Amanda Lohrey’s Voting for Jesus provides a welcome introduction to those jointly embarrassing and increasingly colliding topics, religion and politics. As I write, politicians of all parties are co-hosting a forum in Parliament House to highlight Australia’s Christian heritage. The former deputy prime minister John Anderson reportedly told the invitation-only crowd of 300 church and political figures that secularism had “gone too far” and Christianity needed to reassert itself as the “dominant national belief system”.
Lohrey’s engaging account helps open a response. Indeed, it often reads like a conversation-starter, or notes for a class discussion. Her text is interpolated with questions, which often remain unanswered. Why does Phil and Chris Pringle’s Oxford Falls Christian City Church lack the profile of Brian and Bobbie Houston’s Hillsong, despite their being virtual clones? And why are Oxford Falls’ congregations smaller? How valid is the social gospel, and how far can it be prosecuted as a strategy for the Centre Left?
The biggest question of all is not spelled out, although implied all the way through: why, given the secularism of mainstream Australian society that Lohrey so convincingly portrays, has the Howard government bothered? Why so many Hillsong visits, so much symbolic legislation aimed at little beyond religious button-pressing, such prolific appeals to Christian sentiment (from the Treasurer’s “return-to-the-Ten-Commandments” prescription for Australia’s social ills to the Prime Minister’s annual pleas for a more Christian Christmas)? And why the harsher, not merely symbolic moves, such as efforts to entrench the “traditional” family (the anti-gay-marriage amendment to the Marriage Act, overturning the ACT’s civil unions legislation) and the contracting-out of formerly government activities (such as welfare and job placement) to church agencies?
Lohrey paints churches as scolding the government for human rights and social justice failings, while cynically pitching for a conservative “moral” agenda and bigger slice of government money. But, even if true, that hardly explains the extraordinary effort on the government’s side to courting what is, everyone agrees, at most a small, and politically divided, Christian vote.
Rather, much of the government’s strategy with respect to churches has been an attempt to counter the kind of damage inflicted by mainline church criticism of Liberal policies – especially on land rights, multiculturalism and Hewson’s GST – before Howard’s 1995 return to the leadership.
The strategy involved three strands. First, senior ministers repeatedly berated church leaders who criticised government policy for being out of their depth (Costello), “partisan” (Howard) or “hogging the limelight” (Downer).
The second strand involved cultivating an alternative Christian public voice, associated with the capitalism-friendly “prosperity gospel” and emphasising personal salvation rather than social justice. The important spin-off of this American borrowing has been the provision of a conservative language of vaguely Christian public morality – not too overtly doctrinal to alienate the secular mainstream, but bland-sounding “family values” rhetoric, whose religious inflections were still deniable. Its target was not conservative Christian voters (of whom Australia has very few – and those few were always going to vote mainly for the Coalition anyway) but the secular mainstream. Religiously inflected language of “personal responsibility”, “traditional values”, “traditional marriage”, “Judaeo-Christian values” and so on implied a moral rubber stamp for policies which otherwise might sound off-puttingly unfair (such as punitive “breaching” rules for the unemployed, or tax arrangements which disadvantage the worst-off, or benefit arrangements which favour high-income families over those where both parents need to work, or increasing government funding to private schools at the expense of state schools).
The third strand required taming the welfare and social justice agencies who had previously provided much of the policy critique which, as Howard so frankly admitted, had been particularly damaging “to our side of politics”. The contracts for welfare delivery which Lohrey sees as the result of a successful church assault on the public purse were in fact initiated by the government, and often strongly resisted by church agencies themselves. Indeed, the contracts often included “no criticism” clauses, penalising the agencies concerned for speaking out even in their area of expertise.
While few had anticipated such an extraordinary clampdown on free speech, church agencies in the late 1990s knew well that the tendering system offered them a Faustian compact. I sat on the policy and ethics committee of one large church welfare agency through the period when such contracts were being introduced, and witnessed soul-searching debates about which was worse: to allow the organisation to risk being co-opted into what was, even then, clearly a cynical move, or to see welfare erode further. If they didn’t take up the contracts, someone else would; but, with public sector welfare being whittled away, church agencies were major repositories of the skill, experience and collective memory vital to helping the most vulnerable people.
Church agencies’ ambivalence has recently been further underscored by St Vincent de Paul’s decision in April 2006 to refuse contracts for case-managing people breached by Centrelink, for fear that accepting them would imply endorsement of the harsh breaching policy (Vinnies still helps the people, but declines the government’s shilling).
Lohrey rightly points out that religion is not easily quarantined from politics, and any attempt to keep it out (as some political philosophers and commentators have suggested) would in any case be highly undemocratic. But religion’s effects in public life can also be potentially undemocratic. She helpfully draws attention to some of the dangers, and provides many starters for conversations about ways of keeping public life as democratic as possible.
So little used are Australians to looking at religion and politics that both the main currents and complex eddies are easy to miss. We need as many voices, and questions, as possible.
Marion Maddox is Reader in Religious Studies at Victoria University, Wellington. Her most recent book is God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics (2005).
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY