same-sex marriage”/ “marriage equality” is inevitable. he thinks his side should get amongst the action to ensure that they stay in control of the consequential policy debate. In other words his entire approach is not about justice for “marriage, family and household” but primarily about defeating Labor at the next election. It is superficial nonsense. It deserves repudiation.

What we do have, it seems, is bi-partisan political cowardice. In all the parliamentary efforts to wave rainbow flags, we do not hear of the full gamut of consequential legislative initiatives that will follow the proposed change to the definition of lawful marriage. We are left without any idea of how SSM advocates anticipate dealing with the wide-ranging public and legal consequences of such a change; there is no clear explanation of how “marriage equality” will contribute to the overall policy direction embarked upon by the Australian Federal Parliament.

When critics of “marriage equality” ask about these consequences, the ritual answer is made in terms of an appeal to the children’s story “Chicken Licken”,

… in other jurisdictions where same-sex marriage has been legislated, the sky hasn’t fallen to earth!

Such a response amounts to a lamentable suggestion that opponents ought to allow the experiment to proceed, just as it has been engineered in other polities. IOW: let’s see where it goes? (Should I refer to Foxy Loxy in the Chicken Licken story perhaps?)

Yet for many of this generation’s citizens and politicians the idea that Australia might now be out of step with the rest of the “progressive” West on “marriage equality” is cause for deep embarrassment. Maybe this is what Peter Dutton is referring to when he says that, despite being opposed, he expects “same sex marriage is inevitable”. But the question is: what does he propose politically to do in response to this anticipated state of affairs? That question he needs to answer in conversation with his electors. But his party simply ducks for cover on this matter at every opportunity.

But then our concern here is this: what does Nurturing Justice propose politically to be done about this state of affairs? It’s a good question. Given the state of our political system, and the studied isolation by Christian citizens, I’m not sure there is anything specific that NJ can do apart from encouraging opened up discussion about a Biblically faithful understanding of “marriage, family and household” issues. But to do so will also mean that the full gamut of “body politics” issues (abortion, IVF, euthanasia, medical science and much more) have to be dealt with. But the focus upon “marriage, family and household” has everything to do developing a comprehensive political understanding of human birth, growth, maturation and decline. It  involves a full and elaborated view of how new human life is given to be nurtured by parents, how social life should aid and contribute to genuine maturation. And much more.

It is within that Biblical view of marriage, and all our other responsibilities, that Christians will have to develop a “way of life” that decisively side-steps the snares of mythic sexual self-liberation. And it will be from such a “way of life” that honours and respects the way God has made us that a Christian political option will arise. It will come in time. But when it does, it will also have to rely upon a sound and emancipatory Christian educational option.

In the meantime we remain at work in public policy and ethical research concerned with forming a comprehensive sociological understanding of marriage, family and household – not forgetting friendship in its authentic rainbow-rich variety.

What NJ should be trying to do, I guess, is to give wise advice to Christian parents and school teachers concerning their nurturing of a new generation. But to do so effectively we will also need a coherent and cogent historical account of what has transpired in the last 50 years.

In his response to the recent capitulation of the Church of England synod in England to a neopagan view of sexuality Revd. Gavin Ashenden discusses the malformation of pastoral care that arose from the psycho-therapy of Carl Rogers and C G Jung. See here.

BCW 25.7.17

 

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Who is Fit to Make Public Comment?

Recently, three Federal ministers attacked the judiciary in Victoria, and for their trouble they received a well-deserved bollocking from that State’s Chief Justice. A retired magistrate and economist has this to say on the matter. His is sage advice to all of us, but as published it also functions as “a word in the ear” to the three ideologically-inspired and ignorant Federal Ministers:

Interfering with a case before the courts, under the Common Law, is clearly improper. Attacking the judiciary undermines the separation of powers in the constitution, so better not to do it.

Their unprecedented attack upon the Victorian state judiciary simply adds further evidence that many of those elected to public office fail to understand the public-legal principles they have, on oath, sworn to uphold. Politics in this polity too is in danger of running out of control

Here is my own comment responding to the same problem, following a piece, “No minister is an island” published a few days ago:

That the court has determined that there is a prima facie case that the statements were sub judice should have been reason enough for these three parliamentarians to resign their seats. They have not done so and thus show themselves to be unfit for public office. They and their party ignore their constituted role as elected representatives which demands wise political conduct that protects the integrity of the courts. That they have not resigned after this statement by the court shows continued contempt and unwillingness, and the continued contempt and unwillingness of their party machine, to discipline themselves according to principles of democratic governance which they, and we their electors, are bound to uphold. There are many other examples of parliamentarians – with Liberal Party Parliamentarians leading the way – assuming that election to parliament gives them permission to “vent” in the way they have done. They may retain their seats but they do so by further eroding public trust in our parliamentary system of public governance, avoiding basic principle in order to continue to blame their opponents for blurring the line of separation between parliamentary power and that of the courts.

Here again, Nurturing Justice repeats what we have been saying again and again in recent posts. Our system of public governance is in deep crisis. The crisis did not arise from Donald Trump’s election, even if his Presidency is a cogent symptom of it. The crisis did not arise from the Ministers’ attack on the Victorian judiciary, but even so that attack is a cogent symptom of a failure to understand the character of parliamentary office and the separation of powers. The inability of the Liberal Party and Queenscliffe Council  to prevent the ongoing erosion of public trust from last year’s LGA election is but another symptom of the same polity-wide, if not Western, if not global, political crisis.

In this context, it is somewhat predictable that a Government minister might have his “hairy-chested” views of marriage equality leaked, and so we hear of yet another storm within Canberra’s fragile governing coalition. He has subsequently “apologised” for those comments. Nurturing Justice will not add oxygen to this media frenzy by quoting his initial comments or his servile apology. His conduct does not advance open debate at all. The Coalition’s moves inch by inch, with an eye to media speculation and public opinion polling, toward a policy that will match their political opponent’s promise – the question now is when not if the Coalition will give a “free vote” in Parliament, but that will be after the next election. after they have attempted to prove how principled they have been by holding to the platform on which they were elected. But actually the platform promise to hold a plebiscite was made necessary simply because they have inherited decades of neglect with respect to coherent and comprehensive marriage, household and family policy.

We have previously drawn attention to the 2014 paper “The Territory of Marriage: Constitutional Law, Marriage Law and Family Policy in the ACT Sane-sex Marriage Case” by two qualified jurist Patrick Parkinson and Nicholas Aroney, This is how they sum up the current legal situation.

The future of marriage is now firmly with the federal Parliament. The High Court’s definition of what is within the scope of the marriage power says nothing about what marriage and family policy in Australia ought to be, and there is now no societal consensus on the issue. Australian law on relationships is currently in a complete muddle. In various places around the country, there are marriages, civil partnerships or civil unions, registered de facto relationships, and unregistered de facto relationships, all of which end up being treated in almost exactly the same way as marriages at least once certain thresholds are met (and subject to proof if the existence of the relationship is contested).

Accordingly, Australian law accords almost all the rights and obligations of marriage to any consensual union formed between natural persons without the need to formally enter into, or exit from, that status by means of a ceremony or a court order, and whether or not the relationship was intended to endure. There are almost no eligibility requirements to be treated as being in a de facto relationship other than a prohibition on a few relationships by consanguinity or through adoption. There is no minimum age (although the age of consent may make sexual intercourse within a de facto relationship illegal in some circumstances), no impediment if one is already married to another person,96 no requirement that the relationship be monogamous.97

One of the major problems with the current law is that marriage-like obligations are imposed upon same sex and opposite sex couples irrespective of their intentions, without their consent, and often without their knowledge. When couples break up, one of them may well be shocked to find that he or she is treated for the purposes of property division and maintenance as if he or she had made a commitment to marry – with all that this entails – when this was not what was intended by either of them. One of the issues that needs to be considered very carefully in any principled revision of the law of relationships therefore is the freedom not to be treated as if one were married.

One has to wonder whether our parliamentary representatives have read and understood the competent description of the legal state of affairs by Parkinson and Aroney. Their analysis confirms our suspicion that the political accommodation on all sides to the demand for “marriage equality” has now become a struggle over which “side” will win the contest which is largely symbolic in nature, symbolic in the sense of which party can hold onto power long enough to be able to claim that it was their efforts that ensured “marriage equality.” Few are willing to address the obvious question: what of the rights of those who believe that a legislated “marriage equality” is simply another Governmental mistake and should be treated as such?

But is this not evidence of a glaring political hole in the “marriage equality” banner? Consider: would long-term campaigners for genuine extension of human rights to say citizenship by removing a racial or blood criterion from the legislated definition of citizenship, remain silent about a prevailing juridical muddle concerning citizenship that could already be found alive and well, actively confusing people about the reality of their situation throughout the polity? Why isn’t the muddle with respect to the application of constitutional law, marriage Law and family policy being addressed in systematic public philosophy terms by the politicians who are so keen to see the definition of lawful marriage changed to meet the changing fashion on display in other polities? Well it certainly suggests a prima facie case for our judgment that such politicians are not really interested in such political debate at all, especially when political debate does not hold out the prospect of a greater share of “millennial” votes at the next election. No, the emphasis is well and truly upon sending signals, attending Mardi Gras, wearing lapel pins, aligning one’s search for more votes to reigning pop symbolism.

But there are ongoing public policy issues whichever way the Australian Federal Parliament moves to misidentify marriage to align with the global campaign.

And those who are committed to a Christian political option should be hard at work now to articulate a just set of comprehensive policies of marriage, householding, family life and family nurture for future generations in this polity. This will also need to be formulated with an eye to supporting the peoples of the region, their family structures and their children, as well.

And now the world-wide aspiration for “marriage equality” (backed by corporate dollars, celebrities and “wind vane” Christian clerics, bishops, theologians and scholars), has eclipsed the vital political question of how public justice is due to marriage. Christian leaders who advocate “same-sex marriage” are not talking about justice for marriage. They are not known for articulating what Christian discipleship means for the married couples as citizens. They have been married in their churches, but now the Christian community in many places is further broken by this accommodation to what is a neo-pagan hyper-individualistic ideology. And Christian young people, seeking clarity about how to live in this context are left high and dry.

So, those wanting to see marriage given its due, as part of a Christian political option, will have to reckon with the hard fact that this is a public legal matter. It not only requires an understanding of how marriage law stands at the present time, but involves articulating a comprehensive political view of what a Christian way of life involves. This is an urgent need for public policy development for Christian citizens, churches and schools, business and associations, political parties and unions. These all need to deepen their understanding of how they are part of a Christian way of life. This will involve renewed appreciation of human responsibility, for marriage, householding, family life and nurture. We may say these responsibilities are “God-given” – we need to face up to the fact that our citizenship is one such responsibility, part of the Christian way of life into which we have been called. All indications are that a Christian political option is currently on the road to further marginalisation. Is there any emerging concern among Christians and their churches about the egregious accommodation to same-sex marriage. Is there any growing concern about the public and political implications of Christian discipleship (including therefore a Christian view of marriage) and how they will need to be justly represented in parliament? In fact the ecclesiastical accommodation seems consonant with the view that our parliaments no longer need to hear any political insights that arise from a way of life signposted by the Bible.

But here’s the thing: if we are to make public comment then we have to get fit for doing so, exercising ourselves in unstinting fashion as citizens involved in the task of giving expression to public justice, then we will have to work at it with all we have.

We will do our utmost to present ourselves to God as those who will be approved by what we are doing, having no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

BCW

29 June 2017

UNCOVERING THE HIDDEN DIMENSIONS OF A SECULARISED IDENTITY – Part Five

An Appeal to my Fellow Confirmation Candidates of 1965?

Let us briefly recap:

In the second post in this series I wrote this: What I am seeking to develop here is a discussion about some of the ways the contemporary and taken-for-granted secularised identity (i.e. personal identity) is generated. I am suggesting it was from the standpoint of the Christian way of life that I began, however blurred my vision, to perceive the dominance of this “other” way. And at the same time that the Christian way of life became the self-evident path on which I was walking, I started to suspect that this “other” way in which I had been nurtured, claiming to be Christian, was a heritage forming the institutions of public life in this country and to do so in a way that encouraged people to publicly form a way of life that is a radical alternative to its own Christian “background”. In such a context, churches, Christian schools and Christian associations simply seemed to be committing themselves, their teachings, and their social involvement and public status to various ways in which they, as church organisations, congregations, denominations, church councils, bible study circles, schools to resolve their own problematic standing because they/we had already been lulled into viewing the Christian way of life as a problem to be solved. This was a Christian life committed to an incessant effort to identify and solve problems relying not upon “your heavenly Father who knows all you need” but upon the superior rational capacity we would get from advancing our educational qualifications.

I have greatly enjoyed writing this series and have even ruminated on why that may be. In fact the above statement is a re-write of what I initially wrote. Being someone who also writes, I find myself re-writing and polishing my prose. And as I do so I find myself asking, why should I do this and, in this instance when I seem to have achieved more than 50 hits in four days, who am I really aiming at!

Should this series be re-titled: An Appeal to my Fellow Confirmation Candidates of 1965? The only “data” I have about the 15 or so other candidates who joined in that service at The Anglican Church of St Edward the Confessor, Edinburgh Road, South Blackburn, back on 25th August 1965, is the vague sense from the months and years thereafter that for many it simply began process by which in time they would stop coming to church. Was it also the beginning of mere nominal allegiance, confirmed by a church ceremony, that they didn’t know have to confront? A passing out parade, perhaps? Maybe. Who knows? I went on as a young student to university and did so as a Christian. There I didn’t study for a job but to get a social perspective – at least that is what I said I wanted when I was asked at the time. And I studied sociology that, as I have tried to point out has since claimed itself to be the harbinger of an educated generation who understood that:

  • religious belief is still important and takes its place in “the background”.

  • religion  is no longer front and centre and to assume so is to excuse oneself from secular society.

So, my question to myself is: might this discussion be helpful, even to my fellow confirmation candidates, let alone fellow members of St Edwards Youth Fellowship (we invented the acronym: SEDYOF) so many moons ago? Well why not? 

So, now to return to the manner in which university sociology was taught in those late 1960s early 1970s: as I have suggested, what frustrated me deeply was the inability of our 2nd and 3rd year tutorials and lectures to deal with such dissonances that were integral to our everyday “religious” experience. These kinds of experiences were all too self-evident to some of us who were not about to pretend to deny our “religious” backgrounds. We sat there in sociology lectures taking it all in and hearing, in effect, why “religion was no longer the central and defining feature of post-industrial social life” or, more stridently, why “religion was well and truly on the way out”. Yet with all this theory, our lecturers were perhaps just a little too polite in pedagogical practise. And perhaps their politeness rubbed off too much on us because we didn’t broach these difficult questions that had already arisen for us in various “religious” contexts.

Let me mention a difficult question that is very much a part of my political sociological reflection these days: what are we to say about solemn religious vows? How can they be properly understood – even in the context of allegedly “neutral” sociological analysis – without reckoning with the unavoidability of pre-scientific assumptions that give direction and coherence, let alone meaning, to the theoretical endeavour that studies any social setting, no matter how sacred or profane, no matter how religious or secular? This is why my previous public affirmation of Christian faith, in a church, before a congregation, said reverently before God, only becomes problematic to the sociological analysis thereof if sociological analysis has already imbibed the way of life that asserts that human problem solving is its front and centre leading characteristic! To put it another way a Christian may study with “To the Greater Glory of God” (ad majorem Dei gloriam – AMDG) on her lips or even written on the top of every new page of her notebook, but those of the problem-solving way of life are no less confessing some comparable religious allegiance even if they are oblivious of the fact as they tap out their essays or put pen to paper.

But what was the consequence of “secularisation theory” for generations of sociology students, and in particular Christian sociology students who approached their studies in ways to accommodate the “problem-solving way of life”. The consequence was that such a public vow – made in church – had to be referred to in sociological coursework – not as something intensely related to a student’s pre-scientific assumptions – but as a private attitude that is best left, and best respected, in private. Well, consider now how sociology qua discipline considers other vows and think about the manner in which our legal system has inherited a system of legally enforceable promises. What are we doing about such taken-for-granted aspects of our way of life when marriage, family life and the formation of the post-modern utterly commodified household are being reinterpreted for a younger generation? See this insightful prod of two jurists to reassess the taken-for-granted rights talk that is held on most sides of our political debate.

And so, what has transpired with such a view of vows – the empirical circumstances of which have been implicitly avoided by those claiming to be guided by sociology’s grand theories – has been that were assumed to be a problematic of “secular society” and so it was their presumed problematic character rather than the vow itself that had to be theorised with secularising nonchalance. Here, as we have hitherto pointed out, again and again, is a very important issue that simply will not go away when the libertarian tide finally claims its high water mark in this country and the legislated definition of “marriage” becomes a weapon for those wanting public governance for their attempts to redefine their non-marital relations as marriage, with the perhaps unintended consequence, of ignoring a basic feature of such solemn oaths made by its citizens when they were wed. It was a solemn oath that included respect for marriage as a monogamous and life-long institution that was inherently and exclusively male-female.

Marriage as an institution is no longer is viewed in terms of an oath by man and woman to each other before God, even if such a marriage oath as they did take was previously in a church ceremony. The oath is viewed as a contract, a publicly binding something (what? a legal fiction perhaps?) that has been created by civil authority. And so, in the interests of equity and public fairness marriage gets its redefinition in terms of different kinds of dyads, composed of completely a-sexual autonomous gender choosing individuals, who freely have their desire to carry the name (if not stereotype) together endorsed, so that they can be publicly respected as such. As respected as what? The former enforced dyadic union that excluded gender-fluidity from its definition?

In such a development, the former marriage vows of a man and a woman from an entire generation – who took on a church ceremony because they believed that it would be just too difficult not to do so, and hence accommodated puritan grandmother, or unmarried Methodist aunts – are now on the cusp of being reconfigured in “public discourse”. This was simply what was done in the “olden times” before enlightenment took hold, when people actually were still under the impression that a wedding ceremony in a church was truly coram Deo.

Well, we also know, about the way solemn marriages vows in ceremonies conducted in churches have subsequently been abjured by the parties themselves. What about the solemn vows made by those of my generation who submitted to “confirmation”? Both of these were said at the time they were made as being solemn vows before God. And perhaps sociology, and its proud adherence to “secularisation theory” has played some part in this?

1. In the Anglican Church of which I became a full member at the age of 15, I affirmed with a solemn vow my baptism as a child and publicly acknowledged that I was bound before God and that congregation to live henceforth as a Christian. I’m not suggesting that the service as I now re-read it is without deep and perplexing ambiguities. To the contrary. But I’m left to wonder why our sociology classes left us with no discussion about this, let alone given any suggestions as to how such ambiguities could be resolved other than the implied one that such ceremonies were (and are) merely the persistence of a way of life that has long since been superseded. Had I not been told, again and again that:
“You shouldn’t be taking this religious stuff too seriously you know. Why have you become a Christian? What’s in it for you?”
But what was a young confirmation class graduate to say? Maybe he had submitted to this ceremony, gone along with the confirmation crowd because of an overwhelming sense of being overawed by what the Bible had taught about Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah. The human race has been met face-to-face with God Himself, God with us. And the point is that when “secularisation theory” met the “everyday secularisation” of Christian high school graduates in those days – no matter what was said – the sociology tutorial class we interpret it in secularised terms because the tutorial class was assumed to be the realm of merely secular opinion sharing. religion was on the way out and sociology of religion was giving us a theoretical explanation of why it wasn’t present in the university class-room.
The problem that this raises is not just that it is an intellectual endorsement of the privatisation of the student’s faith; but as intellectual attitude it simply “goes with the flow” of a problem solving way of life. The problem is in the dogmatic assumption that will not be brought to light in order to have it justified. It is the view that any profession of Christian faith arises in a person by an autonomous act that “constructs” the “new” reality, whether the promises of the Lord God can be relied upon or not. In other words this is a deep problem – a logical contradiction is the pre-theoretical commitment, the way of life in which “secularisation” theory as it has been promulgated is embedded.
2. The second issue of vows and oaths concerns the vows and oaths made by marriage partners, man and woman, in Christian marriage ceremonies. These ceremonies, seeking to be obedient to the teaching about marriage and family life that has been set forth in the New Testament by Jesus and the Apostles, have hitherto been acknowledged and endorsed as public vows concerning the married couple’s genuine intentions. The libertarian agitation for “same sex marriage” has for decades now, joined by Christian leaders and many other prominent Christian scholars claiming Biblical justification for their change of view as well, now advocate legislation and church practise that implies a view of public justice, let alone of view of Christian political action, that assumes that government should legislate a “base-line” definition of marriage that is not only privatised by secularised, that is making problematic marriage vows claiming to be made in the presence of God.

We were were not encouraged to openly reflect upon our experiences of catechism, confirmation, Sunday School, baptism, RI classes in State Schools, let alone our schooling if we had been at various church or parish schools. It might now be worthwhile to revisit the 1960s “enlightened” view of marriage and family.

I do recall, how one scholar was endorsed in lectures claiming that the basic sociological classification for family was a mother and child – and hence taking on a general sociological theory that implicitly assumed that a fathering is problematic. To our discredit we did not follow through and examine this in social philosophical terms, but then of course when philosophical assumptions were raised in sociology at that time, we were directed down two flight stairs to the ninth floor and the philosophy department and so would confront its reigning logical empiricism and linguistic analysis.

It is quite probable that we might not have enjoyed the experience had we been encouraged to discuss in sociology classes how the Christian way of life had become problematic even in these formal “religious settings”. The “secularism” that dominated sociology classes at this time was one that had resolutely turned to a “religionless” future but it wasn’t particularly hostile to students with religious outlooks. It was more a positivist expectation that religious commitment and experience was dying out and was in the realm of private values which had been already been superseded – and did not need to be tested against our own experience. The more militant might assert that religion was for “old ladies and little kids” who didn’t know any better who clung to religious belief because they were scared not to, but presumably some of our lecturers were struggling with the secularist air we were all breathing and their own privatised faith problems.

Some years later, Australia’s premier critical economist Hugh Stretton (1924-2015) described these years in terms of a deeply intellectual vandalism in these words:

A specially destructive effect of positivist professionalization was to cut people off from likely sources of self-criticism… In the disciplines which embraced this sort of positivism, … [s]tudents were taught that their values and their moralities were almost literally childish…. non-rational beliefs acquired at home or at church by faith or authority.

This experienced and well-respected academic’s 1987 statement continues:

Students come to university at an age when they are most vulnerable to suggestions that they are immature, that it is time to let go of the apron strings and toughen up and grow up. It was at that psychological moment that their positivist teachers and textbooks told them, as many economics teachers and textbooks still do, that valuing thought has no place in science. They must leave all their soft, childish, subjective values outside the classroom. If they don’t, they can’t hope to see facts, or to think for themselves as adults and scientists. In short they were told to throw away what were in fact the only rational guides to a lot of their scientific work, including many quite technical parts of it. They were taught to sneer at valuing thought as stupid and unscientific. ‘But that’s nothing but a value-judgment’ has stopped countless social-scientific discussions at the point where serious discussion ought to have begun. (“Political effects of positive social science” in Hugh Stretton Political Essays Georgian House 1987 pp.167-174 at pp.170 & 172-3.)

Stretton’s essay is recommended and throws a shining light on the emergence of a cruel managerialism – that has, we must concede also become a sine qua non of denominational businesses seemingly seeking to maintain a niche in the “spiritual market place”.

What I am suggesting is that a good percentage of the students sitting there in lecture theatres had, ten years before that, been regular pupils in Sunday Schools or had attended Catholic Parish schools. And of course there were those from elite Church Schools. Many of these late 1960s students had been “done”, or baptised, confirmed, or professed faith in their early teenage years. But these “everyday facts” were not opened-up and they do not seem to have been considered as a valid let alone vital part of our social lives for class-room (sociological) discussion. In other words, what was missing in those classes considered the “sociology of religion” and “secularisation theory” was any acknowledgement of our own secularising experience in those increasingly secularised “religious settings” (or at least in those settings which from the predominant sociological theoretical standpoint whether functionalist or Marxist saw the impact of “secularisation”. And because we were not encouraged to respect our own past experiences we Christian students were, I guess, encouraged to reinterpret ourselves in ways that downplayed or ignored our faith; did we not then see our faith as indistinguishable from the faith of our peers who had embraced the secularisation, and “left God behind”, who could only say they saw no need for faith. Were not our minds being cultivated to accept what Hugh Stretton identifies as the longer-term results of positivism?

… to sneer at valuing thought as stupid and unscientific. ‘But that’s nothing but a value-judgment’ has stopped countless social-scientific discussions at the point where serious discussion ought to have begun.

[As an aside at this point: my good friend Peter Gibilisco in his account of Hugh Stretton’s life at Scotch College suggests that Stretton’s own encouragement of critical reflection on social context was stimulated by a Plymouth Brother who taught him history: “a miracle of liberality”. Certainly not a Christian who could ever be a scholar according to some secularised stereotypes sometimes rife in sociology! see Peter Gibilisco Hugh Stretton and the Social Sciences MA Dissertation, Monash University  1999 p.17 – his public policy writings are collected here].

[to be continued]

PUBLIC EMOTIONS AND JUST DEBATE (2)

Nurturing Justice 2006 3 November

In this issue, I want to extend our discussion of the calls for “gay marriage” from the Greens and Judge Michael Kirby by setting forth the beginnings of a Christian strategy to discuss this contentious and problematic issue. By this stage we should not be under any illusions. The possibility that “gay marriage” will be given legal sanction in this country is by no means remote. Perhaps, as time goes on, the likelihood even increases. Mark Shields of the NewsHour recently gave this opinion: “I mean, the tide has turned on this issue. I mean, the next generation is just immeasurably, profoundly more tolerant of gay relationships than are their grandparents. And there’s a movement that’s inevitable” (October 27. 2006). He is speaking of the US. Are we in Australia about to follow the US down this path? It wouldn’t be the first time.

In introducing this topic last time, I drew attention to the emotional aspect of this debate and emphasized the importance of developing an overview of political life. To make a positive and constructive Christian political contribution to all political debates, not just about marriage law and related issues, a lot of careful analysis will be required. We will have to sort through issues self-critically and certainly not hide from the possibility that our presentation of the Christian message has failed to provide any clear alternative to the so-called sexual revolution. The public confusion about sex, sexuality and marriage is all around us. It is a confusion that has to be addressed. With something like 80,000 abortions per year and many, many marriages falling apart, there simply is no ground for Christian triumphalism.

In our reflection on this issue we must question ourselves as to whether we are rightly understanding the problems confronting us.

So to start. The question before us is: should a homosexual relationship be granted the legal status of marriage? “No!”, all on it’s own, doesn’t get very far. If “No!” is to express a genuine political concern for public justice its needs to be followed by an elaboration of the political view of marriage that has brought us to this conclusion. Can we do that?

We have to explain what our “No!” means politically? OK then let us first explore what “No!” shouldn’t mean. Remember, our aim is to develop political argument to meet the arguments of those whose answer to the question is “Yes!”

First, “No!” doesn’t mean a desire to avoid political debate by merely expounding moral and ethical precepts. The question needs to be taken in its political-legal sense and our “No!” needs to be a political-legal “No!”. It needs more than moral elaboration.

Second. “No!” doesn’t mean that we are making an argument for legally restricting the use of the word “marriage” so that committed couples who might want to refer to themselves in this way are legally forbidden to do so on pain of penalty. That would not be a positive development. If any couple are living together and want to refer to themselves as married, we might have our own views on that, and if asked for our views, we might tell them that they are not really married until they have “gone through” a marriage ceremony to make it public. But on that level of inter-personal interaction our “No!” to gay marriage is not to suggest that the law be changed to restrict the way people use the word in public or in private communication. To expand the powers of government to control the way the word “marriage” is used (or any other word for that matter) would be to take a path that wanders far from the limits of public justice. And anyway there are many male and female “partnerships” that refer to themselves as married. Conventionally they were referred to as “common law marriages”.

Third, to say “No!” doesn’t mean that homosexual couples are being singled out for special negative treatment. The demand for “gay marriage” is often couched in terms of civil rights. Though any “No!” is based on the view that marriage is not a civil right, it is not to suggest that homosexual couples have in some way forfeited their civil rights. Any view that a homosexual couple living together is not a marriage needs to be explained in terms of a wider view of law and human relationships. The law doesn’t usually regulate friendships and nor should it. Here are some other dimensions of the issue.

If a mother and son want to be legally recognised as a marriage, the law already says “No!”, and so it should. Likewise for a brother and sister who might want to make the same claim. Moreover, in this jurisdiction, polygamous and polyandrous arrangements are not accepted as lawful forms of marriage, even though our legal restrictions do not deny that these arrangements are marriages. What the law says in this instance is that polygamy is not a recognized form of marriage in this jurisdiction.

So, “No!” in our case means: a homosexual relationship is something other than a marriage and therefore should not qualify as a lawful marriage. Our “No!” means that we will still not accept that it is a marriage even if marriage law is changed to include homosexual relationships within the legal definition of lawful marriage. Our “No!” in that instance will expand to saying “No!” to the lawful definition even when the lawmakers who are redefining marriage in the way proposed go ahead . Our “No1” will mean that in our view a legal error based upon an empirical mistake is not corrected simply by legislation that incorporates the mistake into its erroneous definition.

As so our “No!” also means that Governments sometimes make mistakes on the basis of erroneous legal judgments. And there is a wider question here about how we should then live as citizens in the context of error.

In this instance, should a legal judgment decide that homosexual relationships should qualify as “marriage”, it would not only misidentify the committed non-marital relationship that may or may not want to be legally recognised as a marriage, but it would also mean that marriage had been redefined because the law would henceforth consider something that previously was not marriage as marriage. What isn’t being addressed is the underlying dogma that it is the law itself that makes marriage. “No!” in this case means a rejection of the idea that the law makes marriage marriage.

To legally redefine homosexual relationships as “marriage” on the basis of an assumption that the law makes marriage would certainly challenge the widely held view that marriage law is about the legal recognition of marriage. What is ignored here is marriage’s ascribed institutional character, having an authority that is established outside the competence of the political community. It seems that advocates of such law assume that marriage is a human creation and so assume that what humans have made they can un-make and re-make.

“No!” here also doubts whether the just support and regulation of committed, long-term relationships will be enhanced by legally re- defining those relationships (including homosexual relationships) as “marriages”. “No!” views two friends who are living together, committed to supporting each other, without any sexual bonding, as a friendship, not a marriage and for exactly the same reason considers a homosexual relationship to be a friendship. In our complex society there are indeed multiplying ways in which people can live together in supportive and loving relationships. But love does not equal sexual love, and ongoing complaint on behalf of “same-sex marriage” about “equal love” is not only blurred, it is blurring.

Such diversity of relationships should evoke our (civic) respect and honour and at points there will be need for changes in laws to ensure justice. But justice is not served by calling a relationship marriage just because the parties to that relationship want to have their relationship re-made in those terms. More can be said here about the “social constructionist” and “consumerist” assumptions that are strongly evident in our commercialised and post-modern way of “doing politics”.

Fourth, to say “No!” doesn’t mean that only heterosexual lawfully married couples should qualify in law for benefits that are already available for people living in committed (household) relationships. “No!” in this case does not mean any criticism of such provisions like “paid carer’s leave” or hospital visiting rights, superannuation entitlements, and so on. Moreover, it may indeed be a matter of justice that laws governing such allowances and access, as well as many financial and contractual relationships (health benefits, superannuation, inheritance), be changed in order not to discriminate against non-married supportive couples. And it would in fact be discriminatory to single out one kind of non-marital relationship for a privilege usually granted to marriage partners while denying that privilege to other kinds of enduring partnerships and committed friends.

Politics is about open debate. We citizens may disagree with each other. At this point in time those arguing for and against “gay marriage” are certainly going to disagree. But the important point is to find ways by which political debate is developed as we disagree and as we find just pathways for policies and laws. We need to avoid the tendency of treating fellow citizens as of no account because they disagree with us on contentious issues, and certainly we should not exclude their voice from our attention because they are committed to other political causes. We should seek to tell the prominent public advocates of “gay marriage” why we disagree and why we think the campaign for “gay marriage” is misconceived. But we also keep alert to the clash of assumptions that will come when public policy is debated.

BCW 31.3.17 Edited version of 3rd November 2006.

TEN YEARS ON:

How should we characterise the last decade of political life?

In this series of Nurturing Justice I want to reflect briefly upon Nurturing Justice‘s ongoing exposé of the Liberal Party, and \perhaps one of our major political contributions.

We have recently commented upon of the Liberal Party’s deceitful practises, bordering on a profound and deep-rooted corruption, in local government. I am not sure whether, in former time, such a political failure at a local level would have become a national scandal. Maybe it wouldn’t have. But it certainly deserves to be made so these days. According to Nurturing Justice, the ongoing crisis in the Liberal Party is not as the mainstream Murdoch and Fairfax media, and the ABC, and construe it as merely the irritating “deplorable” conservative tail wagging the progressive dog. None of them, as far as I can tell, link its ongoing parliamentary problems with its notorious failure as a party to develop a comprehensive policy framework by which it could, from its own party’s corporate political reflection from its grass-roots, to make its case for being a party of candidates pledged to represent electors. The declension from being a political association that actually facilitated just representation of electors, as is presupposed by the Australian Constitution, a sine qua non dimension of our own nation’s parliamentary democracy under the Crown, was made virtually irrevocable when the former PM justified his own. and his party’s willingness to play with electors, by a specious plea to a pragmatic distinction between “core” and “non-core” policies. But then of course this was a distinction that was made after the electorate had been conned by such an understanding of platform promises.

Nurturing Justice has traced this to the Liberal Party’s own constitutional crisis of 1974-5 and to the consequences that flowed for the party as a parliamentary party of political principle when in 2001 the former Member for Bennelong, as Prime Minister in the Federal Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, found he could not hold to his pre-election promise to his electors concerning scientific research on human embryos.

And so, since 2006, Nurturing Justice has sought to explain how that persistent declension from ensuring genuine political representation in the country’s Parliaments (and now also local councils) needs to be taken into account if the beginnings of, the groundwork for, a coherent Christian political option is ever to be initiated in this context.

And no one, to my knowledge, is actually drawing attention to the inner connection between the Liberal Party’s accommodation to Faustian principles and its shift toward libertarian politics, by the Party’s on-ging endorsement (despite some token “conscience vote” opposition) when the former PM, having won the election, reneged on that 2001 pre-election promise to his electors. Since then the device of a “conscience vote” has been the pragmatic means to preserve the party’s unity, holding back members elected on its platform from splitting into various competing factions. (And the Labor Party too has played this game). And so, now it is “same sex marriage” that cannot be resolved by a conscience vote in Parliament because of an agreement to hold to the election promise of a national plebiscite.

 Well, I find I am in mortal danger of simply writing in ways that parade my qualifications as a curmudgeon, challenging the two resident “old geezers” watching whatever was going on “below” in Sesame Street.

But Nurturing Justice has actually been devised as a project to challenge any merely curmudgeonly tendency that might arise in my or anyone else’s political attitude for that matter, as I/we become “more mature”. But as a political temptation it is one to which many capitulate in the media and other facets of public life. It is not so easy to avoid the ironic curmudgeonly approach to politics. Besides, it often holds out the prospect of “light relief”. It then simply becomes a dimension of public theatre. Yet, there is a counter-tendency – equally superficial in a political sense and perhaps even more politically destructive – when powerful persons seek to maintain their niche in the media by announcing their “change of attitude”, bending to the whims of (alleged) majority opinion.

The next two posts Public Emotions and Debating Justice (1) and Public Emotions and Debating Justice (2) are republications of posts written 10 years ago.

Nurturing Justice is posted as a way of encouraging a Christian political option. And we therefore seek to deepen our understanding of what happens politically when humans imagine themselves to be autonomous. The claim to human autonomy is as alive now as it was ten years ago. In fact it was an entrenched part of Western political life and thought even before 1788, let alone 1901.

BCW 31.3.17

Red Herrings Rampant

So, let us pause and consider what has persistently been given as arguments for “Marriage Equality”.

As I write this I’m wondering if I have missed anything. Have I been so oblivious to an argument that has seemingly captured the “enlightened” world?

The first and primary question that shall frame our examination here is this:

what is the argued justification for the assertion that a same-sex permanent union is itself marriage?

Is it anything more than an assertion?

Have we heard anything that explains why a same-sex permanent union always has been a form of marriage and now, when the law is changed, will be a legally recognised form of marriage? Have we heard anything other than that marriage must be redefined by the State to include same-sex permanent unions? Are we to say that the argument comes down to this: “a same-sex permanent union should be viewed as, and will be legally recognised as, marriage when the law says that it is”?

When we put it in these terms we realise that we have been led on by arguments that repeatedly and persistently avoid the issue:

  1. With respect to the appeal to human rights we confront two prevalent but regularly unjustified assertions:
  • the first is that marriage is itself a civil right. Our reply to that is that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman based upon a solemn vow made and maintained publicly together and to each other.

But if marriage is a civil right, as some proponents claim, then they should first have raised the need for an amendment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and hence propose that marriage be included in the list of fundamental freedoms and at the same provide a reformulation of Article 16 which has to do with the marriage institution itself. Such an appeal to marriage as a human right seems to allow itself to be circumscribed by the so-called inviolable principle of national sovereignty, although as we shall see below this circumscribed advocacy of “Marriage Equality” raises no qualms in its appeal to what has been done by “progressive and enlightened nations” even if a majority of United Nations members do not subscribe (have not yet subscribed) to the proposed legislative deconstruction of marriage to make it compatible with enlightened liberal opinion.

  • the second is that it is a denial of human rights for the Marriage Act to have a definition of marriage which is “exclusive” in the sense of excluding relationships of couples who want their relationship to be called marriage but who cannot be said to be “lawfully married” in the terms of the Marriage Act as it now stands because they are of the same sex. In this sense the purpose for which the Marriage Act and its definition of lawful marriage was drafted is completely forgotten. The definition of marriage as contained in the Marriage Act is indeed to recognise lawful marriage and to exclude forms of marriage which do not comply with the Marriage Act’s definition. It’s aim is not to establish one kind of interpretation of a dyadic (male-female) relationship by excluding other kinds of dyadic (same-sex) relationships.

2. There is also an extremely naive assertion that Australia needs Marriage Equality legislation because we are the last English-speaking advanced country not to allow same-sex marriage (Peter van Onselen September 24th The Australian). This is more of a cringe than an argument. Those who wish to defend “Marriage Equality” by such an appeal have not explained why this polity should follow on this path and explain why they have not made a legislative or judicial error based on an empirical mistake.

Would it not be just as cogent to say that Australia is now the first English-speaking polity to recognise that a serious legal mistake has been made by other polities when they have tried in vain to advance homosexual rights by joining in the neo-liberal global experiment that would engineer social change by legislation, by seeking to reconstitute a central social institution by legislating a new generic definition of marriage.

3. Likewise, an appeal to all the surveys that have revealed that “most Australians support same-sex marriage”, is similarly disingenuous. Irrespective of what the numbers are one will still have to ask what such signalled “support” means. After all “support” can simply mean allowing people to refer to themselves as a married couple (freedom of speech affirmed). “Support” can mean allowing people of the same-sex to contract to live permanently together (freedom of association affirmed). “Support” can mean being friendly and sympathetic.

And in recent times it is commonly said: “Let’s pass the Marriage Equality legislation so we can get on with the rest of our lives.” In other words – “let’s get it out of the way!””Support” in a survey thus might well mean a deep-seated desire to de-politicise public discussion about marriage. Again, an appeal to surveys does not, of itself, constitute an argument. If anything it highlights the need for genuine political discussion about marriage, family and household and how these are to be properly respected in our administration of public affairs. How are we to have public justice for marriage, family-life and household hospitality when there is such a judicial muddle with respect to these matters as identified so cogently by two senior academic jurists?

Australian law on relationships is currently in a complete muddle. In various places around the country, there are marriages, civil partnerships or civil unions, registered de facto relationships, and unregistered de facto relationships, all of which end up being treated in almost exactly the same way as marriages at least once certain thresholds are met (and subject to proof if the existence of the relationship is contested). (Patrick Parkinson and Nicholas Aroney “The Territory of Marriage: Constitutional law, marriage law and family policy in the ACT Same Sex Marriage Case” 2014, pp.38-9.)

4. More recently, the Liberal-National Coalition Government has attempted to maintain their parliamentary unity, and the unity of their respective parties, by stitching up a deal to hold a plebiscite on “Marriage Equality”. This was part of the negotiated change of leadership from Mr Abbott to Mr Turnbull. And so the underlying view on that side of the Parliament has conceded that whatever definition of marriage is contained in the Marriage Act it will only ever be what is deemed to be “politically correct” by the powers that be. (We are not aware of any political commentators who have joined Nurturing Justice in reckoning with this shift in the Liberal-National view of the public-legal dimensions of the marriage institution – but that is now the base-line commitment of the Liberal-National Coalition). This brings us to the view held by the Treasurer, Mr Morrison, who has happily let it be known that he would vote “Yes” for “same-sex marriage” legislation even if his vote in the plebiscite was “No”. In other words, his is a view, again not argued, that marriage is whatever is ordained by the vox populi. Presumably, Mr Morrison the Christian believes we live at present with a Marriage Act endorsed by a Christian vox populi.

5.   We have repeatedly pointed out that one of our persistent problems with political debates in this nation is a tendency to replace considered argument with elaborate appeals that are simply expressions of sentiment. Nurturing Justice would not suggest that it is, and remains, completely free from such a tendency. In fact we have pointed out that Christian contributions to this political debate have traditionally hamstrung themselves by assuming that discussion about marriage has only marginal relevance for our political life as citizens. And so it is still widely felt that a political argument about marriage – what it is and how it should be lawfully recognised – is to have already given the game away. The prevalent view is that Marriage and Family belong in private, and are to be safeguarded by our religious spirituality. Politics is public, and therefore secular. In this respect Nurturing Justice, in its “rear-guard” advocacy of a Christian way of life cannot ignore the problem that Christian negligence has prepared the ground for the “marriage equality” harvest in an allegedly “religiously neutral” sphere.

But now the devoted defenders of equality with democratic sentiments have become advocates of “Marriage Equality”. It is, they now claim, “love” that motivates their advocacy of this much needed change. We might still be waiting for an explanation of the strategic change in the movement from the former attempts to argue for “same sex marriage legislation” by appeal to “civil rights” to “marriage equality” based on “love” and “spreading the love around”. But even while such advocacy appears deeply rooted in a seemingly unshakeable appeal to sentiment, democratic sentiment, we are still to hear a political argument that explains how a same-sex life-long union is a marriage.

Are we to conclude that a same-sex life-long committed union is a marriage simply because legislation will say that it is so?

We face a problem here. How can the emotional state of the sentimentalist advocating “marriage equality” be given due respect? The common view will be that by subjecting his or her position, as it has been emotionally expressed, to “rigorous examination” is hardly fair. Is this not “attacking the person”? Recently a new Parliamentarian in her maiden speech said that she had entered the House of Representatives carrying a sense of disillusionment about the nation’s laws that treat the love of one of her sons as inferior to that of his brothers. That, she revealed, was why she was opposed to a plebiscite and presumably she would also give her vote for “Marriage Equality” legislation.

The difficulties we have in answering such sentiments are obvious. How to fairly respond to this MP’s view of the law? But now these sentiments have entered into political debate. How does one proceed to argue against such assertions? It is as if such assertions transcend political argument even while they are formed very decidedly to contribute to the public justification for a change in the Marriage Act. Would it not be unseemly and unfair to take these as arguments? If that is where we have reached we may well have come to a point from which there seems to be no turning back. This is not just a psychological point but it has a kind of coherence with the logic of our system of parliamentary politics that has been seriously malformed under neo-liberal individualism. We now struggle to actually develop genuine political debate!

To take another example: how does one now tell the former Human Rights Commissioner, whose advocacy of “Marriage Equality” and his political career are so inextricably linked to his “engagement”, that his support for such legislation is wholly misconceived. It is like telling him that his entire way of life is wrong. To now suggest to him that this is a debate about the role of the Marriage Act in our system of public governance will seem to him, and those in this debate who are swayed by his commitment to his way of life, to be somewhat obscurantist, “out of date”, if not completely irrelevant, or even an attack upon his person.

But to make that judgement about the limitations of this debate, one would have to first accept the validity of the “way of life” that is presupposed by such advocacy.

CONCLUSION

The way ahead for a Christian political option, it would seem, is not by trying to divert the current libertarian stampede; instead, those committed to a Christian way of life -which includes a biblically-directed understanding of marriage, family-life and household stewardship – need to embark on a long-term political self-examination. That has been the persistent suggestion of Nurturing Justice since we began intense political reflection on this matter.

In the meantime, in the face of our dominant cultural patterns, those seeking to promote a Christian political option are going to have find a way of re-discovering the meaning of “Noe” in many other ways as well. That will be part of a concerted effort to preserve and enhance a healthy respect for the God-given integrity of marital responsibility, responsibility of a husband to his wife and a wife to her husband, and for their mutual respect for the marriage institution itself. By saying “Aye” to marriage, as it is directed and endorsed by Jesus’ teaching, means one is also talking about commitment to a way of life that has no qualms about quietly saying “Noe” to some or other conduct (whether by diaphragm, pharmaceuticals or condom) in order to affirm chaste pre-marital living and to endorse in deed the honourable and undefiled character of the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4). When such Biblical teachings eventually become part of a way of life then any proposed political “Noe” may also look forward to the prospect of a Christian political option, repentant from the heart, that is not compromised by its own furtive duplicity.

BCW

19.10.16 (slight revision 1.11.16)

Defining Moments

We all, no doubt, have some idea of what a “defining moment” is. We will have had our experiences of various “defining moments”: when we were courting and agreed to get married; in family life when a child was born; when in the class-room the teacher announced that we had received top marks for an essay on “An harrowing experience”, and  proceeded to read it so all the class could enjoy it; on the playing field when we kicked the goal that got our team into the Grand Final; in church when we stood before the congregation to profess our faith in Jesus Christ.

There are also defining moments in politics. On a personal level that may have been when we first voted (for me that was in 1972 after I had reached 21, the voting age at that time). Another “defining moment” for me was during a visit to Canberra in November 1975. I was there on November 12 when the crowd outside Parliament House gathered to demand “Bring Back Gough!”

     Nurturing Justice has often found it helpful to refer to defining political moments – some have been “personal” in the sense of having had a conversation with someone – like a five-minute conversation with a senior party researcher who has since become PM, or a half hour phone conversation with a Christian Senator one evening about legislation before the house, or a brief email from another Christian Senator asking me to send details of a serious scandal I had discovered which had the potential of embarrassing the PM, the leader of his party.

There is a well-known statement that “the personal is also political”. The statement reminds us that we should not try to avoid our political responsibilities. When we refer to a personal political “defining moment” we are not suggesting that that personal experience was more than that, of political importance for the polity. It may be a “defining moment” for me personally; but it did not serve to re-define the way political life unfolded. It may not have been politically relevant for anyone else. The fact that I voted in 1972, or the fact that I was present in Canberra on the 11 November 1975, have been important for me and my own political contribution and reflection. But these facts were not the facts I am referring to when I mention “defining political moments”. By contrast, the election of the Labor Government in 1972, along with its sacking in 1975, were indeed “defining political moments” in Australia’s political history. And so my blog is an attempt to reckon with these and other “defining political moments”, even to deepen my awareness of how they have impinged upon my own sense of political responsibility. In that sense the act of identifying a “defining political moment” must also always be a  “personal” act as I seek to not only assist readers to understand “where I am coming from” but also to appreciate and respect how the reader’s political responsibility has also been defined by these similar personal experiences and these other significant political moments.

The aim of Nurturing Justice therefore, can be said to help clarify the character of political trends, an attempt to foster a better political understanding of what was and is going on. By identifying some or other “defining political moment(s)” we may not only clarify the past – we may also throw light upon what we now face in the present.

When I am pointing to these “defining political moments”, I have had to remind myself that I did not come to these insights on my own – there were other “moments” that pushed me to think more deeply about these matters. For example, my father and I did not share the same political views. But there was something that he did that commands my respect and in its own way had an impact upon me too. His public action, in its own way, was political and particular “moments” in his life confirmed aspects of my own emerging “Christian democratic” viewpoint. He had been Secretary of the Liberal Party branch in the Melbourne suburb in which he lived and in which I was raised. As a result of the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975 he publicly repudiated the Liberal Party, resigning his membership. It took me some time to appreciate what he had meant by that action. But he did so by appealing to the principles upon which the Liberal Party had been founded, and in so doing helped me, albeit somewhat indirectly, to see more clearly how a powerful pragmatic ideology had gained a vice-like grip on that party.

Another “moment” that could be mentioned here was the communication I received from a colleague at the Free University of Amsterdam in 2001-2 informing me of the public announcement by a prominent medical researcher that research on human embryos was possible in The Netherlands because of the importation of human embryos into that country from Australia. The newspaper report was clear in stating the researcher’s view that this enabled cloning research to continue despite a European ban.

These “moments” did not just happen. Their impact remains to this day. But in recognising this we also have to think about what they mean for how we view our future, which also includes our political future? Reflecting upon the way the “moments” of the past have influenced what we face in the present must, willy-nilly, lead is to reflect upon future outcomes of present actions.

Why are we concerned with identifying past “defining moments”? What has motivated us? Is it merely an inherent desire to “seize the day”? Are we wanting to take hold of our life in such a total way that we can then redefine political life in its entirety? Are we wanting to say that the narrative we develop by including all these “defining moments” is part of our effort to identify, if not to be, our own “defining moment”? Do we, in other words, want to establish ourselves as our own “defining moment”? Is our aim to develop our political understanding and our political argument to such an extent that we will be politically self-sufficient? Are we aiming to be recognised by others as the ones who have inaugurated the “defining moment” of a new politics?

Such a line of questioning may seem obscure until we realise that it arises at the centre of our lives because a particular commitment to human self-sufficiency has gripped us. In other words, the “defining moment” of this line of questioning arises from a “worldview”, a way of seeing ourselves and everything we do, and that commitment in fact has long been the dominant religious force in this polity’s “defining moments”. I concede that it sounds strange to refer to the liberal-humanist viewpoint as a religious viewpoint. After all Liberals (and liberals) will regularly tell us that it is “only” a secular view.

Now what I have been trying to suggest in this and previous posts of this blog, is that a Christian political option has indeed been a possibility in this polity ever since civil government was established, both before and after Federation in 1901. However such a possibility has been repeatedly blocked by Christians and their churches repeatedly and persistently deciding that the Christian political option needs to be accommodated to the liberal view of human self-sufficiency. There have been variations of this “accommodation” but the “defining moment” of all these efforts to somehow connect Christian discipleship with human self-sufficiency is to be found in the view that profession of one’s faith must remain “private” in order to ensure that politics remains “secular”. The deepest ambiguity in our political life in this country is to be found in the deep civic faith that public justice is only possible if political life remains “secular”, free of all the religious commitments that are viewed as private, and as a matter of civic virtue should be so viewed for the sake of building a tolerant society. That deepest ambiguity is the “defining moment” of our current political crisis. It is what joins the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in an underlying unity and conversely it is what requires them to seek to completely overcome their political opponent’s viewpoint.

__________

     We have said, as our byline, that Nurturing Justice has the aim of promoting a Christian political option for Australia and the South-West Pacific. So is it our aim that the Christian political option we seek will become a “defining moment” in our region’s political history? Let us not be too hasty in replying to this question. What are we wanting to do and to be in a political sense? At this edition of Nurturing Justice – as a political blog – (that by the alien, unsolicited, and potentially compromising advertisement at the bottom of its page shows readers just how fragile it is), now calls upon readers to join in a common effort in Christian political reflection. Let us consider this, not just in relation to our aim to develop a Christian political option, but let us think carefully as Christians (if that is indeed what we claim to be) about what our aim should be? How should our political engagement be a true and valuable enhancement, deepening and enriching of our Christian way of life? What then are we to say is the true “defining moment” for our Christian political option?

__________

     In working toward an answer to this crucial question let us look again at how Nurturing Justice has sought to develop a political narrative that draws attention to what I have identified as “defining moments”. The aim has been to examine more closely the current crisis in our parliamentary political life. We seek to show that the crisis is indeed also very much about the way in which we have come, as a polity, to view and to accept political parties.

To say it again: the crisis we face is not just about marriage – it is about our understanding of public governance, the role of parliament, the place of political parties, our own identity as citizens. The crisis about marriage has been with us as an ever-flowing, ever-rising stream, since at least the mid-20th century, with deeper roots to times before that. And now, as we have intimated “the crisis about marriage” is being used (possibly ignorantly) as a convenient cloak to mask the deep crisis in which our political parties, and the system they have constructed for themselves, are now embroiled.   

Consider once again: as mentioned above, the Parliamentary wing of the Liberal Party in Opposition, made an in-principle departure in 1974 from their own party’s stated position that an elected government should be allowed to govern, and so they “threatened to block supply”. That was indeed a “defining moment”, not just for the polity and our contribution as citizens, but, as my father dramatically pointed out, for political life within the Liberal Party itself. It began a process that leads more and more to a kind of pragmatic absolutism.

And that “defining moment” has shaped the contribution of the Liberal Party ever since. Indeed it was at that May 1974 “double dissolution” election that John Howard won the seat of Bennelong. It was a decisive move to embrace pragmatism, effectively forsaking the political calling of being a Parliamentary Opposition and instead resolutely working to market themselves through deeply entrenched media connections as “alternative Government”, as “government-in-waiting”. (This is the view of politics endorsed by the ruthlessly self-interested News Corp that has been exposed for its criminal corruption so dramatically in the UK; Foxtel is not religiously or politically neutral; and keep in mind that this post – Nurturing Justice with all its fragility – comes into your email intray compliments of Telstra).

And so in party political terms the extra-parliamentary party (the rank and file members) is conscripted to serve the parliamentary wing. My father understood the rationale of the Liberal Party and its inaugural and constituted view that good public governance presupposes healthy grass-roots political activity. It initially enshrined a (humanistic) respect for the party as a public association, with a civic duty to promote debate and to encourage the exchange of views about policies and legislation. And so May 1974 (and not just November 1975) represents the “defining moment” when that initial political commitment fell away. And so the Liberal Party in its own terms has ever since, despite its presumptuous marketing therefore fostered political disrespect for itself. It continues to do so, albeit in fragmented and incoherent ways.

Another “defining moment” occurred in 2001 when Mr Howard, as Prime Minister, having been elected for another term, gave his support for scientific research that would result in the destruction of  human embryos. This was contrary to his own promise to his electors during the previous election campaign. This then was a “defining political moment” because the Liberal Party, having given itself permission to depart from its own stated principles of parliamentary democracy, found itself surviving politically on this and other “moral” issues by the orchestration of parliamentary “conscience votes” as a facade of “how democracy works”. Rhubarb, pure rhubarb. And despite that, the device was also co-opted by its major political opponent (Labor) and so the major political parties converge on a view that their electoral power has to be maintained while moving away from a Parliamentary adherence to anything said on the election platform (we might as well forget what a party’s constitution says about its basic political beliefs!)

And our problem, as a national polity, is that it is not even recognised that they have both scrupulously avoided the very difficult political task of developing coherent policies about “marriage, family, reproduction, sexuality, and household life”. The Liberal’s plebiscite is to send a signal that they would like to do so; Labor’s opposition to the plebiscite is that they simply don’t want to be exposed for their failure to do so. They have both effectively privatised the legislative process in relation to such policies and from the last election decisively proved they do not have anything coherent to say about these matters to the electors at election time.

Party discipline is oriented to maintaining power rather than adherence to a party’s beliefs. Both “sides” have become adherents of “core” and “non-core” promises.

In these pages I have repeatedly sought to draw attention to the significance of these two events as “defining moments” of the difficulties our Parliaments now face in winning genuine political respect from electors. They now receive their votes at election at the expense of gaining their respect, even while they feed voraciously off public funding. If they had any genuine political scruples they would give the money back!

Having given up the task of being a  political party that holds to its own set of political beliefs, they can no longer with good faith, explore and examine the party principles, platforms and policies of all other genuine parties that are active in our polity. To do so will only highlight their own vacuous marketing. They should be able to join in ongoing public debate about all matters political, and even when they beg to differ they should be using all their resources to find ways – in Parliament and outside of Parliament – to co-operate with their opponents in the state-crafting task of building, maintaining and extending public justice which remains the task of all citizens.

In other words the parties have lost the art of encouraging the development and the enriching of Australian extra-parliamentary political life through the contributions of political parties as positive associations of the public realm. They have lost it, and they need to find it again. And sadly they show no evidence of wanting to do so. That is our crisis; that is our current “defining political moment”.

Of course there is a need for our political community to engage in a serious reconsideration of “marriage, family, and household.” But that may well take us back to all kinds of other issues of “body politics” that are presumed to have been well and truly bedded in the ongoing nonsense of “political correctness”. Ask yourself in the midst of the current political crisis: who is talking about public respect for chaste courtship these days?

     Nurturing Justice does not know how such a question will ever again make it to the public agenda. We do not know when or if those enamoured and addicted to the “two sides of politics” ideology will ever become aware of the crisis as we draw it. We are not about to make declarations that this spat over whether a plebiscite should held is itself a “defining moment”. Despite the flapdoodle on both sides, this “moment” is one that is very much under the influence of the above mentioned crisis in the way we, as a polity, have come to accept political parties. And there is enough evidence to suggest that both parties are presenting themselves in relation to the plebiscite in order to cloak their failures as parties.

The Liberal advocates of a plebiscite wants the national electorate’s vote to give the “defining moment”. But the electorate is severely under-educated about the role and function of the Marriage Act and its relation to the full panoply of laws and regulations. That is about understanding our legal system and is our ignorance going to be dispersed by simply “catching up” with the “rest” of the “progressive and advance English-speaking democracies”? Hardly.

Let me close by placing side-by-side two opinions. One suggests Australia is “backward” because

 ... we are the last English-speaking advanced country not to allow same-sex marriage. Peter van Onselen September 24th The Australian.

     This suggests that by saying “yes” to same-sex marriage (his other term is “getting on the bus”) the Australian Parliament will know what it is doing. He is implying that this will be a “defining moment” in our “catching up” to the Enlightened.

The other opinion suggests that as a country we are in a frightful muddle, and this is as much for our judiciary as for our politicians, let alone ourselves the “ordinary man and woman in the street”.

Australian law on relationships is currently in a complete muddle. In various places around the country, there are marriages, civil partnerships or civil unions, registered de facto relationships, and unregistered de facto relationships, all of which end up being treated in almost exactly the same way as marriages at least once certain thresholds are met (and subject to proof if the existence of the relationship is contested). (Patrick Parkinson and Nicholas AroneyThe Territory of Marriage: Constitutional law, marriage law and family policy in the ACT Same Sex Marriage Case” 2014, pp.38-9.)

     The chorus of opposition to the plebiscite now warns of mental health consequences. The plebiscite, they fear, will be a “defining moment” in further marginalisation. They may well be right, even if it be somewhat late in the political day for tis matter to be raised. But such warnings provoke further questions like: why might a plebiscite have become dangerous and injurious to the health of some marginalised citizens? Could it be, as we have suggested, that we are dealing with the consequences of a public policy failure of our political parties? Do we not have to think more creatively about mental health and the problems people face in self identification? Could it be that the country’s mental health is in some way related to the health of our political parties? Could it be that we have a mental health crisis in part because our political parties have strayed in such an unhealthy way from being what they should be? Could it be that we no longer have the confidence to engage in public debate because we, as a polity, have lost the art of engaging in public debate in a just and equitable way?

Of course we need open, considerate, well organised, public discussion, discussion about marriage, family nurture and how that relates to schooling and to all dimensions of public life. Of course we need ongoing wise care of vulnerable people and not only heed those caring for them who have the loudest megaphones. As much as we need to stand against the political exploitation of marginalised people, and we should be unremitting in our resistance to a consumerist society with its appalling attempts to exploit and mould fragile human sentiments and instincts. (see the possible unsolicited ad at the end of this post).

Of course our public debate needs to be moulded in such a way that is caring for all citizens and all their families and households. Of course we need public debate that takes seriously the comments and struggles of people in terms of their identity and their understanding of their sexuality. But we also need political parties to be diligent in doing their public duty in enhancing public debate, in respecting time-honoured institutions, and also to do so in this public debate; they should not be clamouring to shut it down. It would be far better to suggest the debate be extended and deepened. Instead, all they do is to give credence to the suspicion that they are afraid of having their political negligence exposed, of having to face the music of citizens who have been severely and repeatedly shortchanged by their ongoing blatant neglect and elitist self-interest.

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     Here I would suggest to readers that the place to start in identifying the true “defining moment” of our Christian political option, is exactly the same place we have indicated for our consideration of marriage, sexual union and family life – the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles.

The “defining moment” of our Christian political option is not our efforts to string together a compelling narrative, however important such an account will be. Our political narrative, seeking to link “defining political moments” can never, of itself, be the “defining moment” of our political task. At most it can be led by the confession that Jesus Christ the one-time suffering servant, Israel’s true and only Messiah, has been made our Master, our Lord, and encourage others to come to the Saviour of the world, the Good Shepherd. His redemptive work is our “defining moment”.

The task is also to find ways to encourage fellow citizens to join in the God-given responsibility of political service, to love our civic neighbours, all of them, in our own polity, and in our region and beyond, and to do so with public justice. Just like Pontius Pilate, we would not have political responsibility – even as citizens – unless this responsibility had been given to us “from above”. Our “defining moment” is found in the full restoration of God’s image through the True Image Bearer, Christ Jesus, who has borne it for us. That is where our political responsibility has firm ground. That is our only true ground.

For the moment let us consider Luke’s Gospel (22:23-30), Jesus’ definitive explanation of how His disciples – those having taken up their own cross to follow Him – should see their involvement in political life. Luke’s account tells us that the discussion came at a crucial time during the Last Supper, just after Jesus’ foreshadowed His betrayal, and just before His indicated His awareness of Peter’s pending denial.

They began a conversation among themselves as to whom it might be who could conceivably be the one who would betray Jesus and with their competitiveness thus stirred their discussion returned [once more ref Luke 9] to who should rank highest. And this is what Jesus said to them. “The kings of the peoples of the earth rule them as their lords. And those who carry out their authority are acknowledged by the peoples as their benefactors. But this is not for you. For the one among you who is already greater let him become as a new recruit; and the one governing become as a mere servant. For who is greater [among you]? The one reclining or the one serving? Is it not the one reclining? But [to consider my example] I am among you as one who serves you. [That’s my part in this. And you are those who have accompanied me during my [period of many] trials and what I deliver into your hands is the Kingdom my Father has delivered into my hands, that you may dine and drink with me in my Kingdom, at my table, sitting there upon the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

There is much in this to consider.

The second resource I would make available for those readers who want to take this up, is an address, an MP3 audio, by Jim Skillen delivered in Durham, North Carolina, October 27, 2007 on a passage in Luke’s second book Acts 1:1-11.

For the moment both resources will suffice as an all too brief indication of the way in which Nurturing Justice seeks to identify the “defining moment” of a Christian political option. We shall have to return to this discussion later on in future posts.

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BCW

30.9.16