Cardinal George Pell (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

Freedom of expression has become our national faultline, from the marriage equality debate to coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, writes journalist Malcolm Knox in this extract from his new book Truth is Trouble.

In April 2020, some of Israel Folau’s free-speech fellow-travellers took time out from denying the reality of COVID-19, denouncing “police state” lockdowns and dog-whistling to the tune of the “Wuhan virus”, to celebrate the High Court’s decision to free Cardinal George Pell after 406 days in prison.

Reactions to the case fell along well-grooved culture-wars lines, with conservatives denouncing the ABC for conducting a “witch hunt” that was determined to see Pell behind bars. As had happened with Folau, Pell’s backers held him up as a modern-day Alfred Dreyfus, a small man, an innocent victim of powerful institutional forces.

This reflects an image of a Christian church in decline, the modest, inconspicuous, beleaguered Sunday worship in secular societies. It is the quiet Christian church against which radical new faiths like Israel Folau’s, and political movements like the Australian Christian Lobby, were rising. The stagnating old churches were no longer a seat of real power. Resisting that powerlessness was precisely where Folau and his allies found their energy; it was now Pell and his supporters who appropriated the tools of the radical outsider.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

Weren’t the seductions of victimhood meant to be the motivating force for the economically underprivileged? Watching Pell’s performances on his release, it was clear how useful the victim narrative had become for conservatives.

As a reward for his staunch support, Andrew Bolt obtained the only television interview Pell gave. It made a strange sight: Australia’s senior Catholic cleric, at one time the handler of the Vatican’s finances, taking his platform not in the formal setting of a cathedral, or even on a mainstream broadcast network, but in a fringe outpost commonly habituated by conspiracy cranks and hate-peddlers.

Pell might have thought he had fallen a long way when he was in jail, but his fall was complete when he got out. To proclaim his vindication, he was appearing on the same barely watched network as Israel Folau had, for his only interview. What better proof of one’s victimhood than to surface way out there on the margin, among the self-declared dispossessed?

The theatrics around Pell’s release showed how the tools of “victimology” had changed hands. As Megan Daum wrote when observing a similar phenomenon in America in 2016, “the identity politics game that the left had been playing at a mostly amateur level for decades had officially been elevated to professional sport by the right. Its most valuable player, Donald Trump, would soon occupy the oval office.”

It was the decline, not the vestigial influence, of the Catholic Church that fuelled Pell’s defenders, who reincarnated him as an Australian underdog, just as Israel Folau was an Australian underdog. Just as the corona-sceptics of the right are underdogs. In contemporary Australia, our most cherished language of resistance — the little Aussie battler — was now the property of the political radical right. The “quiet Australians” had stolen the megaphone that used to belong to the left. Listen to me! Shut up and listen to me!

At the same time as conservatives were seizing the mantle of underdoggism, progressives were seduced by orthodoxies and conformist strictures previously associated with religious bodies. The penalty for violating a set of rules, policed by a priesthood of the pure, was excommunication.

As Douglas Murray observed of the “woke” left, “A fixed set of virtues are being celebrated. And a fixed set of propositions are being set up, laughed at and dismissed. The audience does not sit, listen and then ask questions as at an academic or professional conference. They cheer, laugh, snort and applaud in a manner which more than anything else resembles a Christian revival meeting … To raise the plight of women, gays, people of different racial backgrounds and those who are trans has become not just a way to demonstrate compassion but a demonstration of a form of morality. It is how to practise this new religion.”

The idea that they were pursuing their fight with quasi-religious intolerance was of course disorienting for what used to be known as the left. But this realignment had long been the most confusing aspect of the religious-freedom debate in Australia.

The most prominent spokespeople for those allegedly marginalised by current laws are a footballer with a multimillion-dollar annual income; wealthy commentators like Alan Jones, speaking from their eyries above Sydney Harbour or their country estates; and thinktanks funded by corporate Australia and staffed by beneficiaries of the big-business caravan.

None of it really makes sense, but the lack of sense was what had defined the earlier sectarianism that divided the country for so many decades, and now, once again, two unhappy religions found themselves at war with an intensity that even Protestants and Catholics struggled to muster in Australia.

We might argue that all the noise pouring in from the extremes is attracted to a vacuum at the centre, the disappearance of authentic national leadership or political debate that can engage the masses or forge a consensus, but this strikes me as another form of protest against everything, nostalgia for a non-existent past.

To my mind, the challenge is to be able to live with the pains of uncertainty, to engage passionately with not knowing the answers, to be able to cohabit with those anxious questions rattling around our heads, and, when we emerge to speak with others, to empathise with their insecurity and fear, no matter how they choose to express it or hide it; to imagine our way into their skins. Humility — genuine humility — in the face of uncertainty is one part of the Christian gift that we could all benefit from accepting.

Truth is Trouble by Malcolm Knox is published by Scribner Australia on November 1, 2020. RRP AU$32.99.