The impossibility of excluding religious belief from the political sphere


On Monday night, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd fronted the ABC’s Q&A panel TV show. By now, it would be hard to find a person interested in the intersection between religion and politics who is unaware of his comments. A Baptist pastor, Matt Prater, said:

From what I’m hearing, most Christians I connect with are voting against you, because they are disillusioned and because you appear to be chopping and changing your beliefs to get votes, with regards to things like marriage. Why should we vote for you?

And Mr Rudd responded with two points – one which I’m often surprised to find controversial, and another which, in the fullness of reflection, should make our Prime Minister a little embarrassed. Firstly, he said

They are gay if they are born gay… You don’t decide at some later stage in life to be one thing or the other.


As I wrote above, this ought to be largely uncontroversial amongst Christians, at least as a generalisation with exceptions.  I say ‘with exceptions’, not least because while human sexuality – and sexual orientation – is a complex, fluid, messy, and individualized human trait, and one that most likely has some genetic components, some insist on not being defined by biology. Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon famously declared that for her ‘being gay was a choice’. Prominent UK gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has said:


[A]n influence is not the same as a cause. Genes and hormones may predispose a person to one sexuality rather than another. But that’s all. Predisposition and determination are two different things.


Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at University of Kent adds:


Thankfully, the experience of human endeavour tells us that who we are need not be determined by a biological accident. Yes, our genes influence our behaviour. But this does not determine who we are. We are not the slaves of our biology and possess a formidable capacity to make our own world and on a good day to even choose who we want to be.
To say what ‘is’, as David Hume famously observed, is not the same as declaring what ‘ought to be’. The Christian worldview is unaffected either way on the innateness or otherwise of sexual orientation.


But while Mr Rudd’s comments in support of gay marriage have attracted the most attention in the popular media, within the Christian community, it is his handling of the bible which has proved the greatest disappointment. When Mr Prater responded by asking:

Kevin, if you call yourself a Christian, why don’t you believe the words of Jesus in the Bible?

the Prime Minister replied

Well, mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition.

Now, while I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this guff reproduced on an ABC discussion board, it is startling to hear this kind of wild error from a man who has spent some years learning Greek in order to better understand the Gospel of Luke. If you are in any doubt about the abysmal ignorance and misrepresentation involved in claiming the bible promotes slavery, I suggest you read this brief and helpful response.


However, I want to suggest that Kevin Rudd’s comments on gay marriage are less interesting and ultimately significant than those made by the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. Annabel Crabb interviewed Tony Abbott last night on the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet. When she broached the implications of his Catholic faith for policy leadership, Mr Abbott replied

I think it is essential that someone of faith understand that while faith is a splendid thing in private life it can often be quite a misleading guide in public life.

Now, it may simply be that Mr Abbott was making the point that personally held religious beliefs ought not to be imposed upon the broader constituency of a secular and pluralist democracy. After all, he also said

You’ve got to accept that there are all sorts of private views which can be passionately held but in a pluralist democracy such as ours the idea that you could somehow make those private views mandatory is bizarre, just bizarre.

But his comments seemed awfully close to affirming the oft-made claim that religious belief has no place in public sphere or in the formulation of policy.


For someone interested in a more full, but still non-academic, treatment of this issue, I recommend the first chapter of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. Better yet, read all of Andrew Cameron’s Joined-up Life. Until then, though, a couple of comments. The great 20th century American philosopher and atheist, Richard Rorty, argued that religion had no space in the political sphere, being a source of controversy and division rather than unity, but this position has been roundly criticised. Rorty suggested that we simply pursue ‘what works’. The problem is that what we think works will depend on our values. To quote Keller,

Any picture of happy human life that ‘works’ is necessarily informed by deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of human life.

Keller goes on to provide an example:

Let’s take marriage and divorce as a case study. Is it possible to craft laws that we all agree ‘work’ apart from particular worldview commitments? I don’t believe so. Your views of what is right will be based on what you think the purpose of marriage is. If you think marriage is mainly for the rearing of children to benefit the whole society, then you will make divorce very difficult. If you think the purpose of marriage is more primarily for the happiness and emotional fulfilment of the adults who enter it, you will make divorce much easier. the former view is grounded in a view of human flourishing and well-being in which the family is more important than the individual, as in the traditions of Confucianism, Judaism and Christianity. The latter approach is a more individualistic view of human nature based on the Enlightenment’s understanding of things. The divorce laws you think ‘work’ will depend on prior beliefs about what it means to be happy and fully human. There is no objective, universal consensus about what that is.

In other words, the kind of political agenda that a politician pursues (arising, we hope, out of conviction rather than mere polling) is dependent upon underlying values and beliefs. These values and beliefs may be individually selected, or they may be derived from religious belief. For the purposes of public policy, there is no difference between these two kinds of origin. Christians, of course, would maintain that their values derive from the character of God, rather than arbitrariness. So Stephen Carter of Yale Law School writes

Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organised religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider most vital.


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