Faith palm

Two things are worth remembering as Scott Morrison defends the Ruddock review of religious freedom: this report was commissioned only because a segment of the Coalition is utterly opposed to the public’s desire for marriage equality, and that in debates such as this some conservatives are happy to terrorise children.

“Well, it’s the existing law,” Morrison said this week. “And we’re not proposing to change that law, to take away that existing arrangement that exists.”

Asked if he were comfortable with a child being expelled from a school because of their sexuality, he said: “It’s existing law.”

This is how faith works. It is a kind of surrender to that which has already been written down. In politics, it functions as a defence of that which cannot otherwise be defended – a perfect link back to the past and to the morals that resided there.

There is comfort in this sort of trickery, but only for a few. As the journalist Nick O’Malley observed this week: “The rights I can best remember this government advocating for are the rights to discrimination and to bigotry.”

In his first speech to parliament, Morrison mentioned faith or faithfulness 13 times. He quoted from Jeremiah and the Book of Joel. He named his family and his faith as the two great influences on his life.

“Australia is not a secular country – it is a free country,” he said. “This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society. As [former] US senator Joe Lieberman said, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not from religion. I believe the same is true in this country.”

Morrison said his “personal faith in Jesus Christ is not a political agenda”. He quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying his task was not to claim God was on his side but to pray earnestly that he would be on God’s.

“For me, faith is personal, but the implications are social – as personal and social responsibility are at the heart of the Christian message,” he said. “In recent times it has become fashionable to negatively stereotype those who profess their Christian faith in public life as ‘extreme’ and to suggest that such faith has no place in the political debate of this country.

“This presents a significant challenge for those of us … who seek to follow the example of William Wilberforce or Desmond Tutu, to name just two. These leaders stood for the immutable truths and principles of the Christian faith. They transformed their nations and, indeed, the world in the process.

“More importantly, by following the convictions of their faith, they established and reinforced the principles of our liberal democracy upon which our own nation is built.”

There are contradictions in this. Morrison’s faith cannot be merely personal and at the same time be that through which he wishes to transform the country. If its implications are social, they are, through his position, political.

There is another way for Morrison to answer whether he is comfortable with a child being expelled from school because of their sexuality or their gender identity, but it requires leadership rather than faith. That answer would be: no.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 13, 2018 as "Faith palm".

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