I was raised in home where my parents, and parents’ parents were committed unionists. We were working class, and that meant you voted Labor. What motivated me to betray 100 years of family tradition of union affiliation, and Labor support? It’s a question my father still asks occasionally, only to provide his own unkind answer (I’m an idiot). The short answer is the moral matrix which I evaluated the political parties on changed, so my vote changed to reflect that.
However, I want to make it clear that the Coalition, Labor or Greens do not, and cannot represent the Christian vote. In fact, I reject the idea there is such a thing as a Christian vote, properly understood, there are simply Christians who vote. Thoughtful Christians who vote across the political spectrum, because the moral matrices by which they evaluate political parties are wider, and weighted differently.
For example, Christians in Victoria who voted Labor in 2006 or 2010 may not have supported the 2008 liberalisation of the abortion laws that allowed abortions up to the ninth month, resulting in a 600% increase in late term abortions at the Royal Women’s Hospital (I trust every Christian will be appalled at such an outcome). However, the reason they voted Labor was an assessment that their policies are more equitable, more generous with social benefits, more attentive to the needs of the poor, and they argue that when you weight all the issues, they are more deserving overall.
Similarly, in the 2013 election a Christian may have been opposed to the Labor Party’s commitment to homosexual marriage, yet they argue that when you consider policies in other areas, like climate change, education, NBN and social services - that overall - they are more attuned to biblical concerns for the weak and poor. Consequently, as they weight all the issues, they conclude that the many national goods (education, environment, wealth distribution etc.) outweigh an issue like homosexual marriage.
So, Christians divide over politics because the moral matrices by which they evaluate political parties are often wider and weighted differently. But there is also another reason for our differences. Even if we agree on a moral matrix, and even if we could agree on how to weight each issue, we may still disagree on how to give expression to it in public policy.
Let’s take Zech. 7:9-10 for example, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Imagine we agree that the trajectories of justice and generosity towards the most marginalised resonate throughout all of Scripture. In other words, God is concerned with justice, especially for the weak and the helpless. Imagine we agree on that – it is possible; indeed, I would say probable, that we may yet disagree on how that is best expressed in public policy. For example, some may believe that the best, the most humane way to deal with what is often described, as ‘illegal immigration’ is to stop the boats and provide great disincentives to take dangerous trips by boat whilst increasing the refugee resettlement numbers through official UN camps, and at the same time taking proper control over the borders.
Others believe that while we ought to discourage people smuggling, it should not be at the expense of making a refugee’s life even harder than it already is. In other words, while there are legitimate concerns over security, sovereignty and in some cases integrity of the refugee system, the answer is not punishing the vulnerable, since the ends cannot justify the means.
So even if we agree on a moral matrix, and even if we could agree on how to weight each issue, we may still disagree on how to give expression to it in public policy. Having said that, I believe it is possible and desirable in attempting to develop a shared moral matrix and weighting so we can navigate these issues both biblically and thoughtfully. First, it would be helpful to agree on what the biblical purpose of the magistrate is. Paul says in Rom. 13:3, “…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Most Christians accept that from a biblical perspective the prime task of the magistrate is to suppress evil and promote good. I think it was Augustine that said government is a ‘necessary evil, that is, it is necessary because of evil.’
Second, as a corollary of that, we must now ask how we might define good or evil. I am going to suggest that the 10 commandments are a good place to start. Aquinas described the ten words as the natural law, or what the Reformers called the moral law, which lays out our duties to both God and our neighbour. I want to go one-step further here and suggest that it is possible to deduce that duties infer rights. For example, the duty to worship, infers a right to worship (1st to 3rd Command). A duty to keep the Sabbath, infers a right to work and rest (4th Command). A duty to honour your parents infers a right to a mother and father (5th Command). A duty to not murder, infers a right to life (6th Command). A duty not commit adultery, infers a right to be married (7th Command). A duty not to steal, infers a right to private property (8th &10th Command). A duty to bear false witness, might infer a right to a fair trial (9th Command).
Consequently, if we love God and our neighbour and seek his glory and their welfare (Jer.29:7) we ought to be concerned that the magistrate intends to suppress evil and promote good when it comes time to vote. Will they protect freedom of speech and religion, not suppress it? Will they promote opportunities to work, and discourage laziness? Will they protect and promote marriage, not redefine it? Will they protect private property, not seek to seize it? Will they protect life particularly the vulnerable, like refugees and the unborn? Will they promote a strong judicial system where evil is suppressed and rights protected?
It is possible then to have a shared moral matrix that could help us weight issues appropriately. While I want a fast internet, homosexual marriage is weightier issue than the NBN. And while we want to be good stewards of the environment, protecting the vulnerable like refugees and the unborn, is a weightier issue than reducing our carbon footprint. While we may want to see a greater redistribution of wealth, issues of freedom of speech and religion are weightier issues than taxes.
To that end, I am suggesting that there are some issues like abortion, refugees, homosexual marriage and freedom of worship and speech that ought to be deal breakers for Christians. I realise that at times all parties have policies that are deal breakers. I realise at times the difference between them is mostly rhetoric on issues like refugees or abortion, where there is little practical difference between them. But there are times like the last election where we had an obvious choice regarding homosexual marriage, and I would hope that because of the weightiness of that issue, it should be a deal breaker for all Christians.
Rev. Darren Middleton, Convener, Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria