This week's parliamentary sitting began with the 30th National Prayer Breakfast hosted by the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship (PCF). It was a most impressive gathering of hundreds of parliamentarians and their guests in the Great Hall, addressed by the Governor-General and with several smaller contributions, including by the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition.
The themes were uplifting and the warmth and camaraderie within and between tables was palpable. Like most such big gatherings in Parliament House it was also filled with public servants, lobbyists, advisers, academics and many others in public life of all persuasions. Clerical collars and military uniforms mingled with dark suits and colourful jackets. There was plenty of good humour, led by the speakers, as well as more serious underlying messages.
All well and good. There was real fellowship. There was prayer, including an enthusiastic rendering of the Lord's Prayer. And there was beautiful music, provided by Divine Clement & the Worship band of Trinity Christian School.
It was a "feel-good" occasion in various senses nevertheless. By that I mean that it temporarily made me feel good about humanity and the world around us, while at the same time skating over the longer-term problems that we face, many of which we ourselves have created. These problems include the failings of political leadership and the operation of Parliament itself.
The Governor-General, David Hurley, mixed personal reflections and great humour with his take on life and religious values. He contrasted the characteristics of the world around us - volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity - using the VUCA framework he himself had learnt during military training in the USA, with the stable framework of a Christ-centred life.
He emphasised the simplicity of the Christian message, a simplicity which we humans often complicate beyond recognition. That simplicity's natural public outcome should be servant leadership.
The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, similarly emphasised humanity, weakness and humility, distinguishing these characteristics as central to Christianity rather than the piety with which it is most often associated.
His special task was to launch a booklet, Amen: A History of Prayers in Parliament, an occasional paper of the PM Glynn Institute at the Australian Catholic University (Patrick McMahon Glynn was an Irish-born South Australian founding father). He took the opportunity of praising prayers in Parliament, wishing that they will long continue as a means by which politicians are directed towards higher aspirations. That wish itself is inescapably political.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, joined in the good feelings, stressing the co-operation and humanity which lay behind the more divisive public face of Parliament. He commended the value of religious belief in pointing Parliament towards the common good and appealing to the "better angels" within the community and within ourselves.
Given this enjoyment and goodwill it may appear querulous to be at all critical by mentioning the limitations of the prayer breakfast, but they are clear enough.
Those in the room don't represent the full diversity of Australia, which is an increasingly secular and multi-faith country. The census shows us that Australians are increasingly deserting organised Christianity for non-belief. Church attendance has plummeted. That reality can't be wished away. To the extent that Christianity is being renewed it is happening through immigrant Christian communities often within a different cultural context.
Australian diversity is also reflected in growing non-Christian faiths, including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, and such diversity is slowly changing the face of the Australian Parliament. In time, perhaps decades, that diversity, in addition to the growing force of secularism, must change the character of parliamentary prayers in a more inclusive direction. Perhaps Morrison and the PCF would be open to this.
A more important criticism is that, for all the fine words about a common humanity and the value of bipartisanship, our federal politicians as well as those around the world and in state parliaments don't practice what they preach. They know this, quietly chuckling about it, but it is no laughing matter. Furthermore, the same is true for some of their fellow travellers in business, trade unions and the churches themselves.
Whenever an outbreak of fine feelings occurs, as at prayer breakfasts, it is almost always quickly followed by a continuation of the worst aspects of business as usual. Such business doesn't emphasise commonality and recognition of mutual goodwill but rather mindless competitiveness and treatment of the other side of politics as ignorant and ill-willed. Such discontinuity has contributed greatly to the declining trust in politics.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Christianity and other religious beliefs, however simple their basic message, do not translate easily into political action. The Christian message is not simple when applied to whole economies and societies. There are just too many contrasting interpretations. The message is demonstrably not simple when applied to most of the major issues in Australian politics today, including the treatment of refugees and the unemployed. Agreement is elusive at the level of both theoretical analysis and practical policy solutions.
This is true even among the Christian denominations themselves. Christianity invented the notion of a broad church, which is often applied approvingly to political parties. And as with its application to political parties, it covers up the worst type of mutual dislike, internal factionalism and conflict.
They may come together amicably enough in the PCF, but the differences between Christians are not trivial. For instance, they differ in their emphases on individualism versus community and on social versus economic priorities, and this translates into differences in their approach to the virtues and vices of the market economy and to the merits of capitalism versus social democracy. These competing values are ones which define our politics.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. He was a guest of Catholic Social Services Australia at the breakfast.