Last week I received a phone call from Barney Zwartz, a journalist from the Melbourne AGE newspaper. He wanted to get my pulse on the upcoming federal election. We had a 5-10 minute conversation together and talked about a range of issues. In his actual article, I ended up with one quote ...
"Mr Conner, senior pastor at Melbourne's biggest church, CityLife, said he was not concerned by Ms Gillard's atheism: 'Primarily you are looking at them to have what it takes to run the nation' - but felt Mr Rudd's dumping would cost Labor more than the party realised."
In fairness to Barney, he didn't have space to quote everything I said or give the full context of the statement he did quote. Of course, any time you are quoted by the media ... there is always the possibility of misunderstanding. I have had emails from a few people about my quote asking me whether I was suggesting that people should vote for Julia Gillard and whether I didn't think faith for a political leader was important. Neither of those are true. I was thankful for the opportunity to clarify myself and will do so in this blog post.
First of all, my personal approach and our approach as a church at CityLife is to be politically neutral, in that we don't tell people who or what party to vote for. We encourage prayerful and diligent research, so that followers of Christ make intelligent use of their privilege as an Australian citizen to vote for those who will govern us. So, never have I said and never will say, "Vote for Julia Gillard" ... or anyone else for that matter.
Discussion has come up about Julia's atheism and whether any potential Prime Minister who does not have a Christian faith should be considered as a possible candidate to vote for. It is an issue worth thinking about. Let me paint a scenario for you ...
Imagine you need your car repaired. There are three mechanics in your street. Mechanic #1 is a church-going self-professed Christian but has little experience in mechanics and is known as being a but unreliable (tends to over-promise and under-deliver). Mechanic #2 is an atheist but is an experienced mechanic, although they have a reputation as not always being that truthful. Mechanic #3 is a Hindu, but is a very experienced mechanic and has a reputation for honesty. Which mechanic would you take your car to?
I don't know about you but I'd go with mechanic number #3 because in getting my car repaired, competency and character are of utmost important. That doesn't mean faith isn't important to me; it's just not the #1 criteria I would be looking for in this situation.
Now I realise that running a country as Prime Minister is more complex and more far-reaching than being a mechanic (without minimising the important contribution mechanics make in society!) ... but the principles are similar. Competency and character are very important. Yes, faith influences everything too, and needs to be taken into consideration but not as the ONLY criteria for choosing a leader.
Although I am all for Christians being involved in the political arena (see my earlier general comments about the election here) I become concerned at the extreme right-wing fundamentalist attitude and approach that emerges from time to time that says "if we could only get Christians into every sphere of influence, we'd see revival in our nation." Neither morality nor faith can be legislated. In fact, the Moral Majority movement in America has been a complete failure (you can read the intriguing inside story on this movement in the book Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can't Save America). Let's always remember that the Holy Spirit transforming individual hearts and lives through the power of the Gospel is the only way a nation can turn to God.
In fact, I would say that the greater challenge for the Christian church today is not government but the fact that we are losing the culture wars. The average Australian is more influenced by the arts and entertainment industry (via TV, movies, radio and internet) than by what is happening in Canberra (without diminishing the importance of a healthy economy and laws that create a safe environment for everyone). Politics isn't the answer to everything.
So is it important for the Prime Minister to be a Christian? Obviously, if a candidate has a Christian faith AND competency and character, that is ideal. Belief in God is very important and a nation whose leaders don't believe in God can potentially experience far-reaching negative effects over time. But let's avoid the attitude that says "So and so is a Christian so let's vote for them" without any reference to their character and gifting, as well as the policies of their party (we saw this in America where many Christians voted for and supported George Bush simply because he was a 'Christian' and weren't willing to critique his agenda or policies). Faith is very important to me but not the only criteria when considering who to vote for.
All of the above comments are 'general' in nature and have no particular candidate in mind. Moving on to the upcoming election more specifically, we have two major candidates: the current Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Consider their character, their competencies, the policies of their respective parties and their faith (or lack of it) - look at the whole package. Then make a prayerful and informed vote for the future of our nation.
As followers of Christ we have a responsibility to pray for our nation and to vote intelligently (see my next post for resources to assist you with understanding the policies of each political party), believing for good leaders to be appointed who will govern our nation for the 'common good' (not just for the benefit of Christians, but for all people in our nation). Jim Wallis' book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It is an excellent read as it presents what I consider a very balanced perspective on God and politics. I highly recommend it.
Finally, whatever happens, once we have done our part (praying, voting in an informed manner and continually letting our voice be heard even after the election), we must trust in God's sovereignty. Whoever is elected, we are called to pray for them ... just as Paul called the early church to pray even for their pagan rulers (1 Timothy 2:1-4), so that we can live a peaceable life and so that the gospel can go out to all people unhindered.
P.S. Just to try to neutralise any impression that the above comments are aimed at suggesting who to vote for at this election (which they are not; rather they are made in response to a single quote published in the AGE from my extended discussion with Barney about matters relating to the election) ... imagine this scenario: what if the current leader of the Liberal Party was an atheist and the leader of the Labor Party was a Christian (not an unlikely situation some time in our political future), who would you vote for? I trust that you would pray and fully consider the party's policies, NOT just the faith (or lack of it) of the leader. For example, I know some Christian politicians who are pro-abortion and some non-Christian politicians who are anti-abortion. If abortion is an issue of concern for you (and it should be for all Christians, along with a host of other issues), then you need to look not just at a candidates faith but also at their wider views and the policies of their party. That's my point - pray and consider everything.