Two episodes stand out in Amanda Lohrey’s Quarterly Essay: her encounters with evangelical Christian youths at the beginning and end of the essay. Both pieces of writing are alert, agile, swift and exemplary in their objectivity. She records what these young people say, without authorial interference or editorial comment. It makes one hope that she will pursue these encounters and give Australia a much-needed account of what, for instance, Hillsong is all about.
The Hillsong youngsters she interviews are in the middle of their teen years, so they cannot yet vote. Accordingly, her questions to them are non-political: questions about sex before marriage, God, the Bible, Jesus, salvation … There’s not much about politics in the first ten pages. Politics come in the following pages, which are a useful survey of recent newspaper stories (useful because not everyone reads the newspapers).
Like Marion Maddox in God Under Howard, Amanda Lohrey explores the emergence of a coalition between evangelicals and the hard political Right. She notices that this line-up crosses denominational divides, a novelty in our history. The sectarianism of past years has evaporated, as new sectarians find new targets, such as the Muslims. Today when an historian tries to tell young people that Catholics and Protestants were once at each others’ throats, they find this incomprehensible. Yet the Reformation once impacted on our politics, as well as just about everything else. Beverley Kingston’s A History of New South Wales is valuable in the space it gives to Catholic involvement in the ALP. As Graham Freudenberg, historian of NSW Labor, put it last year: “The early success of the Australian Labor Party owed a lot more to Cardinal Moran at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, than to Karl Marx at the British Museum, London.” In 1949 Matthew Beovich, archbishop of Adelaide, wrote in his diary: “My strong opinion so far as party politics is concerned: the Church does not take sides, but she assumes a benevolent neutrality to that side which is most concerned with the workers and the poor, and the less privileged of the citizens.”
In the light of this history, the appearance of Catholics on the front and back benches of the federal government is somewhat problematic. It would be improper to doubt their bona fides – Tony Abbott, for instance, has written lucidly of his sense of vocation as a politician and he has compared his present “calling” to a call to the religious life (cf. Church and Civil Society, Adelaide, 2004). Nevertheless, some elements of traditional Christian social teaching are hard to find on that side of politics. For instance, the growing insistence on centralism seems to contradict the principle of subsidiarity, which Pope Pius XI promoted to stop big entities taking over the function of grassroots bodies. Similarly, the common Catholic motto “a preferential option for the poor” is not one often employed on government benches. And what would a traditional Catholic activist make of the demonisation of asylum seekers? Puzzling.
Edmund Campion is Emeritus Professor of History at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. He is the author of Australian Catholics, among other books.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 23, The History Question.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY