Dogma down under II


The more one looks at the literature put out by Australia’s upstart Family First Party, the less adequate our treatment of the party thus far appears. Go to the website and read the FFP’s positions and the reasoning behind them. The party is having to defend itself against charges that it is the political arm of the Assemblies of God church. A vote for Family First, opponents warn, is a vote for fundamentalist Protestantism.

In a country with church attendance as low as Australia’s (somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 percent of Australians bother to go every week) such charges are likely to either cut into the FFP’s vote totals in this election or damage the party’s ability to grow down the line. Family First replies by saying that there’s nothing about its platform that is particularly sectarian. Sure, Assemblies of God parishioners make up a good chunk of its base, but the goals of the party are shared by a lot of non-AOG Australians, say Family First flacks.

But after reading through the party’s literature, I believe them. That is, the assumptions and the type of reasoning on display don’t strike me as having originated in Assemblies of God seminaries or pulpits. Rather, the point of view seemed both more familiar and older. A few commentators have called the party’s thinking on the role of government “nuanced,” but that’s putting it too vaguely. If there was enough time before the election, I’d urge enterprising Australian reporters to look into the influence of Catholic social thought on Family First.

The party’s announced positions on individual issues (against pornography, drugs, more gambling, etc.) are important but the party represents itself as the advocate of a particular philosophical approach that goes beyond the normal divisions of left and right. Against the individualism espoused by everyone from John Locke to, well, me, Family First argues that the family, as the basic building block of society, should be elevated in law to have greater standing than the rights of individuals. This sounds an awful lot like the position of lay Catholic theologian Mark Shea, to pick a name out of the hat. Note that when Shea argues that the family is of paramount importance and should be so treated, he’s speaking from within an old and well-developed tradition.

Family First’s approach to the size and reach of government is based on the idea of “subsidiarity” — that governance should be done at the smallest possible level: first the family, then the local community, etc. Again, this is straight out of Catholic social teaching. It’s possible that the party just stumbled upon these positions but I doubt it. Assuming the FFP doesn’t implode Saturday, I’d encourage Australian religion writers to get to it.

[A footnote: Also, the party's logo resembles the pope's hat.]

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  • Ken

    The Trappist monastery in Ava, Ms. used to host (and may still do so) a retreat from the Assemblies college in Springfield. The question I have is what the FFP party will do if get an influx of Catholics.

    Also, while I generally agree with Mark Shea, I think he sometimes touts the nuclear family – mom,pop, and the kids. That form of family needs “embedding” in a larger community – the extended family, the tribe, whatever. The breakdown of the nuclear family tracks pretty well with increased mobility which has separated extended families. Does the nuclear family possess all the resources needed to survive with only 2 generations and 2 authority persons?

  • Will Linden

    PLEASE, that is “flacks” who are making claims. Not “flak”, as in what you get from Joe Perez.

    And one might ask, if they are “fundamentalist Protestants”, why their logo looks like a mitre, heh,heh.

  • Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    Shea’s a lay theologian? I thought he was a blogger.

    Also, without saying anything about FF or whatever, and certainly nothing against families(I’m a member of one, myself), I would say that calling the family the “basic building block of society” is arguable at best and just kind of weak at worst. As a lay theologian, I’d say it’s also oddly utilitarian, and at odds with much of scripture; as a lay historian, I’d say it’s non-sensical and ahistorical; as a lay citizen, I’d say it just ain’t democratic.

  • Andy Crouch

    1) Re: the logo looking like a mitre, boy, it sure does. Fascinating.

    2) It’s “subsidiarity,” not “subsidiary.”

    3) I echo Jeff’s comments–I don’t understand why Mark Shea is the name that comes out of the hat. There are plenty of substantive Catholic scholars (call them “lay theologians” if you like) who write about subsidiarity and the family–Mary Ann Glendon comes to mind. Of course Mary Ann Glendon doesn’t have a blog… but I suspect her views on family and subsidiarity are quite a bit more “nuanced,” and helpful, than either Family First’s or Mark Shea’s.

  • Jeremy Lott

    Fixed the subsidiarity problem. I don’t get the objection to the use of Mark Shea as an example. Were there other examples I could have used? Sure. But he’s a popular Catholic writer who’s made rather a lot of the old idea that society should be organized around the family, not the individual.

  • Mark Shea

    Yikes! When did I get promoted to “theologian”? The things that happen when I’m napping! I’d better ask for a raise.

  • Ken

    “Catholic Apologist” is probably a better term for Mark Shea than theologian. He is more than a blogger, having published some books and regular columns here and there.

  • David Palmer

    Well, I have just cast my vote in the Australian Federal election – I have voted Australian Democratic Party (which will get about 1% of the vote), second preference to Family First which may get 2, 3% and 3rd preference to John Howard’s Liberals and that’s the vote that will count.

    In Australia according to the last Church Life survey (2001) 9% Australians go to church on a weekly basis, not 15%. Catholics and Uniting Church continue in sharp decline whereas conservative Protestant groups including Pentecostals, Sydney Diocese Anglicans, Baptists and Presbyterians (those that didn’t go into the Uniting Church) are enjoying increasing attendances.

    I would rate Family First a pentecostal party who have cleverly latched onto the defence of the family, a subject achieving some traction here in opposition to the relentless march of the homosex lobby, that is, up until the successful passage through Parliament of the Marriage Amendment Act, enshrining marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” into the Australian Marriage Act.

    I have written a report on this matter, also on a recent religious vilification case and general comments on the Australian church scene for the magazine Touchstone, the December issue I believe.

    For the record I am a Presbyterian minister and recommend both Touchstone and their excellent blog site, ‘Mere Comments’.

    David Palmer

  • David Palmer


    I voted Christian Democratic Party, not Australian Democratic Party, which would have been a bad choice for it is a pro choice, pro euthenasis, pro homosex party!

    David Palmer

  • Will Linden

    “Subsidiarity” as described here is also a key aspect of thought in the Christian Reconstruction movement, which scares liberals into gibbering fits. (The state should not interfere in what belongs to the church or the family; the church should not interfere in what belongs to the family or the individual…)

  • James Fulford

    The Party’s logo looks like the Pope’s hat? It does, somewhat, but only because Australia does, in silhouette.

  • David Palmer

    Well, Mr Howard and his conservative coalition have achieved a stunning win in the Australian Federal election, increasing their majority and I was wrong about where my vote would end up. It in fact stopped with the Family First candidate who it appears highly likely will be confirmed as a Senator in the State of Victoria.