The fall of Barnaby Joyce, the jovial head of the National Party and deputy prime minister, has been a kick in the guts for Australia’s social conservatives.
Mr Joyce, or just Barnaby, was a knock-about bloke with a big smile, a larrikin who became an unlikely but tough leader. His wife Natalie and their four daughters were an attractive plus for his supporters. He opposed same-sex marriage in the recent debate.
But earlier this month he was outed. After separating from his wife late last year, the public learned that he was going to have a child with a former staffer. His credibility in shreds, shunned by the prime minister, savaged in the media, he had to relinquish his posts and retire to the back bench.
As Paul Kelly, one of Australia’s most insightful and respected journalists, observed, this was not just Barnaby’s train wreck; it had given “another blow to the decaying fortress of Australian conservatism”. In a mournful jeremiad he predicted a dismal future for social conservatives:
Conservatives these days excel at drum-beating, making a lot of noise, writing a lot of articles and losing every substantial battle. They are fragmented, intellectually confused and strategically inept. Much of the nation is still conservative in its instincts but this constituency is denied inspiring or effective leadership.
Conservatives lost the issue of same-sex marriage. They are likely to lose the issue of religious freedom. They are losing the battle over legalising euthanasia. On almost every front from climate change to coal to gender politics to Western civilisation heritage, they are on the defensive.
Too pessimistic? Kelly has lots of company. Many other conservatives feel the same way – and with some reason. The state of Victoria decriminalised abortion in 2008 and legalised euthanasia last year. There is immense pressure on other states to follow Victoria’s lead. Same-sex marriage was legalised last year nationally and activists already have its opponents in their cross-hairs as supplementary legislation is framed.
But is the gloom justifiable? Will the darkness of Sauron spread over the land, turning everywhere into Mordor, not just Victoria?
In the short term, sadly, the answer could be Yes. There will be legislative defeats. But this should be a chance for conservatives to reflect on why they and their children find themselves in this predicament and how to make a cultural comeback.
Without passing judgement on Barnaby, his headlong tumble from mountaintop to mire is a mirror to the conservative malaise. Over the course of decades, conservatives have lost sight of the fact that moral and social values are not tribal slogans. They ought to be lifeblood pulsing through the beating hearts of individual lives. Values without convictions are houses built on sand. For the most part, these convictions were religious. And when loyalty to God and the Christian message declined, so did eagerness to defend the convictions.
In the past century, the Popes have been standard-bearers for the traditional values of Western civilisation with their exhortations and personal leadership – even for many non-Catholics. Consistency between convictions and values, devotion and behaviour, has been the message of Pope Francis from the first day of his pontificate.
So it’s interesting to refer back to a moment when dark forces of Mordor really were spreading over the earth – the beginning of World War II. Pius XII was elected a few months before the invasion of Poland and released an encyclical, “Darkness Over the Land”, a few weeks later in which he dissected the totalitarian appeal of Nazism. It was already clear that this would be a devastating conflict in which millions would die.
In many points there are interesting parallels with the situation in 2018 with respect to traditional Christian values. The difference between then and now is that dechristianisation has accelerated. In 1939, the Pope could rely upon convention and habit as a breakwater against the surge of anti-Christian thought:
We fully admit that these erroneous principles of speculation (ie, Nazi totalitarianism) do not always or universally exercise the baneful influence on morals which might be expected of them. The habit of Christian living handed down by their ancestors through the centuries has shaped the fashion of men’s minds and struck deeper roots in them than they knew.
Today, however, after another three generations, the breakwater has crumbled under heavy seas. Christians failed to learn the lesson offered them by the rise of Nazism. Without deep personal Christian convictions, we are defenceless against government-sponsored morality and the encroachment of the state upon the family – two of the major themes of “Darkness Over the Land”. So the first step to clawback is to be a good Christian in private if you want good Christian values in public.
Having said that, the opponents of traditional values also have serious weaknesses. These should temper the temptation to despair and surrender.
The first is demographic. A comparison of a map of fertility rates in Sydney with a map of the results of the recent plebiscite on same-sex marriage is very revealing. The inner-city electorates which voted heavily Yes have the lowest fertility rates – 1.4 or lower. The western and southwestern electorates where people voted overwhelmingly No have the highest – 2.2 or higher. It may take a generation, but the numbers are stacked against supporters of a vision of life which does not support families and traditional values. The ageing of the Australian population will put relentless pressure on the “childless by choice” vision of the future.
The second is the public’s lukewarm attachment to causes like abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. A vote for Yes is not necessarily a resounding endorsement. In the United States, support for abortion on demand is slowly waning. Euthanasia is easily sold in a dechristianised society, but in countries like the Netherlands and Belgium there is already evidence of buyer’s remorse.
Activists for same-sex marriage are making ambitious plans for transforming education which could backfire badly. Most people voted for same-sex marriage as an expression of fairness and tolerance – not because they liked it – and they will resent unfairness and intolerance to keep it in place.
The third is that cultural dominance is unstable and unpredictable. A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the weaknesses of the internet Titans Facebook, Google and Amazon. “Companies dominant today won’t be dominant a decade or two from now. That’s the lesson of history.”
Like the forces behind progressive morality, these companies are vulnerable to technological disruption and unpredictable government intervention. Don’t-Be-Evil Google has even become the biggest corporate lobbyist in Washington.
Just as moral conservatives were blindsided by the speed and strength of moral change over the past 20 years, the wind can change for progressives as well. And there are plenty of small but promising signs of a revival of traditional values among Millennials, from religious groups to doctors supporting conscientious objection. Sometimes the bad guys fall fast – just ask ISIS.
Finally, abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage are gravity-defying causes. In the long run, they will be found to be expensive government-funded social experiments in solipsism. They put individual satisfaction ahead of duties to society. Furthermore, since they violate the natural order of things, the natural law, they are unsustainable. Maintaining them will become ever more expensive, complex and unjust.
Take same-sex marriage. Since gay couples are infertile, commercial surrogacy will have to be legalised leading to the exploitation of poor women. Since same-sex marriages will never have the prestige of genuine man-woman unions, children will be force-fed with a gay-friendly syllabus. Since the children of same-sex marriage will normally be IVF children, this will help drive a market for designer babies which will unsettle other social norms.
The natural law, by the way, is not a Christian concept, although Christians saw it as an expression of the Decalogue. One of the best definitions comes from Cicero (106BC-43BC):
There is indeed a law, right reason, which is in accordance with nature; existing in all, unchangeable, eternal … Neither the people or the senate can absolve from it. It is not one thing at Rome, and another thing at Athens: one thing to-day, and another thing tomorrow; but it is eternal and immutable for all nations and for all time.
Legislation which defies the natural law can flourish for a while, but eventually support for it will wither.
So, should Australians fall into despair because a prominent social conservative politician fell short of his own ideals?
No. Disappointment at recent setbacks is understandable, but it gives moral conservatives an opportunity for some healthy introspection. In the long term, gloom is unwarranted. The idols of individualism and sexual licence will collapse under the weight of their own evil.
At the height of the Battle of Britain, in one of his radio broadcasts, Winston Churchill recited these verses from a Victorian poet which helped to stiffen the resolve of the beleaguered British:
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!
Similarly, the battle for the heart of Australia will last a generation or more. It can be won. It will be won. But it's no job for surrender monkeys.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.