Politics is messy, as messy as is the human muddle itself. For people of faith, discerning how one ought best participate in that mess – or whether to participate in it at all, an act which itself actually represents a kind of participation – is typically characterised by a similar pattern of ambiguity and oddness that is unavoidable. This is no less so for those who follow Jesus.
Today, I happened across a strange post arguing why Christians in Australia ‘can’t vote Greens’. Its author, Andrew, an Anglican minister, is troubled by the fact that one of the country’s main political parties is championing anti-discrimination legislation. He believes that this equates to the Greens advocating for a kind of totalitarianism that is fundamentally at odds with the practice of following one’s conscience. He proceeds to argue, very strangely indeed, that ‘amongst the first political commitments of Christians, following Jesus’ words, is to a pluralist state’. The words of Jesus to which he refers are those recorded in Matthew 22: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s’.
The argument goes that a Christian cannot support the Greens on the grounds that the Greens have a policy that prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. The facts, it seems, are a little less clear cut than Andrew suggests. The amendment that the former Australian Greens senator and social justice lawyer Penny Wright put before the parliament argued that the ‘religious exemptions in the Sex Discrimination Act strike the wrong balance between freedom of religion and protection from arbitrary discrimination’, an acknowledgement that the weighing up of rights is always a very difficult task indeed. So too Penny Wong, a Christian and Labor Party senator, once noted that the government must seek ‘to balance the existing law and the practice of religious exemptions with the principle of non-discrimination’. I read in these calls a challenge to keep that conversation a live one. Wright’s statement reads, in part:
Freedom of religion is an important human right. However, religious bodies should not have a free pass to discriminate. The Sex Discrimination Act as it stands gives broad exemptions from anti-discrimination law for religious bodies and educational institutions set up for religious purposes. The exemptions fly in the face of the idea that people should be treated equally, with dignity and respect, so that they can have access to opportunities and services such as health, education and housing. As a result of these exemptions, a religious hospital can refuse to employ a gay doctor, a religious school can refuse to enrol a bisexual student or to hire a lesbian administrator, and a faith based homelessness shelter can refuse to accept a transgender resident. (Italics mine)
The proposal from the Greens, as stated elsewhere, is that ‘blanket exemptions for religious organisations do not apply when that organisation is using public money to provide public services like health, education and housing’. That sounds very reasonable to me.
I confess to being as seduced as is Andrew when it comes to defending a broad commitment to religious pluralism. But his argument strikes me as very odd, especially for a Christian and particularly upon the grounds of Matthew 22. To my mind, he appears to suggest, albeit tacitly, that it is somehow the role of the state to help Christians to be Christians, to follow Jesus. His argument also appears to confuse or conflate the roles that God has assigned to so-called civil authorities with those given to the church. It is, it seems to me, reasonable to argue, and to hope, that it is precisely the responsibility of the state to ensure that all of its citizens – and especially, perhaps, its most vulnerable; and this sometimes includes religious communities – are granted equal rights and access under the law. (Ben Saul, Challis Chair of International Law at the University of Sydney, recently reminded us too that ‘Human rights failures say a lot about our government’.) I remind Andrew that it has been the Greens – and not, sadly, the ALP and the Liberal–National Coalition – who have consistently respected and defended the important role that the Australian Human Rights Commission plays in protecting the rights, including the religious rights, of all those whom our parliament and courts are obligated, by both domestic and international law, to protect.
Conversely, it is the responsibility of the Christian community (I dare not speak for other religious traditions) to challenge and even to break such laws if and whenever its obedience to the rule of Christ demands it do so, that believers might live in the world with a clear conscience and their lives testify that God and not Caesar is sovereign. In a world marked by unbridled greed, abuse of power, and the defence of both by means of state-sponsored violence, God help Christians if they become known for being ‘good citizens’.
Perhaps what this little response to Andrew’s post represents has more to do with our respective ecclesial tribes – that Andrew is an Anglican and that I am of the free church tradition – than it is about whether or not one might, in good conscience, support this or that political party, none of which, it must be said, a Christian can support uncritically. It certainly reminds me, and for this I am grateful to Andrew, that following Jesus is, at core, a profoundly political act; indeed, it is the most political act of all. Might I confess, however, that it is difficult for me to see how Andrew’s critique represents much more than a gasp by a powerful institutional elite to maintain ground that a particular political arrangement – associated with the name of Constantine – once secured, or at least promised. God’s promises – the promises of one whose power is not of this world and which is made perfect precisely in the act of forgoing its own rights – might, I suggest, be quite otherwise. (So John Dickson noted around the time of the last election: ‘a Christian vote is a vote for others, not oneself. It is fundamental to the Christian outlook that life be devoted to the good of others before oneself’.)
Returning to those strange words of Jesus’ – ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s’ – I want to suggest that for too long Christians have stood on the side of Herod here, and have, as a result, sought to take the sting out of the impossibility that Christian discipleship represents. ‘Christian accommodation to play the game dictated by Caesar’s coin insures that the separation between state and church makes Christians faithful servants of states that allegedly give the church freedom’ (Stanley Hauerwas).
Or, as another has said: ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’.