Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Policy and Faith

There is, of course, no way to keep religion out of politics altogether. Representatives will of course be influenced by their moral stances, and in the case of religious representatives, their morality will be (at least in part) drawn from their religion. Not only can this not be avoided, but I see no real reason to attempt it. We all bring our own biases and preconceptions to debates, with none ultimately really worth excluding.

What I do object to – and what we’ve mostly managed to keep out of in Australia for the past 20-30 years – is the tying together of policy and faith. That is, the explicit assertion of faith as a driver behind particular policies or bills. Such a stance inevitably binds the object to religion and, this being the important part, the authority of religion.

I was always a bit uncomfortable when I saw politicians referring to their own religion. I didn’t quite know how to put it until I read the quote of Aristotle’s that I used previously. Here it is again:
A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious... they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.
Simply referencing religion is not tyranny, of course. But it is inherently authoritarian. It is an attempt to bring the power of faith behind one’s opinions, instead of letting the arguments stand on their own merits. It is, in short, anti-democratic.

Personally, I don’t care what religion politicians belong to. The fact that someone is ‘christian’, ‘atheist’, ‘hindu’, ‘muslim’ do not inform me how well they’re going to govern and whether they’ll make the country a better place. That’s what’s important. I’d much rather have someone who’s going to do a good job than someone who shares my religious convictions. Or, in my case, my lack of them.

There are, however, people out there who do seem to prefer to elect someone who shares their beliefs. In Australia, this probably isn’t too bad. The picking on Gillard for her atheism aside, religion seems to be largely absent from Australian politics. Certainly, overt claims such as Abbott’s Catholic pronouncements around the abortion pill debate were met with blank stares. No, the subtle is a better weapon here than the overt.

Again, we can look at America. George W. Bush used religion as a weapon. He gained die-hard fanatical supporters among the religious right by using the right language and professing their ideals. Voting for him became a matter of faith, not just politics; in a handful of churches, attendees were even told that they had to vote for Bush or they could not return. When he won in 2000, it was said that ‘God won the Presidency’. The Iraq invasion was justified in part by his claim that God told him to go there. Meanwhile, the meme of America being a ‘Christian Nation’ re-emerged, and Bush’s father’s claim that atheists cannot be considered real Americans was echoed.

And once you have someone who has cloaked himself in religion to that extent... he must be supported by those who believe. Opposing the political leader is tantamount to opposing God. And at that point, as it was in 2002-2003, the political leader has become Aristotle’s tyrant. This is quite apart from the question of whether or not the policies and laws are bad or not. A tyrant need not be evil, only grasping.

In Australia, we might have been heading in this direction in the 60s and 70s – the last great uprising of the Democratic Labour Party. I’m actually not sure what ended that. I suspect it was the combined efforts of Whitlam and Frazer, neither of whom seemed to have much time for religious fervour. Whitlam, through his social programs, managed to provide more actual hope and aid to those who needed it than any number of church programs; while my perception of Frazer’s government is that he didn’t provide many places for theocrats to ensconce themselves. I am making claims without much justification there: this is based on perception of someone who wasn’t around at the time, not actual knowledge. If anyone does know better how this happened, please leave a comment.

Fortunately, one way or another, there is no alliance between the Political Right and the Religious Right in Australia, as there is in the US. This can only be a good thing for the democratic process.

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