In Nine Entertainment’s newspapers on Tuesday, Latika Bourke reported Tony Abbott’s speech to the Policy Exchange think tank in support of Britain exiting the EU — Brexit. The heading was “Tony Abbott quotes the Bible in London Brexit speech”.
The biblical quote occurred close to the end of a 2400-word speech and consisted of a mere 18 words. The reference is to the Gospel of Luke: “He who puts his hand to the plough and then turns back is not worthy of the kingdom.” In other words, an evocation to Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to stay the course on Brexit.
Also on Tuesday, Nine newspapers’ David Crowe reported on the Labor Party pressuring the Coalition not to deport the Tamil family of Nadesalingam Murugappan and his wife Priya Nadarasa and their two children.
Crowe wrote that Scott Morrison had been urged to show “Christian leadership”. However, he did not report that Labor’s deputy Senate leader, Kristina Keneally, had evoked the parable of the good Samaritan — also from the Gospel of Luke.
In fact, Keneally’s reference to the Bible was more significant than Abbott’s aside. In a 15-minute interview with Hamish Macdonald on the ABC’s Radio National Breakfaston Monday, Keneally put religious belief at the centre of Australian political debate.
Keneally claimed “the Prime Minister put his faith on public display as part of the election campaign”. The reference was to Morrison being filmed at prayer on Easter Sunday.
After describing herself “as a Christian … as a Catholic”, Keneally said she did not like “to bring religion into political debate unnecessarily”.
Having blamed Morrison for introducing his faith into Australian politics, Keneally then told the Prime Minister to act in accordance with her interpretation of his beliefs:
“I’m calling on him to reflect upon the parable of the good Samaritan — which invited us, as Christians, to take care of the stranger in our land.”
For those who take guidance from the Bible, it’s not all that clear how the good Samaritan would handle unlawful boat arrivals on Australia’s shores.
Would he take care of the stranger in our land and petition for a resident’s visa?
Or would he seek to take care of strangers by preventing them from boarding the unsafe boats of people-smugglers and run the risk of drowning at sea?
Alas, the Gospel of Luke provides no such guidance.
Keneally is a Christian and so is Morrison. It’s just that they have different views as to what pertains to Caesar (the state) and what pertains to God (the church).
It seems that, according to Keneally, the parable of the good Samaritan has limited application in Australia with respect to asylum-seekers.
She told Macdonald that she supports Operation Sovereign Borders and that Australia should not have an open borders policy. Neither is she opposed to the deportation of all those who fail to attain refugee status.
In short, the parable of the good Samaritan appears to have a narrow application and focuses only on a Tamil family at this stage.
Keneally’s homily to the Prime Minister has caused some dissension within the Labor Party. NSW Labor MP Chris Hayes (the chief opposition whip) and Tasmanian Labor senator Helen Polley told The Australian’s Rosie Lewis that they were not comfortable with the Prime Minister’s faith being brought into the public debate. However, Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon supported Keneally.
Not surprisingly, the relationship between religion and politics has always been a vexed question in Australia, invariably involving double standards.
During World War I, Daniel Mannix, the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, was criticised for involving the Catholic Church in politics. He was opposed to conscription for overseas service.
All Mannix’s political interventions on conscription were made outside of churches and chapels. Many a Protestant leader supported conscription from the pulpit — without being accused of mixing religion and politics.
It was much the same during the split in the Australian Labor Party in the mid-1950s. Mannix was criticised for involving the Catholic Church in politics by supporting the breakaway Democratic Labor Party (which was backed by Catholic layman BA Santamaria). However, no such criticism was levelled at the Catholic prelates in Sydney — cardinal Norman Gilroy and archbishop James Carroll — who supported the ALP.
According to Keneally, Morrison introduced religion into contemporary Australian politics when he was filmed worshipping at the Pentecostal Horizon Church in Sydney on Easter Sunday this year. But Bill Shorten, the Labor leader at the time, was photographed on the same day outside St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Brisbane.
It’s unreasonable to accuse Morrison of a political act without levelling the same charge at Shorten. The better view is that both men did what they sometimes do on a Sunday — go to church with their family and fellow Australians. As Keneally acknowledges, when premier of NSW she was sometimes filmed on the way to Sunday mass at her local Catholic parish.
In the modern era, no prime minister has paraded his religion as much as Labor’s Kevin Rudd. It was common for Rudd to give doorstop interviews after he exited St John’s Anglican Church in Canberra on Sundays. The cameras were set at a place where Rudd’s departure from the service was able to be filmed.
In October 2006, in the lead-up to the November 2007 election, Rudd wrote an article in The Monthly titled “Faith in Politics”. Here he identified with the Christian belief of the courageous German Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), who was murdered by the Nazi regime in the final months of World War II. Rudd’s embrace of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity was enthusiastically embraced by ABC television’s Lateline presenters Tony Jones and Maxine McKew and assisted his campaign to be regarded as conservative.
However, as prime minister, Rudd did not wear his religion on his sleeve. Neither did the Catholic Abbott. Nor has the Protestant Morrison.
Indeed, the only politician in recent times who has advocated that a particular government decision should be motivated by a Christian teaching is Keneally herself.