Two recent incidents involving Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should raise questions for Christian voters about what kind of leader he is and how he will use his powers and prerogatives if re-elected as Prime Minister of Australia in less than a fortnight.
Last week, Malcolm Turnbull expressed his regrets at the invitation of Shady Al Suleiman, Head of the National Imams Council to his Iftar dinner held last Thursday – following revelations of the sheikh making statements against homosexuality in a YouTube video published three years ago.
In his message, Suleiman spoke of “terrible diseases” coming as a result of sexual activity between unclean and clean people and suggested that homosexuality spread such diseases. He criticised the identification of homosexuality with freedom and suggested that homosexual sex is an “evil action that brings evil outcomes to our society.”
Turnbull had every right to distance himself from such comments, question their factuality and disagree with the perspective that they are coming from. But his condemnation of Suleiman’s remarks, accompanied by his suggestion he would not have been invited for what he said deserve serious attention. Because what seems to be going on here is the Prime Minister determining who’s a legitimate representative of a religious community and who isn’t. Suleiman’s position means he indisputably represents a wide range of Sunni Muslims in Australia. The council of which he is president is responsible for selecting the Grand Mufti of Australia!
I have a problem with this because the Prime Minister is equivocating on whether or not he is getting involved in adjudicating matters of theology. I’m also concerned because it isn’t hard to see him and his successors doing similar things, in relation to the positions of other religious leaders or groups (on this issue or others).
Pontification and Equivocation
Turnbull is guilty of equivocation on his interference with religious/theological matters for the following three reasons (taken together as a package).
a) He condemned a fairly standard Islamic view of homosexuality and painted it as unacceptable and unAustralian.
b) He made his own statements about God, godliness and love as a religious value
c) He told broadcaster Neil Mitchell he didn’t “want to buy into a theological debate” when asked if this was symptomatic of a wider problem within Islam.
Looking at them in order:
a) The Prime Minister is free to reject or criticise any tenet of Islam he finds unpalatable, just as he is free to deny or question elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism or any other religion. But all Australians of faith should be concerned when the leader of our country uses his political leverage to adjudicate moral or theological issues that relate to a religion or faith tradition he has no part in.
The PM’s comments appear to me to be a denunciation of the Sheik’s views on homosexuality, which imply that they are not acceptable for any religious leader to hold. The problem is that homosexuality is not viewed positively by Islam in general and many Muslims would agree that it is “evil”, harms society and is worthy of punishment. If the sheik’s views are not representative of the widespread sentiment in his community, it is a matter for the Muslims of Australia to replace him as President of the National Council of Imams. But if they are representative, Malcolm Turnbull is in dangerous territory when his comments or actions imply that a non-Muslim like him can adjudicate who is an authentic Muslim and who isn’t and associate only with the representatives that get the Malcolm tick of approval.
This concerns me, because it could be applied to any religious community on any issue. As a Christian, I don’t want the Prime Minister telling me who accurately represents my faith in the public sphere and which views are acceptable or unacceptable for me to hold as a Christian. I want to make those decisions for myself and wear the consequences that may go along with them.
It also concerns me with respect to the issue at hand. Because, while I hope Christian leaders would be more careful and nuanced than the sheik was when commenting about homosexuality – some of the statements he made were in line with biblical teaching. Biblically faithful Christians would agree that homosexual sex is “evil” (though we may use other words to describe it); the promotion of it is connected to a distorted notion of freedom; promotion of homosexuality has a harmful effect on society and as a sinful practice it warrants divine punishment. [Although the assertion that homosexuality is spreading all the terrifying sexually transmitted diseases in society should be challenged on medical and ethical grounds, sexual promiscuity of all kinds – heterosexual and homosexual – certainly does result in horrid infections and illnesses]. Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies was invited to the iftar (which was apparently designed to be a multi-faith event) and one wonders if someone like him, with a biblical perspective on sexuality, would also be excluded under a more probing Malcolm-test?
b) Malcolm Turnbull made his own religiously charged statement when he said:
“At the foundation of our success is mutual respect and as I said last night, at the core of that mutual respect is love, love for our fellow humanity.That is when we are closest to God. That is the most godly thing, is love and that is, that is the foundation of that mutual respect – a love for our fellow man and woman.”
To be “godly” has no meaning when isolated from a religious context. Turnbull seems to be saying that loving respect lies at the heart of both what it means to be a good, civic-minded Australian and what it means to be “godly.” When someone “loves” and “respects” their fellow humans (such as members of the LGBTI and Islamic communities) they’re quintessentially Aussie and godly according to the PM. Turnbull is in line with theological and social liberalism in making this nebulous and vacuous concept of what “love” and “respect” mean into a moral and social absolute. He isn’t saying he’s not religious at this point, he’s pontificating. Muslims, Christians and whoever else need to accept his theologically liberal notion of loving others – even if that means a denial of other moral precepts and obligations that come from their religious texts or traditions.
c) Thus, when Neil Mitchell asked Mr Turnbull about whether there was a wider problem with Islam that Muslims needed to address in relation to these issues, the PM is equivocating when he says he doesn’t want to buy into a theological debate. The PM is happy to marginalise and deny the validity of Islamic voices* that are opposed to homosexual practice. They’re homophobic and they don’t deserve a place at the table with other Muslim leaders. He’s happy to say what he thinks is the most important religious quality for all people to possess: the liberal version of love. So claiming that he wants to stay clear of theological debates is either inconsistent or dishonest.
The second issue we’d do well to take note of is how Mr Turnbull handled the question of abortion on Q&A last night.
Brisbane medical student Ashley Leong asked the PM the following question:
“Twenty seven babies aged five months gestation or more survived late term abortions in Queensland hospitals last year: the highest number of survivals following attempted terminations in 10 years. But each of these 27 babies were not rendered care and allowed to die. As a medical student, who has seen many deliveries and loving care of premature babies, nothing is quite as horrifying as letting a baby perish in a clinic. Is it not the federal government’s onus to protect all citizens, especially those who cannot speak for themselves?”
Turnbull asked for clarification, appeared somewhat concerned by the question, but effectively fobbed responsibility off to the Qld State Government. While this response was predictable, it highlights the fact that the Prime Minister is not prepared to act on such a serious issue as Australian babies being left to die in hospital rooms. Mr Turnbull did describe the cases as “shocking”, but was not prepared to make any commitments or take any action.
While it is true that the QLD government bears full responsibility for the law related to abortion in this state, the federal government is an accomplice to the murder of these innocent children if it provides any Medicare funding for such procedures. But Mr Turnbull confessed he lacked awareness of the issue and the legal arrangements in Queensland, while steering clear of the issue itself, along with any commitments to investigate or act. He seems content to lead a government that is ignorant or apathetic when it comes to whether or not they bankrolled the deaths of these 27 children.
Thus, we have a leader who pontificates on religious and moral issues when it suits him; equivocates on his willingness to participate in debates on such issues when it suits him and evades any commitment to investigate or act in relation to a serious ethical and social issue (with theological implications) like abortion when it suits him.
While self-imposed restraints on length will prevent me from looking at Mr Shorten on these same kinds of issues in this post, I will say this: I’m concerned by the fact that whether Mr Turnbull or Mr Shorten becomes PM on July 2, we’ll have a leader that’s prepared to throw their weight around when it comes to issues like freedom of religion and state-sanctioned sexual morality, but who is silent, limp, indifferent or even malevolent when it comes to the rights of the most vulnerable group in Australia.
*Please note that I do not in any way support the statements or beliefs of Sheik Suleiman as a preacher of Islam. I am merely questioning the right of the Prime Minister to decide who is a proper representative of a particular religious community.
 DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, visiting the Pentagon on 18 January 2016.CC BY 2.0