Religion and politics in Australia



By Peter Corney. July 2005


Even the casual observer of the last federal election in Australia could not miss the extraordinary amount of public comment and interest in the revival of the connection between religion and politics in Australia.


Those with longer memories recalled the dramatic days of Bob Santamaria, the Catholic Church and the DLP in the late 50s and early 60s. The battle between the DLP and the Communists in the Labor Party and the resulting split kept Labor out of office for over a decade. We hadn’t seen anything like the tensions and connections of those days between religion and politics for a long time.


Judging by the recent activities of the two major parties as they vie for the interest of the conservative Christian vote the focus and attention will continue as the run up to the next Federal election intensifies. Not only have John Howard and Peter Costello appeared on the AOG Hillsong platform but also Bob Carr and other Labor politicians have recently attended. In fact at the last Hillsong Mega Conference on July 4th in addition to the state Premier Bob Carr there were at least five federal cabinet ministers, eight Liberal back benchers and two National party Senators present.  On the platform Bob Carr, an agnostic, sounded like a Telly Evangelist giving away CDs as he promised not to bring in a Religious Vilification Act (like Victoria’s) in NSW. It was an unashamed pitch for the conservative Christian vote. We have not seen this sort of political interest in religion for at least 35 years. 


The Labor Party realising that the Liberals beat them to the punch with Family First preferences at the last election have formed their own “God Squad” initiated by Kevin Rudd. It is called the Faith Values and Politics working group. Their clear aim is to try and catch up to the Liberals in connecting with what they see as a significant voting block in contemporary Australian society where many of the old loyalties have changed including religious and political sentiments and alliances.


 Some of the old political/religious cliché’s went something like this:  Catholics voted labor right; Anglicans voted Liberal/National (but many of their leaders were publicly soft left); Pentecostals were a fringe group who were too small to matter and politically disinterested. Most of this has now changed. Much of the Catholic constituency has become socially upwardly mobile and moved away from its working class roots. The Uniting Church (UCA) is now a pale shadow of its former self, its membership is so small and ageing that its voting power is of little significance. The National Council of Churches (NCC) is now weak and it’s style of ecuminism is largely ignored by the new large and growing churches who have their own inter church networks. The Anglican vote is now  much more diverse than it once was. .


The other major change has been the growth of the Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches. The landscape of the Protestant church has been dramatically reconfigured over the last 20 years. This reshaping has until recently gone largely unnoticed in the general community, the press and the party political world. The largest number of adult Protestant Christians in church on Sunday is now in Evangelical, Pentecostal, or independent Charismatic churches. We are not talking nominal denominational census figures here but actual regular attendance. Many of these congregations are very large highly organised regional churches. Hillsong is now well known but there are dozens of others around the nation who have attendances in the 1000 plus range and a significant number in the 3000 plus range. They can be found in all Protestant denominations. Many of the leaders of these large congregations have now become politically active.


Another significant change is that theologically conservative Christians have begun to organise politically. The Pentecostal churches once disinterested in the “grubby business of politics” have become very interested and engaged. Their phenomenal growth since the late 70’s now makes them a significant influence. Family First is the most visible expression of this activity but there is much more going on behind the scene. The Evangelical Alliance now has a Director of Theology and Public Policy and has become more active in Aboriginal Justice issues. Saltshakers are a low key but influential lobby group based in Victoria. The Canberra based Australian Christian Lobby a non-denominational non-politically aligned organisation has attracted many members among theologically conservative Christians and is developing significant political skills and influence. They only began in the year 2000. They currently have around 6000 paid up members. The capital city annual Prayer breakfast movement which is run by conservative Christians has a low key but definite agenda to influence community leaders. It is now attracting very large numbers to its events. Also the influential Pastors Prayer Summit movement has a strong focus on society and the nation.


 What are the forces that are driving this and will they produce a permanent change in our social, political and religious landscape?


 Marion Maddox in her recent book “God under Howard – the rise of the religious right in Australian politics”, argues that John Howard’s conservative agenda has been very deliberately orchestrated through political lobby groups like the conservatively religious Lyons Forum made up of influential Christian federal politicians and the various conservative think tanks like the Institute of Public Affairs, the Centre for Independent Studies, the Tasman Institute and the H.R.Nicholls Society. She argues that a campaign has been successfully waged to shift Australian society to the right by restoring social conservatism and promoting economic liberalism. This has been done she claims by reconnecting conservative Christians with the political process.


There is obviously some truth in this. But the forces at play are much more complex than this and bigger than John Howard. You cannot reshape a societies attitudes so easily unless there is at large a mood that is conducive.


Larger forces, events and ideas both beyond and within Australia are pushing religion and politics back together. They are:


1. The media rub off in Australia of the so called “faith based presidency” of George Bush and his very public religious stance has had a significant effect on peoples awareness of the strong connection between religion and politics in other parts of the world.


2. The power of religious ideas for so long marginalised in the west is now re-emerging in the consciousness of western people. One of the reasons for this is the visible reality of a resurgent Islam, which is entering a new historic period of expansion. This development is now impacting on Western cultures as a result of immigration and international terrorism.


3. For some time now in Australia a values vacuum has existed and people are now sensing this. The vacuum has been created by the drift away from our traditional Judeo-Christian heritage and worldview to a secularist view. This rather arid secularist view is now being challenged by a number of trends in the culture. Post Modernism has created a mood of dissatisfaction with the closed box attitudes of secular modernism. The popularity of New Age spirituality is one response. The anxiety over the growing relational dysfunction of our society in spite of our prosperity – marriage and family breakdown, the growing army of single parents, escalating problems with depressive illnesses and substance abuse, very public and costly cases of corporate immorality. These have all rung the values alarm bells.


Up till now the values discussion has revealed itself most clearly in the values in education debate and the growth in independent and “Christian schools” and their climbing enrolment graphs. They now account for around 42% of all secondary students.


4. Some time ago the majority of ordinary Australians had reached a point of frustration with major political parties who have allowed the political agenda to be hijacked by minority lobby groups who in turn over influence the formation of public policy. The Victorian Racial and Religious Vilification Act is an example of this.


5. A collection of other concerns has also galvanised the theologically conservative Christians into political action: The decline in traditional values and the general coarsening of our culture; the aggressive secularism of elements of the political left when in office, (eg: The Bracks government has sensibly decided to back off any change after a recent secular left inspired review of the provision of voluntary RE in State schools in Vic.); the attempts to redefine traditional notions of family and marriage and the excessive influence on public policy of minority groups pushing family and marriage arrangements that are entirely novel in our social history and at odds with our societal foundations. Interestingly more perceptive politicians are slowly beginning to realise that some of these concerns are shared by a large number of Australians who are not necessarily churchgoers.


6. In Australia multiculturalism as it has been defined and practiced over the last 35 years has worked well. During that time the majority of immigration was from Europe and Asia. Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants although coming from very different cultures have enriched Australian society. But Australians are beginning to sense that the current idea of multiculturalism has its limits when pushed hard by an uncompromising culture and religion. The amber lights are flashing in Europe and the British are already suggesting post the London bombings that they have been too tolerant of religious extremists.  The current concept of multiculturalism needs significant revision in the light of these events. This inevitably brings religion and politics together.


The multiculturalism debate:


Western liberal democracy has evolved a series of core values that are essential to its healthy functioning. Among these are the separation of church and state, the separation of religious law and state law, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality of men and woman, universal suffrage, etc. If a particular religion and culture is unwilling to accept these core values and adapt to them then Australian society is in for a difficult and troubled time. Any revised idea of multiculturalism must include the expectation of a commitment by all participating cultures and religions to the core values of the liberal democratic state.


 Historically Christianity in Europe had to adapt and reinterpret a number of its views under the scrutiny and critique of the Enlightenment, eg, the connection between church and state. If a culture and religion that has come from a pre modern context wants to find its place happily in Australian society today it must be willing to come under the same scrutiny and critique. Its ideas must be open to debate, discussion and examination without retreating behind the defence of religious offence or insult. So long as the debate is conducted in a respectful manner nothing should be off limits for critique and vigorous debate. Indeed this kind of debate is one of democracies hallmarks


It will be very important for Christians to enter the debate on multiculturalism. The past idea was largely defined by the secular left and shaped by the optimism and idealism of the 70’s. The current debate is in danger of being reactive and hijacked by the right. Christians need to bring their unique insights to the discussion. Christians have a deep commitment to this issue because the Christian faith transcends race and nation. (SeeGal.3:28.) For Christians no culture is intrinsically sacrosanct, every culture must be submitted to the critique of the Gospel, including Western culture. From the Christian’s Biblical perspective all cultures have both good and bad characteristics, constructive and destructive aspects. The Christian brings the values of “the Kingdom” that Jesus inaugurated as their touchstone for evaluating culture and the various political solutions that the world offers to solve our problems and to create the common good.


This debate makes many Australians nervous but it must not be avoided because it is politically sensitive.


From Australia’s British roots there is a long and proud tradition of Christian involvement with Politics.

Deeply committed Christians like William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery, Lord Shaftsbury and the Quaker George Cadbury and factory reform, the Methodists and the Union movement, Henry Scott Holland and the Christian Socialist movement, James Keir Hardie the founder of the British Labour party who had a strong influence on Australia’s second Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher. A rediscovery of this history, especially by conservative Christians, might turn out to be important for the current times.


The new connections between religion and politics in Australian life raise a number of questions particularly for conservative Christians:


1.How will Australians cope with the inevitable tensions that this “fatal attraction” always generates?

2.The government’s response to Islamic extremists and terrorism will ultimately impinge on the religious freedom of us all. How should we respond to this? 

3.The new awareness in the general public of the power of religious ideas may seem at    first a positive thing but in the current climate of anxiety it may also have some negative impact on evangelism. How should the present climate affect our approach to evangelism?

4.Ordained and lay leaders of congregations need to consider carefully how they approach political and social issues for discussion without polarising congregations around party political allegiances.

5.Will conservative Christians go the distance politically?

6.In addition to the more traditional “moral issues”, if conservative Christians are to be taken seriously politically and to have any broader impact they will need to address some of the more structural justice issues like: Aboriginal health and welfare, youth homelessness, aged care, the environmental crisis, and IR reform.



There is no question that we are in for interesting times!


Peter Corney    July 2005.