Christians and Australian politics 2004-2007

By Brian Edgar

The 2007 Australian Federal election was a watershed in terms of there being an open discussion of the relationship of faith and politics. In this article I discuss the changes which took place from the 2004 election through to the 2007 election. At that time I was Director of Public Theology for the Australian Evangelical Alliance.

The article was published as “Christians and Australian Politics 2004-2007 (936)” in Zadok Papers, No. S155, (Spring 2007), 1- 7

The first part of the article appears below:

Christians and Australian Politics 2004-2007

According to Henry Thoreau, “Things do not change, we change”.

In which case we Australians have changed a lot in our attitudes towards faith and politics since the last Federal Election in November 2004.  If a week is a long time in politics, then an election week is an eternity and in the space of that week in 2004 the community became much more aware of the way that faith influences politicians, parties, policies and people’s voting habits.

The outcome of the election – which motivated politicians, parties and political analysts to examine the effect of the variously called “evangelical”, “conservative”, “pentecostal”, “charismatic” “religious (right)” or  “Christian” vote in the election. Even some of those individuals and groups claiming no overt faith showed interest in discussing the matter.  The newspapers were full of discussion about it, analysts were surprised by it, politicians discussed it at length and Labor created a committee – the Caucus Committee on Faith, Politics and Values – to look into it.

Some bemoaned it, others were scared of it, and, of course, many Christians applauded it – although not all, by any means.  Some had considerable reservations about whether it was a trend away from a secular understanding of society towards a theocracy. It all led to a broader public dialogue about what it means to be a ‘secular’ society.

As we are close to another election it is helpful to review the changes that have taken place.  Examining the past does not necessarily mean we will be able to understand the future any better.  The future has a habit of arriving in its own way, whether we like it or not.  But, following Thoreau, a review might at least help us understand the ways in which we might want to change ourselves if we want work towards changing the future for the better.

The new players

Prior to 2004 the main religious players in the political realm were traditional or mainstream denominations. Indeed, in many respects, that remains the situation today. The larger churches and those actively involved with government in social welfare – particularly Catholic, Anglican, Uniting and Salvation Army – have regular and direct contact with government ministers. They are relatively experienced in utilising the media to comment upon and, where necessary, critique government policy.  They also have their own agendas.

Their involvement in the political realm, frequently draws criticism from those who resent ecclesiastical influence – or even the appearance of it, as with the appointment of Peter Hollingworth as Governor-General. There have been frustrated responses from the government when criticised (especially John Howard’s complaint that church leaders have been ‘partisan’[1] and Alexander Downers’s extensive critique of church leaders such as Peter Carnley [then Primate of the Anglican Church] and James Haire [then President of the Uniting Church] in his Playford Memorial Lecture[2]). There is also, inevitably, some disquiet from those within the churches who take a different political line to that put forward by their leaders. The mainstream churches declining attendances and sometimes theological wavering has been noted by some politicians (such as Downer),[3] the growth of influence of newer churches such as Hillsong has been recognised by many and other Christian organisations, such as the Australian Christian Lobby[4] have emerged or become more prominent.

There is also the matter of a changing demographic.  For a long time the Coalition has been the party of preference for those who attend church regularly. This is so in all denominations despite the traditional connection between Catholic voters and Labor. By 2004 this connection was only a relative one. Catholics were more likely to vote Labour than other denominations, but overall they were more likely to vote for the coalition than Labour.

Despite these trends the mainline denominations remain the most influential part of the landscape. However, the 2004 election emphasised the fact that there were new players on the scene. The electoral success of Family First brought great attention to the Pentecostal community in general and the Assemblies of God in particular.  Family First felt the need to downplay their religious connections with claims that there’s ‘absolutely no connection’ between the two organisations.[5] Constitutionally that is right, but the party was, however, started by a leading pastor of the Assemblies of God and draws strength from the various assemblies and other Christians.

Political changes

Conventional wisdom concerning the political influence of Christian (and especially evangelicals and pentecostals) swings between two poles, the first being the claim that that overt political involvement by churches or Christian groups (and for some, even by individuals) is inappropriate, while the second is that what political action does take place is closely related to the conservative side of politics with an emphasis on personal and family issues.  Although that is partially correct the full reality is somewhat different as support for other parties certainly exists within this constituency.  A large national survey in 1998, for example, found that 37% of Australians who attend church would vote Liberal while 35% would vote Labor, while of those who never went to church 40 per cent said they would vote Labor and 30 per cent Liberal.[6]

In the short term the results of the 2004 election appear to support conventional wisdom as the influence of the Christian vote was seen as significant and the main winners were Family First (which got one representative into the Senate and which is strongly associated with the Pentecostal Assemblies of God) and the Coalition (which won government).  But the actual effectiveness of the so-called Christian vote is debatable as Family First’s electoral success can also be put down to a very advantageous set of preference deals which are unlikely to be repeated. And in the struggle between the Coalition and Labor the long term beneficiary of this new situation where there is a much more public debate about the relationship of faith and public policy and political parties is less likely to be the party currently with the ascendancy (the Coalition) than those who are currently underperforming in that area (Labor and maybe, although less certainly, other parties of the left, such as the Greens).  It has been advantageous to the Coalition parties for the conventional wisdom about faith, preferred parties and relevant polices to be undisturbed.   But anything which encourages greater direct political engagement by Christians is likely to disturb the apparent alliance between faith and conservative politics. Whatever electoral advantage the Howard Government has had (and some, like the ANU’s John Warhurst see it as ‘an important element in Howard’s dominance’[7]) it is more likely to be eroded than enhanced by close examination.

The strength of the previously unexamined assumptions prior to the election was made clear during the 2004 election period when negotiations to present EA’s election analysis on a current affairs program on one Christian broadcaster broke down because they objected to any process which gave room for discussion of non-conservative parties.  This kind of approach helps explain (but does not justify) the vehement response of some commentators and politically active people to the development of a public faith and politics dialogue. The assumption is that it will replicate the situation in the United States where, commentator Terry Lane, says, “belief in the Almighty and the ongoing maintenance of American national identity are inseparable. Nowhere is this more evident and dangerous than in the fusion of evangelical Christianity and extreme-right imperialism that now controls the levers of American power.” The movement is secretive and domineering. Lane’s advice is ‘Be afraid!’[8]

The reality is quite different.  Those who draw direct and sensationalist comparisons can point to some examples and specific situations to support their case but the general situation on the ground is more diverse and quite different.  Australia is not the US and the Australian character is not as amenable to the intense approach which appears to function in the US.  The connection of eschatology and millennial belief with politics does not operate in the same way here. Few Australian evangelical Christians could even correctly describe millennial positions and generalisations about influences across the Pacific are often misconstrued.[9] This is not to say that something along the lines of Sojourner’s ‘God is not a Republican…. or a Democrat’ campaign is not helpful in the Australian situation.  Moreover, the distinction between evangelical Christians and the mainstream can be over-stressed. While many evangelical-charismatic-pentecostal believers are members of specifically evangelical, charismatic and pentecostal churches many others are found as part of mainstream churches.

The way in which Christians relate faith and politics can be understood as an issue that is closely related to their theology of the kingdom.  Christians of the political right tend to have a different philosophy of engagement with social issues than those of the political left.  Those on the left are more likely to engage in action within existing groups and parties (seeing the kingdom at work in the world) and to do so as Christians less overtly than those on the right.  Those on the right seem to be more likely to form their own group or party (seeing the kingdom work through the overt, identifiable faith of the church) and thus become more noticeable to both the Christian community and the general public. In other words, Christians are involved in both left and right (and a number of other directions as well), but tend to do so in different ways.  Obviously this is a generalisation, but one which is perhaps not too unjust.

Personal faith in politics

Traditionally, the faith of politicians has largely been seen as a private matter but during the 2004 election the issue of personal faith and involvement in political life began to become more public.  It produced some tensions and comparisons were drawn as political leaders responded in various ways and with varying levels of ease to direct questions about their own faith.  As the faith question emerged there was some angst among politicians. In our preparation of material for last year’s Federal election EA asked all political parties to provide an article responding to the question, ‘Why should a Christian should vote Liberal (or Labour/Australian Democrat/Family First etc)?”.  But, despite repeated requests, we were spectacularly unsuccessful in getting them. We ended up with only two contributions from seven major parties and there was clearly resistance from a number of quarters.

In attempting to assess the nature of this problem during the election we consulted one former political party backroom analyst who helpfully suggested that party-related Christians did not want to put anything down on paper that would expose them to criticism from their enemies…. and of course, he observed, their real enemies were in their own party!

Nonetheless, personal faith issues came to the fore and there is no doubt that some Christians were influenced by the public declarations of faith (and non-faith) made by various politicians at the prompting of the media. They lauded politicians – mainly from the Coalition – such as John Howard, John Anderson and Peter Costello who were prepared to identify as Christians and, consequently. The influence of a politician’s personal faith among evangelical Christians was evident in a brief flurry of post-election laudatory comments and emails from various Christian organisations that perceived the coalition win as a victory of the faithful.

Their appreciation of the openness of politicians regarding their faith inevitably encourages more faith sharing among other politicians but it remains a difficulty for many.  Alexander Downer who commented, ‘Well look I’m not going to get publicly into talking about my own interpretation of Christianity… because I think that’s actually an intensely personal thing.’  That understanding means that it is logical for Downer to criticise Kevin Rudd for being more open about his faith and for him to claim that it is being done only for electoral advantage, ‘The point I’d make about Kevin Rudd is that only since the last election has he seen it as important for him to go out and proclaim himself a Christian.’[10] Of course, it makes sense for Downer to argue this way if the staus quo advantages the coalition.  As Tony Abbott pointed out, there was at least a perception that up until then there was an electoral advantage in a private view of faith:  “It’s precisely because Howard has never used faith as a sales pitch that people with faith often find him reassuring and trustworthy even if they don’t entirely agree with him.”[11]

But it also makes political sense for Rudd to argue that, “Prior to the last election I tended not to speak about these things at all, because it’s always been my preferred position that you simply remained private about these things… But at the last Federal election things changed radically; you had the emergence of Family First, with strong links to the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches across Australia, providing first preference votes in practically every seat that they contested right across Australia, resulting in many of our good Members of Parliament being defeated. So I thought the time had come, given the Family First phenomenon, and on top of that the increasing evidence of the systematic organisation of right-wing Christianity in Australia by the forces of Liberals and Nationals, the people on our side of the show to start speaking out.”[12]

If you wish to read the rest download the full article via the link above.


[1] Herald Sun (Feb 16, 2004).

[2] http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/speeches/2003/030827_playford.html

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/austory/content/2007/s1910357.htm

[4] http://www.acl.org.au/

[5] According to Joan Woods, from the Family First party and wife of the president of the Assemblies of God church, as reported by Mike Seccombe in ‘Evangelical about Politics’ in the Sydney Morning Herald,  25 September 2004.

[6] P. Hughes, Can Christians make a difference? Christian faith and society http://ea.org.au/election/aCanChristians.htm

[7] John Warhurst, Religion in 21st century Australian National Politics, (Australian Senate Occasional lecture Series, May, 2006)

[8] Terry Lane, ‘Perspective’ in The Age (April 17, 2005)

[9] Tom Sine, ‘The Rise of the Religious Right’ BriefCACE (24 August, 2005) http://www.ridley.unimelb.edu.au/study/index.php?option=displaypage&Itemid=251&op=page

[10] Andrew Downer, Australian Story, (30 April, 2007) http://www.abc.net.au/austory/content/2007/s1910357.htm

[11] Tony Abbott, Speech Notes, (30 October 2006) http://www.tonyabbott.com.au/news/article.aspx?ID=1028

[12] Kevin Rudd on ‘Kevin Rudd: The God Factor’, Compass, (May 8 2005)

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