Although Christians are an extremely diverse group, successful political lobbying depends on common priorities. But Christians, who share many basic beliefs, rarely agree on what they really want from government. They can occasionally be successful as individual churches, but agreement between churches is still the exception.
That was the context for the Make it Count 2010 forum hosted by the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) at Old Parliament House last Monday night. The theme was 'What values will define the nation after the election'? Kevin Rudd, in one of his final public appearances, and Tony Abbott addressed Christian leaders with a webcast live to churches around the country. This follows the successful formula used by ACL for Rudd and John Howard in 2007.
The winning formula depends on organising ability and credibility. Political leaders go where they see voters.
Then a group needs the clout to bring its leaders to Canberra to be part of the political theatre. Religious leaders take the risk of submerging their own identities within a carefully crafted Christian consensus.
They must also ask themselves how this event fits in with their own election plans. Each of the major churches, Anglican, Catholic and Uniting, issue its own election advice directly to its members, as do other Christian groups.
Reconciling priorities is always difficult. Ultimately, whether it is beliefs or values, priority is what matters. Rodney Smith of the University of Sydney has calculated that the various 2007 Christian election guides raised as many as 47 separate issues. He concluded, in How would Jesus Vote? that, 'rather than speaking in unison, churches and para-church groups were competing to draw attention to different issues'.
The final factor is establishing links to churches across Australia who can sign up their own congregations. The chance to be involved is marketed as an opportunity to 'weigh up the major political parties' policies and to pray as a church for the election'.
Last time the ACL followed up with meetings at the grassroots level in 52 federal electorates. It also consulted its own Christian membership, advocating that the top five Christian priorities, a mixture of social justice and social conservatism, were: support for traditional marriage and family; fighting poverty in Australia; opposing abortion; addressing drug and/or substance abuse, and ameliorating third world poverty.
This year's forum was again a technically sound and well-organised occasion, though the elevation of Julia Gillard means that the Christian lobby jumped the gun and will now need to engage afresh with the new Prime Minister. Gillard is a non-religious person quite different from Rudd and Abbott. But Abbott did firmly tell the forum that he was not a Christian politician but a Christian in politics and that, if elected, he would lead an orthodox Coalition government not one distinguished by religious beliefs.
The broad representation at Old Parliament House and among the participating churches around the country was impressive, though still clearly tilted towards smaller evangelical churches and socially conservative Christians rather than the big established churches. But no church had more senior representation than the Catholic Church. Both Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, and Cardinal George Pell of Sydney participated.
The follow-up questions asked of each leader covered seven topics: Indigenous affairs and the Northern Territory Intervention, the continuation of parliamentary prayers, the treatment of asylum seekers, defence of traditional marriage and opposition to same sex unions, the continuation of the school chaplaincy program, the alarming sexualisation of young girls, and climate change issues.
Although priorities among participants would certainly vary, the format treated all items equally. Some of these questions would have graced any secular forum while others clearly played to church audiences. Some, including climate change, welfare and asylum seekers, will be mainstream election issues. Others will interest only specialist audiences.
There are two questions for individual churches and agencies. The first is how to intervene in the forthcoming election, if at all. The second is, if they do intervene, what issues should they prioritise in order to engage with the mainstream contest while remaining true to their Christian principles?
John Warhurst attended this forum. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Flinders University and the author of Behind Closed Doors: Politics, Scandals and the Lobbying Industry (UNSW Press). Pictured: Jim Wallace, Managing Director, ACL
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30 June 2010
Given the chance, Zeus would smite the lot of them - the politicians that is, not the Churches.
Father John Fleming
30 June 2010
Beyond broad advice I cannot see how the mainstream Churches as institutions can give anything other than the broad general advice they always give where elections are concerned. After all, the Churches have to deal with which ever party wins government.
But private Christian lobby groups are a different matter. They can make a difference, particularly in marginal seats. To say Christians are a diverse lot, apart from stating the bleeding obvious, is also to completely miss the point. If enough Christians agree politically and are organised, then they can make a difference. Which is why political leaders do well not to gratuitously offend religious believers as Mark Latham so famously did a couple of elections ago.
Ms Gillard may not be "religious". That does not mean that she does not understand the power of an organised religious political movement.
30 June 2010
Most people may regard Rudd and Abbott as moderate people with basic decent set of values based to some extent on their Christian upbringing. These values were the target of great hatred from the most dangerous elements of society, the Nihilists.
Nihilists have infiltrated many powerful organisations in Australia and are happy to see the increase in tension between various religions and ethnic groups. Will Gillard try to maintain some values or open the door wider to the ambition of Nihilists?
30 June 2010
Last Sunday on Songs of Praise (ABC/TV) a Belfast comedian gave his opinion on why The Troubles persisted in Nortern Ireland. He said words to the effect: there are plenty of Catholics; there are plenty of Protestants; there just aren't enough Christians.
The same is true with regard to Australian politics - without the physical violence.
The Australian Christian Lobby it seems to me has tried to highjack some form of national unity with the term Australian - just as the ALP has; some form of religious unity with the amorphous term Christian; and some form of overt politicking with the democratically acceptable term Lobby, when in actual fact it is an organisation using moral blackmail.
As a cradle catholic the only Christian life I have tried to live is that made possible through the sacraments. This requires me to put on that mind which was in Christ Jesus.
I didn't see much of that coming out in the ACL forum. So as a practising Christian I cannot endorse the pressure group tactics of the ACL
30 June 2010
These groups tend to involve the religious zealots (right wing conservatives)rather than mainstream Christians. As such their views tend to disort what the majority non practising Australian population thinks Christians represent.I find that rather disturbing.
I too can't not get involved with the ACL as their views do not represent mine.
A valuable reflection John.
01 July 2010
I welcome efforts to bring faith-based values into political debate, but it troubles me that there is a tendency for Christian involvement in politics to stray into a social conservatism not actually reflective of the practising Christian community.
The clergy of many churches are much less socially liberal than the faith communities they represent, but because they set the tone of discussions and others wish to avoid conflict, a false consensus is presented.
I am a member of the Baptist Church, and I also support the right of women to control their own fertility, including by abortion. I suspect that many other Christians agree with me, but those who oppose abortion are often very vocal and intimidating. For the ACL to be a genuinely worthwhile group, I think it needs to work harder to genuinely reflect the diversity of opinion within the Christian family.