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Politics and religion in the new century=

By Monica Purcell

With France becoming the fourteenth nation in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in May this year, rallies have exploded over Australia urging our parliament to do the same. Despite a clear and growing majority in support of same-sex marriage, our government seems unable to comfortably adapt, signalling some level of enduring commitment to the traditional Christian view of marriage. In a fascinating collection of essays titled Politics and religion in the new century (published in 2009) faith is explored practically, rather than theologically, in order to understand religious influence on political and social life.

In his essay for the collection Matheson Russell interprets the fundamental narrative of Christian faith – that of Christ’s persecution and execution by the Roman government – as essentially splitting divine and worldly authority in the Christian imagination. From there Russell explores how the secular society as we know it has developed in a specifically Christian context. In his essay Peter Jonkers investigates how globalisation and postmodernist philosophies have underlined secularism as a Western construct. Other religious traditions have not developed this way, particularly in the Islamic regions of the world. And as values shape cultural norms the interaction of different comprehensive doctrines of belief within the same public space generate various challenges to the ways societies such as our own are structured.

Anthony Langlois and Peter Slezak in their respective essays consider the exact point of intersection between faith and political reason. Both posit religious belief as a naturally illogical but infinitely powerful mode of thought – Slezak going so far as to suggest rationalisation follows belief and not vice versa. As faith requires unquestioning adherence to a particular position, political debate is ineffective in confirming or denying religious belief. Drawing on Jürgen Habermas’ theory of ‘intersubjectivity’ Langlois proposes a system of communication responsive to religious reason, but questions how to achieve this without further entrenching the harmful dogmas espoused by certain religions. Slezak however argues that harmful dogmas exist regardless because, as William James has expressed, ‘there are systems of thought which the world usually calls religious, and yet which do not positively assume a god’. Therefore the eradication of religious standpoints from public debate may not necessarily resolve a society’s ills.

Michael Strawser and Carleton Christensen on the other hand explore the benefits of faith. Christensen presents a fascinating case study of the Swadhyaya Pariwar, a small religious organisation in India who mobilised to solve the Gujarat water crisis. He connects the basic ethos of ecopolitics to the sect’s commitment to empathy and care for all living things and considers why, in this case, faith was able to shape behaviour more effectively than secular reason. Strawser also explores aspects of religion which can be used for the public good. He explores the healing properties of forgiveness as envisioned across various religious doctrines in order to deliberate on how this common virtue can shape inter-nation relations.

Indeed religion and its various facets continue to pervade all aspects of social and political life. As Philip Quadrio remarks in his introduction to the collection, ‘belief and matters of conscience might seem entirely private but the actions based on them are often of public concern’, signalling that perhaps it is less effective to assert the total subordination of religious faith to the private realm than to acknowledge its presence in the public and manage accordingly.

Monica Purcell has recently finished an English literature and writing degree at Macquarie University and her internship with Sydney University Press. She hopes to one day become an editor and writer of new (and hopefully wonderful) Australian fiction.

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