August 24th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Embryo experiments: are there any limits?

ALP's problems deeper than pre-selections and branch-stacking

Zimbabwe: Mugabe aggravates drought crisis

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Dizzy with success / Angry amnesiacs

EMBRYO EXPERIMENTATION: Consuming our unborn is indefensible

LAW: High Court judgment deepens native title confusion

General Cosgrove was wrong on Vietnam (letter)

Why the stock market plunged (letter)

Snowy River plan damages Murray basin (letter)

Infrastructure savings (letter)

COMMENT: Whose voice can be heard?

VICTORIA: Public forces backdown on Victorian sex zone plans

POPULATION: Time to set the record straight

COMMENT: Can the ABC be saved from itself?

ECONOMY: The Reserve, interest rates and inflation

ASIA: Taiwan's banking system under siege

BOOKS: Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

BOOKS: American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles, by Thomas Keneally

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Whose voice can be heard?

by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, August 24, 2002
In 1984, the American social commentator Richard John Neuhaus wrote an incisive book entitled The Naked Public Square. In it he argued that in the past few decades there has been an attempt to squeeze out those with a religious perspective from the realm of public policy debate. People of faith are told they are welcome to practise their religion in private, but they have no right to let it intrude into the public and social arena.

Neuhaus argued that, quite to the contrary, liberal democracies need the foundation of public virtue, which in turn is based on the moral and religious values of its citizens. Societies, in other words, which seek to marginalise faith do so to their own detriment.


However, since 1984, this trend has only got worse. Constantly today, when moral and ethical debates are being waged, we hear voices telling us that the churches, or religious people, would do well to keep their personal convictions to themselves.

A recent example of this is the article by Melbourne writer Terry Monagle, entitled "The New Catholic Ascendancy" (The Age, August 13, 2002). In it he takes the Catholic Church in general, and Catholic MPs in particular, to task for speaking out on abortion, the stem cell debate, and other contentious social issues.

The gist of the article contained these two themes: 1) The Catholic Church has too much influence on these divisive moral and social issues, especially in the political arena; and 2) these Catholic leaders are entitled to their opinions, but they should muzzle their public expressions of these views.

On the first theme, Monagle gets off to a bad start. He names four prominent MPs (Abbott, Cameron, Andrews and Anderson), but in fact only two of them are Catholics. The other two are Protestants (Cameron and Anderson).

Indeed, of the social conservatives in the Liberal and National parties, there are probably as many Protestants as Catholics. Thus the attempt to paint this as a Catholic issue is confusing the debate. In fact, on issues like cloning and stem cell research, we find even non-religious MPs and others expressing their concern and opposition.

So these issues are not just Catholic issues. Nor are they just religious issues. On some of the debates, as in destructive stem cell experimentation, they are human rights issues. Thus it is both wrong and misleading to play the sectarian card.

Moreover, what exactly is Monagle suggesting? Does the fact that one brings a religious conviction to issues of public policy debate disqualify that person? If so, then a full 70 per cent of Australians should be debarred from the public arena, since at least that many hold to some belief in God.

The truth is, everyone argues from the presuppositions of his own worldview. This is as true of the religious person as the non-religious person. If Christians bring their own ideological baggage along, so too do others. People like Peter Singer and Alan Trounson also have a worldview: it's called secular utilitarianism.

We all argue from the basis of certain presuppositions. The question is, which presuppositions are most coherent and reasonable? That discussion cannot be entered into here. Suffice it to say that religious believers have as much right to argue from their religious first principles as secularists do from their non-religious principles.

While people like Singer and Trounson may reject any religious-based ethical system, they nonetheless bring their own ethical system into play. They have simply replaced one philosophical system with another. Secular humanism has as many "faith" components as do religious belief systems. Indeed, not too long ago the US Supreme Court declared secular humanism to be a religion.

Thus it is not a question of intruding beliefs into the public square. It is rather a question of whose beliefs systems will prevail. And in a democracy, all belief systems should be given the chance of public utterance.

Private vs. Public

A second issue Terry Monagle raises is the concept of public versus private morality. He takes a common position on this issue. He says he may well have strong feelings on issues like abortion or family breakdown, but he does not want to impose his own morality on the rest of the commonwealth. But there are obvious problems with this approach. To say that you are personally opposed to abortion, but you do not want to impose this view on the rest of society is like saying I find racism repugnant, but who am I to universalise and vocalise my opinions?

If something is wrong, then we should oppose it, not only on a personal level but on a public level as well. People may disagree as to what is right and wrong, but to argue that one's personal ideology precludes public debate would render all of us mute.

In the end, the article by Monagle offers a confusing picture of how moral issues are debated in a free society. If he really believes that religious preferences prejudice public debate, then even his own article has to be questioned on those grounds. But if real debate is to flourish, then we need to encourage people to express their convictions, and not discourage them from speaking out.

If he is really worried about undue influence in political parties, then he should not just be concerned about people like Archbishop Pell and his impact on the Liberal Party.

He should also speak out on the undue influence of Big Biotech on the bioethical debates now being waged in Australian Parliaments.

It is one thing to try to influence political outcomes by sheer force of ideas, but it is another thing to sway political opinion by vested pecuniary interests.

And as futurist Francis Fukuyama reminds us:

"Science by itself cannot establish the ends to which it is put. Science can discover vaccines and cures for diseases, but it can also create infectious agents; it can uncover the physics of semiconductors but also the physics of the hydrogen bomb. ... It is only theology, philosophy and politics that can establish the ends of science and the technology that science produces, and pronounce on whether those ends are good or bad."

For my part, I am grateful that the likes of Andrews and Abbott are there to keep the political process in check, to remind us that there are greater things in life than balanced budgets and roads free of potholes.

There are simply too many vested interests at play in the political process to prevent the religious and ethical voices from being heard.

The real worry is that their voices should be silenced.

  • Bill Muehlenberg is National Vice President of the Australian Family Association and a lecturer in ethics. He is, incidentally, a non-Catholic.

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