Flat White

Labor admits it’s lost the trust of people of faith – but what will it do about it?

29 May 2019

5:00 AM

29 May 2019

5:00 AM

In the post-election diagnostics several people have recognized that a failure to connect with people of faith and anxieties concerning religious freedom was at least one reason why the ALP lost the election.

ALP shadow treasurer Chris Bowen penitently acknowledged, “I have noticed as I have been around during the election campaign … how often it has been raised with me that people of faith no longer feel that progressive politics cares about them.” Similarly, even former Greens Senator and Australian Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett tweeted that people of faith felt “excessive antagonism” from the political left.

I think there is a clear to-do list that the ALP needs to adopt if it is to win-back religious voters.

First, the ALP must abandon its antagonism against people of faith with traditional beliefs.

What antagonism you might ask?

Well, I can think of no better example of the ALP’s antagonistic stance towards people of faith because of their views of marriage and sexuality than ALP MP Terri Butler’s nakedly condescending retort to a Christian man of ethnic appearance about religious schools on the Q&A program. Here we had a white privileged progressive woman from the inner city – a classic example of the Bohemian Bourgeois – unloading on a Christian man with brown skin about the alleged bigotry of his religion. What do you think Muslim and Melkite Christian mums and dads were thinking when they saw this?

On top of that, during the whole Israel Folau saga, Bill Shorten pressed Morrison on whether he believed that gays were going to hell. Morrison naturally replied, “No, I do not believe that.” Now hard as it is to imagine, the topic of hell was actually a live election issue. Of course, to anyone watching, this was very much a “Are you still beating your wife?” type question, an accusation thinly veiled as a question. It was a cheap ploy designed to portray Morrison as a religious bigot. But it backfired big time. In my mind, this was the Mark Latham handshake moment of the 2019 election.

The ALP was evidently operating on the assumption that the more they attacked people who worship – because of their views of marriage and sexuality – the more the inner-city electorates would worship them. Which is true … except that it works in the reverse in working-class suburbs, in rural areas, and among ethnic communities, where people are deeply invested in their traditional religious values. Taking digs at people’s traditional religious convictions is a winning strategy in a very narrow band of the country.

Second, the ALP must advocate for LGBTI rights while respecting the ethos of faith-based schools.

It did not go unnoticed that the ALP adopted a policy that would end the ability of religious schools to restrict their hiring to people who shared their faith and values. Think about what this entails, it means that the ALP could conceivably force a Muslim school to hire a gay Jewish atheist as vice-principal.

Late last year, in the aftermath of the Ruddock Report, when it was realized that religious schools had the right to discriminate against LGBTI students and teachers, the ALP went on the offensive by arguing that religious exemptions to anti-discrimination law had to be overturned (which is ironic given that at the federal level it was the ALP who introduced the exemptions in the first place and as recently as 2013).

Despite the fact that the Ruddock Report actually recommended constraining the ability of religious schools to discriminate, this did not stop ALP deputy leader Tanya Plibersek calling elements of Ruddock Report “disturbing” if it allowed religious schools to discriminate in any form.

Despite the fact that religious leaders repeatedly said that their schools did not discriminate gay and transgender children, this did not stop the ALP from spending a whole week saying that “We must protect gay and lesbian kids,” which implied that Christian, Jews, Muslims, and other religious entities were somehow out to get them!

Rather than push the mantra that we must protect gay and lesbian kids from these notorious Catholics and Muslims, the ALP must urge a settlement that encourages religious entities to be as maximally inclusive as they can be within the precincts of their own consciences, whilst not interfering with the rights of religious schools to privilege the hiring of persons who share their values. Religious schools will be very amenable on non-discrimination against children, but less agreeable to hiring faculty who are antagonistic to their values.

Third, support legislation for religious freedom.

There is a serious lacuna in the protections for religious freedom in Australia since s116 of the constitution only applies to federal law and has been interpreted very narrowly by federal courts. Furthermore, I find the resistance from the ALP to passing religious freedom legislation truly perplexing when a simple win-win solution is available: (1) Abolish the religious anti-discrimination exemptions – to please the progressive left; and then (2) Legislate for religious freedom based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights article 18 – to please religious and ethnic communities. This is a no brainer!

Fourth, form a religious advisory council to the ALP leadership.

American presidents do this all the time and the ALP should follow suite. Obama did this with great success among evangelical voters.

No, this does not mean talking to the usual progressive religious personalities on the circuit – Fr Rod Bowers and Waleed Ally – who are already on board with the progressive program. Instead the ALP must connect with religious conservatives who are naturally wary of the ALP. A council comprised of representatives from the Australian National Imams Council, Council of Catholic Bishops, Australian Christian Lobby, Christian Schools Australia, and Council of Australian Jewry. Bold idea: make friends by being friendly!

Fifth, Anthony Albanese needs to talk about his Catholic faith and how his faith influences his progressive values.

Albo is known for his love of the ALP, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, and the Catholic Church. Time to get out his rosary, say a few hail Marys, be seen in Church and talk to faith-leaders. The last time the ALP won big and in QLD was with the overtly Christian Kevin Rudd. Remember and repeat.

Instead of treating people of faith with begrudging toleration, the ALP needs a friendly disposition and positive message for religious communities. Remember, these communities do not want a theocracy, not a blank cheque for religious freedom, and no undermining of the separation of church and state. They merely want spaces to live out and practice their faith in peace. Diversity means the right to be different without fear of reprisal. Multi-culturalism means being a nation where people of all faiths and none can live in peace. That’s not an unreasonable request.

If I were Albo, I’d be go going around every Synagogue, Mosque, and Church in Australia telling them that his new policy on religious freedom is from the prophet Micah: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). A verse that US president George Washington quoted in his letter to the Jewish community in Rhode Island to assure them that the Jews had a safe place from bigotry and persecution in the American republic.

And why not try win over religious voters? They are very supportive or at least sympathetic to the political left on topics like climate change, supporting generous foreign aid, pro-refugee attitudes, and combating poverty. They are natural allies of the political left in many ways and can easily be brought into the progressive fold. Instead of a progressive inquisition against people of faith for their traditional views of marriage and family, instead try an olive branch of peace and bring them into the progressive big tent.

In sum, if the ALP wants to win back the confidence of working and middle-class families who value faith, then they must abandon antagonism against people faith and instead embrace a positive outlook towards religious communities and propose an actual provision for religious freedom as a civic necessity.

Michael F. Bird is Academic Dean and Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He tweets @mbird12.

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