I invited Senator Eric Abetz to address the Church And State Summit (Feb 28, this year) on the topic of “A Virtuous People“. I believe in democracy generally, but it can easily become a morally corrupt tyranny without an objective compass by which to navigate our laws and policies. So from where can we consistently derive such a moral compass?
The video of the Senator’s speech is available with the bundle of videos from the Summit, but following is the text in full which he has generously supplied.
“For a successful democracy we need a virtuous citizenry, which begs the question – “from where will we draw our virtues”?”
Everyone has “religion”.
Or at least one hopes they do.
A bold assertion in today’s world but nevertheless true, irrespective of what we are being told by some.
You see, “religion” is a term best used to describe one’s world view. Religion is the framework within which we think, consider, ponder, deliberate and make sense of things.
This framework impacts our thinking, our considering, our pondering and our deliberating; the things we value and hold dear, and our sense of selves and our place in the world. These thoughts then influence our actual words, deeds, and actions.
So if for example your world view is that you are made in the image of God, it might impact your self-esteem and more importantly how you treat others.
If, on the other hand, your world view informs you that you are a collection of random cells, you may come to the conclusion there is no real purpose or meaning to life. That may impact on the value you place on your own life or that of others.
To have no worldview or framework or compass from which to gain your bearings must, by necessity, leave you disoriented. This is especially so in the area of public policy as your framework or compass soon becomes the fickleness of the latest opinion poll and descends into the pursuit of short term popularity or “whatever it takes”.
No objectivity needed.
No backbone needed.
No analysis needed.
Just the capacity to engage in knee jerk reactions or the capacity to follow the latest direction of the windsock. A capacity to go along with the crowd or self-interest is all that’s needed.
The fickleness of this as a guide is shown in the gospel account of our Lord. One week the mob were crying out “Hosanna” and laying their garments before him wanting him to be king. Just a week later the mob were baying “Crucify Him”. An example of the fickleness of the crowd even 2000 years ago. Our Lord was thankfully not moved from his course.
So even if you don’t have a religion, as normally understood, that in itself becomes a worldview which will determine your behaviour and judgements. And if you are in public life it will impact how you legislate and how the Country is governed.
Now it might come as a surprise to learn that most legislators genuinely try to encourage good behaviour, and discourage bad behaviour based on their worldview.
While I accept some legislation and rules are morally neutral, most legislation has a moral dimension to it.
For example there is no moral superiority in driving on the left hand side of the road as opposed to the right hand side – the only ambivalence or concession you’ll hear me make about the left.
To legislate, you need to know the difference between “good” and “bad” and the consequences on individuals and society at large in encouraging one and discouraging the other. To be successful in this regard you need to comprehend human nature, especially the less attractive elements. You need to have an appreciation of the virtues which need to be cultivated for a cohesive, well performing society.
The question therefore beckons from where do we get our sense of what is “good” and what is “bad”?
Ultimately our sense of “good” and “bad” will be determined by our morality or moral code. Which in turn, must, if it is to have any cohesion, be informed by our worldview, or religion.
Having a coherent worldview is essential to informing your moral code which in turn informs your concept of “good” and “bad”.
As citizens, as individuals, as parents, as work mates, as volunteers, and as active community participants, no matter what we do, we need a similar thought and deed structure in place to give some consistency to our lives and activities.
Parents encourage and discourage certain behaviours, both deliberately and sometimes, if not mostly, unknowingly.
A well-functioning family is often the product of strong good parenting. Similarly a well-functioning society is usually the product of good leadership — be it in the church, courts, or parliaments.
In an era of excessive “virtue signalling” there is actually a rapid decline of “virtue thinking”, “virtue advocacy”, and especially “virtue acting”. The latter three all being vital components of a well-functioning society. They need to be encouraged, taught, and publically-valued.
Virtue is defined as “moral excellence”: two words which are often derided and ridiculed by the media.
Nowadays in a few places participation prizes are the order of the day. Participation or “having a go” is to be encouraged. The pursuit of excellence is an even nobler pursuit. Giving of your very best requires perseverance, practice, grit, determination and discipline.
In educational facilities, the participation award – the “we are all winners because we partook” mantra does no favours for our future generation and individually denies our young from building resilience and giving the very best of themselves, let alone help them find the activities in which they might excel. When people give of their very best the whole community is the beneficiary.
We expect nothing less than excellence from our sporting teams. Imagine Tim Paine (a good Tasmanian) coming home defeated from an Ashes tour saying “What more did you want? We participated didn’t we?” The good news is it didn’t happen and we retained the Ashes under his leadership.
But if we don’t accept anything less than excellence in sport, why accept it in any other endeavour? The pursuit of excellence is a virtue in whatever calling we may have been given in life, and indeed in every aspect of our life.
St Paul in 1 Cor 9:24 encourages excellence … “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”
As Christians our worldview calls us to pursue moral excellence.
However the combination of those words “moral excellence” leaves me uncomfortable as I am confronted by my own deficiencies.
In the event I am not only talking to myself in that regard, let us be reminded that the pursuit of excellence in every aspect of our lives is a worthy virtue in itself. Pursuit of something does not imply that we will ever fully attain that which we pursue. But we aspire, a virtue in itself.
I’ve read the occasional political memoir. Titles can sometimes tell us all we need to know.
One was about an exceptionally short parliamentary term, and we can debate the wisdom of his actions, but it was entitled “A time to speak”. The author felt compelled to speak out, and did so courageously knowing the very likely consequences.
Another was simply entitled “Standing Firm” – another expression of courage.
Yet another bragged that his approach to politics was “whatever it takes”, and entitled his book accordingly.
Regrettably the latter title has received the greater publicity and its author, a current commentator whose commentary, one suspects is to do whatever it takes.
This is, quite frankly, an ugly approach to politics steeped in unadulterated cynicism, and feeds into a worldview which undermines our democratic institutions. Under this bankrupt approach, nothing is worth preserving, defending, cherishing, building, encouraging or helping unless it coincidentally helps you. What a desperately sad approach to not only public policy but life generally – devoid of any virtues.
Given the fallen condition of humans, the concept, let alone the practice, of democracy cannot exist without recognising our propensity for failure and the need for personal self-restraint.
While we have the capacity to do much good, and indeed according to the Christian worldview we were actually created good or perfect, we were also given a choice, which was exercised in the Garden of Eden to our collective detriment. And ever since then human kind has been afflicted with a propensity to do evil to various degrees.
So how can a democracy like ours with a right and proper emphasis on personal freedom be sustained if all of us have the potential to exploit that freedom to the detriment of our fellow citizen?
Can a society be genuinely free without the need for a compact between citizens to show personal self-restraint?
Should the strongest simply be entitled to get his way each and every time?
Or is democracy determined by four wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for lunch?
Do we say we might have the numbers but we won’t exercise them in that particular way because there is an overarching moral code as Christians which informs us to resist the temptation?
Is the code “we can, so we will” or is it “If I were the sheep, I wouldn’t find that very democratic”?
If not tempered by underlying virtues, the raw use of democracy can be as brutal as any dictatorship.
No society can retain functionality unless there are restraints on human behaviour. That’s why we have laws, police forces and courts. The less self-restraint we exercise individually, the more the state intervenes and has to legislate.
The only reason we need drink driving laws is because too many of us consumed alcohol and drove, with devastating consequences. A lack of monitoring our own behaviours.
If unrestrained we have the capacity to disregard the welfare of others and only think of ourselves. Then there will be the unfettered pursuit of selfishness at the expense of the common good. So we have volumes of legislation to deal with the multitude of human frailties. Recently, the areas of financial institutions and aged care, two public policy areas have come under the spotlight.
The Government worked with the financial institutions to create an environment and requirement that would encourage better behaviour. The changes have a clear moral dimension – mainly rooted in the Christian worldview – protecting the vulnerable, reinforcing ethical safeguards and virtues among business and industry leaders. The concept of an ethical profit as opposed to ‘the bigger the better’, regardless of how it is achieved, is now being legislated. But what a sad reflection that it needs to be legislated.
If all restraints on behaviour need to be imposed by government, our society will no longer be a free society as the government will be in everything, controlling our every move, our every word and every deed. In short we would be living in a tyranny.
A different sort of tyranny is anarchy, under which a healthy functioning society simply cannot exist.
As Edmund Burke in his particular advocacy style stated: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their appetite… Society cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Social order in other words must be innate – must be part of the makeup of the people themselves if we are to live in a free society. There needs to be a commonality of moral dictates for a cohesive society. And it stands to reason that each individual cannot determine for himself what that moral framework might be.
As Alexis De Tocqueville, that great observer of American democracy, understood, the freedom to decide how to live one’s life can ultimately become self-destructive. Individuals must be encouraged to look beyond themselves for guidance. In other words, there needs to be a greater authority than “Me”. There needs to be a set of common principles, of common virtues and common values to which we turn that are based on this greater authority than “Me”.
And in turn this brings us to the realisation there needs to be a common worldview or religion which informs our behaviours and sense of morality and underpinning virtues for a cohesive society.
So for our system of government, which is the envy of the world (All the gate crashers can’t be wrong), to continue providing the freedoms and liberties we enjoy we need a common adherence to a shared worldview or religion.
Ultimately it is religion which provides the architecture for our moral culture which instils and drives the necessary individual virtues and thus moral discipline.
Addressing a group such as this I need not set out chapter and verse the rich Judeo-Christian foundations of our society and its institutions.
If doubtful, I draw your attention to three excellent books.
- “How Christianity Changed the World” by Alvin J. Schmidt.
- The Book that made your world” by Vishal Mangalwadi, and
- A short history of Christianity” by our very own national treasure, Professor Geoffrey Blainey.
We are often told we are now living in a post Christian age. Interestingly we are not told what actual age, we are living in, just that it is post- or in other words not, Christian. We are not told what is filling this spiritual void, or what the source of social cohesion is, today. All we are told is that it is no longer Christian.
A quick read of human history soon tells us, no secular worldview has evolved which has effectively displaced the role of religion. Yet the secularists in our midst are no longer just atheists but active anti-theists, seeking to destroy the role of religion in our society and tear down our cherished traditions and institutions.
While some falsely claim those of faith are seeking to force their faith on others, the actual truth of the matter is that the anti-theists are seeking to force their worldview on people of faith. The idea of “live and let live” is absent from their approach to life. There is a manic determination to compel people of faith to live in defiance of their deeply held beliefs.
Their success thus far is seen in the debris of social destruction around us:
- broken families;
- children without fathers;
- the desire to rid ourselves of unwanted lives;
- suicide rates;
- the degree of mental illness;
- the drug epidemic;
- the violence even in our schools, to name just a few.
And the secularist’s response, being obliviously blind to these obvious results of their approach, is to simply call on the state to bear the costs of individual bad decisions and the resultant consequences.
The call goes out for more and more social programs to deal with the carnage. Rather than solving the issues, they are in fact underwriting them, sending the message “if you muck up, the state will look after you and help you courtesy of those who haven’t”.
It reminds me of the cliff. Do you have a car park full of ambulances on the bottom to help those who have leapt or fallen off the cliff? Do you have a fence to keep people from going over the cliff? Or do you so educate your people they instinctively know to keep away from the cliff?
The Christian worldview focuses not on government but on the individual – his personal responsibility and personal actions and the consequences flowing from them. Many of the core principles and values that uphold our society and democracy rely on citizens to adhere to the Christian virtues of temperance, diligence and charity, virtues that uphold and promote personal responsibility whilst maintaining a cohesive society.
In John Locke’s famous work, A Letter Concerning Toleration, he addressed the impact of atheists in society when he said “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon or sanctity for an atheist”.
A pursuit of moral excellence and a common worldview or religion is crucial for a cohesive society. The secular approach has been to not judge on the basis of private conduct, but ones commitment to “social action” and “wokeness” on the trendy issue of the day.
As the late Professor Kenneth Minogue argued in his masterful book The Servile Mind, for too many people today holding virtuous opinions has become a substitute for acting in a virtuous way.
I will conclude by asking you to consider the following statement:
“Our culture is who we are. We are inextricably part of our culture, our language, our customs, our spirituality, our worldview. Our law maintains our culture. To take these things away is to remove our identity.”
Such a straightforward statement of fact, of truth, of human experience. A statement applicable one imagines to all cultures and peoples.
Made in the context of this distinguished summit, this statement would be immediately derided with all sort of expletives on the Twittersphere, where faux moral outrage and virtue signalling prevail among the woke commentariat.
But just before they do, let me advise the statement is not mine, but that of an indigenous member of the Northern Territory Parliament. And with that detail, the statement suddenly becomes unchallengeable. This begs the question as to whether it is applicable to the rest of us as well.
The answer is, of course, it is applicable. It’s just as true for the indigenous as it is for everyone else.
So friends, we have a cause in which we must become more fully involved. It is a cause worthy of our total commitment and devotion, and one of which we are more fully aware thanks to Dave Pellowe and those that have put this excellent summit together.
As Christians our most valuable blessing is to be allowed to live our lives in freedom according to our faith, and that is genuinely under threat.
Friends, we can’t simply wait for the pendulum to naturally swing back to sensibleness or sanity. We’ve got to push the pendulum and work hard to make a positive difference, to grasp the opportunities and be bold advocates promoting the Christian worldview.
It’s worth fighting for.
It’s worth sacrificing for.
It’s worth it for future generations.
Let’s do it.
Do you have a tough question you’d like Dave to tackle? Is there a tweet, meme, article or video out there you’d like Dave to comment on? Is there an argument you’ve come up against you just don’t know how to answer even though you’re sure it’s wrong?
Send it to dave@PelloweTalk.com or comment below and your question, story tip or challenge may be included in the next episode!