For a while now Australian Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has been distancing himself from the more extreme stances and aspects of Catholicism, especially when it comes to social issues like homosexuality and abortion. This was put on full display last Sunday on ‘60 Minutes’, when Abbott insisted that his faith “must never dictate” his politics. This is hardly surprising, as politicians as far back as John F. Kennedy (who insisted he was not “the Catholic candidate”, but merely a candidate who happened to be Catholic) have had to renounce some or all of their religion whilst campaigning. But what is surprising is how far Abbott went, after all, how can his faith not dictate his politics?
For starters, and apart from the vainly political, why would Abbott want to separate his religion and his politics? If he believes Catholicism offers a true and useful doctrine, isn’t that something he should seek to inject into his politics? Isn’t finding something that works and then trying to impart it to others precisely what leaders do? Isn’t that what Jesus did? Isn’t that what Peter did? Shouldn’t it be a fundamental part of Abbott’s governance? I am not advocating the establishment of a theocracy, but if religion offers nothing of value to the decision making of the leader of a country, what use is it exactly?
Carrying on from that point, how is it even possible for someone to cast aside their religion? As far as I am aware, Abbott is a life long Catholic, and has at least been one since his school years. As a result, and at the very least, Catholicism has played a pivotal role in Abbott’s formation and education. He undoubtedly would have read his bible often, would have been surrounded by like minded people (I am not going to go into the whole Santamaria issue), and would have attended Sunday School. At the very minimum, by now Catholicism and it’s teachings are a bedrock of Abbott’s psychology. Just like the multitude of other little things people learn as children, or pick up unconsciously from our society and our parents, it will play a fundamental (if unconscious) role in his decision making process. Just as an extreme example look at the different ways the individual is treated by people from different religions – e.g. almost venerated by many Christians, and given considerably less importance by many Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. After this long, Abbott’s religion plays a considerable role in his world view, and this in turn will play a considerable role in his decision making.
But there is also the conflict between the conscious teachings and doctrine of Catholicism, and the rest of the world. For example the doctrine of the Catholic Church prohibits abortion, contraception and even stem cell research. A major tenet of Catholicism is also social justice. What will Prime Minister Abbott do if experts arrive at the conclusion that Australia should invest more in contraception and stem cell research, and adopt economic policies that are more disadvantageous to the poor but will help the economy overall? Does he completely ignore a belief system that he has held on to for the majority of his life? Does he temper the suggestions of the experts with some of his own beliefs? Either way his Catholicism is affecting his politics (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this scenario).
What this all boils down to is that religion is a major aspect of the psychology of a genuine believer – especially a long time believer. It is not something that can be put aside so easily. Even if a person was somehow able to put aside all the conscious teachings of their religion and look at a problem “objectively”, there is a mountain of unconscious information that also affects decision making. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I just don’t see how a person can stop their faith dictating their politics.