Over on the ABC Religion & Ethics Twitter stream, there’s an open discussion about the extent to which religious leaders should take specific policy positions on issues like climate change and gay marriage. For various reasons, I have a locked down Twitter account at the moment, so I thought I’d scratch out my thoughts here.
As an atheist, I am strongly in favour of religious leaders taking strong policy positions in public debate.
The point of opinion writing, as I’ve argued before, is to translate the bellyfeel intuitions of the broader community into political discourse. Good opinion writers will translate those feelings into useful political language, giving people greater ability to express their own views about important political problems. Opinion writers can only go so far. Not only is it unfashionable for opinion writers to express strong religious convictions, it’s also ineffective. We don’t look to opinion writers to express religious convictions. We look to religious leaders.
Religious leaders have a responsibility to translate the religious intuitions of the various faiths into useful, productive political language. It’s not good enough to abandon their flocks to lay-theological notions about the sanctity of life, for example, or inter-faith relations.
If religious leaders are formally excluded or socially discouraged from entering into political discussions, then we don’t open up an acceptable outlet for religious expression in politics. When that happens, we get the America effect: people turning their homes into Westborough Baptist Churches, starting weird fruitloop cults to troll the legal system.
It also has the effect of domesticating and socialising religious groups. When religious leaders enter the political arena, they’re criticised by everybody — including adherents of their own religion. Thus, if religious leaders want to hold socially inappropriate, backwards, and odious prejudices, they end up being judged by the broader community and younger generations of religious people can affect change within their institutions.
We see this a lot in the Catholic Church, much to their credit. Although I have a lot of time for him and his theological views, Pell’s social views are a remnant of an older age. Already, we’re seeing a new generation of Church leaders come up through the fold who are finding ways to be theologically conservative while socially liberal. Why is this? Because we included Pell in the political discussion and gave him all the rope he needed.
Is it a problem that groups like the Australian Christian Lobby go about their business unchecked? Yes, but no more so than any other lobby group. Australia has a longstanding problem with ensuring that it’s political dealings are in the public space. But this is a secular — rather than a religious — problem.
Atheists should not only be happy for religious leaders to express political opinions, they should encourage them. Encourage the best theologians to enter the public debate and watch the quality of our religious communities improve.
- Secularism wrongly translated (ayeshashaikh17.wordpress.com)
- Young religious adults more progressive, survey says (blogs.courier-journal.com)
- Yoga and the Politics of Classification (monksandnones.wordpress.com)
- What’s religion got to do with politics? (blogs.abc.net.au)
- The Church’s Quiet Gay Rights Movement (prosebeforehos.com)