One of the remarkable aspects of the high profile achieved by conservative Christians as a result of the recent US and Australian elections has been the claim that they represent a reassertion of much-needed “values” in western society. The tacit assumption inherent in that claim is that today’s liberal democratic society lacks “values”.
Cardinal George Pell’s op-ed piece in this morning’s SMH is an example par excellence of that conservative Christian claim to a monopoly on values (and hence morality). Pell makes a series of spectacular leaps of logic in order to stake that territorial claim.
Liberal democratic society (or “secular democracy” as he prefers to call it) lacks any normative element, he implies. It is purely “procedural” and its “claims are minimalist: democracy should be regarded as nothing more than a mechanism for regulating different interests on a purely empirical basis“. Liberal democracy is nothing more than “a constant series of “breakthroughs” against social taboo in pursuit of the individual’s absolute autonomy“.
Pell asserts that “[d]emocracy is not a good in itself. Its value is instrumental and depends on the vision it serves“. He then proceeds to lay out his own vision for a new form of democracy that he calls “normative” democracy or “democratic personalism“, which he says is based on the “transcendent dignity of the human“. Well, that sounds alright, doesn’t it? But what does it actually mean? Apparently, “transcendence” means “our dependence on others and our dependence on God“. And what does God require us poor dependent creatures to do? Prohibit pornography, abortion, divorce, euthanasia, IVF births and embryonic stem cell research!!! What a loving, inspiring future the good Cardinal has in store for us under his ‘vision’ of ‘democracy’.
Possibly the most offensive assumption in Pell’s article (among many contenders) is that liberal democracy doesn’t embody any positive values or vision. In fact, at least in its Australian version before John Howard started trying to undermine it, it involved a “fair go” for everyone; equality of opportunity; helping your mates, especially the poor and disadvantaged; tolerance and acceptance of cultural diversity in the world’s most successful and harmonious multicultural society; and a conviction that adults are entitled to make their own choices how they live their own lives, free from the strictures of wowsers as long as others aren’t unduly affected without their informed consent. These are all positive, transformative values that involve a clear vision of the sort of society in which we want to live. And it’s a vision which manifestly doesn’t mean “the individual’s absolute autonomy”. It necessarily involves reciprocal social obligations which acknowledge our mutual interdependence (not servile “dependence”) in a complex post-industrial information-based society.
Moreover, these values stand in contrast to Pell’s repellent vision of hatred, intolerance, coercion and prohibition. I’m confident that these liberal democratic values still have the support of the vast majority of Australians, despite the attempts of John Howard and conservative Christians like Pell to demean and undermine them. It’s time for liberal democrats to get assertive in defence of our core values. They’re under serious attack by a small but determined and well-resourced enemy. I don’t have a problem with Pell or the Pentecostalists practising their beliefs. They’re free to reject pornography, abortion, divorce, euthanasia, IVF and anything else they don’t like. What they’re not free to do is to inflict their beliefs and choices on everyone else against their will. To claim the right to do so under the guise of ‘democracy’ is to utilise that term in a manner every bit as Orwellian as the commissars of the old German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany).