Originally Published in the Australian Financial Review on the 4th of June 2019
Written by Kevin Rudd
The uneasy truce negotiated between my staff and the Canberra press gallery at the time was they could wait outside the gates of the church to take overlay footage if they wanted, but they could not enter the church grounds and certainly not the church itself.
It did not take long, however, before this agreement was breached and journalists began throwing questions at me on my departure from church. This, of course, places you in the classic bind of being seen to be evasive in not answering difficult questions put to you by the press gallery on the one hand, or pausing to provide a brief response on the other.
As for Downer’s observation that I did not on all occasions respond in classic, “gentle Jesus meek and mild” fashion, always turning the other cheek to the political barbs of the day, perhaps he could provide me with copies of the offending transcripts. The bottom line was the Tories found it politically uncomfortable that a Labor prime minister would actually go to church. They saw that as their exclusive political turf.
What do I remember from the time, however, was Peter Costello and other members of Downer’s government happily attacking Christian ministers who had the temerity to disagree with Howard government policy, deploying the tired old argument that the clergy should stay out of politics. In other words, in the Coalition world view, a good Christian was always a conservative Christian. I’m not so sure Jesus of Nazareth, friend of prostitutes, the poor and the oppressed, would necessarily have agreed.
My own attitude to Christianity has been well documented. I have never made any particular claims to personal piety. Indeed it was Downer himself who thought it was very clever to leak the story of my now famous visit to Scores nightclub in New York to my good friends in News Limited, who in turn gave it wall-to-wall coverage across the front pages in all their Sunday tabloids. Nothing it seems has changed. Downer neglected, of course, to mention I was taken to said club by the very same senior News Limited executive who gave him the story in the first place. Downer obviously hasn’t read that part of the scriptures where Jesus says “let he is who is without sin cast the first stone.”
For me, Christianity, apart from my personal spiritual beliefs, has been a source of inspiration for the fundamental principles of social justice – principles which in my case later found their secular expression in the Australian Labor Party. My reasons for doing so are recorded in a long article I wrote in The Monthly entitled “Faith in Politics”, published long before I became leader of the opposition.
The more fundamental question in today’s debate, as I sought to canvas in that original article, is it is simply wrong to see God as some sort of wholly-owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party. That has never been my view. And anyone in today’s Liberal Party, or Labor Party for that matter, who has a contrary view, denies the legitimacy of the views of millions of Australians from various faiths who also happen to be members of our national political community. Thankfully our founding fathers agreed our government and our Parliament be secular institutions. It’s part of the reason we have been so long a peaceful country where all non-violent views should be heard with respect. And that means people of faith are as entitled to their political voice as people who choose to have none.
Kevin Rudd was prime minister of Australia from 2007-2010 and in 2013. He is president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.