Christians in Politics?
Evangelical Christians believe the call of God rests on every believer. We’ve sometimes over-honoured those “called” to pastoral ministry or missionary service, and under-honoured those equally “called” to engage our community in its various structures and networks. PRAC chatted with Senator Guy Barnett (Liberal Senator for Tasmania) and Shayne Neumann MP (Labor Federal Member for Blair), both of whom are active members of Baptist Churches, about their calling to a parliamentary career.
PRAC: Tell us about how your interest in politics developed? What was it triggered by?
GB: My interest in politics developed at a young age. I wrote to Mum and Dad as a young teenager when at boarding school, that I wanted to make Australia great. I still do. I was influenced in large part no doubt by my parents who were both keen and active in making a positive difference in our community.
SN: I grew up in a household in which issues social, economic and political were discussed regularly. My father was a meatworker and my mother was a shop assistant. Labor gave us hope and the Union made us strong. I joined the Labor Party while at University studying law, politics and economics. However, it was the election of Pauline Hanson as my Federal Member and the rise of One Nation, along with my opposition to what they stood for, which prompted me to greater political involvement and which led me to become a Federal Member of Parliament.
PRAC: To what extent do you see your role as a politician a “calling” – something God wants you to do?
GB: Totally. I felt called as a young boy to be involved in Federal politics and always believed I would ultimately end up there. The interesting thing is that following the August 2010 Federal election although I lost my seat and will conclude my Senate term on 30 June 2011 I remain passionate about contributing positively to my community. What next?
SN: We live in a democracy not a theocracy. The people decide by election who should be their representatives. My belief is that I did the right thing in standing for Parliament. As a Christian I pray for God’s guidance in all that I do.
PRAC: Political parties are made up of people from a range of worldviews. To some extent compromise is the name of the game. How does your Christian faith influence or affect your political career? And how do you cope when policies are formulated that conflict with your personal convictions?
GB: Like all Christians I believe our faith should influence not only our careers but our lives. It should be put into practice every day. I try and remain faithful, trusting in God, notwithstanding making mistakes and being a flawed individual. I have crossed the floor in the Senate three times and have always been prepared to follow my conscience and act contrary to the party view if required. The Liberal Party, like other political parties, provides opportunities for their MPs to express their views. I do this.
SN: My Christian faith is the compass for my life. I have been influenced by the social gospel aspects of my faith in the need to care for the disadvantaged, the challenged, the frail and those who need a helping hand. There are very few occasions when a policy may confront directly a person’s individual beliefs. The Labor Party permits conscience votes in Parliament on life issues.
PRAC: Baptists were among the first to advocate for the “separation of church and state.” What do you understand by that phrase?
GB: Having worked in the United States there is a very strict interpretation of the quote “separation of church and state” in that country. In Australia it is less strict and in my view far more practical and sensible. The Government does not promote any particular Christian faith and nor should it. It is a matter for the individual. The State is separated into the executive, the parliament and the judiciary and the separation of each of these is vital to the proper working of our democracy. The best form of democracy is one where the people participate regularly and enthusiastically, not just at the ballot box. Accordingly, Churches and individuals generally have the opportunity to express their views on the proper role of the State but the Church does not and should not control the State. They are and should remain, separate.
SN: There is no State religion in Australia. Churches are and should be free to worship and associate as they wish without Government storm troopers interfering as does happen under authoritarian regimes. Government and Churches should partner together for the benefit of the community.
PRAC: How important is it that Christians (and churches) engage in public debate around political issues? And what do you see being the role of the church in this debate?
GB: It is vital as noted above. A proactive engagement and public debate are essential to a healthy democracy. The old adage “the world is run by those who show up” is correct. Churches should encourage their congregations to be politically active in expressing their views and demonstrating their values on a consistent basis. This should reflect their personal faith in Jesus Christ. In my view the current campaign to denigrate marriage as being between a man and woman provides an opportunity for proactive lobbying in the political process. Of course there are many other issues requiring the active involvement of Christians in the political process.
SN: Christians should join Parties, write emails and make phone calls to their representatives and even stand for Parliament. The Church has a role to be a voice on issues also.
PRAC: From your perspective as a politician how does the Christian church come across in the world of public policy debates?
GB: Some say the church is asleep. There is definitely room for improvement. It depends on the issue. The Catholic Church has been steadfast and strong in their support for the family and many moral issues such as marriage, abortion,euthanasia. Likewise, many Christian churches have been active in supporting the Make Poverty History Campaign. The Australian Christian Lobby is an effective and influential organisation in the world of public policy debates, regularly making submissions and contributing.
SN: The Christian Churches are still respected on public policy matters but unfortunately they have been too narrow in their voice. Too often the issues raised are ones of private sexual conduct and individual behavior with a too restrictive view of what is a “family value”. Access to decent health care, rights in the workplace and good education are family values but little is
said about these matters and others.
PRAC: Charles de Gaul once said: “Politics is too important to leave in the hands of politicians.” How would you like to see Christians engage in political issues that face our nation?
GB: The French President Charles de Gaulle said this at the end of World War II and he was right. Politicians do not pull the levers of public policy in a vacuum. They are constrained by the opinions and influences at work in the public arena across the community. Christians and Church communities should demonstrate their faith and values in a practical way to influence these levers. Christians should build relationships, for the long term, with their federal, state and local politicians encouraging them and thanking them for their service to the community. Write a letter, or send them an invitation to a forthcoming event, whether it be at Christmas, Easter or at some other time. Don’t just lobby them when you need something. Try and see the world from their perspective noting the pressures on their families and on their time.
SN: Get involved. Join a Party. Write a letter. Make a phone call. Raise an issue. Stand for Office.
PRAC: What advice would you give to a Christian who was interested in exploring a career in politics?
GB: Go for it! They should be community minded and aware of local concerns and issues. I would encourage them to get involved and be an advocate for their community or organisations which they support. Join the political party that suits. They could meet with their local MP to learn more about their role and how government works. They could read my book! Make a Difference: A Practical Guide to Lobbying includes chapters on how government works and the role of an MP.
SN: Former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was asked that question. His response was to the effect: join the Labor Party or the Liberal Party because no one else matters. In other words, if you want to effect change join a major Political Party because only these Parties can form government and effect real change.