How great is that darkness

Imagine my delight when I found this record of my favourite author in conversation with my favourite president. This exchange between Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson (one of his favourite authors) is an articulate peregrination through contemporary politics, theology and literature. Reading their conversation feels like a glimpse into the kind of exalted correspondence that winds up in a presidential library, or a literary museum.

They talk about a persistent “us versus them” mentality in America, in which Christians are especially implicated. The President asks: “How do you reconcile the idea of [...] taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Ms Robinson replies: “Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity [...]. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously.” She goes on to say that “Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”

Meanwhile, in a lecture named for his favourite Prime Minister, our recent Prime Minister has argued that Christianity must disown itself in order to preserve itself. Or at least that the West should disown Christianity's central idea in order to preserve its Christian character. “Love thy neighbour,” runs his argument, was never meant to apply to people who are not like us, whose preservation might require our sacrifice. Christ, no. Mr Abbott might do well to heed the warning Robinson gives in her new essay “Fear,” which she and Obama discuss: “When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity [...] they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like ‘everlasting.’”

The right to silence

Of all the freedoms, speech is the one most often misused, most often claimed as an amnesty for all kinds of rank abuse.

Andrew Bolt emerged from a courtroom in which a judge found that he had published factual errors and ‘inflammatory and provocative' sentiments in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act, and claimed that it was a blow against free speech.

Tony Abbott agreed with Bolt, as he often does, saying free speech means “the right of people to say what you don't like, not just the right of people to say what you do like.”

Free speech means people can say what they please. It doesn't mean that what they say will be true, or reasonable or sensible or good. It does not mean that what they say won't be held to some standard of common accountability. And it does not mean that a judge won't find that that freedom has been abused.