PAUL KELLY, EDITOR-AT-LARGE. THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN 15 April 2017
As Christians celebrate Easter under threat and persecution in many countries, Christian tradition faces erosion in Australia from an array of forces — the failure of its churches and clerics, the march of secularism and the rise of an alternative progressive morality.
The new morality arises from neither dogma nor revelation. Its focus is diversity, human rights, self-expression and identity politics. It is a set of values and a way of relating to others. Its essence is the discarding of the worth of tradition and enshrining in law rules and procedures for contemporary cultural norms. It is best seen as the comprehensive politicisation of our culture.
British sociologist Frank Furedi recently captured its manifestations: “Conflicts over values have acquired an enormous significance in political life. Recent debates on abortion, euthanasia, immigration, gay marriage and family life indicate that there is an absence of agreement on some of the most fundamental questions facing society.
“The contestation of norms and values has politicised culture and often people’s lifestyles — who you sleep with, what you eat and consume, how you feed and bring up your child, the language you use — are interpreted as political statements.”
The upshot is a society in confusion and dispute over the meaning of virtue. For much of its history, Australia, along with other Western nations, was a society that agreed on core values arising from Christian tradition and this was a unifying factor during bitter disputes over class, income and economic organisation.
But as the Christian tradition weakens and the progressive morality rises, our society is divided at its heart, a process that few want to discuss yet which is set to intensify.
As Furedi says: “Advocates of cultural politics have succeeded in marginalising the influence of traditional values and their outdated language. In contemporary society, moral statements are rarely taken seriously and have the form of a plea.” Disciples of the new morality have brilliantly manipulated and expanded the range of cultural issues on which to moralise — their ultimate success being the moralisation of “space”, witness the sanctity of the “safe space” for the protection of the individual.
Politics is intruding into private and family life. Value judgments are being made about how you live in a way inconceivable two decades ago. Politics is driven by belief in an expanding space for human rights, notably the right of individuals to control more and more of their lives from birth to death. This equates to a new social etiquette and moral code. As the culture is endlessly politicised, the scope for disputes escalates.
The Western secular democratic state was founded on a negotiated harmony between secularists and Christians about the ultimate questions. The model allowed homage to both God and Caesar. Contrary to current misconceptions the secular state was neutral between believers and non-believers and between different believers — a system that allowed religion to flourish. The laws of the state and the laws of the church co-existed in a tolerated and often fruitful settlement that facilitated a successful society. But this is now collapsing. The emerging differences are fundamental given the promotion of gay marriage, the push to legalise killing in the cause of humanitarianism, the restriction of free speech on the basis of causing offence, the promotion of gender fluidity and rejection of the boy/girl gender paradigm, and the manipulation of schools for ideological, sex, gender and climate programs.
The scope of the new morality extends even further — into how children should be raised, the structure of family life and the deployment of multiculturalism to weaken Christian symbols.
Sociologists describe this phenomenon in terms of diversity and inclusion but miss its ideological essence — the crusade to liberate the individual from the Western tradition with its Christian moral straitjacket. The incubator of progressive ideology is the education sector — universities and schools. It is founded in the belief that new-world societies such as America and Australia have failed to come to terms with the racism, indigenous exploitation, sexism, patriarchy and monoculturalism at their core.
Because these traits are seen as endemic, the effort to purge them becomes an endless task requiring a wider politicisation of the culture. The end point is never reached. And that is the real point, the campaign is a perpetual process. Because the Christian ethos is identified with the past and tradition — part of the problem — it becomes a priority for the purging.
As the sharp end of the progressive agenda is gradually enacted, part of the contemporary zeitgeist, the Western democratic state will face a dilemma it has never before encountered: a conflict in the domain of human relations between the laws and values of the state and the laws and values of the church (or most religions in our multicultural polity).
How Australia manages this defies prediction. How will the previous compact allowing people to honour both God and Caesar work in future? There is one certainty, it won’t be the same any more. State and church will not be at war physically but they will be in conflict in moral and intellectual terms. They will disagree on the core moral principles of society.
You can be pretty certain this historical challenge will be messy, divisive and debilitating. The grim forebodings of the Catholic Church were signalled by Archbishop Anthony Fisher in his 2015 lecture on Religion and Freedom for the Centre for Independent Studies when he projected out to 2025 based on current trends.
Fisher speculated about an amended Marriage Act where references to man or woman had been removed; changes to other laws deleted references to mother and father; religious freedom was seriously limited so faith schools had to teach a gay-friendly state-imposed curriculum; teaching children the Christian view of marriage was outlawed and members of the clergy who defied the state risked imprisonment.
To simplify a complex situation, the new morality has two sources — the broad-based credo of diversity and inclusion as a public and private good and the smaller ideological movement at its core, best described as secular fundamentalists who want sweeping changes to the principles governing our society. In Australia, the Greens are home to many of these secular fundamentalists.
New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, says the campaign for social justice or the new morality in the US is akin to a secular religion. He warns “this new religion is causing an existential crisis” within the US university sector.
While Haidt’s work focuses on the US university his diagnosis captures the essence of the new morality, branding it “an extremely intense, fundamental social justice religion”. This point is basic to what we have seen in Australia — the rising intolerance of the secular fundamentalists and their determination to silence, censor and repress the individuals and institutions they oppose.
Fundamentalism is tied to identity politics. The core issue at stake is whether minority causes and interests should override national standards and values. This is now happening. A fortnight ago the Senate majority was explicit, the test for section 18C of the racial Discrimination Act cannot be Australian community standards. This idea was repudiated by a Senate majority that said the test must be the standards of the offended minority.
Corporates are now intimidated by minorities, witness the Coopers beer boycott when the company backed down from being associated with a model debate on gay marriage between Liberal MPs Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson. State power is being used aggressively to promote the new morality under false pretences, witness the Victorian government campaign to promote a gender fluidity agenda in all public schools under the anti-bullying rubric. Similar ideological campaigns are being waged in schools and preschools as part of anti-violence programs. The role of educational institutions is paramount.
Earlier this year the same-sex marriage plebiscite was rejected mainly because it would cause offence to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. This was a first for our politics — coupled with claims by ALP figures it would be a licence for homophobia, with the gay community willingly embracing the mantle of victimhood this involved. Claims of mental damage have become a core political tactic.
The lesson seemed manifest: government cannot take actions that offend minorities. Greens leader Richard Di Natale has repeatedly branded as “homophobic” critics of the Safe Schools program in Victoria. When has any federal political leader resorted to such unjustified denigration and abuse of his critics?
This is a huge and amusing irony. The Catholic Church in Australia is a fusion of Irish practice, Greek rationality and Gospel revelation with few traces left of any fundamentalism (unlike US Evangelicals). The point, however, is that fundamentalism is now rising and conspicuous, notably among the new moralists.
It is one thing to look back and applaud the centuries-old magic of church and the Western state living together but separately when the differences between them were reconciled, but it is another situation completely when they constitute rival moral sources on the most fundamental and emotional issues governing personal virtue in our society.
Yet this is the future we face. The Greens, the vanguard of progressive thinking in Australia, offer a clue to the next step. At the 2016 election the party ran on far-reaching changes to anti-discrimination laws to curtail the freedom of religious institutions, schools and charities. Former Greens senator Robert Simms said churches enjoyed a “get out of jail free” card to discriminate against people on gender identity. This is consistent with the position of a section of the progressive movement — to drive religion from the public square.
This is one response to the coming ideological clash between church and state. It is, however, complicated by the rise of Islam and the position of many progressives who support Islam in the spirit of multicultural identity politics and decline (so far) to depict it as a religion best kept away from the public square.
Given the rise of Islam and its more assertive character, the role of the Islamic theocratic state will become even more prominent, begging the question: what sort of Western state will it face?
There are two options. One is a Western state where secularist ideology has become more assertive and intolerant as Christianity is rendered more vulnerable and marginalised. The other is some form of new settlement that retains the key to Western success — homage to God and to Caesar — in a secular state that still remains neutral between believers and non-believers.
At one point Archbishop Fisher said the Australian desire to “get along” may mean “we give each other space to do our own thing”. In the next breath, however, he was sceptical of such optimism because under the new morality “as conscience reduces to personal tastes, respect for its claims is harder to sustain”.
The Christian definition of good and evil, right and wrong, is regarded as obsolete by much of the culture, replaced by an obsessive focus on individual wants, identity and self-expression. You might have thought Australia was becoming a less racist, less sexist, less patriarchal nation as Malcolm Turnbull calls us “the most successful multicultural nation on earth”. But you are wrong.
The tenor and content of our public debate, more than ever, is about racism, sexism and patriarchy. Indeed, in the recent section 18C debate much of the argument for the status quo was that racism in Australia is increasing and this law is essential to save the nation from its racist outbreaks.
The push for euthanasia is explicit — the law originating in Christian ethics is now obsolete and must be replaced by a new individual-centred morality to permit state-sanctioned killing for humanitarian purposes.
What happens when state and church disagree on the core principles of society? It would be nice to think nothing much would happen. But ideological movements never settle for compromise: they understand only total victory. For example, the triumph of marriage equality will never be complete as long as the church is allowed to deny same-sex marriage in its own domain. Laws that authorise same-sex marriage will not end this struggle; they will merely take the struggle to another plateau.
The vanguard of the new morality are the elites. Indeed, capture of the elites has been a triumph for the broad and disparate progressive tide. In Australia, like the US, elites in government, business, the public service and civic organisations are embracing progressive ideas on the basis of social etiquette, personal respect and organisational protocols. There are some golden rules: all cultures are equal; the historically disadvantaged must be affirmed; concern for the feelings and identity of others must be prioritised. The need to respect identity politics is captured by Furedi in describing why a world-leading institution like the University of Cambridge feels obliged to organise events “to celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month, Black and Ethnic Minority History Month, International Women’s Day, International Day of Persons with Disabilities and Holocaust Memorial Day”.
Furedi says: “The university offers training programs and online courses to help people acquire the skills of ‘managing diversity’. Such courses presume that the management of diversity and relationships between people requires professional expertise.”
The sheer size of the professional class now dealing with the new morality is immense. Such professionals have a strong self-interest in the cause and earn high salaries (check the Australian Human Rights Commission among others). Indeed, the status and social standing of many professionals is a function of the spread of the new morality. The sense of self-interest is pervasive and big money is involved.
It is assumed, naturally, the new morality is a plus for institutions. But this is not necessarily true. Enter Haidt and his revealing work on the American university system: he has identified what constitutes institutional moral corruption at the heart of the US educational establishment.
If you want to grasp the origins and power of the new morality in the US, there is no better place to begin. Haidt has produced staggering figures on the revolution of the past 20 years in the US university system. It is basic to the culture war now raging in America.
Haidt (not a conservative) says “very few people” in the US know the extent of left-wing conformity entrenched in the humanities and social sciences in the US academy. As late as the 1990s the left-right ratio in the academy was only 2:1 but 15 years later there has been a “transformation” with the ratio now 5:1, with “almost everybody on the left” — and this includes professors from dental, engineering and agricultural schools.
The bias is much worse in the humanities. Taking his own field of social psychology, Haidt found the most recent data was 17:1. He quoted one survey with 291 respondents showing 85 per cent left-liberal and 6 per cent identifying as conservative, a ratio of 14:1.
He then followed a more extensive survey (William von Hippel and David M. Buss) involving members of the academic body of social psychologists. Of the 326 respondents, 291 identified as left of centre, which was 89 per cent, and only 2.5 per cent identified as right of centre. This gives a left-right ratio of 36:1.
Asked who they voted for or would have voted for at the 2012 presidential election, 305 out of 322 said Barack Obama (94.7 per cent), four said Mitt Romney (1.2 per cent) and 13 said another candidate (4 per cent). This meant a Democrat-Republican ratio of 76:1. When a series of political questions were put and scaled the result was a left-right ratio of 314:1.
Haidt calls this an “existential threat” in his field. “I don’t mean to single out social psychology,” he says. “It is the field that I know best. But what we have learned is this rapid shift to political purity has happened to most fields in the humanities and social sciences in just the last two decades.”
He is blunt about the implications: this had to call into question the integrity of academic research and scholarship. He says “scholarship to support a political agenda almost always succeeds” and the scholar “rarely if ever” believes they are biased. The truth, he argues, is that “a motivated scholarship often propagates pleasing falsehoods”. He says US undergraduates are “exposed to less political diversity than ever before in the history of this country”.
Why is this relevant? Because educational institutions are the originating impulse for the new morality and its secular fundamentalism. America, of course, is not Australia. Is Australia different or the same? It would be nice to know. Haidt warns about the wider dangers of the new fundamentalism: “We can expect political polarisation to get steadily worse in coming decades as this moral culture of victimhood spreads.” History tells us the new morality is merely the latest in the periodic and messianic quests to remake society, an ingrained feature of the human condition. It is a function of the post-ideological age and acts as a replacement for the demise of Marxism and widely assumed failure of socialism.
It is true the Christian churches carry the main responsibility for their failures. It is also true that as the new morality gains sway and secular fundamentals make advances, the tension and conflict between secular norms and church norms will intensify.
There will be no settlement or social harmony from the agendas of the new moralists — just a fragmented society, the demise of the long narrative that has bound our communities together, a conflicted moral order and the fracturing of the church-state compact so vital to our success.
Picture: A stained glass window from England’s York Minster, one of the largest cathedrals in northern Europe, consecrated in 1472.
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