Passing Bull 127 – Elites and religion and Mr Dyson Heydon, AC QC


In its ordinary meaning, the ‘elite’ are the chosen or elect.  The Oxford English Dictionary has ‘choice part or flower of society.’  If, therefore, you are part of the elite you might feel blessed – like a cricketer who gets to wear the baggy green cap for Australia.

But of late, in the mood of general gloom, the term has become one of abuse, particularly among those of a reactionary caste of thought.  Never mind that those who use the term as one of derision are invariably rolled gold examples of the elite at least in the general sense of that term – elite has become a sparring glove for the politically restive – like the terms ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics’, which are on any view bullshit.

Donald Trump, we are told, was elected to defy the elites in the U S and to put them in their boxes.  If, then, the elites are those who are opposed to Donald Trump, then in the eyes of the world, and a substantial majority of Americans, the elites stand for all that is decent in American life.

But, hang on – we are also told that Donald Trump was elected to drain the swamp.  Are we then to say that the flower or cream is the same as the swamp?  How could that happen?  The two phrases are of course nebulously silly in equal degree, but they have been taken up on Sky News and at the Australian Spectator.  And enough Americans were silly enough to vote against what they believed were elites and for a person who is as far from being part of the cream or flower of society as you could ever imagine.

So, using the term ‘elites’ as derision has some credentials – even if they are credentials of a peculiarly revolting kind, especially if you add Pauline Hanson and Nigel Farage to the list of progenitors, those worthy battlers for ‘the forgotten people’, those people who those of another creed called the ‘masses.’

On 17 October 2017, Dyson Heydon, A C Q C, gave the inaugural P M Glynn lecture on Religion, Law and Public Life at the Australian Catholic University.  (It has not occurred to me to ask this before, but is there an Australian Protestant University?  What makes this university Catholic?  Are its laws of physics or contract different to the laws of Protestants, agnostics or atheists?)  In his lecture, Mr Heydon said that people were attacking religion at large, Christianity in particular, and that Catholics were principal targets.  Who are making these attacks?

Mr Heydon says that the attacks come from the ‘modern elites.’  Indeed, in the edited version in the press, the term ‘elites’ occurs at least twenty-five times.  The lecture comprises abstractions and labels, and it has barely one statement of verifiable fact, but I do not see a statement of what Mr Heydon means by the term ‘elites’.  And if anyone is part of the elite of Australia, it is surely our learned lecturer, a sometime Justice of the High Court Australia, and a man chosen at the highest levels of government to engage in the highest affairs of state.

Let us then apply the dictionary definition.  That would not be unfair to a former Justice of the High Court.  In the political context that we have, the elite would include people who by character, upbringing and training are well placed to take part in running the community.

Let’s then take two examples – a former P M, Tony Abbott, and a leader of the political commentariat, Andrew Bolt – and see if they fit the model of the portrait of elites painted by Mr Heydon at the Australian Catholic University.  That model is as follows.

The public voices of the modern elites are not humble.  They conceive themselves to have entitlements and rights, not blessings.  They desire to exclude any role for religion in Australian public discussion, and perhaps any role for religion at all in any sphere, public or private.  They instantly demand an apology for any statement they dislike.  They seem to waver between contradictory contentions: that Christ never existed, that Christ was never crucified, or that the Roman soldiers attempting the crucifixion were so incompetent that Christ merely fell unconscious, and never actually died on the cross.  They fail to condemn these examples of subhuman behaviour.  Does this not show their acceptance of these views?  They have moved from mere indifference to fanatical anti-clericalism.  Some want to destroy faith itself.  Their tolerance is tyrannical – ‘if you try to say you disagree and why, you deserve to be, and will be, hounded out of all decent society.’  They only pay lip-service to freedom of religion.  By failing to denounce evils, they associate themselves with those evils.  This weakens their case.  They do not desire tolerance.  They demand unconditional surrender.  They are discourteous.  They are the sorts of people who do not give up their seats on public transport to the pregnant, the elderly, or the infirm.  They shout rather than argue.  They reject the fundamental part of the Christian tradition that is the source of the modern world and their own favoured position in it.  They welcome tyranny.  They seek to destroy their inheritance from secular liberalism.

And so it goes.

Now, Mr Abbott and Mr Bolt have their critics, and indeed enemies, but they have not been guilty of any of that kind of stuff.  People who say that Christ never existed or who refuse to stand for a pregnant woman are at best complete nuts and at worst total shits.  Fortunately, I have never met one of them.  Mr Heydon doesn’t refer to any of them by name.  What’s he on about?

The clue comes with the denunciation of the catch-cry: ‘why don’t religious people stop forcing their opinions on everyone else.’  ‘This is a call for what in Germany in the 1940’s would have been called a compulsory inner emigration.’  I haven’t the faintest notion of what that Mr Heydon might mean by that, but I am one of those who have asked just such a question – on these pages – and I’m not wildly thrilled to be directed to compare myself with someone in Nazi Germany as a consequence.

As best I can see, Mr Heydon does not mention marriage equality or assisted dying, but I suspect that it is the debate over those two issues that is behind most of Mr Heydon’s tortured angst.  A lot of people, including me, are opposed to people seeking to translate into law beliefs on moral issues that derive from a religion based on revelation.  It is one thing for a person to take a leap of faith – it is altogether a different thing to seek to impose views formed after such a leap of faith on others – with the force of law.

There is a long history – at least a century of it – of real hostility in Australia to people seeking to alter the political landscape by views derived from contested areas of faith.  You need only mention the names Mannix and Santamaria.  And now you can add the name of the primate who authorised a donation of one million dollars to the ‘No’ campaign in the marriage equality debate.

Fairly or otherwise, a lot of Australians are offended by the idea of the plebiscite, and they believe that they wouldn’t have had to put up with this expensive insult had it not been for the determination of some people of the Christian faith, especially Catholics, to impose their views on others.  If religious people want to get angry about this reaction to them – and Mr Heydon plainly does – that’s a matter for them.  But in the name of God, what bloody good can it do?

There is nothing new about this tenderness about allowing people of one religion or another to interfere in matters of state.  This tenderness lies under the English reformation and it was a major factor in the French Revolution.  The English Crown, which still in name reigns over us, claimed, and hung on to in the face of the Spanish Armada, religious Home Rule from Rome.  This insistence on the separation of religion from the state runs deep in our political history and thought.  Just try to imagine the reaction of most Australians if people of faith sought not to have our laws enshrine the teaching of Christ, but the maxims of Sharia Law.

And since Mr Heydon refers to Western civilisation, as do many contributors to The Australian, it may be as well to refer to moments in our shared history like humanism and the Enlightenment.  In The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Professor Simon Blackburn says of ‘humanism’ – ‘any philosophy concerned to emphasize human welfare and dignity, and either optimistic about the powers of human reason, or at least insistent that we have no alternative to use it as best we can…..Later the term tended to become appropriated for anti-religious social and political movements’.  For the Enlightenment we have:

The period of human thought characterised by the emphasis on experience and reason, mistrust of religion and traditional authority, and a gradual emergence of liberal, secular, democratic societies.  [Emphasis added.]

There are no surprises here.  Just as we have gone from the supernatural to the natural in science, so also have we done so in law and government.  It is sufficient to give one citation from the prince of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant:

Now, when, as usually happens, a church proclaims itself to be the one church universal (even though it is based upon faith in a special revelation which, being historical can never be required of everyone), he who refuses to acknowledge its (peculiar) ecclesiastical faith is called by it ‘an unbeliever’ and is hated wholeheartedly; he who diverges therefrom only in path (in non-essentials) is called ‘heterodox’ and is at least shunned as a source of infection. But he who avows allegiance to this church and diverges from it on essentials of its faith (namely, regarding the practices connected with it), is called, especially if he spreads abroad his false belief, a ‘heretic’ and, as a rebel, such a man is held more culpable than a foreign foe, is expelled from the church with anathema….[Emphasis added.]

Let me also refer to Macaulay.  He is, you would think, as high up the pole of the ‘former elites’ as any mere mortal may ever get.

The only event of modern times which can be properly compared with the Reformation is the French Revolution, or, to speak more accurately, that great revolution of political feeling which took place in almost every part of the civilised world in the eighteenth century, and which obtained in France its most terrible and signal triumph.  Each of these memorable events may be described as the rising up of the human reason against a Caste.  The one was a struggle of the laity against the clergy for intellectual liberty; the other was a struggle of the people against princes and nobles for political liberty.  [Emphasis added.]

This insight is important.  A large part of the progress of Western civilisation or secular liberalism has been putting priests and bishops in their place – outside the door of government.  (Has anyone ever had a good word to say about bishops?)  There is a place for the supernatural – but not in ruling the lives of everyone else.  Ask the French.  People releasing themselves from the power of priests was as important as their releasing themselves from the power of princes.  We have not always understood this truth.  Even the English downplay the liberating effect of their reformation on their political process – which, by common consent, is the model for the Western world.

There are in addition some other very odd propositions in Mr Heydon’s lecture.

First, denouncing people because they have not denounced others is seldom helpful and always dangerous.  No people I know of has welcomed informers, and denunciation is a favoured weapon of the most evil regimes in history.  A favourite Party trick of Stalin was to send wives to Siberia for not having denounced their executed husbands.  This argument is also used as a stick to beat Muslims with in the west.  It doesn’t help the cause of religion as a whole that those who brandish this stick at Muslims, who are slow to denounce evil at the edge of their faith, frequently subscribe to a Church whose very hierarchy, right up to the top, has been involved in massive breaches of public trust that have damaged the standing of public institutions at large, and not just the Church.  Just look at the decline and fall of the Church in Ireland.

Secondly, Mr Heydon has odd views about the range and extent of the perceived hostility to religion.

The hostility is demonstrated least against Hindus and Buddhists.  It is also not much demonstrated against Muslims.  It is beginning to be demonstrated against Jews.  Some elements in the elites are drifting back to an anti-Semitism that one thought had been purged from Western life by the horrors of World War II in communist Eastern Europe after 1945.  And hostility is increasing markedly against Catholics….But no Christian denomination seems to be exempt from the new de-Christianisation campaign.

Try telling that to the worshippers at the Lakemba or Bendigo mosques.  The rush to line up as victims might be hilarious if the context were not so ordinary.

Thirdly, I quite fail to see the historical or moral warrant for claiming that the ‘Christian tradition is the source of the modern world.’  It’s like saying that Australia is a Christian nation.  The endeavour to award primacy to one faith over others can only lead to pain and conflict.  And it hardly becomes a Church that claims to speak with and for humility.  This kind of bullshit might wash with people who follow footy, but it is hardly appropriate among those who worship God.

That brings me to two things on which I agree entirely with Mr Heydon.  First, I agree that it is ridiculous to claim that ancient Greece and Rome were civilised – at least as we now understand that term.  That proposition in my view follows from the fact that they had not been exposed to the views about the essential dignity of each human life as taught by Jewish rabbis and Christian priest and ministers, and by Kant and other members of the Enlightenment.  As a result, the ancients had views about equality that we think are as uncivilised as you can get.

Secondly, I also agree that Christ had ‘a different vision.’

He showed a concern for the ill, the socially marginal, the outsider, the destitute.  He opposed self-righteousness and hypocrisy.  He had no concern to associate with wealth, power or celebrity.  His associates were humbler.  Many of them were women.  He saw little children are heirs to the kingdom of heaven…But above all Christ taught that all human beings were humble before God, and all could enter the kingdom of God.

To that fair picture, Mr Heydon may have added that the man they called Christ signed his death warrant by taking to the money dealers in the Temple with a whip, and that while that warrant was being executed, Christ said that his kingdom was not of this world.

This certainly was a new vision.  But for many Australians, that portrait of Christ presents problems.  It is inconceivable that Christ would have stayed overnight at the Melbourne Club; prelates of both major denominations do just that.  (They do this is part of a deliberate policy to avoid mixing with the kind of people that Jesus of Nazareth mixed with.)  It is equally inconceivable that Christ would have stayed silent during Australia’s treatment of refugees, not least the children among them; prelates of both major denominations have done just that.  Finally, and in the present political context, it is inconceivable to many Australians, including very many in communion with one or other of the churches of Christ in Australia today, that the Christ so described would choose to deny equality in marriage to homosexuals, ‘the socially marginal, the outsider.’  Or at the very least, had Christ been so minded, he would have been appalled at the spellbinding dishonesty perpetrated by the Australian Christian Lobby in engaging in this squalid and unnecessary political shit fight.

As I see it, the most worrying symptom of the decline in public life here and elsewhere is the lack of moderation, the lack of tolerance, if not respect, for the views of others.  This lecture is brutally one-sided, nos contra mundum, ‘you’re either for us or against us, and if the latter, you’re a goner.’  It is as bloody and over the top as a charge at the Somme, and the resulting phantoms are just as ghoulish.  That’s what Mr Heydon charges others with, and, as it looks to me, that is just what he is doing in to the rest of in this lecture.

May I offer some advice to people with God who share the apprehensions of Mr Heydon?  If you don’t like the bloody heat, don’t go near the bloody kitchen.  And the next time you want us to suffer the insult of a bootless $100 million plebiscite to save your dogma from your own blushes, can you in the name of God please try to avoid saying that if your side gets up to forty per cent of the vote, you will put that down as a win?  Because people who behave as badly as that deserve to get a bucket of the best or worst refuse right down their bloody front and any other part of their person that they are silly enough to show before the people of Australia.

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