Religious Influence and Religious Toleration

Russell Blackford on a new kerfuffle in New South Wales.

As I write these words in February 2023, there’s a state election on its way in my neck of the woods. New South Wales, Australia’s largest state by population, goes to the polls on 25 March, which means that the outcome will be known by the time this article is published. Reading this in the future (from my perspective), you, dear reader, know more about that than I can now.

State-level politics has heated up in recent times, and one issue has been the possible introduction of cashless gambling cards for use with the poker machines (gaming machines), that provide much of the revenue relied upon by NSW pubs and clubs. There’s strong support for the idea from the anti-gambling lobby and much resistance from the clubs and their peak representative body, ClubsNSW. We’ve seen forthright support for cashless cards from religious organisations such as the Salvation Army, the Wesley Mission, and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The state premier (as I write), Dominic Perrottet, is a strong supporter of the idea while also being known as a devout Roman Catholic. Inevitably, this combination of circumstances raises suspicions of religious influence on politics in NSW.

That said, there are two arguments for cashless gambling cards that need have nothing to do with religious opposition to gambling, or more specifically with the idea that gambling is sinful. First, there are the obvious paternalist arguments, especially given that poker machines are widely believed to be psychologically addictive – and indeed, that they are addictive by design. The idea is that cashless cards will help gamblers to control the extent of their losses when they feed money into these hungry machines. Second, there is now evidence of the proceeds of organised crime being laundered on a large scale – of the order of billions of dollars – through gambling on poker machines. Whatever his private considerations might be, Perrottet has relied in public on these two arguments. Liberal theorists often look askance at paternalism as a basis for law reform and public policy, but these two arguments have the merit of not appealing to any specifically religious or otherwise esoteric moral system.

The plot thickened in late January when the CEO of ClubsNSW, Josh Landis, made a comment to a journalist that Perrottet was, in fact, instinctually motivated by his religious beliefs and feelings. Inglis was quoted as stating: “I think it’s fair to say that the premier has very little understanding of this issue and has acted from his conservative Catholic gut, rather than based on evidence.” Given what then happened, Landis might have kept out of trouble if he'd omitted the “conservative Catholic gut” part and said something like: “I think the premier has very little understanding of this issue and is not acting on the basis of evidence.”

All right, but what, exactly, is wrong with expressing the belief or suspicion that a powerful political figure is motivated by religion?

We immediately saw calls for Landis to resign or be fired. One influential independent politician, lower-house member Alex Greenwich, stated that it was time for Landis to go. The Opposition leader, Chris Minns, called on Landis to resign. Perrottet insisted that his view was not informed by his Catholicism. He also made the extraordinary claim that Landis’s comment was “incredibly inappropriate and offensive to people of faith” across New South Wales and “an attack on every single person of faith in our state” – but again, how exactly was that the case?

First, what is meant by the word inappropriate here? There does not seem to be any element of incongruity or irrelevance to Landis’s remark. It seems to be adapted to the political circumstances. If Landis actually believed or suspected that Perrottet was motivated by religion, why not say so? The dangers of public policy being shaped by religious considerations, as has often happened in the past, are, I submit, considerable. It seems to me quite appropriate for such suspicions to be aired whenever they fairly arise, even at the risk that they will sometimes turn out to be unwarranted.

Furthermore, what exactly is offensive about Landis’s remarks? What do they say about “people of faith” that might reasonably cause them to take offence? Landis did no more than suggest that Perrottet was motivated by religious beliefs and feelings in developing his policy view on a particular issue. Whether or not that was true, it is well known that politicians really are motivated in many cases by religious beliefs and feelings. Does anyone seriously deny this? Indeed, we often see attempts by religious philosophers, legal scholars, and others to defend the right of politicians and electors to act in the political sphere on the basis of their religious beliefs and feelings. We are told that there is something unjust, or simply wrong, about demanding that religious people confine themselves purely to secular considerations when deliberating about political issues. Given that religious motivation often intrudes into politics, and is even defended by numerous Christian thinkers in particular, why is it beyond the pale to identify what might be a specific example?

Perhaps then, Landis could be interpreted as conveying that many religious people – i.e., not only Perrottet – bring religious beliefs and feelings into politics, but if so, that is simply true. It cannot reasonably be viewed as offensive to imply or convey such a claim, and it is hardly an attack on anyone, let alone on every religious person in New South Wales. The language used by Perrottet, Minns, and Greenwich is thus hyperbolic, ill-considered, and illiberal. It constitutes an attempt to close the range of legitimate political speech.

Perrottet went even further, justifying himself by claiming - perhaps correctly - that people in NSW live in “a tolerant state, a tolerant country”, but then adding the non sequitur that therefore “there is no place for comments like that in a modern Australia.” But again, why not? Modern Australia is a secular country, and we might think that such a country would, if anything, be vigilant about trying to keep religious beliefs and feelings out of political deliberation. Even if this sometimes leads to airing false suspicions about the motives of political leaders, that is a low price to pay for secular government.

Furthermore, no intolerance is involved, or at least no intolerance of an impermissible kind and degree. To tolerate something is to show significant or total forbearance toward it even while objecting to it in some way. Many people might object to Catholic doctrine, or to some other religion, or to religion more generally, while exercising considerable forbearance. That is, indeed, largely the case in NSW and in Australia more generally. Many Australians may have objections to Perrottet’s particular religion, but no one has suggested that he be punished or censored for his Catholicism. No one in Australia is being tortured, burned at the stake, beheaded, thrown in a dungeon, made the target of a modern-day Albigensian Crusade, or otherwise harmed for being a conservative Catholic or any other sort of Catholic.

To be sure, Muslims are a religious group who cop a certain amount of bigotry and discrimination in Australia: for example, we sometimes hear of restaurants that advertise a “no-Muslims” policy. That does, indeed, seem clearly unacceptable in a modern Australia, and to the extent that it falls through a loophole in our extensive network of anti-discrimination laws, it needs to be addressed.

But even in the case of Muslims, where suspicion of a religious demographic is at its highest and most troubling, there is much forbearance from the majority of Australian citizens. Most of my compatriots probably believe that Islam’s core supernatural claims are false, that some of its moral teachings are overly strict or otherwise wrongheaded, and perhaps even that its traditions and texts are open to dangerous interpretations. Despite thinking those things, the majority seem to be happy enough to get along with their Muslim neighbours and to accept that most Muslims in the country are peaceful, well-intentioned citizens in good standing – just like most Catholics, most Sikhs, most Buddhists, most New Age hippies, most atheists, and so on. This manifests a general spirit of toleration, but one that’s completely consistent with an awareness that some, perhaps many, Muslims are influenced by religious beliefs and feelings when they take part as politicians or electors in the formation of law and policy. Why deny what is obvious to all, and why claim that stating the bleeding obvious is offensive?

Landis made no suggestion that Perrottet or anyone else should be punished, censored, or otherwise harmed for his religion. Obviously his remark did presume and imply that some religious people are motivated in their political judgements by religious beliefs and feelings, but that is simply true. Perhaps Landis was wrong about Perrottet in particular (but read on!), yet he said nothing politically illegitimate or plausibly intolerant.

And yet, we saw calls from politicians for Landis to lose his livelihood over his comment on this topic. On the same day that his comment was published, Landis was forced to make a grovelling apology to Perrottet. Worse, he was then – within a matter of hours – fired by the board of his organisation. And yet that same board referred to his years of “exemplary service”, so the issue was apparently not a record of poor workplace performance, with this somehow being the last straw.

Of course, none of this demonstrates that Landis is an agreeable bloke to get along with or that we should feel sorry for him. Maybe he’s wealthy enough to ride it out – I have no idea. Nor does it demonstrate that he’s been advocating a wise policy in publicly opposing cashless gambling cards, or even that he was correct about Perrottet’s specific motivations. Conceivably, Perrottet really was motivated solely by a kind of paternalism that could also motivate other people, including atheists, and by the hot-button contemporary issue of money laundering. That would make Landis incorrect, and Perrottet would be within his rights to say so, but it would not place his comment beyond the pale of toleration, such that there is no place for it “in a modern Australia”.

More generally, politicians need to have thick skins and to accept that their motivations will be subjected to harsh kinds of speculation and questioning. When they try to stifle this, including destruction of individuals’ careers, it’s a sinister development. Thus, Perrottet, Minns, and Greenwich have all performed ingloriously during this kerfuffle.

As a final twist, Perrottet made a public comment only a week later, admitting that he’d been thinking about it and had concluded that he had in fact been influenced by his religious faith: “The more I thought about it, I was wrong.” To be fair, the influence he admitted was arguably legitimate, even in politics. As he expressed it, it’s more that Catholicism leans toward paternalism to what it regards as vulnerable people, rather than that gambling is forbidden by God or that it detracts from spiritual salvation in an afterlife. Still, Landis actually may have been right to some extent: Perrottet’s attitude may be partly an instinctual or gut-level antipathy to gambling, and this may, in part, be influenced by his religious upbringing.

Whether or not that’s so, and whether it’s philosophically defensible for a political leader to be motivated in that way, religious influence on politics does exist, and to say the least, this is a controversial phenomenon in a modern secular nation such as Australia. There is nothing impermissibly intolerant about acknowledging religious influence on politics, or even opposing it. It looks like Landis is out of a job for no good reason.

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Russell Blackford is conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and deputy editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is At the Dawn of a Great Transition: The Question of Radical Enhancement.