Renewed Australian row about the boundaries of faith and politics

By staff writers
January 29, 2007

By Doug Hynd

In a further response to an article by the new leader of the Australia Labor Party, Kevin Rudd, on 'Faith and Politics', a senior Cabinet minister has accused him of using his Christian faith for political point scoring.

In the article on German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis in 1945, Kevin Rudd denied that God could be captured by any political party and called on the church to be a voice for the voiceless whichever party was in power.

A subsequent interview on ABC Radio National following publication of the article clarified Mr Rudd's view that: "Christians should always view all politicians sceptically; they should always hold a state somewhat at arm's length, but in their engagement with the state, they should take a consistent ethical position, which is always based on a cause of social justice or the interests of the marginalised."

He further observed that: "The single purpose of my intervention in this debate, apart from honouring the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is to say that when Christians inject their voice into the public political debate in Australia, to be mindful of this continuing social justice tradition of the church, rather than simply have a single voice of privatised conservative Christianity, which has as its subtext, that the natural party of God is somehow the Liberal party and/or the National party."

Mr Rudd's observation that "God was not a wholly owned subsidiary of the governing Coalition" seems to have touched a raw nerve.

The Government cranked up its attack on Mr Rudd on Saturday, when Mr Abbott accused him of using his Christian faith for political point-scoring. Speaking at the Young Liberals' national conference in Melbourne this weekend, Mr Abbott, the Minister for Health, described the Labor leader's views on politics and religion as self-serving.

By his own admission, Mr Abbott is often portrayed as the Coalition's captain Catholic but he said Mr Rudd had gone too far in using his Christian faith to shame people into voting Labor.

"In the gospel according to Kevin, Jesus didn't quite say that the best way to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely was to vote Labor but Rudd would have us believe that this is what he really meant," Mr Abbott said.

But in his speech, Mr Abbott said Mr Rudd would need policies rather than rhetoric to show he was more interested in Christians' values than their votes. "So far, he has been happy to identify with church concerns on the social justice issues, which are Labor's political strength," he said.

He says that Mr Rudd has been extremely cautious on life issues, which are a political minefield.

Mr Rudd has refused to react to Mr Abbott's claims but he has spoken to the ABC about the roles of Christianity and politics in the past. "I'm not on a crusade," he told Compass in 2005.

He coninued: "I'm doing what I think at this time in Australian political history is right and that's to engage this debate about faith, values and politics and not to vacate the ground for the other mob."

Crusade or not, at least one political analyst believes the Liberals now see Labor as a serious threat and that Health Minister Tony Abbott's attack on the Opposition Leader shows the Federal Government is concerned Kevin Rudd is gaining traction with voters.

Dr Clement Macintyre from the University of Adelaide's School of Politics says Mr Rudd's discussion of religious issues has the Government concerned.

"The fact that Tony Abbott has been called in to make a fairly aggressive speech attacking the Leader of the Opposition suggests that they're seeing Kevin Rudd getting some traction in public eyes," he said. "The Liberal Party are obviously concerned to secure their position."

Dr Macintyre says the public argument will not do either party any favours. "I think most Australians are quite happy keeping church and state fairly separate," he said.

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