Manipulation not the answer in the PR stakes

Simon Smart's thoughts on Fred Nile's attempts to block the Ethics classes in NSW Public Schools

Last year ABC’s Gruen Transfer cast its eye over a series of religious advertising campaigns to see who was selling the spiritual message most successfully. The Jesus all about life campaign of the Bible Society received a tick for its focus on ‘Jesus’—the best thing Christians have going for them. Leo Burnett’s Todd Sampson suggested that this was a clever way of getting around any associations with the church, which, he noted, was on the nose.

If Sampson is right, Christianity’s efforts to improve the PR stakes won’t have been helped by Fred Nile’s manoeuvres this week. Rev Nile has been out and about selling his message, defending the place of Scripture in schools, by opposing the teaching of Ethics classes in the same time slot. And it seems he’s prepared to hold a gun to Barry O’Farrell’s head to do it, threatening to use upper house votes to jettison the government’s public service wages legislation if O’Farrell doesn’t fall into line and remove the Ethics class option.

At the very least, manipulating the government into a retreat from a pre-election promise isn’t a good look. Nor is it ‘good’.

Dr Simon Longstaff, head of the St James Ethics Centre, the organisation responsible for developing the Ethics course now in place in NSW government schools, is bewildered by Nile’s approach. “I sincerely wonder what tenets of Christianity the Reverend Nile draws on when bargaining with the interests of children or when asking the Premier to break his word?” says Longstaff.

But Longstaff is not the only one to find this episode troubling. Fred Nile’s determination to shut down the Ethics program has caused many Christians to wince with embarrassment. And while the Anglicans and Catholics recently withdrew their opposition to the Ethics alternative, the whole saga has had the stench of a turf war and power struggle.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that those who have argued so heatedly against Ethics classes are hankering nostalgically for a time that is long past, where Christianity held a privileged position and was to some degree wedded to power. But while secularists are no doubt glad that Christendom is no more, it might also be that believers can be grateful for the change. Historically, the mixing of religion and power has not been a happy experience. For those who claim to follow a man nailed to a Roman cross, it ought to be a discordant experience.

Theologian George Lindbeck says Christianity is now in an “awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but not yet clearly disestablished.” That makes things complex in negotiating the place of religion in public life.

The current issue centres on fairness and the reasonable acceptance of people of a variety of spiritual beliefs and none. I am personally very glad that Scripture classes take place in our public schools. I hope they continue and I also hope that the churches manage to do these classes so well that students won’t want to miss them. But I also recognise that Special Religious Education currently in place in NSW is a privilege (and a function of our history) and not a right.

My own kids attend Scripture classes at the local state primary school and, so far, the experience has been a happy one for them. Not so for the kids whose parents, for whatever reason, don’t want them to attend. They are asked to sit in the library, gym or classroom colouring in, bored out of their brains for the duration of the lessons. It’s obvious why parents of these children would gladly welcome a more constructive use of the time. Holding a course that encourages critical thinking and contemplation of the difference between right and wrong is surely preferable to what we have now.

Fred Nile’s extreme lengths to achieve his ends seem to imply that Christianity’s viability in the public sphere has to rely on coercion rather than persuasion, manipulation rather than commendation. But it’s an insecure and fearful faith that feels the need to block another’s view from gaining a public airing. Christianity, if it is true, ought to be robust enough to stand up to scrutiny, criticism, and competition, even persecution. It always has. In fact, it’s usually done far better from a position outside the power structures than from within them. The Christian message need not be promoted by bully tactics and coercion. Indeed, it must not be.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity