Thomas Coughlan: Christopher Luxons rise – and the tricky question of faith in politics

OPINION:

Chris Luxon’s elevation to the National leadership has tapped a well of anxiety about the role of the church in political life.

It’s unclear to many – not least to Luxon himself – why he should be the catalyst for this anxiety. He’s hardly the first religious leader of a political party in recent times; his four immediate predecessors professed one or other flavours of Christianity.

Anxiety over the separation of church and state well predates our secular era. In Renaissance Europe when the Catholic Church was both a secular and sacred power, there was an ever-present fear, even among Catholic powers, that the church was abusing its religious position for secular gain.

The former Republic of Venice fell out with Catholic Rome over its refusal to participate in a crusade and the jurisdiction of its secular courts over the clergy.

All of this falling out happened while most Venetians were themselves Catholic; the issue was one of jurisdiction: where did people’s secular right to make their own laws end and the right of a Church to promulgate its own doctrine begin?

This anxiety has tortured politics, even as the world slowly secularised. In the United States, antebellum politics was riven by anti-Irish nativism, in part driven by the fallacious fear Irish migrants placed loyalty to Catholic Rome above secular Washington. Freedom of religion is one thing, but paranoid nativists said “no thanks” to new migrants and their allegedly divided loyalties.

The anxiety around Luxon’s religion comes from a similar place. It’s not altogether unfair. Luxon is a legislator – one of just 120. He’s also the leader of the second-largest voting bloc in one of the most tightly whipped free legislatures in the world. He has an obligation, therefore, to clearly articulate what drives his conscience as a lawmaker.

But Luxon’s answer to this question complicates rather than clarifies the issue.

He says that while believing in the separation of church and state, his faith gives him “grounding” and “context”.

This is no bad thing in a Parliament that is too rarely a temple and too often a den of thieves.

If Luxon has ethics grounded in faith, well that’s all the better for our often-sordid politics, recently dogged by revelations of harassment and bullying.

He is right to cry unfairness when his ethics are put under the spotlight: “My view on these sorts of issues shouldn’t be any different from any of the other 120 people that are here as well,” he says. Luxon’s no theocrat and doesn’t deserve to be painted as one.

Quite right. We certainly missed an opportunity to examine the skewed ethical compasses of the gallery of rogues who found ignominy during parliaments past, religious or not.

But as is often the case in politics, this apparently satisfying answer from Luxon (painting him as a victim, no less) answers a question very different to the one that was asked.

The question is not whether Luxon’s faith influences how he comports himself in his day-to-day life, it is whether Luxon’s faith has any bearing on how he plans to legislate.

The reason why Luxon’s answer to this question confuses rather than clarifies is that by collapsing his own personal ethics together with his faith, he cannot answer whether his legislative conscience is driven by his ethics or faith – he’s made two different things the same.

New Zealand’s parliamentary conventions don’t help in this regard. The most contentious moments at which Luxon’s faith could bear upon his legislation are in matters of conscience.

These bills typically involve gambling, alcohol, drugs, abortion, prostitution and, more recently, matters involving members of the LGBT community.

In our Parliament, MPs rarely, if ever, vote outside party lines. However, on matters of conscience, they’re given a personal vote allowing them to vote free of any party affiliation.

Last term, an MP, recently returned from a course offered to all freshman MPs, told me the 2017 parliamentary intake was divided on just whose conscience these so-called conscience votes were meant to be taken anyway.

Do they allow MPs the opportunity to search their own conscience and find in that the correct way to vote?

Or do conscience votes oblige MPs to mine the conscience of their constituents, and vote accordingly?

There are divergent views. Eighteenth-century MP Edmund Burke believed the very reason we elected representatives was to mine their “enlightened conscience”, rather than the everyday whims of the electorate.

Contemporary MP Stuart Nash disagrees. During the last Parliament, he polled constituents to see how they felt about the euthanasia bill, and voted in favour of the bill partly on that basis.

But where Luxon does owe a clear answer is how his ethics and his religion guide him as a legislator.

As Luxon himself said: “People shouldn’t be selecting an MP because of their faith and they shouldn’t be selecting an MP because of their faith.”

Quite right. We elect MPs on their politics. If their politics on crucial issues are faith-based it’s relevant to electors.

Everything else, as Luxon says, is “personal” – or as personal as it’s possible to be when you want to be prime minister.

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