Christianity in Public Life: A Conversation with John Anderson, Australian Statesman

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

John Anderson is the former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. He served almost 20 years in the Australian Parliament, including 6 years as Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party of Australia from 1999–2005. He is a Reformed Evangelical Anglican, well-known during his time in parliament and his long tenure in Australian public life for his Christian faith. He is now an esteemed elder statesman in Australia. His commentary is, even now, sought out. He has recently published on topics such as civic freedom, global food security, modern slavery, and the economy. He currently farms on his family’s sixth-generation farm while being active through various directorships, through public speaking, and his involvement in the nonprofit sector. John Anderson, welcome to Thinking in Public.


MOHLER: John, it’s an honor to have this conversation with you today, and I’d like to begin by asking you to describe your country, its culture, its Christian heritage, because I think a lot of American evangelicals in particular aren’t really certain about how Christianity came to be in Australia and the profile of Christianity in Australia today.

ANDERSON: Where do I start? Same size as the continental United States in terms of geographic land mass but only 24 million people; settled after independence here in America as a penal colony but also for Britain to fly its flag on the great south land that they knew was down there. Then Captain Cook explored after the Dutch had found the west coast very much in its early days as a penal colony, so the old saying is it was settled by the British, it was given an economy by the Scots, and the Irish did the work (many of them being convicts, frankly). It inherited its democracy. It didn’t fight for it the way so many other cultures did. That was a great blessing in one way; in another way, maybe we’ve never quite appreciated it enough. It was really the work of the evangelicals involved in the anti-slave trade that saw to it that there was an early Christian witness in Australia. They made sure that there was an evangelical chaplain—a chaplain first, but then it was evangelical—with bibles sent out with the first fleet. Interestingly, the orders involved included the injunction that there would be no slaves kept in the new colony. It grew over time. It was very much a series of colonies until an act of British Parliament in 1900 made it a nation, a federated nation, like America. And indeed, it remained very much an English outpost, I suppose you could say, until the time of the Second World War. Interestingly, this year’s the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, the turning point of the Pacific War. It was during that time that Australia started to see America as being the dominant global player, the one that was going to be very important for security in the Pacific and in Asia, at that stage just to win the war and keep Australia safe from invasion. McArthur, of course, based himself there during the war. The church scene’s somewhere between America and Europe, I suppose you’d say, probably tending slightly towards Europe. But I would say the best of our Christian leadership’s absolutely outstanding, even if the tale is a bit longer than I’d like it to be.

MOHLER: My understanding of Australia is that as a nation it not only did not, as you so well said, have to fight for democracy, it really never experienced anything akin to the First and Second Great Awakenings in the United States, and it seems like that’s a critical point of distinction between the two cultures religiously.

ANDERSON: I think that’s right. There are people in Australia who write stories about revivals, but when you get into them, it’ll be a coal mining town somewhere that had an infusion of people from Wales or whatever, but there are high points for all of that. No Great Awakening that I could really put my finger on. Nonetheless, a solid, particularly in Sydney, strong witness from the most very early days from an outstanding Anglican theological college. A free country, too, in the sense that you know it’s always good for ideas and beliefs to operate in a free environment where people can compete and, you know, a sort of spiritual version of capitalism I suppose. Often the best ideas do rise to the surface, so I’d say you’ve always had a strong leadership, even if it hasn’t been large, for those who have wanted to go and hear good preaching, know what they are talking about, be well and truly discipled so to speak. It’s been there, just not as widespread as it is, for example, in America.

MOHLER: You mentioned particularly in Sydney. It also, it seems to me, makes a great deal of difference where you are in Australia. Now, by the way, it does in the United States as well. For instance, our Pacific Northwest was never really evangelized or congregationalized, and—for most of American history—has been the most secular part and, by no coincidence, is also morally and culturally the most progressive or liberal part of the country. I do know that Sydney’s distinctive. How did that come to happen?

ANDERSON: I think it goes back to settlement. This is why history is so important. What did Churchill say? Any culture that doesn’t hand on to its children an understanding of its religious beliefs and its heroes is saying that that history’s null and void and no use, thus leaving young people open to the dictates of Karl Marx that of people who do not know the history are easily led. History’s important. The background to it really is to be found in the Great Evangelical Awakening is an irony. So no Great Awakening in Australia, per se, but we were the beneficiaries of it just as we were of inheriting democracy, and what have you. So you have that whole age of the Clapham Sect through into the Shaffer era, what have you, influencing Australia very strongly, so there was a very sound theological college set up, which has kept the Anglican Church in Sydney very clearly focused on biblical teachings. But you also had that play out to the country’s enormous benefit as things like humane labor laws were established in Britain, they flowed through Australia, understandings of democracy. When we were federated, our House of Representatives, which I was in for 19 years, was very closely modeled on the British House of Commons, but we looked to America for the Senate. Our Senate is precisely modeled on yours. We were the beneficiaries of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears spilled in Britain and, to some extent, in this country. And we’ve been the great beneficiaries of it ever since, even though as a proud Australian I’d say we’ve pulled our weight in many ways in international affairs at the same time.

MOHLER: Now Australia as a nation really came onto the world scene in a big way after the Second World War, just in terms of, first of all your federation took place back in 1900. But where does Australia fit now in terms of the world picture? What’s Australia’s role in the world?

ANDERSON: That’s a good question. I can’t help as someone who has an interest in history just making the point about the Second World War. I think it was Woodrow Wilson in Paris, after the war, talked about, I speak on behalf of however many Americans there were at the time, but our Prime Minister, Billy Hughes at the time, said I speak on behalf of 60,000 dead, which was double the American casualty rate in that horrendous war, because we’d been deeply immersed in that. Funny enough, in the Second World War, we were only engaged in two really turning point, inflection moments in the war. Where do we fit now? Look, a mid-range, first-world (I suppose you’d say) country of the West but not in it, very high immigration population numbers, a changing sort of mix of people; I think watching, with no little concern, how global events are unfolding, very conscious of—there’s no other way to put it—relative and absolute decline of Europe because, in many ways, we’re still a European democracy and what have you; and still, I think very closely, ally to this country and seeing our future particularly in Asia as being closely tied to how unfolding events are handled out of Washington and by the Americans. Because you’re wrong in Asia since the Second World War, well, first in securing the peace but then in taking it forward has been really remarkable. It’s very easy for progressives and people who don’t teach history or teach it very badly in our universities to gloss over great realities. The nobility of this nation and the Marshall plan under Truman, at a time when you couldn’t afford it financially, was extraordinary, and Europe owes its existence today, I think, to what happened then. The big-heartedness and generosity of spirit and wisdom of McArthur, who doesn’t always enjoy a good press in Australia for his handling of some of the war issues’ sort of progression. In relation to what he did in Japan, it’s been unbelievably important to the peace and security we’ve enjoyed since. So, there we are—of the West but not in it—in a strategic part of the world that’s important, not just to us, but to all of us who want peace in the world. And I hope good contributors. But look, let me be frank, I have to say this, you know there’s a bit of a rule in Australia: you don’t talk about your own country when you’re out of it. But like every other Western country, we’re very uncertain of who we are, what we believe in, what it’s going to look like for the next generations. And if I can put it this way, the cultural malaise that I would say we’ve experienced since the ‘60s with the build up of radical individualism—it’s all about me, I must have everything—has been reflective of a loss of commitment to the two Great Commandments, even as that was observed more in books than in reality, has, I believe, left us in a precarious financial situation. Debt, as one of your forefathers pointed out, is enslavement. And that’s the West’s problem. We are so deeply in debt, and that threatens everything.

MOHLER: In the West, there seems to be something of a pendulum move, a temptation, between pessimism or optimism. So the declinists about the West have been famous ever since the 19th century, yet on the other hand at the turning point of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Union, you had thinkers like Francis Fukuyama who wrote about the end of history and suggested against the declinists that actually the rise of the West, the influence of the West, globally was inevitable. Neither one of those predictions has turned out to be very true. What does the world look like from Australia, just in terms of the influence of the West?

ANDERSON: It depends an awful lot of whether you listen to what people say and what they do, in one sense. I say that because it always amazes me that the minute they get the chance, young Australians, where do they travel to? Europe, particularly Britain, the minute they get to, hundreds of thousands of them. But we talk the talk increasingly as though we’re a part of Asia. I’m afraid the real answer to your question is confusion. Nobody seems to know what they think anymore. But the clearest thinkers say, look, we should believe in our own country, we really ought to. We should not succumb to this self-loathing that so much of the left participates in and with which it’s managed to swap much of the mindset that is carried forth in our Universities. We ought to be prepared to go back and say, why is it, for example, that so many other people from other cultures want to come to us if we are so terrible? What is it that attracts them to participate in our liberal democracies? I use that in the classic sense of liberal, indeed the Australian sense. That points to something greater and more noble. What an honor it is that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, we’re told, was charged with the responsibility to work out how the West, mainly led by a little set of islands, foggy islands, off the West coast of Europe, eclipsed China which was by far the greater bulk of global size, power, and economic strength 500 years ago. How did it happen? And they came back and said, first we thought perhaps it was bigger guns, then we thought perhaps it was capitalism, then we thought it was democracy, but now we understand, no, it was Christianity, the emphasis on recognizing the worth and the dignity of every individual. The rule of law arises out of that. As one American put it, we’re so good we had to give ourselves the vote, we’re so bad we had to give ourselves the vote. We need to recapture that. We need to, I think, reinvigorate, and I believe that very profoundly. Because I don’t think we should let go of the freedoms that we have enjoyed, taken for granted. They had their roots in something. We need to re-till the soil before it’s too late.

MOHLER: There is no decoupling of geopolitical issues and worldview issues, but my first concern is the worldview dimension of this. The West is not merely a civilization, it’s a set of ideas as is the case of every civilization. And in the West, uniquely in the West, you had a set of ideas that included human dignity, human liberty, and an understanding of what it meant to be a human being in society that simply hasn’t emerged in any other culture. And so even from other cultures where intellectuals have spoken in these terms, they have spoken to the West. The reality is there isn’t really much of an alternative. For the people who say they believe in human dignity and human rights, there is no other civilization that has actually offered any grounding of those moral goods except what has been found in the West, and that West entirely attributable to its Christian inheritance.

ANDERSON: Well, you’re reinforcing my own prejudices. I said to a young man the other day who’s been educated in the school where he’d been exposed to clear Christian thinking, he’s ten years out, he’s been through medical school through the university system in Australia, he said oh you’re talking absolute nonsense. Every religion promotes the idea of the worth and dignity of every individual. And I said, “Well show me.” So he goes to his iPad and Googles a religion, I won’t mention which one, and care for individuals. I said, “Goodness me. You trained as a doctor. I’m not going to play doctor for myself on the internet. Talk to people who really know what they’re talking about, because you can’t find it anywhere else, and it’s unique, and it’s wonderful.” And I have to admit I think it’s staggering that people want to destroy it and walk away from it. And perhaps it finds its ultimate expression to me, as someone who has been in public life for a long time, that we don’t even care enough about our own kids and our own grandchildren to say, hey we better recapture a bit of this, we better end this theft of our children and grandchildren’s cultural and economic future. It’s very selfish of us. See this is what we’ve done, we’ve gone back to default as human beings, it seems to me, in the West. We’ve gone back to saying it’s all about me in this age of identity politics and of victimhood. It doesn’t work. We’re going to throw everything away if we’re not careful. I think it was the English historian Toynbee who wrote toward the end of his working life in the 1970s that of the 20–plus world civilizations he had studied, all of them had, in the end, failed as a result of internal decay, not external takeover. Are we really going to eat ourselves out from within?

MOHLER: Well that remains to be seen, I think. But I also want to come back to a point you made. There are those who try to argue that these worldview commitments distinctive to Christianity don’t matter or that they’re universal. But the interesting thing is that the isolated thinkers, for instance—let me just put it this way, in Islam the Islamic figures who say the things that Western liberals want them to say cannot say those things except in the West. In other words, they cannot say them from Tehran or even really from Cairo; they can’t say them from Damascus or from Saudi Arabia. They have to say them in the West to the West. Again, you’re talking about someone who’s trained as a medical doctor, good grief, actual human beings are your concern, not theoretical human beings. You need to find out what’s actually happening on the ground. There’s a reason why things are the way they are.

ANDERSON: Well, maybe we are ending—perhaps it never existed—the age of reason. We don’t think clearly. Confusion reigns. Sometimes I think of Romans 1. Have we put ourselves in a position where that’s what’s happening? Perhaps the greatest need of all is a sense of the need to return to clear, evidence-based thinking and problem solving in the West. But people don’t want to because we don’t want to be accountable. You see the minute you go back there, you have to start to acknowledge the great validity, I believe, of the Christian truths and the great effectiveness, indeed the wonderfulness of the societies that a Christian worldview has given birth to and sustained in the past. I don’t think you can get away from it. And the interesting thing is one of the things that divides, it seems to me, the secularists, atheists, in many quarters, is that some are willing to acknowledge that. I had lunch with a young man the other day who said I don’t want to believe in Christ, but I want to believe in Christianity. And the interesting thing was his father was standing there saying, well, you can’t be a cut-flower society. You cut yourself off at the roots; the plant will wither.

MOHLER: That sounds very Victorian, doesn’t it—in the British context?

ANDERSON: Well, they didn’t get everything wrong you know?


ANDERSON: You as an American, I as an Australian, we can conceive that with the Brits can’t we?

MOHLER: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I’ll admit as I have to you before, I’m an Anglophile. But we also learn a great deal by looking at history. And one of the things we see looking at the Victorian age is that the aristocracy largely abandoned faith in Christ but wanted to maintain Christianity. But you cannot have Christianity without Christ.

ANDERSON: Well I’m a Scottish extraction, and in some ways you can argue that the Scots began the Enlightenment; it began in the Presbyterian church. They tried to find a way to live without the embarrassing problem of being taught by Christ that we have a problem, and that we’re loved, and there’s a solution. But we don’t want to hear we’ve got a problem. We have got a problem, everyone of us. And then collectively it turns into a pretty sad situation. I’m a great believer in Western civilization, a very passionate believer. I don’t want to let it go. And I don’t think we serve anyone by somehow or other trying to accommodate other views that don’t give rise to the same sort of civilities and liberties that we have. But i have to ask myself, will it last much longer if we don’t wake up? There’s always hope if people will be realistic, turn around and say we’ve got a problem. Think the prodigal son. And I want to be very careful here as an Australian talking about another country, but when I look at the Trump phenomenon, I sort of think to myself, is this the American people dreaming of a more secure, more predictable, sane environment—the ‘50s and ‘60s. Are we, if you like, marching back towards, we hope, a benign father saying, we’ve got it wrong, we want to come back, we think things were better the way they were once, like the prodigal son. The trouble is in human terms there’s no loving father that can run out having seen us from far off and say, ‘Come back in, it will be all right.’ We’ve changed the world, in many ways it’s become a very much more dangerous place. So yes there is a heavenly Father there for us personally, but our societies, I don’t see any easy answers now. We’ve racked up too much debt; we’re fractured too much; we’ve lost capacity to talk to one another. You can’t get good public policy out of a bad debate, Al. That doesn’t happen; it can’t happen. You’ve got even less chance if you have a truncated or silenced debate. And a lot of the left have as their objective the silencing of debate. Now just to make certain that I’m not sounding too harsh here, a lot of the right now is playing the same game the left is. They’re more interested in destroying one another than they are in actually solving the very real issues that now confront all of us in the West, not least of them being that terrible problem of debt.


MOHLER: Even at this point in the conversation, it is really interesting to ponder the differences and the similarities in terms of the countries and the cultures of the West. Even in speaking of the shared universe of what Winston Churchill called the English-speaking peoples, we certainly notice both contrast and commonalities, just to compare the United States and the context in Australia. But this conversation with John Anderson reminds me of the fact that we sometimes trade places in terms of cultural development. Sometimes things show up in the United States and later show up elsewhere, especially in the English-speaking world. But at the same time right now in terms of watching what is happening in the world in advancing secularization, it is also clear that some of the things that show up first in Australia will also eventually also show up here. In any event, thinking Christians should be found thinking, and thinking faithfully.


MOHLER: John, in terms of intellectual history, you had Christendom give way in the Enlightenment to a shift in authority from revelation to reason. And so you mentioned the Scottish Enlightenment—and that was the more conservative Enlightenment. Then you take the Continental Enlightenment, and it was far more radical. You had the rejection of revelation. And you had the supreme confidence in human reason and rationality. And you can still see that in some vestiges—I was just in Germany, you can still see that in, for instance, German intellectual life. It’s not an accident. But in the intervening decades there’s been even a rejection of reason. You were talking about the need for reason. But we are talking about an intellectual class that has even undermined the ability to use or to have confidence in reasonable arguments. So you have the left right now in absolute panic in the United States that the vast majority of Americans appear, according to their belief, unmoved by facts. But they are the very people that destroyed the very notion of truth and the very notion of fact. It’s going to be very hard to get back to a reasonable public conversation or the kind of debate you are talking about, unless there really is a return to reason. But reason has its own antecedents, and that’s belief in truth.

ANDERSON: Absolutely. It wasn’t long before the Presbyterian Church in Scotland realized what they’d done, by the way. This is the trouble of letting a rat out of the cage, it isn’t long before you realize it’s very hard to get it back in. Because, as you say, you had the rise of optimistic humanism as an alternative that came out of that; it should have been blown out of the water by the First World War.

MOHLER: You would think.

ANDERSON: You would think that would’ve destroyed it. All those centuries of us improving ourselves, light on the hill stuff—the trenches. Bloodiest war of all time. So I think what we got after that is people thought, especially in the ‘50s and ‘60s, philosophically, we are out of big, mega-narratives. They are all too hard, so we’ll just live for ourselves. Actually, and that would become very superstitious. I believe that C.S. Lewis was right, and Chesterton made the same point, I think, didn’t he, that if you stop believing in God, you stop believing in anything. And a lot of what you hear from the left is unbelievable, it’s claptrap. I mean it really is. Profoundly, this is one of the things we need to understand, is that much of the left is just profoundly anti-human. So the Labour Party movement in Great Britain today, and to some extent in Australia, the working class is very disillusioned with them because they sense that they’re loathed. They’re the people who are polluting the planet and destroying climate change and having too many children and driving motorcars and consuming electricity. They’re the problem, they’re not the hero. So you’ve got this profoundly anti-human streak in all of this, and I don’t know how you restore reason of the sort that can work for people when you’ve got a lot of people in academia who are actually quite deeply committed to the idea that people are the cancer.

MOHLER: Well they even in the intellectual class have a name for it: the anthropocene, the age of man, humanity, which is the fall of creation. It’s one of the reasons why it is very difficult to have a sane, reasonable conversation about what is now classified as climate change, because so many of the people involved are separated by a worldview distinction long before you get to a thermometer that has to do with whether or not human beings are God’s gift to creation or an absolute curse upon creation.

ANDERSON: Clapper Rome way back in the 1960’s, too many people, people are a cancer destroying. So we almost moved to the point of saying human beings are the enemy of Gaia, the environment, the universe. I mean this is weird stuff to me. And the problem of it is I don’t see how you can rescue a form of reason out of that that works for people, because in a sense a lot of it is profoundly anti-human. And people are starting to sense this. This is why you’re seeing this terrible fracturing. And it has to be—you can see it across the West including in this county, you know what I mean by it—quite a profound rejection of that progressivism. People are using their votes to say we’re sick of being treated as idiots, as second class people, indeed as objects of derision because we are the enemies of the planet. In other words, I don’t think until you have a high view of man at the same time as you have a way of accounting for the conundrum of evil, until you have a comprehensive worldview that starts with a high view of man, that you actually can find your way out of this.

MOHLER: But that’s the great insight of Christianity, but in particular the great reason why it was in those lands that were most affected by the Reformation that this distinctive anthropology came through. That’s the reason why someone like Max Weber would trace something like capitalism to the Protestant Reformation, one of the reason why political scientists would trace democracy in its modern form to the Reformation. And it’s because the biblical worldview that was so defined by the Reformation and preached was a worldview that held up human beings as the sole creature made in God’s image and thus with this incredible responsibility to be co-regents with the Creator in terms of the work, but still defining human beings as sinner. And it’s those two things that have to be said together. And so that again implies that without a Christian worldview, you either end up in a sadly depreciated understanding of humanity or a grotesquely exalted view of humanity.

ANDERSON: I think that’s right; the glory and the scum. You’ve got to be able to hold the two in tension in the biblical analysis, the only one that makes sense to me. I have 19 years in public life, 10 years as a cabinet minister in Australia, 6 years as DPM. You meet a lot of people and you have to think through a lot of situations. You confront a lot of love and a lot of hatred. And you see that glory and the scum. How do you make sense of it? Well to me the only account that makes sense, created by an all-present, all-knowing God, all-powerful, endless, there before the beginning of time, beyond, any less and God’s not worth knowing, for good. And to be in relationship, which is why we crave relationship, we are hardwired for it, surely. That’s one of the things we can see all the time. When relationships work in people’s lives, they’re on some sort of equilibrium. When they break down, to the extent that they’ve broken down, it can be absolutely dreadful. And of course at its worst extremities, their lives are a mess. We can be destroyed by our selfishness, but are offered a way back.

MOHLER: For about 2 decades you served in public service, in public office in one of the most important Western nations in one of the most interesting times in the political history of the West. Looking back, how would you define the Christian’s responsibility in the public square?

ANDERSON: Well, I am an absolute believer in separation between church and state because I think it is a biblical idea, but the idea that you would deny anyone a place in the public square is abhorrent to me, and I think Christians not only have every right to participate in the public square and to put their views, but they have a great responsibility to do so. So, you know, I would say firstly that it was an enormous privilege and a great honor, but it was also something a responsibility to try to do. We were, I think, moderately successful government. Amazingly, we had what we thought was a very serious debt to GDP ratio in 1996, around 20%. We set out, I was one of five people asked by the Prime Minister at the time to form what we called the Rise Again and we got back it to zero, and at the time the financial meltdown that originated here, of course, with the housing market. Australia had money in the bank and the sovereign wealth fund and no debt, in a commonwealth government level. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t corporate or private sector debt. So, why do I mention that? I actually think one of the things we need to realize is that prudence and virtue in public life are things Christians can and should be prepared to bring to the table. I believe that if they’ve been humble enough to allow themselves to be properly taught, they are uniquely equipped to highlight those things in the public square. I hedge my bets because I’ve seen a lot of Christians go out there and bumble it and make a big mess of it. But if you are well informed sitting on good teaching and you understand what you are about, things like prudence, things like virtue, things like just being able to think through the morality of sound economic management. Because the left will often say you’ve got to be compassionate; money is the answer of every social ill. In reality, we all believe in social safety nets, government should look after the poor just as they should protect them, the weak, the vulnerable. But keep in mind that at the same time the morality that’s sent to us ensuring you will not leave your kids and your grandkids with a mess. I think the West has been engaging into monstrous generational theft. In Australia every year we celebrate our vets on Anzac Day. And it’s wonderful to see young people turning out in vast numbers to celebrate what amounts to—they would not use the word—but the virtue of those people who risked everything for us. I am not sure our children and grandchildren can do the same for us.

MOHLER: Let’s quantify that just a bit, because when we are talking about this intergenerational theft, which is exactly what it is in terms of debt, we are talking about a problem now that can’t be reduced to left and right.

ANDERSON: It goes beyond it.

MOHLER: They are at equal terms here. But many in the so-called right, on the conservative side, are almost equally complicit in furthering this process of enslaving future generations to our debt. We are spending money we don’t have; we are borrowing wealth from the future. And why is it you think that even most Christians don’t think seriously about a matter of such seriousness?

ANDERSON: I think the answer is manifold. I can’t say it applies in America, but I can think it does in Australia, I don’t think many of our young people are very well taught. I really don’t, I don’t think we have been teaching enough, and we are not training our teachers well enough. That’s the first point. But I guess, you know, the obvious rejoinder to that is to say actually, it probably starts in the homes. But it is a self-perpetuating thing. People have little understanding of what happens if you are not prudent. Think of the wisdom literature in terms of the immediate impact in yourself and in your own family, but let alone what is going to mean for future generations. So that’s one thing they had in the past is commitment to family. You thought about what you were passing on. A brilliant line from a clear Christian thinker in Australia with a great turn of things, he said, you know our forebears—he was talking about Australia—took enormous risks to sail across very dangerous seas and to go to a very hot, arid climate where there were risks everywhere from spiders, snakes, floods, you name it, in the hope that they could build a great society for their children and grandchildren. And he said, our fathers fought through depressions and wars secure in the belief in the hope that they had that they could secure a safe world for themselves and for their kids, he said. But our kids had not been taught to hope for a good time tonight. And maybe that shows some light on. You know prudence demands that if we think through this properly, if we want to live in a good society, Al, we either pay for as we go, or we demand that our children pay for on it on back card. Now that is a really serious moral issue that every Western thinker in my view needs to face up to and face up to now. And as you say, one of the marks of so many countries—Britain is a little bit of an exception to this, quite impressed by the way some of their government at the moment is thinking about this issue—but by and large, the the right hasn’t been much better than the left in recent times.

MOHLER: Right.

ANDERSON: They merged somehow as though we can pretend this problem, we can kick the can down the road forever.

MOHLER: This gravely worried the early theorists of democracy, who felt that perhaps the weakest—and by democracy we mean a constitutional republic—they feared nonetheless that if you give people the power to vote themselves benefits, they will do so. And I think that’s part of the political paralysis  right now is that the left and the right have been complicit in allowing people to believe they could give themselves benefits without ever costing anyone.

ANDERSON: Well, I think from the 60s on when we gave up on mega-narratives—it’s all too

hard, none of the -isms seems to work: communism, fascism, humanism, optimistic and pessimistic, and we are not going back to Christianity, so we are just going to live for me now. And if you are living for me now in an age of cheap credit, you rack up a lot of personal debt. But when it reaches a certain point and you cannot do it anymore, you say to your congressman, I will vote for you give me x and y benefits. So the congressman—I am not trying to single out America here, I am just saying that is the language you would use—gives way. And whatever you can borrow a cheaply and the piper doesn’t call the debt in, it is a very easy way, as kings have known from times of old, to satiate a population. But therein lies, we are all complicit, we are all involved in this, we have not thought prudently.


MOHLER: Sometimes history forces us to think more prudently than otherwise we would. I think of September 11, 2001, you were acting Prime Minister in Australia when that took place. I want to go back to that date, September 11, 2001, and I want to talk about the issue of evil, moral evil. That was, you would think, a clarifying moment. What was like that to be the acting Prime Minister of Australia at that moment?

ANDERSON: Well, very concerning. We didn’t know where our Prime Minister—well we knew he was in Washington, but of course a plane had gone into the Pentagon, we knew he wasn’t far away from where that happened. Airspace was closed, communications were shut down. The defense people were able to connect us, amazingly, the best telephone line I’ve ever had, from one side of the world to the other. It’s extraordinary what those people have got. But, funny enough, I was dealing with a very major issue in Australia, one of our two major international airlines had gone belly up, bankrupt, and I had been working constantly trying to see if we could get the thing flying again and arrange for an orderly sale. We had people stranded all around. Anyway that was another mess. I was pretty done by the time it happened. I remember having a lot of trouble waking out of the fog, because I hadn’t slept for two nights. And I see this thing on television. But I actually did make the point the next, I actually said this is a powerful reminder to those who would have us live in a fog of naivety in recent decades that evil hasn’t gone away. It’s never gone away. And I sometimes wonder whether those writers who say that night might be seen by future historians as the end of postmodernism weren’t right. But have we learned the lessons? I see a lot of academics still trying to relativise away the idea of evil.

MOHLER: Absolutely. But if the intellectuals come to terms with evil—and this is something I talk about routinely—evil is impossible as a secular category. Evil is a theological term. And that’s one of the reasons why an increasingly secular left simply can’t use the word evil with a straight face. They’re embarrassed by the use of it because it is theological.

ANDERSON: Yeah, but that’s where one of the great hopes is isn’t it, the great middle out there. The people who have felt leaderless for a while because they have been leaderless. They’re looking for people to say, look, please interpret this world for us, give us some hope, show us where it actually is. And this is where we as Christians, I think, need to take a good dose of humility because in many ways the churches have been complicit in letting people down. They haven’t held to the church, they’ve not argued it, they’ve given way. And so the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, it soon realized the error of its ways, but those leaders who gave way to Enlightenment thinking it’s been a disaster. We are a cut-flower society. We’re not being nourished by the soil that we were grown in anymore. There’s a lot of people saying—I can’t think who it was now, one of the clever writers of the 20th century observed some silly ideas floating around and said, “That idea is so ridiculous that only an intellectual would believe it.” No ordinary man in the street would fall for it for a moment. We know evil is real. Anyone with half a brain, because we are hardwired to understand this, can see at once the nobility and the scum. The glory and the scum, and anybody who has it pointed out sits down and in a moment of self reflection knows that actually it’s a problem for every one of us. We’re at war in ourselves because we know both instincts as well. How do you explain it? Well we go back to what we said earlier. I believe there is only one rational explanation. And if it wasn’t so serious, it’d be funny watching the contortions frankly that a lot of academics go through trying to get around the problem of evil.

MOHLER: But you know, that’s not new. You think of Jean-Paul Sartre back in the period after the Second World War who said there are no moral absolutes, moral judgments are all ephemeral and by definition wrong. And then he signs the Declaration for Algerian Independence in the name of moral sense. You can’t stop making moral judgments.

ANDERSON: You can’t. We’re moral beings.

MOHLER: Right. And I think even the intensity of moral judgment stays pretty constant as many others have noted, it just gets directed in different ways. But we’re living in a different intellectual moment. And this is where I want to ask you another question particular to Australia. Sociologists looking at various Western cultures identity Australia as at least a model of a certain form of hypermodernity and of hyper-secularity. I just want to ask you as an Australian, what does that actually look like? Because you are an evangelical Anglican, and we’ve talked about the fact that we should be very thankful there is a strong evangelical heritage and a strong evangelical presence in Australia, but the culture at large is being actually admired by many in the United States as what they would like to become.

ANDERSON: Look I’m a proud enough Australian to say in policy terms, we’ve got a lot right. But it’s easier in a smaller country. And we’ve been very blessed with abundant natural resources and what have you and an inherited democracy that has worked very well. We’ve also had since the Second World War, I would say, three outstanding governments—it would not surprise you that I think the one I was part of was one of them—that have set the country up surprisingly well. But I think my response would be to say look, yeah sure the checks are still being cashed, but one day the money will run out. People say the same thing about Scandinavia, their model, it all seems to go very well. You know you desert a workable worldview, in our case the Judeo-Christian one upon which our Western democracies were set up, sooner or later you’re gonna come unstuck. You’re seeing that in Australia today. We’re not at war with ourselves the way some Western countries are, but I would argue that at the rate we’re going that’s only because we’re only a few years behind. And you’re seeing some of the cultural impulses today, for example the gender war stuff being taken into our classrooms. It’s unbelievable stuff. And is the country at war over that? Absolutely. Yes it is. When the parents discover, they’re angry about two things: one is how did this happen? The second is where were the media pointing out and telling us this was happening? Where is integrity? Where can we rely on anybody to reliably inform us anymore?

MOHLER: Where do you think biblically-minded Christians are inattentive to some of the big moral challenges of our day? I think of the fact—in fact you made reference to this, of the Clapham Sect and the particular form of evangelical influence that came in with a very strong anti-slavery biblical teaching there in Australia. You’ve been active on the issue of human trafficking and the continuation of slavery in today’s world. Tell us a bit about that and the picture of what that looks like worldwide.

ANDERSON: It’s a very good question. Because you see once slavery was legal and above surface and it was defended vigorously in parliaments and in congresses by many people, and in Britain of course it was the law of the land and even the churches kept slaves, some of them. Today it’s underground. Nobody would defend it, but it’s still extensive and it is dreadful. I mean I can’t think of anything more dehumanizing than one human being thinking they have the right to own or to trade another person as a goods and chattel and treat it as they like. That is appalling, just appalling.

MOHLER: And so much of it now is in sex trafficking, especially in the Pacific region.

ANDERSON: Yeah, grotesque beyond all belief. You know when it first appeared in Australia in the mid ‘70s, it emerged there weren’t adequate laws to do anything about it because everybody thought slavery was dead. They thought it had gone; they thought we had overcome that evil. But of course we haven’t. And the numbers today are really still a very real problem. The answer is there are a lot of people very honorably pursuing this very hard. And to its great credit, the British Parliament passed some legislation recently, chain of responsibility legislation saying that businesses that provide goods and services in the British market or anywhere else in the world which may have involved slave labor, and those businesses knew or should have known, they can be named and shamed.

MOHLER: Same here.

ANDERSON: You have that here?

MOHLER: Well in terms of shareholder activism and concern about many institutions, Georgetown University for instance most famously was involved in the slave trade.

ANDERSON: I actually think you’ve got a lot of good people, a lot of good churches who are doing a very honorable thing here and trying their best to highlight it. I do think it’s a bit interesting that as you see the cacophony of noise about various human rights, some of which I’m not sure I would regard as human rights around there, particularly from the left, let’s be honest, it would be nice to see a little more noise about people. I’m not sure whether it’s right, but I heard a suggestion the other day that younger people now are more likely to devote money, if they give money away, to environmental causes than to humanitarian causes. That in itself is an interesting question. I still think it’s people—the idea of slavery is just so abhorrent. I think many people being honorable, are we alert to the moral challenges of our age? Let’s just we need to have a broad palette because you can’t just spend your life focusing on one or two moral issues, we all need to take forward with humility but with firmness the whole palette of issues to the best of our ability that confront us.

MOHLER: I wholeheartedly agree with that, but I think we have to start somewhere, and this is where I see some hope on the sex trafficking human slavery front at present. Because there is a rightful revulsion to it that can only be explained on some basis that human beings, all human beings, are made in them image of God.

ANDERSON: That was the argument in those days. Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery maker, he got it. He struck a plate with a kneeling man and underneath it, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Well that wasn’t the way they were seen. It was a political slogan of very great quality that had huge impact. And the other point I’d make is I think the success of, in Britain first it was the ending of the slave trade and then the ending of slavery itself with massive compensation paid out, by the way, to slave owners who had to free their slaves, and then of course you would know the history of it much more here, it was enormously humaning. It was a very powerful humanizing influence. And we were talking about the Enlightenment earlier—very important to remember it was not Enlightenment forces that led to the ending of slavery, all the grand things like women’s votes and labor laws, most of the Enlightenment thinkers believed slavery was a part of the natural order of things. They were racist and they also believed women were inferior species. The humanizing effect turning those things around actually came from the Christians.

MOHLER: It came from Christians and to our shame it often was opposed by Christians. And this is where we have to hope and pray that a biblical logic to which the church is bound will in faithfulness bring the church to the rightful position. The problem in a conversation like this is we want to be very clear about the indispensability of the Christian worldview and at the same time not be triumphalistic about Christinas. Because as it turns out, the doctrine of sin applies to us in ways that we need to remind ourselves about very regularly.

ANDERSON: Well I agree with that. And I often have to check myself and have to pull myself up and say, I sound a bit smug on that. I need to recognize that there but for the grace of God go I. As Paul said, I myself, I need to recognize I’m a sinner first.

MOHLER: Amen. But that also leads me to want to ask you another question about Australia. I will thank you not for one of your exports to the United States by the name of Peter Singer, a bioethicist at Princeton who is one of the most reprehensible thinkers on the planet today who actually teaches that there is no such thing as human dignity that is inherent. He actually argues there are pigs and cattle who have more of a right to life than infant human beings. Truly, truly wretched. Came to us from the University of Monash in Australia. What is the state of academic life—I realize that’s just one example, but I try to follow this at a distance. It appears to me that much of your university life is really very allied with the far left in Europe.

ANDERSON: I think that’s right. And there’s a furious debate going on right now about free speech and it focuses on the laws in Australia. It ought to be broadened out to cover this issue of the need for a much broader, much more comprehensive, much more honest national debate about the issues that confront us. But that’s not what’s happening. Academia should be providing us with clear analysis of the economic and social issues that confront us. They’re not. They should also be providing evidence-based policy solutions to those issues. That’s what we pay them for. And they’re paid for by the taxpayer to a greater degree than they are in the United States. We don’t have the generous philanthropic tradition that you have in this country of former alumni and the business sector and so forth. It’s nowhere near as big in Australia. And so you have this stifling uniformity in the name of diversity, it strikes me, they have more than any other age limited diversity in thinking. So we have all of the mechanisms writ large: trigger warnings, safe places, platform denying, and the taxpayer is paying for the narrowing of the minds of young people. This is a very big issue in my view which is starting to be understood. We’ve got brilliant international thinkers, including in this country, who are starting to point to this terrible drift to the left of academia. As some of them say that doesn’t matter as long as they actually allow contrary views to be put and properly discussed. You’ll never get good public policy without a proper public debate. You’ve got no chance whatsoever if you truncate the parts or all the debate. And what happened? And a big part of it, remember the old saying, it was attributed to Voltaire—it wasn’t him it was a female biographer long after he died—I may disagree with you but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Free speech depends on a respect for the other person. It’s another part of our Christian heritage that the left wants to destroy. But if I recognize you have worth and dignity and standing to the same degree that I do, even if I disagree with you, I recognize you have a right to put your ideas on the table. There’s another important subset of that, though, that’s often overlooked. As part of that discussion, everyone must be entitled not to support their view, but to have their questions answered, not silenced, not be vilified if they have reservations. And in a democracy you won’t get ownership of public policy if people feel not only they’re being shut out of the discussion, they haven’t had their questions answered, haven’t even been allowed to put their questions.

MOHLER: If I could ask you one final question it would be this: what would you say to evangelical Christians, especially in the United States, as the most urgent message you would have based upon your own experience, long tenure in government, and observation of the world around us?

ANDERSON: I’m tempted to say this: we need to get real about our economic debate, because actually in the end economics tells you about who we are as a people, how we’ve got it wrong, and what we need to do to get it right. Economics in the end is not about a nice set of numbers, it’s about good outcomes for people. We have this massive problem of indebtedness that is creating a form of enslavement, especially for young Americans, young Australians, young British, young French, young Germans, you name it, young Japanese—it’s the result of cultural drift I believe, and its solving requires cultural addressing of issues and of attitudes and a debate on the way we talk to one another and our levels of honesty and integrity and ability to reason before we can fix them. So it’s not a bad focus point. But in the end all of those things we ought to pursue because of the two great commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. That’s where our secure hope is. And so unlike, the analogy I used a little while ago, we’re looking for a safer and more secure world like the prodigal son wanting to come home. There’s no earthly, warm figure to run out and embrace us. But when we know our deepest needs, the real needs, our spiritual, that loving Father wants to run out and embrace us. And that’s the most important thing of all.

MOHLER: John, thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

ANDERSON: Thank you. It’s been a great privilege.


MOHLER: I’m thankful today for this conversation in public with John Anderson. And one of the reflections that comes to my mind is that in him we are reminded of a certain type that is sadly disappearing from the political scene, that is the distinguished Christian elder statesman. In thinking about Britain, the United States, Australia and elsewhere, one of the hallmarks of the 20th century was this very species: the distinguished elder statesman or stateswoman who was indeed also known as a believing, faithful Christian. That’s one of the things that distinguishes John Anderson, and explains his continued influence and respect in the nation of Australia. It also explains why I was looking forward to this conversation today. One of the things we certainly reflect upon, in terms of this conversation, is the necessary, unavoidable intersection of the Christian worldview and the headlines of the day, whether the headlines emerge from Australia, Britain, the United States, or anywhere on the planet; and furthermore, one of the humbling realizations that came, in terms of the conversation today, is the fact that so many of the issues we discussed, even the evils that we confront, seem to be continual, repeated, almost even perennial, just to take the issue of human trafficking and human slavery. One of the most humbling aspects of the conversation today is that we are still confronting, on a global scale, what some of the bravest Christians of the past also very bravely confronted. At the same time, we are reminded of the difference that Christians really do make within a culture. Of course, I’m talking with John Anderson, you can point to a difference that Christians have made and continue to make in the political life of the nation. But the culture is bigger than politics, and I think one of the most fundamental issues revealed in the conversation today with John Anderson is the fact that the politics will never be healthier than the culture. Politics, as they say, is downstream from culture, the culture is the prior question. One of the fundamental aspects of a democracy, a democratic form of government, is that eventually we actually do have the leaders we deserve. Over time those who are elected to office become something of a rorschach test, revealing who we actually are as a people. That’s true wherever a democratic form of government is found. I also appreciate the deeply moral sense of politics and economics that John Anderson brought to this conversation. His repeated emphasis upon the danger of debt, upon the reality that the debt that nations are now piling up, especially in the Western world, amounts to thievery, stealing from future generations. The average person would recoil from the accusation that he or she is stealing from his own grandchildren and great-grandchildren, yet as nations that is exactly what we are doing, and as citizens we are all complicit in that theft. Another thought-provoking part of this conversation is the fact that we never, ever escape the morality of decision making, whether in economics or politics. That points most fundamentally to the moral nature of human  existence, and that by no accident. That’s the very purpose of the Creator who made us in his own image. But it also points to the importance of politics. Yes it is downstream from culture, but the persons elected to office end up making decisions that have not only immediate but long range impact and influence. In any event, even if Christian statesmen are becoming all together more rare, it makes it all the more important to have this kind of conversation as I did today with John Anderson.

For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.