Our Christian Prime Minister


What exactly is the relationship between Kevin Rudd’s Christian faith and his life in politics? It is far too easy, as we have become accustomed in our supposedly secular world, to distinguish between politics and religion. Politics belongs to public life, the tough grind of policy, implementation, spin and compromise. And religion is supposed to be a private affair, kept to oneself and not trotted out in public.

Rudd’s political position has become quite clear: he is a social democrat. In two much read essays in The Monthly — one back in 2006 called "Faith in Politics" and the other more recently in 2009 called "The Global Financial Crisis" — Rudd pins his colours to the social democratic position: a balance between market and government, individual and community, between profit and care for the poor and less fortunate.

As he argued forcefully in the 2009 piece, for the last 25 years we have had far too much of a focus on unfettered markets. In the name of neo-liberalism, we have thrown ethics, equity and sustainability out the window. And look where that has got us. The targets are obvious: the former Liberal government in Australia, George W Bush in the United States, but also earlier governments that followed a similar line. For Rudd, the time for the social democrats has at last come — a path to a kinder, gentler capitalism in which we can soften the worst aspects of market capitalism.

If all we had were political arguments, Rudd’s position would be nice and simple. But Rudd likes to complicate matters by connecting his social democracy directly to his religious position.

What kind of religious position is it? As more than one commentator has pointed out, Rudd is the most sincerely Christian Prime Minister Australia has had for a very long time. There is little tokenism in his claim to be a "garden variety Christian of no fixed denomination". In the midst of a punishingly hectic schedule, Rudd and Therese Rein attend church every Sunday.

It is certainly not a conservative or fundamentalist version of Christianity — the sort to which we have become drearily accustomed in terms of the "religious right". By contrast, three years ago Rudd toyed with the term "Christian socialism", a label he was happy at that moment to wear with pride. He listed a number of eminent Australians who were also Christian socialists such as Andrew Fisher, the first majority Labor Prime Minister of Australia. And he made much of the inspiration of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who espoused a strong social justice Christianity and was executed for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler.

But that was when Rudd was still a relatively unknown politician. As yet he had not become leader of the Labor Party and he had not led Labor to victory in the elections of November 2007. After those events, he very quickly distanced himself from the "socialist" part of Christian socialism. Socialism is, he said soon after the election, an out-dated 19th century policy that has no value in today’s world.

The problem with the socialist tag is that it raises a profound question over capitalism. Although they vary, Christian socialists find capitalism a real problem and would prefer to get rid of capitalism or at least modify it radically so that it hardly resembles the capitalism we know. That is certainly not Rudd’s position today. He wants a capitalism that has its rough edges smoothed down; in short, a capitalism that is good for everyone.

I would suggest that one of the major sources for this position is Catholic social teaching. Rudd himself provides a hint, for in 2006 he wrote, "Catholic social teaching has long argued for a proper balance between the rights of capital and labour, in a relationship based on mutual respect as well as legal protection."

So what is Catholic social teaching? It began formally on 15 May 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, subtitled "On Capital and Labour". This text numbers among the most influential statements from the Vatican. Over the years others followed, the most recent being Deus Caritas Est (2005), but each one appeared at times of economic and social unrest: the late 19th century, the Great Depression, the 1960s, the collapse of communism, and the "war on terror".

These are some of its main emphases:

The sanctity of human life and the dignity of the person from the moment of conception until death, which embraces matters such as abortion, warfare, and discrimination.

The (heterosexual) family, and by extension the community, both local and global, which entails an opposition to the collectivism of communism and the laissez-faire "extremes" of capitalism.

Rights — to life and its necessities, to freedom of religion, and to property; and responsibilities — to one another, families, and society, especially so that property is not used for evil.

A preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, which is now extended to unborn children, the disabled, elderly, terminally ill, victims of injustice and oppression.

The dignity of work and the rights of workers, especially in terms of the living wage, safe working conditions, trade unions, but also to work conscientiously and treat employers and fellow workers with respect.

Solidarity, based on forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as the idea that there is one human family, which implies that we should welcome the stranger in our midst.

Care for creation, based on the biblical mandate for stewardship of God’s creation, with the implication that the goods of the earth are subject to the "social mortgage" (the mutual responsibility to protect the environment).

This is quite a hodge-podge of positions — trade unions and anti-abortion, environmental policies and homophobia, opposition to divorce but welcoming to strangers. It is no wonder that conservatives and progressives in the church can claim that this teaching backs up their position.

But there is one feature I would like to stress: given the choice between any shade of socialism or capitalism, Roman Catholic social teaching comes out in favour of capitalism. From the first document, Rerum Novarum in 1891, left-wing politics is described as "unjust", out to steal property, distort the State, and confuse the community. And in 1931 Pius IX stated in a follow-up document (Quadragesimo Anno) that any type of socialism "cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth".

For all the critiques of class conflict, exploitation of workers, the concentration of capital in the hands of a few, and the need for workers to organise in trade unions, Roman Catholic social thought has remained firmly opposed to any form of socialism.

The overlap with Kevin Rudd is quite striking. I would suggest it is one Christian tradition that feeds directly into his politics. We can put both Rudd and Catholic social teaching to a simple test: which economic system do they categorically oppose and which one do they seek to soften? The question hardly needs an answer. Theirs is really an effort to produce a milder, gentler capitalism. One can’t help but wonder whether that is a contradiction in terms.

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.