Scott Morrison gives religion a bad name. He shouldn’t be allowed to represent it, but in the usual kind of polarising debate today, it is exactly his mix of social conservatism with a certain self-satisfied fervour that tends to define ‘religion’ against the militant atheists and cultural radicals who are the other side of the apparent religious-values divide.
Morrison’s speech to the Liberal defeated at the end of Dave Sharma’s campaign was a caricaturish evangelical performance. The intonation, the broad gestures, the calling out of hallelujah-type responses from an audience of otherwise—one might have thought—upwardly arrived Wentworth sophisticates was not the usual heartfelt electoral-loss speech, even if such are typically addressed to the party ‘faithful’. Blended with old-school Howardism of emphatic assertion, however, Morrison’s evangelical style soon turned to mean little catchphrases like ‘We believe in a fair go for those who have a go’, and ‘It’s every Australian’s duty to make a contribution, not take a contribution’. In Morrison’s hands Christian mercy certainly does not ‘droppeth as gentle rain from heaven’. It sounded like the nineteenth-century workhouse was in store for those who could not get out of bed or did not contribute to our great nation. In lieu of any substance, Morrison went for punitive gestures—well worn, if mere signals of strength.
Of course, this is not a nineteenth-century government. In fact it is a very postmodern one, in the sense that its social conservatism mixed with neoliberal globalisation is the strange miscegenated beast of late capitalism. As has been pointed out in the pages of Arena Magazine ever since John Howard was prime minister, Australia’s Liberal-Coalition conservatives have been fighting against an embracing social transformation that the globalised techno-capitalism they administer and celebrate has been crucial in bringing into existence. This includes ‘liberation’ from many of the old anchors of identity—place, body, family—that they consciously wish to defend. Indeed, as these relatively firm bases of common life have begun to slip, and in lieu of any understanding of the social processes involved, they have unwittingly adopted the very elements of identity politics they excoriate in cultural radicals, if for different reasons. At the least one might observe that both the positive assertions of identity and the distinctive anxieties/pathologies of identity-set-adrift come into play: on both sides of this politics there is an often rabid concern with boundaries and differences—think Manus Island and Border Force, but also no-platforming and trigger warnings.
One point here is that in key respects it doesn’t matter what the Liberal Party conservatives as individuals feel they are attached to or wish to defend by way of ‘religious values’, or even, as party members, the nineteenth-century liberal tradition they at times advert to (especially in relation to a self-deciding individual), when early twenty-first-century societal relations are structured in such a way as to undermine what they profess to value. Intention is radically undermined if you don’t know what you are dealing with; ‘values’ are a mere carapace if the community that constitutes their meaningfulness is collapsing.
And so another point about misrecognition and collapse might be found in the Liberals’ shockingly ill-conceived vote on whiteness. If Morrison is empty (but tough), his government is also increasingly bizarre (and thus scary). Scary not only because the insult of failure (in this case wholly deserved derision) can lead to violent reaction but because they seem to be so out of touch, so possibly-even-honestly unaware of the meaning of Pauline Hanson’s motion affirming that ‘It is OK to be white’. This is a small-child-like form of logic. We know it is a line, and a way of wedging (‘So you mean it’s not OK to be white?’), with a lineage in the ranks of US neo-Nazi organisations, but one had the feeling that many of the people upholding this notion felt (or others receiving the message at home over the kitchen sink by radio might feel) genuinely belittled by what they take to be a challenge to their way of life and sense of who they are.
A political interpretation alone of this would refer to some kind of zero-sum game or agonistic battle between competitors (racists versus blacks, say, interests or ideology). A reading of sentiment, on the other hand, might reveal not only some generalised anxiety but lack of access to anything like a critically social understanding of life—that is, rather than the purely empirical sense of it by which many people typically live. Certainly a capacity to stand outside oneself, to comprehend a social whole, and within that to be able to adjudge objective social factors, seems radically absent.
These seem to me various elements of the ‘feel’ of the conservative mindset and moment—why the Liberal conservatives project a sense of things slipping away; a view of social currents emerging out of deep recesses; of things out of their control—and why ‘religious values’ becomes a protective catch cry for a sense of impending loss. The sense of what is being lost or placed under threat in the larger conservative constituency may be quite inchoate, but it is legislation that will stem the tide. While the economy will garner plenty of attention in their day jobs, and coal may be elevated to something almost sacred, religion for the conservative Liberals seems to be the place of the final stand, the last redoubt, as it holds within a defensive cordon the thing perhaps, after all, most dear.
But if that is the case there are many things that might be pointed out. If this is the thing they do hold most dear, why in their day jobs would they go about destroying the conditions of existence of this valued thing? Why support coal when it threatens the world of Creation, the given Earth that revealed religion takes for granted? Why celebrate the economic benefit of consumer capitalism if the foundations of altruism and community wither away? Why turn techno-science into unquestioned culture hero and utopian instrument (viz. the present Boyer Lectures) and wonder at the radical ungrounding of our human being? And, finally, could it be that the notion of ‘values’ is itself a lame and inaccurate depiction of what is at stake?
In this discussion I am taking professions of religious belief and feeling seriously. I am not a militant atheist who would scoff in intellectual superiority at faith, or a poststructuralist suspicious only of power in the construction of that form of subjectivity. Religious feeling, belief, may well be the hold-out of something those two groups can’t access—the sense and experience of something other, larger, ‘given’, and deeply in one’s person. Waleed Aly spoke on The Minefield recently on this topic not only of conviction—a relatively alien term in a society configured in terms of ‘choice’ and fleeting consumption—but also of the sense of a constitutive core of religious meaning. Such is not only achieved or lived through a shared life of coreligionists but foundationally, in relation to an experience of a force way beyond the choosing individual—neoliberalism’s liberal sine qua non and perhaps contributor to its particular, thin sense of ‘values’.
Obviously, one point here is that while religious feeling may be of a particular quality shared across religions that atheists can’t access, theological understandings and thus approaches to God on the one hand and to the world on the other are vastly different among religions and religious tendencies. What counts as ‘religious values’ is varied. The neoliberal Christian protecting values is a weak example of a richly varied, often critical, often braver approach to engaging social questions and cultural transformation. Indeed while right-wing conservatives appear to be hunkering down to ‘sit it out’ behind protective legislation that tends towards a demonisation of particular groups (the gay-wedding-cake example), they completely miss the point that what is changing is not essentially a matter of ‘values’, or of religion as such.
On this point the militant atheists and cultural radicals who typically figure as the other side of ‘the debate’ are just as narrow in their understanding as the Christian Liberal conservatives. On ‘this side’ religion is likely to be seen as an exercise of power, and values merely as expressions of one’s identity choices, or justified in those terms. At the least, the demanding requirement of many religious and philosophical traditions that one’s choices must be justified by reference to other principles is refused or held in suspicion. Here heroic choices about one’s needs and expression of self often coincide with a celebration of technologies that are seen as identity tools, and as mere tools their broadly constituting effects are often missed. They do not just allow you to choose; they change the kind of persons we are.
In light of this, one might point out that values aren’t conjured ab nihilo from the heart or head, the result of feeling or decision, but rather are a form of social consciousness shaped in circumstances not of individuals’ making, and forged in material realities at different levels of our being that are constitutive of who and what we are. Both sets of actors on the present rather Manichean political stage suffer from a misreading of their context, and of this contest. Meaningful traditions of thought and teaching may raise up these intimations of meaning in the social firmament and in turn shape or contest them. Indeed they are crucial in developing our rational, conscious commitments to the good, to confirm and embed values and beliefs in ways that align well with the more or less objective possibilities and constraints of social and physical realities.
Scott Morrison and his Liberal right-wing government and its recent predecessors have been very good at ‘stopping the boats’, conjuring borders, rhetorically pandering to certain blighted elements in the community, revving up resentment and denying climate change—rather than stepping forward into the light of the world that is now. Which does not mean accepting what that world holds out as ideological promise but does mean actually working at understanding its possibilities and contradictions, not the least of which has basic ramifications for the kind of religious depth many crave.