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The complexity of the Christian Vote

Elections have the tendency to create a temporary parallel universe, in which our language and ideas become suddenly transformed. For a few short weeks our vocabulary includes such peculiar phrases as “out on the hustings”, “voting above the line”, and my own personal favourite, “bellwether seat” (thank you, Eden-Monaro).

Another old chestnut which is regularly employed during campaigns is the notion of a “Christian vote”, in the sense that Abbott or Gillard will release a policy that tries to win “the Christian vote” or a policy which may potentially offend the “Christian vote”. When we drill down into such a phrase, the idea appears to be that Christian voters are inherently single-issue voters, or limited in the scope of their concerns, and hence one can easily identify where and when a Christian will become attracted or repulsed. I have no doubt that many people, not just Christians, are single-issue voters. But from my own perspective as a Christian, voting is by no means easy, and the whole process can be agonising.

The first reason lies in the difficulty of applying one’s values to any political platform. If government was about just one issue, then it would be simple to be a single issue voter. But governments affect a whole range of domains, from education to asylum seekers. It may well be that I love one party’s education policy but abhor their asylum seeker stance. This raises the question of a hierarchy of concerns. Do some political issues trump others, and on what basis do I conduct the ranking? Are there any issues which are so non-negotiable that if a party endorses the wrong stance, I cannot consider anything else they say?

Apart from rusted-on partisans who would never dream of voting any other way, the truth is that any voter, including Christian voters, are usually only voting for some of a party’s platform. The notion of a parliamentary mandate is a tricky thing.

The second reason for difficulty is the fact that many debates are not over the theoretical issue of values but the practical issue of which policy will best reflect those values. Do right-wingers actually despise the poor, or do they just believe that the promotion of the free-market will bring about greater prosperity for all, including the poor? Do left-wingers really want to stifle business activity through regulation, or do they just believe that a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s wage and generous protections for the worker?

It is well-known that many Christians embrace the label “pro-life”. In the majority of cases, that has been in relation to policies on abortion. But surely the label extends to more than just that one issue. How does being pro-life translate into our assessment of health budgets, our defence policy, and our social welfare policy? All of those policies are life-and-death to some degree. And do pro-life values only apply to issues at the beginning or end of life? What about the quality of life lived in between the bookends? Being pro-life is a profoundly important value for me, but the translation of that value into policy is where the hard work lies.

A third reason for difficulty is the fact that election campaigns appear to bring out the worst in all of us (politicians, the media, voters). This particular campaign is soporific in the extreme, and the ads are banal. Many Australians have been heard to lament the lack of vision in our politicians. But while we might like the sound of bold ideas, in reality we fear them. Politicians with the audacity to actually try to implement something visionary can quickly fall foul of a risk-averse electorate fed by an alarmist media. In many ways politicians give us what we deserve.

It has been interesting to see how Rudd was punished for losing conviction on climate change. That suggests we want politicians to believe in something. Yet at the same time, if Rudd had stuck to his guns, it may have turned pear-shaped for him anyway.

Christian voting should move beyond slogans to real debate and consideration of issues.

Certainly Julia Gillard’s softly, softly approach to climate change policy suggests that a passionate embrace of an ETS is still not regarded as electorally sound. On the other side, Tony Abbott has been forced to sign pledges that he will not engage in industrial relations reform. This is patently ridiculous, because everybody knows Abbott believes in such reforms as being essential to the good of the country. But we won’t let him construct a nuanced argument because we haven’t got time to listen, so instead we make him do stunts to prove he will do nothing. As someone for whom belief matters, and for whom argument matters, I want my politicians to be allowed to express their beliefs and values. Sure, parliamentary politics means compromise as well as conviction, but not compromise with no understanding of conviction. Christian voting should move beyond slogans to real debate and consideration of issues.

The final difficulty of voting lies in the fact that election policies are only one part of government. We might like to believe that we are electing somebody to implement only what they told us at the election, but in reality, even if a government keeps all its promises, it will do much more than that. In 2007, Australians didn’t know about the GFC. In 2000, Americans didn’t know about September 11. What the ‘Christian vote’ ought to be about is “wise” government, in the biblical sense of wisdom. Wisdom in the Judeo-Christian tradition is found in the person who knows how to “do life” in various circumstances, because they have humbly committed themselves to understanding the created, ordered world that God has placed us in. I have no idea what is around the corner for our country, and for the next three years nobody is going to ask me to vote on his or her policies. So part of what I would be looking for is not just policy promises, but a general wisdom about the world. It’s not easy to pick, but it makes all the difference once August 21 has passed.

Dr Mark Stephens is a lecturer in Biblical Studies at Wesley Institute and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared at Online Opinion Journal.