Scott Morrison has made many public and campaign statements about his faith. (ABC News: Mark Moore)
Why do politicians get nervous about dragging Christianity into politics?
Because so much of what they do clashes horribly with the teachings of the Bible.
A quick check through the Ten Commandments, for instance, is definitionally uncomfortable for anyone in a profession where coveting, working on Sundays and bearing false witness against one’s neighbour is pretty much a KPI.
The Sermon on the Mount — if delivered today in the House of Representatives — would occasion much nervous checking of Apple watches and shuffling of papers, as it would for many of us. Turn the other cheek? Judge not, lest you be judged? Blessed are the meek? Jesus was — if it’s not too heretical to make the point — really showing his inexperience in Australian politics with those sentiments.
And at the parliamentary church service, where cameras are allowed, no one ever reads out Matthew 6:5:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
But nowhere is Biblical teaching more embarrassed than when it confronts — in this country — immigration policy.
PM Scott Morrison and then-opposition leader Bill Shorten at the church service to mark the start of the parliamentary year. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)
A political handmaiden
In 2006, when Kevin Rudd was seeking election against the flagging John Howard, he wrote a lengthy essay for The Monthly about faith in politics, in a self-described attempt to push back against “those who would seek today to traduce Christianity by turning it into the political handmaiden of the conservative political establishment”.
In the essay, Rudd described at length his devotion to the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the German theologian and anti-Nazi dissident) and cited the parable of the Good Samaritan.
“The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear,” he wrote. “That is why the government’s proposal to excise the Australian mainland from the entire Australian migration zone and to rely almost exclusively on the so-called Pacific Solution should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches.”
A lot happened over the ensuing six years. Rudd was elected, duly implemented a more humane asylum seeker policy, which triggered a significant increase in boat arrivals, which in turn contributed to his colleagues’ decision to abjure (in the political sense, at least) Commandment Number Six when it came to knocking off PMs.
His successor, Julia Gillard, set about restoring much of the Howard Government’s tough border regime — even eventually offering, in August 2012, to reopen Nauru and Manus Island for offshore processing. In chaos, the Labor party struck again and re-elected Rudd, who no longer spoke of Bonhoeffer.
The original essay was a canny political manoeuvre — part of the Rudd strategy to steal some bases in the territory of the faithful previously occupied by Howard’s Coalition.
But when the tenets of faith come up against the demands of politics, guess what wins?
Jesus was pretty clear that the little people mattered. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” he remarked at Matthew 25:40.
But that is not how the politics of border protection work. Because — to take the example of the Biloela family facing deportation that has prompted some Labor figures to invoke the Bible in an appeal to the Prime Minister — what is done to the least of Jesus’s brethren is done to serve as a brutal reminder to the rest of them not to try anything.
A question of faith dodged
Both Kevin Rudd and Scott Morrison have profited politically by making extensive public and campaign use of their faith.
For Rudd, the point of intersection was his deliberate invocation of Bonhoeffer and the parable of the Good Samaritan; for Morrison it was the promise of “preventative regulation and legislation” to protect religious freedom, made soon after he became Prime Minister.
On Kitchen Cabinet over the years, I asked both men specifically — with respect to asylum seekers— whether politics would always win out against the Bible’s injunction to take in the poor and suffering.
Neither was keen to answer the question directly.
Rudd — whose staff whispered in the background that only 10 minutes remained before he had to be whisked away — commenced a lengthy oral history of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the participating countries, the geopolitical context …
Minute after minute ticked by, until I interrupted him to point out that we were unlikely to put this historical context to air and seeing as this was a program about himself and his approach to politics, perhaps he could give a more personal reflection about the intersection of Christian and political principle.
His response was to ask that all the cameras be turned off, whereupon he informed me that if I wanted to ask him this question, I must be prepared to broadcast his answer in full.
This impasse was never broken, and a few minutes later the prime minister was on his way.
‘There are no simple answers’
Several years later, I interviewed Scott Morrison, who served as immigration minister under Tony Abbott but by the time of our interaction was serving as the treasurer.
I asked him whether the essence of politics was accepting — in contravention of Bible teaching — that some people could and would be hurt by the decisions you took.
“Well, particularly when you’re dealing with life and death consequences, I mean there are no simple answers,” he said. “It’d be lovely if they all just had a conference up in South East Asia and all of a sudden and the people smugglers decided they wouldn’t be sending any more boats and it would all be solved, but the world’s not that simple … this part of the world in particular is not that simple. And one of the things I learnt from my father is crooks are crooks, and you know, they will keep going until you stop them.”
“What about the victims of the crooks?” I asked. “Aren’t they in a slightly difficult situation?”
“It was never about the um, having a position on the victims of the crooks, and in many ways they’re the people we’ve prevented from you know, now perishing at sea,” Morrison responded.
“There are so many silent voices that were never heard in this debate … I mean who is talking up for those who are offshore, who could never ever afford to get on a boat, that were applying to come through the proper system, and the thousands of those who are getting knocked back every year, because simply we had to shut down the offshore humanitarian program cause all the places had been taken?”
As you can see, these two men of faith had different ways of confronting the deeply troublesome intersection of their spiritual beliefs with their day jobs.
But it should be noted that both answered the question in a political way, which should give you the answer about which discipline — when push comes to shove — will always prevail.