One might wish that sex and religion be left out of politics as much as possible, but this has not been the case in Australia in recent times. Recall the same-sex marriage plebiscite and various state legislations and Education Department policies around transgender issues for school students. Consider the forthcoming religious liberty legislation promised by our Prime Minister and the furore over Israel Folau’s facebook posts about homosexuality and Folau’s subsequent dismissal from Rugby Australia. There is a lot of noise and controversy in the public square about sex and religion, but surprisingly little serious investigation into why sex and religion generate such heat as public issues.
Sex and religion are flash points for both the Progressive and Conservative convictions of Australians. Yet it would be a mistake to think that this maps onto party political binaries. In broad terms, our party politics is characterised by a pragmatic, secularist and functionally materialist centrism that is all about economics, security and flag waving national identity.
The left wing of this centrism (the ALP) tacks on some electorally safe progressive social agendas which are also largely conceded as socially normative by the centre right. The right wing of this centrism (the Coalition) tacks on some electorally safe anti-progressive social agendas which are also largely conceded as socially normative by the left.
Of course the Greens and One Nation are less centrist, and more decisively Progressive and Regressive. But typically speaking, Australian politics has little interest in anything genuinely Conservative. There are interesting reasons for this that we will explore below. Yet clearly sex and religion in the public square give Conservatives some oxygen, and this is what makes these issues fascinating windows onto a kind of politically repressed subconscious in the Australian psyche.
It may surprise you to learn that Plato’s most famous philosophical dialogue, The Republic, has a lot to say about sex and religion, and about Conservative and Progressive understandings thereof. The Republic is something of an Odyssean journey, in ten books, where the first five books set out on a voyage trying to construct various ideal cities in speech. Interestingly, the dialogue participants realise at the turning point (smack in the middle of the dialogue) that none of their supposedly ideal cities are remotely doable or desirable.
So the final five books more or less returns our Socratic Odysseus back home after a wild goose chase (like the Trojan war), with a much higher respect for the difficulties of trying to think about the just polity both philosophically and in any manner that can actually be applied. (People who accept Karl Popper’s characterization of the meaning of Plato’s Republic will not recognize my description here at all. This is not the place to go into it, but as a classics scholar I have my reasons for thinking Popper got Plato almost exactly wrong.)
Early in The Republic, Socrates identifies three reasons why political communities tend to support corruption and injustice: wealth, sex and relatives. Now the very heart of the Progressive idea is that we can do better (progress society) if we reform traditional and irrational customs by reason (philosophy) and in accordance with nature (science). So Socrates, in good Progressive form, imagines rational and natural solutions to these three problems. Remove personal wealth from those who rule, outlaw marriage, subtly mandate a eugenically controlled breeding program, raise children by ‘the state’, and thus make the partialities, privileges, superstitions and failings of traditional family ties obsolete.
This sort of radical reform should – so Socrates seems to imagine – make a truly just society possible. But Socrates is practical enough to recognize that he will need to reform civic religion as well if such radical progress is to be enacted. A noble lie must be told about the mythic origins of the ideal polity. Children must be fully indoctrinated in this noble lie by education. By such means the new citizen will be formed to believe that the distinctive ways of their ideal city (presumably imposed by force over the top of traditional customs) are unquestionably good and divine in origin.
That is, if you want to reform a society in accordance with reason and nature, you have to re-create the norms that govern wealth, sex, the family, education, and civic religion… and you will need sophisticated skills in surveillance, propaganda, and applied force to do this.
Nomos – the Greek word for customary law – cannot be left as it is by the Progressive reformer. It is worth noting here that the first great Western proponent of conserving nomos (this, actually, is what constitutes a Conservative) is Aristophanes. The brilliant Athenian playwright was staunchly opposed to progressive reform. To Aristophanes, nomos embodied insights that logic and science simply could not grasp. Equally, logic and science only fragmented society because they are unable to establish any decisive truths about the first-order unifiers of any society, and thus they turn politics into a dirty power game with no ultimate purpose.
Aristophanes’ play Clouds lampoons Socrates as someone who disturbed the traditional order of the good society with his new science, his strange theology, his tricky arguing, and his fundamental questions. This play was not uninfluential in the eventual trail and execution of Socrates. But it is important to note that Plato had the highest regard for both Aristophanes and Socrates.
Plato’s work dialogues a staunchly conservative conception of nomos as sacred, with first-order Socratic questioning. Plato’s corpus makes it abundantly clear that he has no truck with the sophists (Progressives) of his day, who amply demonstrated a merely logical and reductively scientific disregard for the divinely un-mappable deep things of tradition. And yet, nomos is not in itself final. For Plato, there is a transcendent reality that gives nomos its life, and which is the true measure of where nomos itself is poetically right and wrong. Here Plato is very much with Socrates.
Progressives really don’t like nomos. Nomos itself is culturally ‘organic’ and includes traditional religious piety, the established power structures and operational norms of families and community authority, and conventions and manners generally. Such things are all beneath the sophisticated reasoning and scientific musings of the Progressive social reformer. To improve society, nomos must be made firmly subservient to philosophy and science. Yet Plato’s Socrates (in The Republic) finds that when he tries to imagine what an ideal rational and natural society would be like it is so incompatible with normal human values and meanings as to be, at best, a farce. Take sex, for example.
The thing that is distinctively human about human sexuality is its embedding in nomos (i.e. marriage, family, religion). If you try and treat human sexuality and familial structures only according to reason or nature, then the actual human texture of sexuality becomes unrecognizable. We do not ‘do’ sex like dogs. It is not simply a natural instinctive behaviour. And we do not ‘do’ sex like calculating scientists or industrialists — the rational breeding of humans, the monetizing of sex, and the professionalized rational rearing of children are all erotic distortions and profoundly relationally abusive.
You cannot instinctively ‘downgrade’ human eros to the level of a non-culturally situated animal. Neither can you rationally or instrumentally ‘upgrade’ human eros by state controlled eugenics, or via any financialized logic. But – coming back to the present – both this downgrading and this upgrading is precisely what Progressive reformers of traditional family norms aspire to.
The 1960s liberation of sexuality from the long standing cultural norms of (in our culture) Christian marriage, celebrated human sexuality as a merely natural, instinctive and hedonistic matter. Yet trying to pretend that it is simply natural and enlightened to be promiscuous, adulterous and experimental – provided, of course, you are responsible about not getting pregnant or passing STDs around – is, frankly, wishful thinking. Such behaviour is emotionally destructive and relationally damaging because we are not simply dogs or frogs.
In former Eastern-block countries, rationally upgraded child rearing was heavily imposed. The state – in long day care – would look after your children as soon as they were weened so that women could be equals with men as productive economic contributors to society, and get back to work. In this way children could be properly formed in the state ideology from the cradle. And, of course, we know about eugenics. In the early 20th century it was a policy truism, based on good eugenic science, that Australian Aborigines as a racially backward sub-group were going to die out, so that is why we took ‘half-casts’ (who, because they were partly White, might survive if they were incorporated into White Australia) from their families. Nazi human breeding, sterilization and extermination programs also horrifyingly illustrate where this ‘upgrading’ Progressive approach to human sexuality can take us.
By pointing out the ‘rational’ and ‘natural’ horrors that Progressive sexual reform agendas can be guilty of, I do not mean to imply that traditional nomoi should never be reformed. Indeed, it is a feature of nomos that it is not static, but undergoes change over time such that a great variety of specific nomoi result in different human societies, reflecting different traditions, meaning narratives, family structures and social organizations. But these are strangely organic norms, strangely divinely given norms, at the same time as being definitely cultural and poetically crafted.
Nomos defies any strict reduction to mere nature, or any clear justification in pure calculative reason. Human eros needs its grounding in nomos to be human so we can postulate radical social engineering projects that progress sexuality, but these will be destructive if they are just the product of logic and nature. Yet, as Socrates notes, education (the formation of the young in the desired civic mythos, as determined by the reformers) is the most important social engineering tool for Progressive reform.
If you have been educated in Australian since the 1960s, you will have been taught that reason and nature are opposed to the Western and Christian social, sexual and religious traditions that largely defined the respectable nomos of Conservative Australian society up until the 1960s. After the progressive sexual revolution we have now powered out of the regressive and oppressive customary roles and values of our past, though there can be no complacency as all those backward, irrational and anti-natural customs still seem to reside in the dark cultural underbelly of Australian life. Thus our education is vigilantly progressive.
The song our education institutions sing in a thousand subtle and a hundred explicit melodies, is that Progressive reform is good for us, and traditional Christian Conservativism is a bane. I am not making this up. Not only was I educated in Australia after the 1960s, but I have spent all my adult life being a secondary school teacher and a university academic, so I am very familiar with the strongly Progressive reform agendas of our education institutions.
Further, since the 1980s, we have had a political culture of relentless economic reform such that the very idea of preserving anything traditional is deemed obviously nostalgic, regressive and doomed. And, of course, consumerism has come on in leaps and bounds, resulting in what Shoshana Zuboff describes as surveillance capitalism, where google and facebook algorithmically form us to be motivated by the purely ‘natural’ primal drivers of fear and greed, 24/7.
Recreating humanity with powerful mass surveillance and influence IT tools priming our fears and desires in order to harvest our finances on one hand, and a progressive education reform agenda on the other hand, means that traditional nomos is pretty well pushed under in the swift and powerful currents of a very pragmatic and materialist liquid modernity. Conservatives – those trying to preserve their humanity as embedded in any form of traditional nomos – are drowning in the flood and feel unable to replicate their Conservative values and beliefs in their own children.
This is where sex and religion in Australian politics come in. On most matters of sexual liberalism, the ALP and the Coalition are pretty well on the same page. On most matters that concern the secular isolation of religion to the realm of private belief totally separated from pragmatic econometric public life, it is hard to distinguish between the Coalition and the ALP. On most matters of global, growth oriented economic reform, the Coalition and the ALP are pretty well on the same page.
On most matters of environment, immigration and foreign policy, despite the rhetoric, it is very hard to see any substantive policy differences in our ‘two’ political power blocks. On matters of education, Progressive State Education Departments govern all child-forming educational institutions, regardless of who is in power. So actually, politics itself has almost no direct interest in the manner in which more traditional nomos oriented Conservatives feel their very way of life is being suffocated, ostracised and eroded. But these unheard concerns come to the surface in any legislation concerned with sex and religion.
So sex and religion in Australia are not really about sex and religion. They are about the passage of relentlessly reforming rational and naturalistic Progress, replacing the old religiously inflected traditional Nomos. Conservativism is not actually politically represented in Australia, so Conservatives tend to rally around special interest lobby groups concerned chiefly with sex and religion.
The Coalition may look ‘conservative’ in comparison with an explicitly progressive ALP or Green party, but the differences are largely cosmetic, rather than substantive. Politics itself is relentlessly reforming, relentlessly social engineering, relentlessly tied to the ‘rational’ and ‘naturalistic’ game of Pubic Relations crafted electoral success, at the expense of any substantive commitment to traditional nomos.
Sex and religion matter in Australian politics because they are almost the only places where Conservative concerns gain some sort of public visibility in our polity. But one would be mistaken if one thought that only fundamentalist white male Christians are Conservatives. Anyone who respects nomos – be they Catholic, Islamic, Pentecostal, Indigenous, or Atheist – is going to be troubled by the relentless Progressive reform pressure being continuously applied to the human fabric of Australian society. And there are two pretty simple sociological reasons for this concern: anomia and the iron cage of instrumental rationality.
Nomos is breaking down, leaving people deeply disorientated about the meaning of their existence, and their role, vocation and station in life. Sociologists call this anomia, and it is a function of setting consumer society up to be uncompromisingly individualistic and competitively self-seeking. And then the rational management of human affairs produces the massive impersonal bureaucracies and policy machinery of the modern state, and the entirely instrumental commercial superpowers of the mass media IT and communications world. This crushes the human spirit that needs the organic, transcendently open framework of meaning that reason, science and technology cannot give us.
Conservatives with any religious faith tend to hold that the divine Logos has breathed life into the traditional nomos – however subject to human frailty, contingent distortion, and sinful corruption nomos genuinely is – such that religion and right social order should maintain some sort of natural linkages. This was true in Australia up until the 1970s. But 1965 to 1975 was the decade in which the Baby Boomers left the main-line churches in their droves. Before James Bond, sex and religion were organically embedded in a Christian nomos in mainstream Australia.
But the triumph of Progressive attitudes to ‘reason’ and ‘nature’, to the displacement of any traditional culturally embedded attitudes to transcendence, also came into its own in the 1970s via our universities and education departments. So the culturally Christian nomos of a tacitly moral realist transcendently overshadowed understanding of right and wrong and of the common good has more or less evaporated from our mainstream politics. But this does not mean that we have no Conservatives any more in the Australian polity, though it does mean that Conservatives have no political representation. Hence, sex and religion are now public issues of astonishing heat but very little light.
Actually, sex and religion are not really about sex and religion. They are about the displacement of a Conservative regard for nomos in the Australian polity and the resultant anomia and spirit crushing implications of that displacement. The anxiety, sense of loss in high meaning horizons, and perplexed uncertainty about what a transcendently referenced common good could actually now be, fuels the drive for our politicians to find enemies external to our Progressive pragmatic materialism on which to pin this deep spiritual insecurity.
Could it be that wealth, security and national identity policy agendas are actually means of bypassing the anomic and soul destroying dynamics of Progressive mainstream in both political party blocks? Maybe (reactively) Conservativism exerts a larger subliminal force on Australian politics than we are prepared to acknowledge?
Sex and religion in public discourse generate more heat than light because it is only in this context that we can even mis-recognise nomos as a real feature of the Australian polity. But sex and religion are not nomos itself (the mistake of ‘Conservative’ lobby groups). For our public discourse mis-recognizes sex and religion too. Sex as a merely natural or contractually and self-determinedly rational ‘thing’ that we can legislate about, and religion as discretely subjective personal beliefs, neatly isolated from public norms and common meanings that we can legislatively protect, are not the sex and religion of nomos. In reality, we have subjugated Nomos to the reforming Progressive principles of Secular Reason, Materialist Nature and Pragmatic Power, and this subjugation now defines Australia’s political, educational and commercial environments. We have almost lost the ability to identify anything of nomos by its Conservative names. Progressives may rejoice in this but perhaps Plato is right. Perhaps the divine aspects of nomoscannot be reduced to the progressive reform agendas of merely rational and naturalistic reason. And perhaps, contra Popper, the liberal pragmatic materialist reformation of society is not going to produce freedom, but rather a soul-crushing, technologically-enabled tyranny the likes of which we have never seen before.
Sex and religion in the public square in Australia are but the twin visible tips of the nomos iceberg. There are very significant matters about the meaning of being human and the nature of political life that lie underneath that visible surface. Whether we can even speak of nomos anymore will determine if we can articulate why sex and religion themselves are politically important to us. If the progressive reform in Australian society has been so effective as to render nomos itself unsayable, then it has passed out of political deliberation, and all we will be left with is warring factional interest groups pressuring our politicians to construct laws to suit their own relational and meaning constructs. Whether speech and deliberative politics for the common good itself would be meaningful under such circumstances does not seem self-evident to me.
Dr Paul Tyson is a Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. E firstname.lastname@example.org