The Australian Option: Indifference

With Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option on everyone’s reading list (including mine) I think it’s worth pointing out that the USA could benefit from hearing a little about the Australian secular experience of the past fifty years or so.

When my mate Damo and I first planted Providence Church in the strongly working class area of Perth where we live, the overwhelming sense we got from people was not hostility towards the gospel, nor was it interest.  No, the overwhelming response was indifference.

Huge indifference. Not simply to questions of Christianity, but to spiritual stuff in general. We walked street after street, door-knocked lots of places asking where people what people thought about spiritual stuff, keeping it as light as a Coopers Premium Light. Overall response?  Indifference.

And that’s not to say it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a thing.  Here in one of the more struggling areas of Perth, in which many of the houses were run down, where many of the people looked run down, who had, over the years, settled into an almost resigned acceptance of a hard grind, indifference was the order of the day.

Often we walked away from chatting with someone – when we got to chat with someone – and wondered, “What is so good about your life trajectory that Jesus wouldn’t be better?”

I raise this because Dreher quotes a former US politician who has left the political arena proper to work hard on what famed Czech dissident turned President, Vaclav Havel (one of my intellectual heroes), labelled “antipolitical politics”.  The politician in question, former Republican Kansas legislature veteran, Lance Kinzer, now works to thicken up the mediating institution, the Christian community, with which he is involved.

And Kinzer makes this telling comment:

“The big challenge, especially for Evangelicals who have always believed that there was some sort of silent majority with them, is to come to terms with the fact that this is just not true. This is difficult, this is disorienting. Internalising the fact that that is not the case is difficult, is disorienting to a lot of people.”

Perhaps my cynical side would add that unless American evangelicals experience it then it hasn’t been experienced by an evangelical.  But for Australians in particular, and here in Western Australia, this fact of having no silent majority with us is neither difficult nor disorienting.

Traditionally evangelicalism in Australia never considered that the silent majority was with it – ever. Indeed, until most recently, evangelicalism of the Australian stripe had a streak of fundamentalism to it; a separatist movement if ever there were one.  From my experience this fascination with our role in the public square has been a more recent phenomenon.  And it’s at odds with how the general secular culture still operates.

This was driven home to me during the recent Western Australian state election in which five of the conservative Christians within the Liberal Party lost their seats in an electoral wipe out for the conservatives.  There was a narrative that somehow this bloc with the Liberals had tapped into a social conservatism in our state that was worried about the big ethical issues and the post-Christian frame.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Most West Australians are worried about paying their mortgage, looking after their families in a fractured culture, and getting a good holiday once in a while.  Same as it ever was.

Kinzer is getting at the fact that when religious issues came up in the legislatures of America, and were shot down, there was no great outcry from most people.  The silent majority was silent for a reason.  But we could have told him to relax a little.  The USA silent majority had become like the Australian silent majority; indifferent to religious issues and concerned primarily with economic ones in which they had a vested interest.

Yet now, and with supremely ironic timing, at the very time the wider culture is even less bounded to an unspoken and unrealised Christian substructure, the local Christian political framework here in Oz seems to be lamenting a role in the culture it never had in the first place.

In other words, as we read Dreher, let’s not be fooled into thinking the US situation is the exact same as the Australian one.  And for that matter, perhaps the USA could learn from Australia what it means for the wider society to have a deep indifference towards its agenda.

Yet there appears to be an attempt by some in the Australian scene to back engineer an alignment with evangelical thinking, or at least strong Christian frameworks, in Australia that simply wasn’t there, thereby aligning us, incorrectly, with the US experience.  The mistake is then to push forward into a future in which we have lost a cultural traction that we never had in the first place.

This is true of both sides of politics.  An effort was made by several on the Left when John Howard was Prime Minister to paint him as hostage to murky religious forces on the Right of politics, notably the Exclusive Brethren, a subject that led to a few books being written with all of the breathless conspiracy that the words “exclusive” and “brethren” raise.

But if you’d have any dealings with the Exclusive Brethren you will know they are complete separatists whose political influence and desire for the same is so marginal as to be non-existent. Any bloke who can’t eat a meal in front of you because you don’t belong will hardly be lining up to shape public policy with you.  The Exclusives don’t do public apart from being noticed by their scarves, denim and hair.

Meanwhile I grew up in an Australia in the 70s in which virtually no one from my school went to church.  Ever. Not once.  For anything. They were not hostile. They were not curious.  They just did not care. Now perhaps you live in the expensive suburbs of Sydney and everyone did, but your Australian experience is not the general Australian experience.

And that lack of curiosity continued right through high school, where one of the few public shamings I experienced was when someone said “At least I don’t go to church like you do McAlpine!” I blushed beetroot red, before realising that no one gave a tinker’s cuss one way or the other, or else viewed me as an oddity in much the way we view an exotic animal at the zoo. I used to sneak off to the Christian prayer group at school with the other three who would turn up.  The term to describe us was not “fomenters of fundamentalism”, but “lamos”.

What will the US look like in thirty years time for an evangelical?  Perhaps Dreher is right and it will be completely awful.  But perhaps it will look like what it has looked like in Australia; a group of people on the margins who were not despised, were not influential, were not considered a threat to the culture, but just weren’t considered.  And that may be no bad thing. It may be difficult now.  It may be disorienting for a while.  But it will not be disastrous, and it may just be a little bit humbling, which will be no bad thing.

My advice? If you’re Australian and your’re going to read Dreher, then hold his book in one hand and in the other hand have Mark Sayers’ Disappearing Church.  It’s a good prism through which to refract the light of the US experience.

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