As Australia becomes less religious, churches have insinuated themselves into politics and gained particular control over Tony Abbott. By Mike Seccombe.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Christian right

Tony Abbott before reading during a liturgy at St Charbel’s Maronite church.
Tony Abbott before reading during a liturgy at St Charbel’s Maronite church.

Introducing himself to the Liberal Party’s West Australian state council meeting a week ago, the newly endorsed candidate for the Canning byelection, Andrew Hastie, recalled one particularly happy memory of his childhood.

“I was born in regional Victoria in a town called Wangaratta,” he said. “My father started a church there from scratch and I travelled with him in the early years around the vast parish… I have sweet memories of those times.”

A little later in his speech, he identified himself as a regular churchgoer and spoke about the work he and his wife do with their church group.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course. But ask yourself this: how many job applicants in Australia would feel the need to stress their piety in the interview?

This is not a religious country. In the census, more people now identify as “no religion” than identify with any faith except Catholicism. Among those of Hastie’s age – he is 32 – the biggest category is “no religion”. About a third of people identify this way, and their number is growing fast.

Even among those who identify with a faith, it is seldom much more than nominal. Only about 10 per cent are regular churchgoers, and the number engaging in other church-sponsored activities is lower still. A global Gallup poll in 2008 found 70 per cent of Australians considered religion to be of no importance to our lives.

In his address last weekend, Hastie did not only identify himself as belonging to a social minority. Nor did he just tell us something about himself. He told us something about the group he is applying to join, the Abbott government.

Paradoxically, even as modern Australia continues to become less religious and particularly less Christian, we are governed by probably the most obviously religious government the country has had.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s devout Catholicism and his background as a trainee priest are well known. But it’s not just him. Almost half his frontbench are practising Catholics, a statistic that would no doubt astound the party’s founder, Robert Menzies. Among the rest are several who adhere to Protestant sects that Menzies would have considered decidedly non-mainstream.

There is considerable variance between them, of course. Malcolm Turnbull, whom Abbott supplanted as leader, is counted among the practising Catholics and is also truly liberal in many of his attitudes. So are Christopher Pyne and George Brandis, and Joe Hockey to a slightly lesser extent.

At the other end of the ministerial spectrum we have the extreme Catholic conservatism of Defence Minister Kevin Andrews. In between are the likes of the very devout Barnaby Joyce (agriculture), Andrew Robb (trade) and Mathias Cormann (finance). Among the non-Catholics is the arch right-winger Eric Abetz, aligned with the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia, who use the mission statement “Pray, multiply, train and align”, and Scott Morrison, aligned with the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, one of the few growing faith movements in the country, with its intoxicating blend of showbiz, God and Mammon. The big cheese of the movement in Australia, Brian Houston, wrote the book You Need More Money.

It’s not just the frontbench, either. The standout example is Cory Bernardi, son of Italian immigrants and protégé of one of the godfathers of the party’s right wing, Nick Minchin. Bernardi is the closest analogue in Australia to the Tea Party of the United States. Indeed, he has consciously imported their techniques, including the establishment of the Conservative Leadership Foundation to sponsor young religious right-wingers, and the Conservative Action Network, which he has characterised as “a Facebook for conservatives”.

Bernardi entered the senate in 2006. In his first speech he spoke of the “sacred” nature of heterosexual marriage and the sanctity of life, praised his stay-at-home mother, and promised, “I shall be guided by my conscience,
my family, my country and my God.”

While Bernardi is something of an outlier, he is much less an outlier than he would have been in years and decades past. He is also one of the people to whom Abbott owes his leadership. When Abbott challenged Turnbull in 2009, he split the party room on the issue of climate change. He owed the religious right for his victory. If the government seems to be out of step with social expectations – on the environment, on same-sex marriage, on euthanasia – it is because Abbott is governing not for the electorate that installed him as prime minister but for the far-right numbers that installed him as party leader.

Back in 1998 Paul Pickering, of the Australian National University, produced a long piece for the Australian Journal of Politics and History, a “biographical analysis” of the 36 new conservative members elected in the Howard landslide of 1996, and a comparison of them with another big conservative intake, in 1975.  One key difference he noted was that first speeches of 1996’s new members included a plethora of variations on the theme of family values. In 1975 no one even mentioned the family.

“The rise of concern with the family appears to go hand in hand with an increase in religiosity in Australian politics,” wrote Pickering. “Where God received only one reference in the first speeches of the 1975 cohort … the first speeches of the ‘Class of 96’ contain numerous references to God and Christian principles.”

Pickering’s analysis highlighted something else, too, which he described as a “shrill chorus of anger”. He cited numerous examples of new members railing against “minority groups”, about “thought control and social engineering”, and about “political correctness”. And against government itself. Tony Smith, who replaced Bronwyn Bishop as speaker, warned against “the insidious rise and rise of the state”, which he likened to a “great praying mantis”.

There were no such expressions 20 years prior, Pickering noted. He characterised the class of ’96 as “the children of the ‘common sense’ revolution”.

Of course, there is such a thing as common sense. It’s what parents evoke to dissuade children from jumping off the roof. But it is a dangerous thing when applied to more complex matters, as the journalist and writer Chris Wallace noted in a recent article.

“Common sense is such a bogus concept,” she wrote, referring to current politics. “When someone dishes common sense at you, it typically camouflages an emotionally charged, partisan position on something important that the common sense propagator wants to define as beyond debate…”

Interestingly, Bernardi’s blog is named “Common Sense Lives Here”.

But neither common sense nor faith is a reliable guide to rational decision-making. For that, you need evidence. And an evidence-based approach to politics is at the heart of liberalism, says Fred Chaney, who served 20 years in the parliament until 1993.

“My definition of a liberal is a person who looks at the facts and the circumstances and makes a conscientious decision,” he says, and recalls an instance, early in his career, which drove the point home to him.

It was 1975; he was a member of the senate committee reviewing a piece of legislation proposed by the Whitlam government. The committee seemed hopelessly stuck.

“I remember going to [long-serving senator Sir] Reginald Wright, and asking how we would ever reach a conclusion. And he said: ‘My boy, the facts will speak for themselves.’ And they did. The three Labor and three Liberal members recommended the bill be withdrawn.

“That was liberalism in action,” says Chaney, implicitly including the Labor committee members in his definition of liberals.

Chaney was a moderate Liberal and a frontbencher for most of his career. He doesn’t think he would last in today’s party.

Judi Moylan, another 20-year veteran of the Liberal Party, from 1993 to 2013, is quite sure she would not.

“Actually, I was surprised I lasted so long,” she says. “It was far more liberal when I came in, but as time went by it came to be more and more dominated by right-wingers. It hadn’t moved to where it is now, where it is starting to look like the American Tea Party.

“I think, unfortunately, the party will pay dearly for its extreme views in many quarters at the next election.”

Stuart Macintyre, historian and professorial fellow at Melbourne University, cites two factors in the rightward drift of conservative politics.

The first is neoliberalism and deregulation, associated with the dry turn of the Institute of Public Affairs and the changed climate of opinion in the 1980s, in Australia and elsewhere. The other is religious moral conservatism.

“The dries are a bit in retreat now,” he says. “The moral conservatives have the upper hand.”

Macintyre suggests it has a lot to do with the general decline in active participation in politics.

“The party Menzies created was a mass party in which branches included people from all walks of life,” he says.

“But as membership and participation in political parties has declined they’ve become much more vulnerable to the influence wielded by smaller and more ideological sections within them. Religious groups are among those who can take advantage of the vulnerability to exert much more influence than they do in society at large.”

Another historian, Dr Ian Tregenza, of Macquarie University, emphasises the point, but also points to the rise of global terrorism.

“After September 11, 2001, religion has come back in a big way. It brought to the surface some bigger issues, about faith and values – people like [US political scientist Samuel] Huntington, talking about the clash of civilisations. The rhetoric shifted.” 

But the connection between religion and conservative politics had changed long before that. When Menzies built the Liberal Party out of the wreckage of the United Australia Party in the early 1940s, it was an almost exclusively Protestant construction. High Protestant, strongly Anglican and Presbyterian.

Labor was the party of Catholics and workers. After Labor split, there was a migration of Catholics to the conservative side, often via the fiercely anti-communist Democratic Labour Party.

“But,” says Tregenza, “people were reticent to talk about religion in public life.” They feared stirring sectarian divisions that were still pronounced in the populace. “The big shift from the 1950s is that the sectarian divisions aren’t there anymore. Now you get a sense from religious people of various sorts, whether Catholic or evangelical Protestants, that they are aligned with each other in opposition to the secular left.”

Well, that’s the way they see it. All the “left” is not secular, however. The Abbott government finds itself regularly at odds with church leaders over issues such as the environment, foreign aid and the treatment of asylum seekers.

“There is a certain selectivity apparent in the current government about what sort of Christian views they pick up on,” says Tregenza. “Abbott, doesn’t say much at all about Catholic social teaching. There are whole areas of Christian doctrine that get overlooked.”

Indeed. Abbott’s Catholicism is that of his friend and confessor George Pell, not that of Pope Francis.

But given that the religious right is exerting increasing power as a consequence of the decline in political party membership, the question arises: Why has it not populated the Labor Party?

The first point is that it has, to some extent, as the ANU political scientist Professor John Warhurst noted in a piece he wrote about five years ago, which analysed the religious beliefs of the 27 Australian prime ministers who had served to that time.

Interestingly, he found that “a clear majority (16) have been either nominal Christians only or agnostic”. More interestingly, he found it hard to even establish what religious beliefs some of them held, which goes to show how irrelevant faith was through much of this country’s political history.

Warhurst said his interest was spurred by the public debate generated by the religious beliefs of two recent prime ministers, John Howard and Kevin Rudd.

“Among many other comments, Rudd has been described as ‘the most sincerely Christian prime minister Australia has had for a very long time’, and as having identified himself more strongly as being a ‘practising Christian’ than any PM since WW2,” said Warhurst.

“Rudd and Tony Abbott… were described as ‘the two most overtly religious party leaders Australia has seen’.”

That said, the influence of the religious right is nowhere near as pronounced in Labor. It has its conservative Catholic rump in the shoppies’ union – the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association – but, says Monash University political scientist Dr Nick Economou, “in Labor the crazies are mitigated by the party’s complex structure. In the Liberal Party, power is more decentralised. As a result it’s much easier for branches to put forward people who are very conservative.”

And this religious conservatism is manifested in policy, even if not always explicitly.

An obvious example was the budget decision last year to spend a quarter of a billion dollars to install chaplains in Australian schools. There would be no money to employ secular, trained social workers to counsel kids. This from a prime minister who endorsed in his book Battlelines the notion that governments should be about pragmatic problem solving, rather than acting as “ideologues” who “want to impose their values on others”.

Same-sex marriage is another obvious one, but others are less apparent, such as immigration policy.

The Howard government sought, quite successfully after the September 11 terrorist attacks, to conflate boat people with terrorists, and to suggest that Australia did not want immigrants, particularly self-selected ones, who did not share our “Judeo-Christian values”.

Abbott took this reliance on faith further, justifying his hardline position on asylum seekers during an appearance on the ABC’s Q&A in 2010: “Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.” 

Climate change is another area where the influence of religion is only obliquely glimpsed. As Nobel laureate Professor Peter Doherty told Lateline this week: “It’s not necessarily a characteristic of conservatives that they’re anti-environment. That doesn’t make sense and I think it’s a wrong positioning of the right in politics.”

He suggested economic considerations had a lot to do with the government’s reluctance to address the issue, which is no doubt true.

But it’s also the case that a large number of people on the conservative side of politics – between a quarter and a third of federal members, by Malcolm Turnbull’s estimate – simply don’t believe humanity is changing the climate. Those people are concentrated in the religious right of the Coalition.

In the same interview, Doherty spoke of the “very definite rules” by which scientific endeavour has operated since the 17th century: you do the experiments, you make the measurements, and you publish the results.

“We do try to engage with reality,” he said.

Since the 17th century, religious belief has regularly refused to accept scientific reality. How could Earth not be at the centre of the universe? How could we have evolved from monkeys?

Social science demonstrates that same-sex parents can be as good as opposite-sex parents. Climate science tells us that our dominion over Earth is causing an environmental crisis. But faith is reluctant.

And in a less direct way, the unpopular conservatism of the Abbott government may be seen as being at least partly responsible for its broader policy paralysis. 

Macintyre acknowledges the big reforms, such as these times demand, are hard for any government, in view of the fickleness of the electorate. But they are all the more difficult for a government that is wildly unpopular. 

“Look at the economic summit going on this week, “ he says. “Business representatives, union representatives, academia, civil society groups. That’s a sign that the government has been unable to present any plan for economic reform.

“It is so difficult for this government to apply itself to any of these questions because political considerations prevail.”

Still, history shows that faith usually, eventually bows to reality. And there’s a reality check imminent. On September 19 we will see if the God-fearing Andrew Hastie wins in Canning. Prayers are surely being offered.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 29, 2015 as "Abbott and the Christian right".

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