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Gillard and the Politics of Faith

Julia Gillard seems to be bound not only as the first female Prime Minister of Australia, but also to be the first unmarried Prime Minister who publicly declared herself as a nonreligious person. In many countries, gender, status, and religion always become hot issues in politics, but Ms. Gillard seems to have broken all those taboos. She is a woman, unmarried, and nonbeliever.

While the first two issues might no longer be a taboo in the Western politics, the status of religion is still a crucial issue. We can’t forget how Barack Obama’s religion was strongly questioned during his presidential campaign. He had to make sure to the American public that he is neither an atheist nor a Muslim. Religion does matter in the United States.

In matter of religion and politics, Australia seems to follow suit the European style rather than the United States. Although some Australians were caught by surprise when Ms. Gillard announced her conviction in ABC Radio last week (30/6), the general view seems to be with her side.

A website polling conducted by The Australian last week might tell us the situation there. Two days after Gillard’s statement, the polling revealed that out of 17,310 respondents 65,57% of them do not care about Gillard’s faith. Only 34,43% said that they are concerned about Gillard’s lack of religious faith.

There are indeed some concerns expressed by church leaders on the issue. Christian communities are surely not happy with Gillard’s public statement. Peter Ziebell, a Lutheran Pastor, said that the revelation was bad news for Australia. “If you are a leader of a country and you say you don’t believe in God you can’t expect God to bless the country,” he said. However, he admitted that he would not urge his followers to vote against her, as he preferred that religion shouldn’t be mixed with politics (The Chronicle , 01/07).

Australians seem to have been matured enough in the issue of religion and politics. They are more concerned with Ms. Gillard’s performance than her faith. After all, the new Prime Minister has declared that despite her disbelief of God, she is a great respecter of religions. She admitted that she grew up in the Christian church and had once won catechism for being able to memorize Bible verses.

I am truly excited by the issue, not only that it could change the landscape of Australian politics, particularly with regards to the issue of state-religion relationship, but also revealed how people, particularly religious communities, react against this unfavorable situation. In many Asian countries, including Indonesia, religion is absolutely a crucial issue. None of the politicians would dare to touch its sanctity.

What is important from Gillard’s audacious step is that she helped us to see things clearly. Firstly, it is important to be honest and it is likewise important to show up your principle. Disbelief in God does not necessarily make a person immoral. You can still respect people and respect religious symbols while you are an atheist.

Atheism is still a controversial issue, even in the liberal Western countries. Politicians tend to hide their belief than to show it publicly, particularly if their belief is different from the majority of people. People could accept differences in ideology or political party but they could hardly accept differences in religion.

In the United States, for example, a presidential candidate would face difficulties if he or she is a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. Even a Catholic is barely accepted in that predominantly Protestant country. Likewise, in Indonesia, although the constitution allows non-Muslims to become the head of the state, it is unlikely that a Christian or a Hindu could become a president.

The problem with the politics of faith is that people tend to be hypocritical to their own principle and insincere to others. As people could not accept who you are, it is natural that you would hide what you believe (or disbelieve) from them. At worst, you would show them something you don’t believe. The problem is if someone is encouraged to be hypocritical in a very sacred issue, he or she will easily do the same thing in other matters.

Secondly, what we could obviously learn from Ms. Gillard’s case is that faith or religion has less –if nothing at all– to do with one’s performance or behavior. Morality can be based on secular principles and non-theistic philosophy. Religion is not the only source for morality. People used to relate goodness with religion and evilness with atheism. If you are an atheist then you are an evil man.

Religion as such is good. The highest ethical formulations could be found in religious teachings. Religion will remain good as long as it stays in the ethical domain. What makes religion often looks bad is its determination to enter the unholy domain such as politics.

History has given us a lot of lessons. The politicization of religion is not only bad for politics, but it is also bad for religion. There are many good religious leaders who suddenly turned bad once they enter politics. People actually want to see their religion holy. One way to keep it holy is to let it stay away from politics.

This is perhaps a long way to go for Indonesian politics. But, we have just learnt a very good lesson from our Australian neighbor.

Luthfi Assyaukanie is the founder of OurIndonesia. This article is originally published in the Jakarta Post.