Church and [the first] state – a guide to democracy for NSW Christians. Part 1

This is the first post in a week-long series on Christian voting and the NSW election. Given that you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re one of two types of people:

Person A is the Christian political apatharge (to coin a term). But the week before an election their conscience is pricked and they realise they’ve been like a day-dreaming kid in class. So they dive for Google to get easily digestible information in order to sate their pricked conscience, vote in a way someone else told them to, and then go back to watching Biggest Loser.

Person B is a Christian political Kerry O’Brien – across the Australian political landscape and able to quote obscure legislation like a modern-day Rainman. But more than this – they’re familiar with all the dominant schools of thought on Church-State relations; they’ve decided that Augustine and Aquinas, Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas are all morons; they’ve determined their own path forward on political-theological-ethical engagement and they’re here just to ‘check up’ on me.

In these posts, I’m mainly going to be writing for the A types (sorry Kerry). B’ers are most welcome but I’m not going to be pitching things to you. Of course I should note before I continue you might be in a C or D category – not Christians but interested in or apathetic to politics. Welcome – I hope you too find some interesting food for thought and that I can help to debunk some of the hideous stereotypes surrounding Christians in the political sphere.

But while we’re on the topic of Christians working in the realm of politics I want to dedicate my entire first post to just that topic. What we’re going to look at is a tale of two political organisations – the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) and the Australian Christian Values Institute (ACVI). I’ve written elsewhere about these two in the national arena but I want to write again about their foray into state politics.

These two organisations have taken two different approaches to educating the public about what the political parties think and believe. The ACL has released the website NSW Votes, where they surveyed a number of the parties standing for the NSW election and asked them to give short answers to 22 questions. The website is clear – easy to navigate and, above all, the parties are the ones answering the questions. I’ll return to the content of the questions later.

The ACVI on the other hand has, once again, released a Christian Values Checklist, a tick-a-box how-to-vote sheet with 21 questions.

I want to illustrate the problems with using the checklist method of explaining complex ideas by running my own checklist. In it I’m going to compare the survey styles of the ACL and the ACVI.

Now as you can see, I’ve asked questions here that, in general, favour the ACL’s survey over the ACVI. But there are obvious problems with my survey:

  • It doesn’t demonstrate that a positive answer is more “Christian” than a negative.
  • It switches between questions framed in the negative or the affirmative.
  • It doesn’t recognise that “support” has a wide definitional range and so telling us that the survey uses the word is pretty useless.
  • It ultimately doesn’t give the surveyed organisations a chance to answer for themselves.

Here we find the major flaws in the ACVI checklist. It reduces Christianity down to a set of “values” (by which I think it means things that make us grumpy). The questions are framed in a way that favours parties that sit on the right-of-centre. It seems to suggest that all parties “[s]upport greater care of God’s environment” without acknowledging the massive rifts between them on how we actually pull that off. And of course, it relies on source material that may not reflect a party’s current stance on issues.

Aside from anything else, there are clear errors on the ACVI checklist. The Liberal party has publicly announced they have no intention of repealing the school ethics legislation – for example.

Now in saying this, I don’t mean to convey that the ACL website is perfect and should be the source of all your information about what to do next Saturday. This site, doesn’t have a single question about the environment, adoption law and the Community Services department or the provision of public education. I think these are massive blind-spots on topics that all spring from our doctrinal convictions (our creation mandate, our theology of adoption and our commitment to the understood Word). It’s these topics that I’ll be addressing this week, along with a few other things you need to know about how to vote in a state election.

I’m looking forward to your comments, if there’s anything you want clarification on or anything that you desperately want me to cover before Saturday, let me know.

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17 Comments

Filed under NSW Election 2011

17 responses to “Church and [the first] state – a guide to democracy for NSW Christians. Part 1

  1. looking forward to following along 🙂

  2. Peter

    Thanks for this. I’ll be reading along all week. I went to the two websites that you suggested and immediately got bogged down by information that wasn’t easily digestible. I then turned to the TV guide only to find that Biggest Looser isnt on tonight! I’m confused now! Help!
    One thing I’ve noticed is that Labour hasn’t been selling its policies, rather it has tried to discredit the Liberals. What’s your take?

  3. Tom Melbourne

    Hey Steve,

    What do you think is the more important factor in deciding our vote – the credentials of our local candidates, or the policies of the parties that they support?

    (And saying both isn’t the answer I am hoping for!)

    • steveboxwell

      Hi Tom.
      I sort of covered that in my last election series (that is, I fumbled around for a good answer). Obviously these two options are on a spectrum and my answer would probably change seat to seat, person to person, issue to issue.

      The difficulty in saying “always vote for the person, not the party” is that organisations like political parties have a way of blunting the convictions of individuals. I have no doubt that many of the people working in and around Robert Mugabe’s government are “good” people, but their party is barbaric and dictatorial.

      Conversely, it’s difficult to say always vote for the party and not the person because there are some really excellent people running in this election who have the opportunity to be a force for good in what really are three pretty awful choices this election.

      My best advice in traversing this one Tom is to actually meet your candidates. Ask them the questions about their party’s platform that you are uncomfortable with and see if they are willing to work within their own party to bring about a change of mind on the issue.

  4. Pingback: How to Vote « Southern Cross Presbyterian Church

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  6. Tim

    Thanks for this post Steve, I’m looking forward to reading the rest over this week.

    I have one issue with your checklist though. You’ve given the ACL a tick for “The survey asked open questions so as to give parties a chance to articulate their party platform.” While I certainly haven’t digested the entire ACL site, from the questions I have read and, certainly looking back over the Federal Election site that they had, their questions are anything but “open”. They all seem to be carefully crafted, leading questions that ‘suggest’ a policy and ask the party to respond to that specific point.

    For example, “Will your Party commit to keeping euthanasia illegal in NSW?” This is not an open question, and all the ones I have read so far are phrased in the same light.

    My issue therefore would be that the ACL assumes that their closed, policy ladened question is the position that all Christians should have. This doesn’t represent the nuances that Christians will have regarding policies which you have rightly argued is based on our separate “doctrinal conviction”.

    Having said that, thanks again for your insight into this issue.

    Tim

  7. In light of your recent comments on ACL and ACVI NSW election surveys, you may like to consider the different approach of FAVA (FamilyVoice Australia) at http://www.fava.org.au/election-surveys/new-south-wales/

    Our survey should win some respect from Box Pop, since we not only asked parties their views, but also sent our survey in personal emails to all the 800 or so individual candidates in upper and lower houses who had allowed the NSW Electoral Commission to release their contact details.

    We were particularly disappointed that some candidates did not provide an email address so voters could inquire about more detailed policies, even though they claim to want greater transparency and less corruption in government.

    We asked ten questions on very specific issues – any more, and many candidates would baulk at replying. We do not pretend that our questions are the only important ones, but our scoring system allows voters to get an idea of the candidate’s ideology on some issues.

    Our scoring system did not scare off leftwing parties like the Greens – they were proud of their “definitely not” answers to nine questions (scoring 2 for each) and their “probably” (score 7) for phasing out poker machines (total, 25). But we were disappointed in the major parties – Labor and the Coalition were Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both scored just 44, although their answers differed on many questions.

    While most candidates chose to send us their parties’ “official” replies, we were pleased to see personal responses by (mainly Coalition) candidates in a number of electorates.

    Ours is the only survey that allows voters to check their own electorate and decide for themselves how each individual candidate’s answers compare with how the voter would answer the specific question. Here’s our media release, sent on Tuesday:

    FamilyVoice Australia Media Release 22 March 2011

    NSW Labor and Coalition fail family values survey

    “Our NSW election survey – with ten questions relating to family, life and democracy – has revealed very little difference between the two major parties,” NSW FamilyVoice state officer Graeme Mitchell said today.

    “Both Labor and the Liberal-Nationals Coalition were a disappointment. Each scored a total of 44 out of a possible 100, but varied in their responses to different questions.

    “The scores reflect the degree to which the parties support our concerns, so a score of 44 indicates ‘not much’. The Greens scored even less – 25 – because they strongly disagreed with us on every issue except phasing out poker machines,” Graeme Mitchell said.

    “However in both major parties there are individual candidates who generally support family values. Nationals leader Andrew Stoner (Oxley) scored 92. Tony Hay (Labor candidate for Baulkham Hills) scored 73. Minor parties – the Christian Democratic Party (CDP) and Family First – achieved perfect scores of 100.

    “Both Labor and the Coalition support the tradition of opening each parliamentary day with Christian prayers. Labor also supports maintaining the current law against euthanasia, and providing good palliative care at the end of life,” Mr Mitchell said.

    The survey results – including major party replies to the ten questions – can be found on the FamilyVoice website at:
    http://www.fava.org.au/election-surveys/new-south-wales/

    For more information, contact: Graeme Mitchell 0435 837 675 (mobile) 02 9624 6421 (home)
    …………………..

    God bless!

    Ros

    Mrs Roslyn Phillips, B Sc Dip Ed
    National Research Officer
    FamilyVoice Australia: a Christian voice for family, faith and freedom
    Phone: 1300 365 965 (office) 0405 246 288 (mobile)
    Email: rhp@fava.org.au Website: http://www.fava.org.au

    • David

      Thanks for your survey results. Informative, yet not too wordy.

    • Ros – How did you select your ten questions? I appreciate the fact that there is such a thing as too many and that choices need to made about priorities, and also appreciate your honesty about this and your concession that there are other important issues not included.

      As a Christian ethics PhD student, I spend fair amount of time thinking, reading, observing, discussing and praying about politics and political involvement, but I’m not sure that many of those questions would be in my own top ten questions to ask a candidate for State parliament, so I’m interested to hear your procedure for compiling your questionnaire.

      I also note the fact that you have selected “Family” as your primary political category in your name and so assume you’re aware of the tensions between “family values” and the Christ who instructed his followers to hate their parents and disowned his own family (or at least radically redefined it). Do you think that Christian hopes and goals for political engagement are best summarised through the categories and concerns of “family”? If so, can you say a little about why you think this is so? Is “family” simply a language that resonates with certain sympathetic segments of the population and so a useful vehicle for your concerns or is there something more to it than that?

      Grace & peace,
      Byron

      • Byron – How did FamilyVoice select our ten questions? In short, we selected them to cover topics of recent debate in NSW within the ambit of our motto: “a Christian voice for family, faith and freedom”. Our concerns, summarised in this motto, cover five areas: honouring marriage, respecting human dignity, encouraging parents, valuing the Christian faith and defending our democratic freedoms.

        Is “family” simply a language that resonates … or is there something more to it than that? In short, we see these priorities as reflecting Trinitarian values. God has revealed himself to us as Father, Son and Spirit – three Persons in one God – in perfect relationship. In doing so, he has revealed himself as inherently relational. Furthermore, since we humans are made in God’s image, we too are inherently relational. Thus relational values have a high priority in a Christian worldview.

        This rationale is developed at greater length in my paper Priorities for Christians engaging our culture, which is available on our website at: http://www.fava.org.au/media/docs/voxbrief1008_christian_priorities.pdf

        What about the tensions between “family values” and the Christ who instructed his followers to hate their parents and disowned his own family (or at least radically redefined it)? Jesus often used hyperbole to emphasise a point, e.g. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” (Mt 5:29) I have yet to meet a Christian who has taken that literally. Jesus condemned the Pharisees who failed to honour their father and mother with the excuse that they were honouring God instead (Mt 15:3-6). Considered as a whole, the Bible has a high view of marriage and family life. This appears to be for good reason: the family is the primary context for passing the Christian faith to the next generation.

        Dr David Phillips
        National President
        FamilyVoice Australia

      • David, thanks for replying. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

        I entirely agree about the significance of relationships, but disagree that familial relationships exhaust or even provide the focal point of Christian discipleship. I am a family man, married with a child and a large extended family with whom I enjoy good relationships, but holy scripture and the gospels assume that my love for my family needs to be converted, deepened and shared with a much broader family, namely the household of faith, and indeed with all ,even my enemies. To focus on the family is to limit the scope of this call to what is easy. Even the pagans love their own.

        Reading Christ’s teaching as hyperbole and then referring to positive views of family in scripture is to sidestep the force of Christ’s teaching. Whether hyperbolic or not, there is a serious critique of an ethic built around familial obligations.

        Karl Barth gives a good attempt at reading this thread of thought and feeling the weight of the critique that it contains. He is not alone, but is in my reading firmly within the mainstream of Christian tradition on this.

        However we end up applying the gospel passages in question, it will not do simply to set them aside as hyperbole. We may not cut off our hands, but at the very least, we try to take Jesus’ words about the dangers of sin seriously.

        If we are to follow Christ today, then family too must not be excluded from the orbit of his total claim upon our lives. Within that claim, the demands and goodness of family life are not simply endorsed without qualification, but are re-located and redirected towards a family that includes the widow and the orphan, the poor, the lonely, the single, the isolated and, ultimately, embraces the entire groaning creation.

        My hunch is that taking seriously God’s commitment to relationships means relativising the place of blood family, not ignoring them or undermining their dignity (which I appreciate can happen in some quarters), but neither setting them up as the model of all human relationships and the highest social good.

  8. David

    As noted in the http://www.fava.org.au/election-surveys/new-south-wales/ survey, the Liberal-National Party’s response to the question “Would you support the role of Special Religious Education in state schools and oppose using these times for secular ethics classes?” with this response:

    “The NSW Liberals and Nationals do not believe there should be competition between scripture and ethics, and, despite the wording of the NSW Labor government’s announcement, in practice that’s what they are proposing.

    We understand the concerns about the activities available to students not choosing scripture. The Department of Education’s policy states that these students could be involved in activities like homework, reading or private study. A NSW Liberals and Nationals government will ensure this takes place.”

    The Christian Democratic Party said in response to this question “CDP would look to repeal the (Labor) law installing the secular ethics course and re-establish SRE in its own right. Save Our Scripture!”

    The issue of students hearing the gospel at schools should be one of the foremost issues when we vote Saturday.

    • steveboxwell

      This is quite strange isn’t it David because they said something quite different on the ACL survey. I wonder when each was commissioned?

      Again, let me communicate I’m not anti-Scripture. I’ve just got very little reason, given the Liberal Party’s clear public pronouncements, that the coalition will reverse their decision. I don’t think it was an accident that Adrian Piccoli made his announcement on the Coalition’s policy reversal at a time when we were all glued to news about the Qld floods. I pray that they will (again) change their collective minds, but I also pray for a party that has deliberately snubbed us in their campaign.

  9. Both ACL and ACVI materials tend to make me sad, though the latter more than the former. Thanks for this insightful takedown and this series showing that more than a small number of “hot button” issues are relevant to Christians.

  10. We too were surprised that the Liberal-Nationals reply to the FamilyVoice question on Scripture lessons appeared different from the reply they gave to ACL.
    We then read their response to us more carefully. The Coalition has not told us that they would repeal the ethics program law. They would simply ensure that the option of doing homework, private study, reading etc is still available to those who do not want to attend SRE lessons. Presumably, if their answer to ACL is also correct, the Coalition would allow such students to attend “ethics” philosophy classes as an additional option.
    We therefore scored the Coalition 2 for their answer.

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