On moral compasses


The angels danced in my head recently after the leading Labor MP Kevin Rudd outed himself as a ‘Christian Socialist’ on ABC TV’s Compass program.

I’d always been somewhat indifferent to Kevin, thinking of him as another machine Labor politician – because he was certainly a stunningly successful membership ‘recruiter’ in Queensland in the early nineties – but with ten times the intellect.

But we now know Kevin also has a distinct, and admirable, moral compass, and wants the Labor Party to reach out to people of faith, bringing them into the mainstream of progressive politics. Well, Kevin, all I can say is ‘Good luck’. You are about to encounter a tsunami of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, bigotry, mockery and condescension – from progressives.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to elicit a communal groan, a collective gasp, a chorus of guffaws from my fellow progressives, it is the notion of Christians, especially evangelicals, getting involved in public life. This displeasure was most evident last weekend during several sessions of the Sydney’s Writers’ Festival. The festival, it must be said, is a great Sydney institution but I walked away thinking some of its clientele need to broaden their minds – and their reading.

(As an aside, it was terrific to meet so many New Matilda readers, contributors, supporters and converts at our unexpectedly packed panel discussion on Sunday on the role of new media in political activism.)

You could, for example, have cut the air with a knife at Saturday’s session where Philip Adams interviewed Lewis Lapham, editor of the renowned Harper’s magazine. Adams is a great old trouper for our side, and Lapham exuded his most delicious liberal Brahmin qualities. But when he mentioned that there were some 120 members of the US Congress who identified themselves as – gasp – ‘born-again Christians’, you could hear the revulsion ripple through the audience.

At that point, I wanted to leap up and point out that the born-again evangelicals probably included the Reverend John Lewis, the genuinely heroic Georgia Democrat and civil rights veteran, who, as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, was routinely beaten by racist cops in the sixties. I refrained because such an intervention is simply not done in the polite society of literary festivals.

In fairness, Adams did credit some dissident Josephite nuns and Jesuit priests with a frontline role in the struggle for human rights, but those evangelicals were simply too embarrassing to embrace.

I confess that, over the years – as a progressive, albeit starchy, Anglo-Catholic – I was guilty of similar condescension. Then I received a severe dressing down one Boxing Day, at a dinner party in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, from the eminent Harvard theologian and liberal Baptist preacher Harvey Cox. I’ve since realised that progressives can find some of their most reliable allies among evangelicals.

It is instructive to remember that the term ‘born again’ originates with the injunction of the radical Christ not to an adulterer, or even a thief, but to a rich man, Nicodemus, who asked: ‘What I must do to be saved?’ As one of the greatest evangelical prophets of modern times, Martin Luther King Jr, sermonised shortly before his assassination: ‘Jesus didn’t get bogged down in a specific evil. He didn’t say, now Nicodemus, you must not drink liquor, you must no commit adultery, you must not lie, you must not steal. He said, Nicodemus, you must be born again. The whole structure of your life must change.’

It was Dr King’s way of saying that American society itself – then mired in the dirty war in Vietnam and abandoning the war on poverty at home – must also be born again.

Dr King was speaking from a progressive evangelical tradition that stretches back to 18th century England and the Clapham Set and William Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery, through the free-soil abolitionists of 19th century America, the suffragettes and the fighters for child labour laws. Dr King, in turn, inspired a generation of evangelicals into progressive politics, notably Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who, however imperfectly, elevated human rights to America’s political agenda and who was the first president to describe himself as ‘born again’. (As his former speechwriter James Fallows revealed, President Carter also took personal charge of the booking schedule for the White House tennis court. But when you consider the Camp David peace accords and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, I think we can overlook such innocent pedantry.)

But no matter how strong the case for political engagement with liberal evangelicals, many progressives will still bristle.

Perhaps it’s the hyper-kinetic worship style. The Shakers once shocked mainline Protestants with their bodily convulsions (hence their name), and, yes, I have some issues with modern evangelical liturgy, especially the faux-pop caterwauling that often passes for communal singing in the warehouse churches. In fact, the only person I’ll allow to tamper with a classic hymn – say, Be Thou My Vision – is Van Morrison.

But in the end, I’m convinced the real reason for liberal sneering at religion is plain intellectual snobbery. In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, ridiculed as a primitive creationist by cosmopolitan liberals, but deeply misunderstood by them as well, was more opposed to the brutal ‘survival of the fittest’ social Darwinism that the theory of evolution contained, than to biological Darwinism.

A few months ago the ABC held a poll to determine the nation’s favourite 100 books. The audience erupted in moaning when they announced that number three on the list was the Bible. Forget that the Bible is the pillar of the world’s three great Abrahamic faiths. Forget that it contains some of the most beautiful, enduring language in written history – ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’, ‘Out of the mouths of babes’, ‘Hammer your swords into ploughshare’, ‘For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven’. Forget that it was bracketed with such deserving classics as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps the groaners would have preferred the utterly impenetrable, and arguably irrelevant, Derrida or, God forbid, Foucault?

Perhaps what the progressive intelligentsia cannot accept is that religion is, ultimately, an act of faith, a concession that we simply do not know. It requires us to admit that there is a universe beyond science, a world that passeth all understanding. Some cannot concede they are not smart enough, not rational enough, to have all the answers.

Of course, for many of those whom progressives have claimed to represent – the marginalised, the underdog – it is faith that sustains them through their travails. So in the years to come, as some of his comrades try to patronise him, Kevin Rudd would do well to remind them of what Karl Marx actually said about faith.

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.