What can we learn from the Australian Prime Minister throwing his own faith under the bus to win political points?
In case you haven’t already heard, the Australian election campaign took an interesting turn this week when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appeared on Q & A (a current affairs interview program in Australia) and was asked a question about ‘same-sex marriage’. Rudd went into full flight, launching a passionate defence of the change of heart that has seen him become a vocal proponent of what he calls ‘marriage equality’.
It was a powerful moment, and one for which Mr. Rudd received a loud, sustained ovation. But the audience’s warm response covered over the fact that this was a bizarre, even unpleasant moment. For here was the nation’s leader publicly berating a fellow citizen for holding the very position that he had held himself until a few months ago. Perhaps more importantly, here was a very public Christian trashing the Bible – distorting its message and dragging its reputation through the mud to score political points – and being enthusiastically applauded for doing so.
The next day on the campaign trail, the Prime Minister was asked whether he was concerned that he may have alienated Christian voters. He didn’t just hold the line taken on Q&A, but deepened the attack (as we’ll see below).
There is much to learn from this – not just for Australian voters, but also for anyone interested in how faith and politics intersect, and how Christianity is viewed in western society. For all those reasons, the importance of this incident stretches far beyond the current Australian election, and it’s worth a couple of comments.
I don’t need to repeat the excellent critiques already offered. In particular, Sandy Grant has masterfully demonstrated why Rudd’s assessment of the Bible’s teaching on slavery is way off. David Ould has shown just how bizarre it is to omit the Lordship of Jesus Christ when explaining the ‘fundamental principle’ of the New Testament. And Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies has entered the fray with these piercing insights into how to read the Bible, and why Rudd should have known much better.
But there are a couple more issues worth raising. Let me start by addressing two particular topics, before some big picture reflections.
The Science of Sexual Orientation
When answering the question on Q&A, Mr. Rudd started the ball rolling by addressing the ‘science’ of homosexuality. Here’s what he said: “I do not believe people, when they are born, choose their sexuality. They are gay if they are born gay. You don’t decide at some later stage in life to be one thing or the other. It is – it is how people are built and, therefore, the idea that this is somehow an abnormal condition is just wrong. I don’t get that. I think that is just a completely ill-founded view.”
And later: “If you think homosexuality is an unnatural condition then, frankly, I cannot agree with you based on any element of the science.”
I’ll be honest: I’m a little scared to even raise this issue. But at the risk of being written off for going there, can I ask two questions:
1. Can we please have calm, rational, intelligent discussion about what the science actually shows in this area?
I am currently in the process of editing a terrific book on homosexuality – a book that includes an entire chapter analysing what the most current, reliable science actually says about the ‘gay gene’ and homosexual orientation. Without giving away all the details of a book awaiting publication, the least we can say is that the jury is still out on this issue. The existence of a ‘gay gene’ is far from proven, as is the claim that people are born with their sexual inclination. It’s just one example, but SATC star Cynthia Nixon is clear that, for her, homosexuality is a choice.
But that’s not my main point. To even ask the question these days is seen, in most circles, as tantamount to declaring yourself an intolerant homophobe. I’d love to see a greater willingness (on all sides) to engage in meaningful, substantial discussion without the hurtful rhetoric and ad hominem attacks.
But my second question is probably more important.
2. Can we please have some serious discussion about whether or not a genetic predisposition to a certain behaviour makes that behaviour right?
In recent years, researchers have suggested genetic predispositions to things like alcoholism, violent behaviour, addiction, laziness and religious belief. But are we really comfortable saying that a genetic predisposition to a certain behavior is enough to tell us that this behaviour is right, moral, and something that should be affirmed and encouraged? Don’t we need to apply other categories of thought?
Let me be clear: I am not equating homosexuality with alcoholism, violent behaviour, addiction or laziness. I am simply saying that, in each of these cases, we believe a genetic predisposition is something to be overcome (not something to be encouraged) because we have made a separate value judgment about the behaviour in question. Are we even allowed to have a similar discussion about homosexual activity (not attraction or inclination, but activity)?
This is somewhat (not entirely, but somewhat) analogous to people who cite homosexuality in the animal world as evidence that homosexuality among human beings is normal, natural and good (I’ve heard this argument many times, both publicly and privately). But on its own, how does this prove anything? Do we really want to take moral direction from the animal world? I mean, some animals eat their own young. Female Praying Mantises kill and eat their mate after sex. Some animals abandon the young who are born weak and infirm and are therefore unwanted. (Actually, forget I mentioned that last one.)
My point is this: Don’t we need moral categories outside genetics, outside science, and outside the animal world, to tell us whether a behaviour is moral, good and right? What am I missing here?
And don’t we need to show the kind of patience and respect that would allow this discussion to take place – without Christians having to fear that simply raising these questions means they’ll be labeled as homophobic jerks? Or as Peter Jensen put it on Q&A, “When do we get to the point where we can talk about this without shouting at each other and hurting each other?”
The Bible and Sexual Discrimination
But back to Mr. Rudd, who wasn’t finished yet. The day after Q&A, he not only repeated his claims about the Bible and slavery, but made this silly, far-fetched claim about the Bible’s view of women and gender: “To all of you who are women, it says in the New Testament according to St. Paul that wives should be submissive to their husbands. So just bear all that in mind, cause it’s in the Bible. In fact, if we took it that seriously, do you know what? We may as well repeal, also, the Sex Discrimination Act because that creates a different set of circumstances. Let’s get real about this.”
First of all, why would Mr. Rudd assume that, if his account of the Bible’s teaching is correct, men would be any less affronted and outraged than women? Why single out ‘all of you who are women’ when making these comments?
More importantly, Mr. Rudd is correct to say that the Bible speaks about wives submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18). But again, he is way off the mark in his ability to actually understand and interpret what’s really being said. Mr. Rudd claims that taking Paul’s words seriously would lead to the Sex Discrimination Act (1984) being repealed. But it’s a ridiculous claim.
I read the Act (it’s online here), and I struggled to find the part about how wives may or may not freely choose to respond to the love of their husbands. I searched in vain for the section of the Act where a woman is forbidden to willingly submit herself to the loving leadership of a man who has promised to spend a lifetime loving and serving her, making every decision in her best interests – even to the point of literally laying down his life for her, if necessary. So maybe it would have helped if Kevin had also read Ephesians 5:25-33 and Colossians 3:19. (And who knows, it just might have helped him with the ‘same-sex marriage’ question, too.)
I’m left thinking that the Prime Minister was simply grasping at straws, trying to score cheap, easy points, and perhaps cashing in on the biblical illiteracy of his audience and the prevailing mood of the times. As with his comments on slavery, it was a very disappointing performance from one claiming to act in ‘Christian conscience’.
Biblical ignorance revealed
Despite all that, what I found most interesting about Kevin Rudd’s performance this week was not the specific issues, but what it tells about the secular West’s attitude to the Bible. Put simply, this whole affair has revealed both a profound level of biblical ignorance, and a deep hostility towards the Bible and evangelical Christians.
I am increasingly convinced that the average person in western society has not rejected the Bible’s message; the average person is utterly ignorant of the Bible’s message. Biblical Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; biblical Christianity has simply not been tried. And yet for all its ignorance of the Bible’s teaching, our society still permits open antagonism towards those that believe and treasure the Bible.
What other explanation could there be for the Australian Prime Minister trotting out tired old criticisms of the Bible (criticisms that have been thoroughly disproven this week, and many times before) and being lauded as an enlightened thinker? What else could explain the SMH’s ‘Rudd delivers same-sex smackdown’ headline (the report called it ‘the answer of the century’), rather than my somewhat wordy but more accurate alternative: ‘Rudd distorts Bible and throws his own faith under the bus to win political approval’?
Christians will have long sensed it, and will have seen multiple small examples to confirm it – but this week’s events have provided some of the strongest proof yet: we live in a society that is utterly ignorant of the Bible’s teaching, and is hostile to those who take the Bible (and all its teaching) seriously.
How could Christians respond to this? The answer is not a siege mentality, burying our heads in the sand, or becoming hostile and aggressive in the face of opposition. On the contrary, as Jesus taught, Christians need to love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them (Matt 5:44). It means that in sharing our faith, we’ll need to start a lot further back, assuming nothing, and be prepared to patiently answer misguided objections. It means we need to steel ourselves, encourage one another and pray for God’s help, because the temptation to be ashamed of Jesus and his words (Mark 8:38) is surely on the rise.
Finally, we’ll need to beware of arrogance. Don’t do to our neighbours what Mr. Rudd did to his Q&A interlocutor: Don’t despise someone for holding a worldview or a belief that you used to hold.
It can be easy to look down on our neighbours for their biblical illiteracy. It will be easy to feel superior because we believe we have ‘the answers’. But it is only by God’s grace that any of us have even a sliver of understanding when it comes to his ways and his will. There is no room for boasting or superiority. Let’s come alongside our neighbours in genuine love, rather than in judgmentalism. After all, how can we expect anything less than ignorance of the Bible and hostility towards it when a nation’s Prime Minister leads the charge?