Prime Minister Scott Morrison has criticised “the growing tendency to commodify human beings through identity politics”. In what some described as a “Menzian moment”, he has set out his vision of individuals, community and society in a speech (click here to read it) for the United Israel Appeal NSW donor dinner.
Eternity asked several Christian commentators to take up the important themes raised by the PM of identity and community – but not necessarily respond to the PM directly.
What the PM said.
Here are a couple of key passages from the Prime Minister’s speech.
“At the heart of our Judeo-Christian heritage are two words. Human dignity. Everything else flows from this.”
“Seeing the inherent dignity of all human beings is the foundation of morality. It makes us more capable of love and compassion, of selflessness and forgiveness.”
“Because if you see the dignity and worth of another person, another human being, the beating heart in front of you, you’re less likely to disrespect them, insult or show contempt or hatred for them, or seek to cancel them, as is becoming the fashion these days.”
“To realise true community we must first appreciate each individual human being matters.” – Scott Morrison
In common with speeches to Christian Community leaders in Canberra in February and, more recently, to the Australian Christian Churches pastor’s conference, Morrison quotes the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of London on the idea of “the covenant of community” and the importance of faith to attain personal morality.
He builds on Sacks to argue individuals are the building block of society rather than group identity, so individual responsibility and morality are key.
“Now together and individually we are each responsible for building and sustaining community, and we each have something unique to bring. Because community begins with the individual, not the state, not the marketplace. It begins with an appreciation of the unique dignity of each human being. It recognises that each individual has something to offer and that failure to appreciate and realise this, as a community, means our community is poorer and it is weaker.”
“In short, to realise true community we must first appreciate each individual human being matters. You matter. You, individually.”
“And in this context I would also argue we must protect against those forces that would undermine that in community. I don’t just mean, as I’ve recently remarked, the social and moral corrosion caused by the misuse of social media, and the abuse that occurs there. But I would say it also includes the growing tendency to commodify human beings through identity politics.”
Kurt Mahlburg: Scott Morrison Defends the West
Kurt Mahlburg is a Sydney-based Christian commentator and author. We’ll start with him outlining the PM’s argument.
“You are more than the things that others try to identify you by, in this age of identity politics. You are more than your gender, your race, your ethnicity, your religion, your language group, your age.”
These were the words of Australian PM Scott Morrison at a recent fundraising address (video). Speaking at the United Israel Appeal dinner in Randwick, NSW, Morrison weighed into controversial waters in what may be one of his defining speeches as Australia’s Prime Minister.
That such words can be considered controversial today is itself an indictment on the cultural malaise of the West. Until recently, the vast majority of Westerners agreed with the iconic words of Martin Luther King, Jr.— that true progress and civility means judging people by the content of their character, not fixed and unchosen attributes such as skin colour.
But in this “age of identity politics”, as he dubbed it, ScoMo is among the many who have noted an increasing abandonment of this Western liberal value. Postmodern ‘identitarianism’—or ‘wokeness’, as many now colloquially call it—is “the growing tendency to commodify human beings through identity politics”, according to Morrison.
He filled out this definition further: When we reduce ourselves to a collection of attributes, or divide ourselves, even worse, on this basis, we can lose sight of who we actually are as individual human beings — in all our complexity, in all our wholeness and in all our wonder.
In making these remarks, Morrison had his Jewish audience specifically in mind: Throughout history, we’ve seen what happens when people are defined solely by the group they belong to, or an attribute they have, or an identity they possess. The Jewish community understands that better than any in the world.
“Most of what ScoMo said was a series of obvious truisms we all agreed upon five minutes ago.” – Kurt Mahlburg
It must be acknowledged that, for many, so much of today’s “identity politics” stems from a sincere desire to see historic injustices addressed, and once-marginalised communities flourish. This explains why it isn’t just secular, postmodern or Marxist ideologues — but Christians too — who have been seduced by the brave new creed of identity politics.
But in truth, this creed is not new at all, nor is it virtuous. With its increasing demonisation of anyone with traditional sexual values, European heritage, with ‘XY’ chromosomes, or a biblically-informed Christian faith, it has more in common with far-right identitarianism and the frightful regimes of last century, than the liberal democracies you and I grew up in.
Scott Morrison was not afraid to say so. But his speech was not, for the most part, a critique of identity politics; rather an affirmation of the Western values that are worth preserving: At the heart of our Judeo-Christian heritage are two words: human dignity. Everything else flows from this … If you see the dignity and worth of another person, another human being, the beating heart in front of you, you’re less likely to disrespect them, insult or show contempt or hatred for them, or seek to cancel them, as is becoming the fashion these days.
Outlining the indispensable role of the Judeo-Christian faith, Morrison went on: True faith and religion is about confronting your own frailties. It’s about understanding your own and our humanity. The result of that is a humble heart, not a pious or judgemental one …
Human dignity is foundational to our freedom. It restrains government, it restrains our own actions and our own behaviour because we act for others and not ourselves, as you indeed do here this evening. That is the essence of morality …
Liberty is not borne of the state but rests with the individual, for whom morality must be a personal responsibility.
Scott Morrison’s speech should be of particular interest to fellow Christians — people who are convinced that “there is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:11), and who practice the biblical injunction to “regard no one according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16) since we all bear the image of God.
Doubtless, Morrison will have his critics on both sides of the aisle. A good case can be made that the Prime Minister has already conceded too much ground to identity politics by failing to abolish Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act or the oft-weaponised Human Rights Commission; or by failing to oppose the tireless publicly-funded identitarianism of the ABC; or by failing to put forward a bill to protect religious freedom.
Others will denounce Morrison’s speech as a series of partisan pot-shots in the inglorious ‘culture wars’. To the latter, I recommend watching his speech in full before criticising what you have not heard.
In truth, most of what ScoMo said was a series of obvious truisms we all agreed upon five minutes ago. If we can’t continue to agree on them, we have more problems than a PM with opinions we don’t like.
Kurt Mahlburg is the Research and Features Editor at the Canberra Declaration, and the author of Cross and Culture: Can Jesus Save the West? He has a passion for both the philosophical and the personal, drawing on his background as a graduate architect, a primary school teacher, a missionary, and a young adults pastor.
Tim Costello: I defended the PM but he needs to take care
Tim Costello is Director of Ethical Voice, Executive Director of Micah Australia, and Senior Fellow for Centre for Public Christianity
[Chief Political Correspondent for Sydney Morning Herald and The Age] David Crowe rang me last Friday to comment on Scott Morrison’s speech to an Australian Jewish audience.
The PM quoted extensively from the book Morality by the late Rabbi Jonathon Sacks and, as I had read it, I offered my comments. I agree with Rabbi Sacks and the PM that basing identity in race, gender or sexuality is divisive. I agree with the PM naming social media as driving wedges and inflaming tribal mentality that claims one’s own victimhood, names others and tries to cancel them. But being right in principle is always dangerous if you then practice a touch of identity wedging yourself.
For example, the PM needs to avoid driving his own wedge by naming inner-city elites and saying that climate change will not be driven by them.
“It is the Common Good that we [should] strive to nourish.
In Morality, Sacks is reminding us that all carry the imago dei (the image of God) and, therefore, every human is included in the ‘us’.
For Sacks, ethics is about not ‘I’ but ‘we’. Never has this been more important in a time of vacci-nationalism or, as Kenyan leaders are calling it, ‘the global roll-out vaccine apartheid’. The rich nations with 10 per cent of the world’s population have 50 per cent of the total vaccines and 85 poor nations have 1.2 per ent of the vaccines.
So much of social media and re-tribalising is ‘othering’ and asserting somehow that other is different, scary and not really validly part of the Common Good. Ethics for Sacks is essentially preferring others and serving. Not serving liberalism’s sole source of sovereignty – the individual. Instead, it is the Common Good that we strive to nourish.
I have defended our PM in the SMH and Age, and on Sky TV, for praying and laying hands – but I added tht I hope he also lays hands and prays for refugees and asylum seekers and not just those here that vote. That is what I believe Jesus would do.
Kamal Weerakon: Identity politics as religion
Kamal Weerakoon is a Presbyterian minister and former NSW Presbyterian Moderator.
“Atheism is dead. The future belongs to the religious.” Seven years ago, I surprised a group of ministry leaders when I said that. I still believe it now. God exists. Atheism is therefore wrong, and unsatisfying, and unliveable.
Humanity is inescapably religious. We all worship something. The only question is – who or what do we worship?
“In this frightened, fractured, exhausted world, let us speak, and live, the gospel of Christ’s peace.” – Kamal Weerakoon
The sexual revolution installed sex as the dominant practical religion of the Western, ‘developed’ world. Through Freud and Kinsey, we learned to think of humans as essentially sexual beings, with sexual liberation as salvation, and sexual satisfaction as heaven.
But now, through Foucault (whom you’ve probably heard of) and Gramsci (whom you probably haven’t, but should find out about), we’ve ‘progressed’ to worshiping our ‘identity’ – whatever it is. The LGBT+ coalition has suffered a messy divorce, because lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities depend on the binary sexuality which transgender denies.
Nationalism is on the rise across the globe, with associated xenophobia – such as Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” against Mexico – and even allegations of genocide, such as allegations that China is attempting to systematically eradicate Muslim Uighur ethnic identity through forced sterilisation.
And just like any false god, worshiping our identity brings misery instead of wholeness. Identity politics are the new wars of religion.
(A lot …) longer than seven years ago, my Sunday School teachers taught me that Jesus is the answer. I still believe that today. Jesus really is God, and as God made flesh, he died and rose to reconcile the world to God. Therefore, worshiping him is right, and wholesome, and satisfying. And part of that satisfaction is to discover how Jesus integrates our sexuality, and our identities, in a right, wholesome, satisfying way.
I am a lifelong celibate single man. I find it deeply satisfying to worship Jesus with my sexual chastity. I am a proud Sinhalese, who worships a crucified and risen Jew as my God.
Atheism is dead. The future belongs to the religious. Identity politics are the new wars of religion. In this frightened, fractured, exhausted world, let us speak, and live, the gospel of Christ’s peace. And invite and urge everyone else to enjoy that peace with us.
Josh Dowton: Listen much more widely
Josh (Jack) Dowton is a Baptist pastor
We are, once again, talking about ‘identity politics’, this time due to remarks from Prime Minister Scott Morrison naming identity politics as one of the “forces that would undermine” the importance of both community and individuality.
So much has been said, and could be said, but I think there’s an opportunity in all of this to listen — and to ensure such listening is more than just waiting for a gap into which we can inject the same old tired arguments.
It’s quite possible that you’ve already heard a lot from white blokes.
If that is the case, perhaps take this opportunity to stop reading my words and go and seek out the perspectives of women. Seek out the perspectives of Aboriginal people. Seek out those voices that have either been ignored or deliberately silenced. You will no doubt gain much more from them than from anything I say here.
I don’t have much to say to groups of people whose lived experience has been of systemic inequality or oppression. That’s not my experience in life, so perhaps the best thing I can do (to steal a phrase from Miroslav Volf) is to “make room in myself for the other”, and to receive their perspective as a gift and as something from which I might learn. Perhaps then we might be able to work together — to embrace each other — and to start to demolish those dividing walls of hostility (and the obstacles that hinder genuine human flourishing).