In early 2007 I spoke at the premiere release of the film Amazing Grace in the parliamentary theatre in Canberra. It was the story of independent MP William Wilberforce’s courage withstanding even attacks from fellow Christians who claimed that faith had nothing to say about slavery. Afterwards a few Christian Coalition MPs took me aside and said they were so inspired they thought they should start a Parliamentary Clapham Sect (Wilberforce’s group) and invite my brother to join. I said, “Fantastic! You could immediately look at the policy of locking up children in detention.” They were unimpressed and walked off. I realised that most of us prefer our heroes to be long dead.
I have read about former British Tory PM William Pitt the Younger declaring the death knell of the British slave trade. He had been influenced by his close friend, Wilberforce, who prime minister Scott Morrison mentioned in his maiden speech as one of his Christian heroes. It made me wonder if Morrison realised that when Wilberforce started fighting for the abolition of the slave trade in 1789, slavery was much more economically crucial for the British Empire than coal is for Australia today. Self-interest meant it was unthinkable that slavery be abolished.
The most powerful arguments then were that, yes, slavery was a bad business, but other nations would not follow us and it would only economically empower France, which was Britain’s major competitor and threat. And the market in slaves would continue its insatiable appetite but only Britain would suffer with greater economic hardship from the gesture politics of abolitionism. Sound familiar?
The demand for our coal is such that we must go on selling it to the world or hurt ourselves. Post-Glasgow the politics are settled. The government will trumpet its zero commitment by 2050 in its Liberal suburban heartland, and its continued commitment to coal in regional Australia. Both the PM and his deputy will not countenance phasing out coal because markets such as India and China still want it. The market is our defence and it will protect Australia’s second biggest export from both our signed agreement at Cop26 for a phase-down and Boris Johnson’s declaration that the final Glasgow communique sounds the death knell for coal.
There has been much unfair carping about Morrison’s much publicised faith. A Pentecostal PM is no more a breach of church-state separation than will be the first Muslim or Sikh PM that I will welcome. A religion-state separation is to protect religion from the state, not the state from religion, as is clear in our constitution’s requirement that there be no religious test for public office. So “secular” should mean that all views, whether religious or secular, are on equal footing and none will be privileged. It does not mean religious views are banned. My criticism is not the PM having a strong Christian faith but whether he is sufficiently acting on it. When it comes to treatment of refugees and helping the poor through our aid program, the Bible would expect a Christian to lead more in the manner of William Pitt the Younger than take a free political kick by locking up refugees, cutting aid, and turning a deaf ear to our Pacific neighbours desperate to see Australia phase out coal.
I am proud that we are seeing some unity on some of these justice issues in the Australian church today. The whole of the Christian church is united on a call for Australia to take an additional 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan – from the Australian Christian Churches (ACC), the PM’s own denomination, to Catholics and the Australian Christian Lobby. Yes, Christians are lobbying for Muslims and calling for an end to temporary protection visas. However, despite strong united representations to the government we have not seen any policy movement.
Although the Bible and Christian faith are not a policy document, their vision of all flourishing, including creation, is unequivocally clear.
I am pro-life (as Wilberforce was with slaves) but that also means I am passionately for the life of the planet and cutting coal out so all species have a chance of survival. Wilberforce also founded the RSPCA because he believed all animals and all of creation carried the stamp of the creator. I find it embarrassing to see faith politicised, and both left and right Christians can do that. I want my faith to influence my politics but I do not want the reverse. When faith is reduced to a political program of just a few issues such as abortion and being anti-gay marriage, it is a politicised faith. It must include refugees (welcome of the stranger), mentioned so often through scripture, and the environment, or creation care in theological language. I wish more Christians would surprise me by being less predictable with their politicised faith calling card, by saying they are passionately anti-abortion and in the same breath tell me they are passionately anti-coal and fossil fuels, given that we know what pumping carbon into the atmosphere is doing.
It is why I encourage Christians to become swinging voters because neither side has a monopoly on faith and governments inevitably become arrogant and need to be turned out. Anything other than a swinging vote is in my view a denigration of democracy. Too many Australians are lifelong supporters of their political tribe and regard it as similar to their footy team, where to defect is unthinkably disloyal. Political tribes are not the same as your football team, barracking for them through rain, hail or shine. Your loyalty should be to the good of the nation and to the planet. Putting a political tribe first is just another form of identity politics.
In his maiden speech, PM Morrison spoke of increasing aid to make poverty history. He spoke of his heroes, like Wilberforce and Archbishop Tutu, so he knew exactly the heart of the Christian vision. Today we need a transition package so as not to heap unfair burdens on regional coal communities. And although the Bible and Christian faith are not a policy document, their vision of all flourishing, including creation, is unequivocally clear. William Wilberforce had the courage in the challenges of his day to live out that costly faith. He allowed his faith to shape his politics, not the reverse. Where are our Wilberforces in this crucial moment of time?
Tim Costello is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Australia.