Religion in politics

The Fairfax broadsheets this morning report on research by Anna Crabb (published in the Australian Journal of Political Science) showing that over the years 2000 to 2006 Australian politicians increasingly made reference to Christian themes, as measured by use of the terms Christ, church, faith, pray, Jesus, Bible, spiritual, God, and religion. In 2000, 9% of speeches by prominent federal politicians mentioned one of these terms, rising steadily to a peak of 24% in 2005, before dropping back down to 22% in 2006.

The empirical work is interesting, though it is difficult to sort out to what extent this represents shifting norms in political speech (as against a claimed norm of keeping religion and politics separate), and to what extent the issues of this time period gave greater cause to mention religion.

Clearly, the rise of any terrorist movement intent on mass murder would have been mentioned regularly by politicians, and that Islamist movements killed in the name of a religion gave religion in general a salience it would not otherwise have had. Indeed, were it not for terrorism-related mentions there would have been no clear trend in religious mentions over 2000-2003.

Though Crabb does not precisely quantify it, many other references came from debates about cloning, use of embyros in research, and the abortion drug RU486. These are legitimate secular matters of concern, but once they are on the political agenda these basic issues of life and death will inevitably attract comment that draws on religious beliefs without there being any change in underlying norms about when religious considerations are appropriate.

As with much academic work (this is a former Honours thesis), things go most awry when the square pegs of empirical research come to be pushed into the round holes of theory. I very much doubt that many politicians have even heard of a ‘Rawlsian liberal consensus’, requiring arguments to defensible by reason rather than particular religious doctrines, much less decided to weaken adherence to it.

Out of the violent religious conflicts of Europe’s past, a sensible compromise slowly developed – the state would tolerate multiple religions, and religions would not try to control the state. All were better off. This compromise largely worked even where, as in some European countries, there was still an ‘established’ church (largely as a formality or technicality) and political parties with ‘Christian’ in their titles.

This was never intended as (in Crabb’s phrase) ‘the separation of religion and politics’. It’s quite possible to invoke religious considerations on a particular issue without risking the harms that separation of church and state was designed to prevent. In religiously diverse democratic societies, the main reason religious arguments won’t be used that often by politicians is that they won’t be persuasive to people of other faiths or non-believers. If religious arguments are made, they deserve to be categorised as just another bad argument, rather than a special type of bad argument with the potential for broader harm.

When Crabb lists examples of ‘privileging’ Christian views – handouts to the Catholic World Youth Day, the school chaplains program, and excluding pro-abortion groups from government telephone pregnancy counselling service – we can easily agree with her that these represent poor policy, but if that’s all the harm we get from a more than doubling of religious mentions we are getting off very lightly.

Religion still has a special place in the lives of many Australians, including some politicians. It’s hard to see how them mentioning this in political contexts has risks that require a norm against any intermingling of religious and political arguments.

13 thoughts on “Religion in politics

  1. Andrew Norton says:

    If religious arguments are made, they deserve to be categorised as just another bad argument, rather than a special type of bad argument with the potential for broader harm.

    SO quoting religious positions, as laid out by Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount or Thomas Aquinas on Just War, are now “just another bad argument”.

    I dont think the adherents to the flabby “Rawlsian liberal consensus” have all that many good arguments at their disposal that they can afford to do without thinkers of that calibre.

    While we are on the subject, what good arguments have liberals made for anything good since Rawls summed up modernist liberalism? For humans, I mean. I will give liberals credit for animal rights.

    The cupboard looks mighty bare to me.

    BTW Rawls, in the early development of his views, was intensely religious.

    More generally, liberalism without religion of some sort to provide a moral compass, or at least some form of character development, tends to collapse into solipsist epistemics and hedonist ethics. This was predicted by Durkheim.

    Thus the somewhat religious Greatest Generation subscribed to a progressive form of modern liberalism until the sixties. eg MK King, Buzz Aldr. Their crowning glory was the Civil Rights movement and the Apollo Moonshot.

    Then the somewhat irreligious Baby Boomer put out its degenerate form of post-modern liberalism from about the eighties onwards. So the new intellectual guides were Foucault or Black-Scholes. Their crowning glory was drug liberalisation, financial de-regulation and home entertainment technology.

    Wonderful form of “good arguments” you post-modern liberals have there to achieve that outcome after such auspicious beginnings.

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  2. Andrew Norton says:

    Indeed, were it not for terrorism-related mentions there would have been no clear trend in religious mentions over 2000-2003.

    Not so sure about that. Lets not forget that there was a major independent trend, already well-underway by 2001, for parents to enrol children in largely religious private schools. Or has Andrew Norton forgotten his research specialty in his zeal to appear more liberal-than-thou?
    Andrew Norton says:

    the rise of any terrorist movement intent on mass murder would have been mentioned regularly by politicians, and that Islamist movements killed in the name of a religion gave religion in general a salience it would not otherwise have had.

    Undoubtedly the terrorist issue, and the more general one of integrating Muslims into post-Christian Western societies, was a key factor provoking a revival of Christian references.

    But Crabb, with the usual liberal academic tin ear for the peoples culture, misses the significance of the God-bothering. The religious references were not aimed at providing some theological backing for public policy arguments, worthy enough though these might be. The politicians put them out as cultural identifiers to appeal to the corporate loyalty of AUS’s 70% Christian populus.

    No doubt religious observance, and piety in general, is at an all-time low. But ordinary people still want their leaders to re-assure them that their heart is in the right place, particularly in times of stress or crisis.

    So the religious references should be understood as soothing incantations to a public that is anxious about the course of the ship of state. Kind of like when the pilot announces over the PA “this is your captain speaking…” to re-assure the passengers when the airplane hits some turbulence.

    My impression is that post-modernish liberal academics are going backward, or thrashing about uselessly in the shallow end, under contemporary conditions of globalisation, virtualisation and community cocooning. They just seem clueless about the cultural significance of most political or economic developments.

    Perhaps if they took religion a little bit more seriously they might get human nature more and stop being the butt of jokes amongst members of the general public.

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  3. Jack – The trend to private schools has been going on at fairly stable rates since the 1980s. I doubt it has much to do with trends in religious beliefs; indeed my research shows that many students at private school aren’t religious at all. It is driven by dissatisfaction with the public system, growing family income to finance fees, and entrepreneurial activity in the schools sector.

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  4. On comment 1, I am talking about arguments for which belief in God or a particular religion is a necessary foudation. There are plenty of Christian ideas that can be secularised in persuasive ways.

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  5. Whilst I have only read your post on the issue and not the article itself, I don’t find such research particularly insightful – A. Because it simply quantifies something that most people who follow politics would already know, yes politicians do seem to talk about religion more. B. Because, as an Honours Thesis requires, it tries to put this trend into some theoretical framework that really doesn’t provide that many insights either, as you point out with regards to the “Rawlsian liberal consensus” etc. And the point about privileging Christian views – World Youth Day was a massive event, perhaps more people even came for that than the Olympics in 2000, so I don’t see it as privileging Christian views as if there were a similarly large event of that nature I’m sure it would’ve gotten government support too. And I think that for the schools chaplains program (correct me if I’m wrong), it didn’t have to be a Christian chaplain in order to qualify for government support, chaplains from other religious were also eligible for funding.

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  6. Krystian – I would be forgiving (a Christian virtue:)) on your point A. While this result is unsurprising, people’s intuitions on changes over time are often wrong, so these are worth checking. I agree on the rest – the chaplains program was not restricted to Christians.

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  7. Andrew Norton says June 30th, 2009 17:56

    Jack – The trend to private schools has been going on at fairly stable rates since the 1980s. I doubt it has much to do with trends in religious beliefs; indeed my research shows that many students at private school aren’t religious at all. It is driven by dissatisfaction with the public system, growing family income to finance fees, and entrepreneurial activity in the schools sector.

    Andrew, you are falling into, what I shall dub, the fallacy of “rationalism in religion”. Analagous to the “rationalism in politics” fallacy so ably dissected by Oakeshott about 900 years ago.

    One hears the belittling of the religious trend all the time from liberals who are somewhat dumbfounded by the re-surgence in religious school enrollments. As if adherence to religious practice depended on fidelity to religious beliefs.

    If that were the case then most religions would have withered eons ago. And keepers of the faith would have long since hit the dole queues.

    Religion is not a theory, it is a practice. (Or as Napolean is once reputed to have put it, “God is a theory, religion is a fact, and a good one.”) It has never much depended on theological sophistication or even pyschological authentication amongst the congregation.

    What it, work on is some kind of trust in institutional authority, particularly in the critical sphere of moral regulation. The SMH reported that parents, whether believers or non-believers, wanted a traditional moral education:

    As Phillip Heath, president of Australian Anglican Schools, sees it, parents are flocking to religious education for “the package” that provides “a moral and ethical educational framework”.

    That is why the resurgence in religious school enrollments is so significant. The polling evidence, which you should be aware of but show no sign of acknowledging, shows that parents want children to respect civilized norms through inculcation by traditional authority. Credit to the SMH for momentarily freeing itself from liberal shibboleths:

    The study found a clear link between what parents perceive to be important and the selection of a school sector. For those parents selecting a private school, it is the traditional values and not political persuasion, nor probably socio-economic status that appears to shape this decision. The wearing of a school uniform and the traditions of the school are also important.

    For parents with students in a catholic school discipline, the religious values of the school, the traditions of the school and the requirement of wearing a school uniform were considered important criteria when selecting a school.

    Note the importance placed on school uniforms. That is authoritiarianism pure and simple.

    How many times has one heard the refrain from exasperated parents: “I want my kid to learn there are rules, boundaries, and get some discipline into him!”

    Religion simply does that better than other institutions because they have been in the indoctrination and subjugation business for millenia. Plus they have the inestimable benefit of sanctification.

    Politicians understand this, which is why they are signalling to the electorate. Liberal academics are, as usual, miles behind the curve.

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  8. “While the very public embrace of religion as justification for particular policies may still be confined to a minority of members, there is a risk that religious reasoning, not subject to the usual rational challenges, may grow in significance.”

    But religious arguments are subject to an exceptionally easy ‘rational challenge’, ie your premiss is nonsense and so your entire argument collapses. For this very reason, not many arguments for a general audience will depend on an expressly religious assumption. Crabb’s numbers (or at least the published version) do not distinguish between passing mentions of religious topics, rejection of religion (at least some where in this category, as she notes Downer’s argument that the war on terror was not a religious war), and arguments where religion forms a crucial part.

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  9. I also think that despite Crabb’s numbers, society is more secular now than say 20,30,40 years ago – And therefore what Lawrence says doesn’t really stand up because no politician will base what they say and do purely on the basis of religious arguments because much of the electorate wouldn’t except them (as you mention). Even with issues such as abortion, politicians known to be religious don’t just say “I oppose abortion because my religion says so” but will rather explain the logic behind their views and attempt to frame their argument in a rational manner.

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  10. Thanks Andrew,

    An extreme example for Anna is the very religious Senator Conroy who has used the words “examination” and “trial” with no scientific research methodology in mind at all.

    Senator Conroy has no intention of conducting any sort of a real academic study on internet filtering. I know you have concerns about Anna’s statistical round pegs in square categorical data holes, but Senator Conroy’s examination of filtering is an extreme example of religious conscience ruling a politician who will make new laws on what we can see or view on the internet.

    Sadly for Australia, only 3% of Primary school students time is spent on science, I fear they will all be learning religious creationist beliefs in science class under Rudd. Former Liberal Minister Bendan Nelson said he no problem with creation science being taught in science class!

    http://www.hereticpress.com/Dogstar/Religion/Vilification.html#dodgy

    Tim Anderson

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  11. Tim – I thought the internet censorship regime was about kiddy p–n. It is easy to give a secular reason for most policies, so a norm against religious justifications won’t change which issues get discussed.

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  12. Andrew, the internet censorship is not all about kiddy p-n, it also applies to refused classification material. Here is Conroy:

    That’s the same censorship that applies to magazines and DVDs. Of course, it’s much more publicly palatable to say it’s about kiddy p-n because nobody will argue against it. Conroy is dangerous and deceitful.

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