Real radicals among Australia's Christian leaders

John Warhurst April 12, 2012

The Easter reflections by some Christian leaders showed that they are among the real radicals in Australia today. They are not unanimous in their radicalism, which is certainly not shared by some important Christian lobby groups. But it stands out nonetheless.

It is also a radicalism that may depart from the practices and beliefs of their own members. Perhaps for that reason this radicalism is also often at odds with the major political parties. Reports of these Easter spiritual messages showed that, especially among Anglicans, there were many arguments with a surprisingly radical emphasis.

The most outspoken was the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, Philip Freier, in an article in the Herald Sun called ''Time to share the wealth''.

He questioned the ethics of the banking sector in regard to redundancies and profits and the mining sector in regard to taxation. He was even sympathetic towards the Occupy Movement for being the product of the rising wealth of a few, arguing that this type of international activist response was ''what happens when wealth creation becomes separated from moral and social responsibility''.

In advocating the importance of wealth distribution ahead of wealth creation, he was stepping outside the usual emphasis of corporate and political Australia.

His charge that the mining sector ''has shown it is reluctant to share a fair proportion of the wealth it has accrued from digging up the mineral resources that belong to all Australians'' was a clear political statement, though he softened its implications in a more general appeal to ''Australia's business and parliamentary leaders to reflect on how wealth shared equitably can be used for the betterment of the whole community, and to improve the lives and opportunities of all Australians''.

His Anglican colleague, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall of Brisbane, the Anglican Primate, was concerned about the stresses of modern society, which he traced to a number of sources, including the internet and, notably, the destructiveness of gambling addiction.

As the church-supported initiative by independent MP Andrew Wilkie to regulate gambling by pre-commitment technology has been dropped off the political agenda, this statement also addressed a current political issue.

While the federal Parliament investigates same sex marriage, the Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft, encouraged church-goers not to take sides against those they found different. Two years ago he declared his support for homosexual bishops.

Another Anglican, Ray Cleary, acting dean of St Paul's, Melbourne, reflected on ''the distracting superficiality of fast-paced modern life''. He believed that ''people are searching for something beyond consumerism and beyond the immediate, and what's the next thing they can buy''.

Criticism of consumerist pressures, the idea that the ever-increasing purchase and consumption of goods is not just taking over modern capitalist society but is necessary for its survival, was one of the common threads in church Easter statements, including by the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart.

Yet the media constantly reports on disappointing retail spending and the dangers under-spending posed, according to retail lobbyists, to the very survival of the sector.

It is not a theme that can be taken up by political leaders who are loath to be seen to be talking down the economy or to denigrate the tastes and aspirations of ordinary citizens who have the consumer bug.

Christian leaders do not speak from a position of strength because the size of their congregations continues to fall. Anything they have to say can be easily dismissed on that count.

But the fact that their predicament means that do not have to court popularity actually frees them in a way that political and business leaders are not. They can be counter-cultural in a way mainstream politics cannot be because it must appeal to the majority.

These leaders are not radical in a conventional political sense. Certainly the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, is not. Over Easter he discussed sympathetically the legacy of Catholic anti-communist activist B. A. Santamaria, one of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's mentors, before appearing on an Easter edition of Q&A to debate God and religion with Professor Richard Dawkins.

But despite Cardinal Pell's abiding concern with being anti-Green and anti-secular, he has social perspectives and priorities that do not fit easily with those of either of the major parties. He recalled how Santamaria was no supporter of the free market and, perhaps Bob Katter-like, would have wanted to do more than the major parties ever do to preserve family farms and rural production from international competition.

Sometimes a message overtly addressed only one side of politics, as when the Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide, Jeffrey Driver, mentioned the Gillard-Rudd leadership contest as an example of self-interest and self-indulgence rather than servant leadership, but overall that was rare.

None wanted to be overtly linked with those on the margins of Australian politics, like the Greens (also suspicious of consumerism), Wilkie (opposed to the gambling industry) and/or Katter (protectionist views about the open market). But they do share views with these minorities.

Furthermore, you don't have to read too deeply between the lines to find their dissatisfaction with the direction that Australian society, steered to some extent by the major parties, is going; though often these parties are not leading but merely following.

Christian leaders, frequently regarded by the general public and by the political class as conservative and anachronistic, often hold surprisingly radical views. They showed this over Easter.

Other public thinkers, including non-Christian leaders, share the freedom from majority and major party concerns that Christian leaders sometimes bring to public debate. All should be encouraged and listened to in a pluralist society, even by non-believers, because they have something challenging to say.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University. John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au

Most viewed