Getting used to our Prime Atheist

The recent change of leadership resulting in Australia’s first female PM changed the landscape as far as the church is concerned.  Prior to the clinical assassination of Kevin Rudd, both the incumbent PM and the contender were by their own confession men of faith.  On accession to power Kevin Rudd nominated Bonhoeffer as an inspiration and more often than not held a press conference outside church every Sunday. Tony Abbott is a catholic and has not shied away from his faith and his convictions, particularly on the issue of abortion.  The new PM has nailed her colours to the mast (to her credit) and confirmed that she is not a woman of faith. She revealed that the Baptists came close to claiming her, saying in an interview with John Fain:

I’m not a religious person. I was brought up in the Baptist church. As is now very well known I think, we’re Welsh migrants, we’re Baptists. I grew up going to Mitcham Baptist Church, we lived two doors down from the Reverend there, Ian Porter, and I was great friends with his daughter Helen. So I grew up going to Baptist youth group and all the rest. But during my adult life I’ve, you know, found a different path. I’m of course a great respecter of religious beliefs but they’re not my beliefs Jon.

Of further concern to believers is the close association of Gillard with EMILY’s List, a political network that supports ‘progressive women candidates’ to be elected to political office.  Abortion is one of the central planks of the networks platform.  Western Bulldog’s fans were especially worried after Gillard stated shortly before Kevin Rudd’s political assassination that there was more chance of her playing full forward for the Bulldogs than becoming PM before the election.  Worried Bulldog fans can no doubt be seen scanning the playing list each week for a surname starting with ‘G’.

Some believers can be forgiven for fearing what having an atheist PM means for the church and the role that the church plays at the heart of our community.  This is probably best summed up by a commenter who wrote to an online newspaper saying:

Julia, here’s your to do list (1) Remove School Chaplains (2) Ethics Classes for all schools (3) Tax Religion (4) Remove government funded Religious Mental health Service’s and Religious counselling Services (5) Stop listening to the ACL. (6) Ban Faith Healing (7) More science in schools starting in kindergarten (8) Remove all commonwealth policy that helps financially religious organisations ( 9) No more funding to religious schools , if they want funding they have to become secular (10) Teach evolution in kindergarten (11) All ministers must state there religious beliefs (if any) (12) ban christmas & easter as public holidays (13) Do not donate to any religious organisations including foreign ones (14) Classify religious belief as a mental illness (15) Ban circumcision, (16) Allow RU486 , (17) Allow supervised euthanasia.

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So should believers be worried about an atheist Prime Minister?

To be concerned that we can’t have a Christian (or nominal sympathetic Christian) PM is a mindset that is stuck in Christendom.  As Hirsch and Frost point out:

Christendom is the name given to the sacral culture that has dominated European society from around the eleventh century until the end of the twentieth.  Its sources go back to the time when Constantine came to the throne of the Roman Empire and granted Christians complete freedom of worship and even favored Christianity, thereby undermining all other religions in the empire.  In virtually an instant, Christianity moved from being a marginalized, subversive, and persecuted movement secretly gathering in houses and catacombs to being favored religion in the empire…

Taken as a sociopolitical reality, Christendom has been in decline for the last 250 years, so much so that contemporary Western culture has been called by many historians (secular and Christian) as the post-Christendom culture.  Society, at least in its overtly non-Christian manifestation, is “over” Christendom.  but this is not the case within the Western church itself.  Christendom, as a paradigm of understanding, as a metanarrative, still exercises and overweening influence on our existing theological, missiological, and ecclesiological understandings in church circles.  In other words, we still think of the church and its mission in terms of Christendom. While in reality we are in a post-Christendom context, the Western church still operates for the most part in a Christendom mode.  Constantine, it seems, is still the emperor of our imaginations. (The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost & Hirsch, pg8-9)

Of course having a government that is sympathetic to our cause is advantageous, and so is the money that comes our way to fund critical community benefits (like school chaplaincy).  The church was born into an environment that was hostile to it, and its first experience of governments more often than not was deadly.  Ruling authorities were complicit in the murderous oppression that was directed against the Early Church.  Tertullian observed that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church”.  The church in China experiences the opposite of the church in the West when it comes to relationships with government but it thrives.  When it comes to missional living and church planting, the underground church in China leaves churches in the West standing in its wake.

As I leave home each morning I pat our family dog Benji goodbye as he curls himself into a ball on the couch, ready for a comfortable day of lazing around, safe in the knowledge that it will be fed later that day.  The church within Christendom has become a reflection of Benji: comfortable and relaxed in the knowledge of the place it occupies within society and its relationship with government (who have subcontracted many of their care and education responsibilities to the church sector).  We know that we represent a sizable portion of the electorate who’s vote must be courted, and thus successive governments will continue to be a cash-cow for much of our operations.  For the time being our tax exempt status looks secure, and the back scratching arrangement we have with one another will continue.

If the worst fears of believers come true and Julie Gillard ushers in the cold winds of a secular shut out, can we cope?  I think we can.  Missionaly it shouldn’t make much of a difference.  The Gospel will thrive no matter what the environment. It will certainly result in poor outcomes for many hundreds and thousands of people who benefit from the social impact of the substantial church based community services and from that point of view it will be a self inflicted disaster of epic magnitude if any Australian government takes a sharp lurch towards a strident secularism.  It cannot afford to replace what the church provides, and would struggle to match the quality.

The missional dimension though is different.  The Dutch Reformed Church in south Africa enjoyed a very cosy church/state relationship with successive apartheid governments.  After all, the architects of apartheid were Dutch Reformed ministers.  You simply had to be part of the church to figure in Afrikaaner society.  The church attendance rates of Afrikaaners were in the upper 80%.  In 1994 when the government changed hands, overnight the church was transformed.  Attendance plummeted cataclysmically.  You no longer needed to connect the the DRC in order to progress, or to get jobs, etc.  Overnight a totally new political system took over the reigns of power and membership of the DRC was no more than anything an albatross around your neck.

It was the best thing that could happen to the missional fortunes of the DRC.  Once the dust had settled the church was able to tell who was genuinely in and committed and who had been there for show.  The church took a massive dive in its financial status, but as it rebuilt itself and faced up to its complicity in the apartheid system, it did so with a much smaller but committed band of brothers and sisters.  The current missional creativity of the DRC and its vibrnacy as a church would never have been possible if it had continued to enjoy the cosy church/state relationship it enjoyed for so long.

Likewise for the Australian church.  We should not have a dependency on the state.  It’s fine for the state to have a dependency on us, that simply means that our compassionate response to community needs is valued.  But we should never allow ourselves to exist (even if partly) by the hand of the state. The current funding of school chaplains in particular has had a huge impact on schools, but we can’t lull ourselves into thinking that this beneficence of the state will continue. No matter what governments decide to do (and they come and go with surprising regularity), we need to stay focused on our mission as a church and ensure that a change of government means very little when it comes to our commitment to the Great Commission.