Reflections on Gillard's atheism

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The making of Julia Gillard, by Jacqueline Kent

An atheist political leader is counter-cultural in most religious/Christian nations. Their atheism is seen as an obstacle to election to leadership positions or at least a curiosity. A recent American Gallup Poll found that 94 per cent of respondents would vote for a black president, 93 per cent for a woman, 67 per cent for a gay person, but only 49 per cent for an atheist.

Prior to her election as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard's beliefs about religion attracted relatively little attention. Jacqueline Kent's biography mentions that the Gillards were 'not a particularly religious family, but church membership did increase their social circle'.

They had joined a Baptist church, apparently because one of their neighbours was the minister. But, in this telling, their attachment appeared not to have been of the higher order of the families of other modern political figures of similar persuasion, such as Peter Costello and John Hewson.

Kent quotes Gillard pre-PM as saying 'I'm not any kind of religious person', and describes the leadership contest as featuring a 'conservative Catholic versus a woman who has declared she doesn't have a religious bone in her body'. But she rings no political warning bells.

Yet because of her straightforward declaration in response to a question, in an ABC interview with Jon Faine shortly afterwards, that she was an atheist, her unbelief has been an issue throughout her period in office. It has become an established, though low-key, element of her persona.

She said at the time that she did not believe in God and was not a religious person. She would not pretend to believe in God or go through religious rituals for the sake of appearance to attract religiously inclined voters.

I am not going to pretend a faith I don't feel. I am what I am and people will judge that. For people of faith, I think the greatest compliment I could pay to them is to respect their genuinely held beliefs and not to engage in some pretence about mine.

I grew up in the Christian church, a Christian background. I won prizes for catechism, for being able to remember Bible verses. I am steeped in that tradition, but I've made decisions in my adult life about my own views.

Discussion quickly followed about the likely impact of her beliefs on both voting and policy. Opinions differed. The Sydney Morning Herald readers poll on the question 'Will Julia Gillard's atheism make her more open-minded on policy?' was evenly split. Rob Chalmers was confident she 'will not be hurt by revealing (when questioned, note) she is an atheist'.

Gillard then developed her position further on a number of occasions. These included her swearing an oath as an MP, her approach to a parliamentary prayer service and her attitude to religious celebrations such a Christmas.

At the church service to begin the 2010 parliamentary term Gillard chose not to read a lesson but to delegate the task to her deputy Wayne Swan. Though she did challenge Tony Abbott to a scripture recitation challenge in March 2011.

As a consequence she has had to put up with petty jibes about her use of common religious language, which is difficult for anyone to avoid given how much Christianity is embedded in Australian language and culture.

Two former Labor advisers and speech-writing experts, Michael Fullilove and Denis Glover, refer to this issue in reference to the use of Biblical language in speeches and to common phrases like 'we are praying for you'. Glover believes Gillard should be able to borrow images from the Bible, which come naturally to her given her background. Fullilove believes that as a representative of the nation she is under no obligation as an atheist to avoid religious language.

She also made clear that she would maintain her predecessor Kevin Rudd's position on a number of policies that had been linked to church-state issues. These included support for the controversial national chaplaincy program, which has been challenged in the High Court, and opposition to same sex marriage, which has been advocated by successive Labor state conferences.

By 2011 public references regularly noted the complexity and possible contradictions of Gillard's position. For instance Tom Dusevic notes: 'Gillard is a non-believer who knows her Bible stories, an unmarried republican fresh from the Will and Kate extravaganza, a one-time leftie trying to win over business people.'

Belief and unbelief in Australian politics and society

Contemporary Australian society has an ambivalent attitude towards religion and this has been the case for quite some time. Intense belief is not the norm and various commentators have pointed to the luke-warm character of the nation's Christian belief.

Tom Frame quotes the poet Les Murray as describing the religious tendency of the majority as 'Residual Christianity', and the opinion of political scientist Michael Hogan that 'the majority of Australians have not been particularly religious or irreligious'.

He himself concludes that the prevalent attitude of Australians might be best described as 'Christian agnosticism'; the community can participate in quasi-religious 'civic liturgies', like Anzac Day services, 'without being particularly religious'.

The 2006 Census showed that at least 30 per cent of Australians should be characterised as non-religious, either because they chose the 'No religion' category or because they declined to answer the optional question. This may be an underestimate because of the form of the Census.

But declared atheism as such is much weaker. Only a much smaller number, 63,000, identified as atheists, rationalists, humanists or agnostics.

David Nicholls, president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, reflects on residual, though probably declining, odium and fear of 'outing oneself' associated with public atheism. This is the context in which Gillard presented herself to the Australian community as an atheist. The majority probably does not care, but it is still not a common step to take.

Australian PMs since Federation have been extremely varied as far as their religious beliefs are concerned. For less than half of them has religiosity been a clear aspect of their personality. In this way PMs have been a cross-section of the Australian community.

Church attendance and denominational affiliation are generally associated with a vote for the Coalition parties, which have a greater public association with religious belief, specifically Protestantism. It was this association that Kevin Rudd tried to lessen, perhaps with some success in 2007. On the other hand non-believers clearly and disproportionately support Labor.

In the 2010 elections Bean and McAllister report that religious denomination was one of four socio-demographic variables that had a significant effect on the vote (albeit of very modest size). Catholics showed a greater inclination to vote Liberal-National than Protestants. They point out that this reverses the traditional association between religion and the vote; but this traditional link had already been broken in some other recent federal elections, beginning with 1996.

Within the Labor Party religious belief, especially Catholicism, has been associated with the Right faction. In NSW Labor circles, reference is frequently made to the Catholic Right, and in many states the SDA union, including SDA-linked federal MPs, is strongly Catholic.

The Labor Left faction is more secular, but secular beliefs are not restricted to the Left. The Australian Candidates Survey reported that 42 per cent of Labor candidates described themselves as having no religion or faith. Gillard is certainly not unusual in this regard within the Caucus.

Gillard is a member of the generally secular Labor Left. What's more she is not only pro-choice on abortion rights and a member of Emily's List but was one of its founding members.

The association of religious belief with the Labor Right has become clearer in modern times. Church attending believers are mostly concentrated on the Right and conscience votes on social issues in the Federal Parliament over the last decade have generally revealed that, not surprisingly, the social conservatives are generally religious believers and social progressives much less so.

Gillard's agnostic Labor predecessors

I have introduced the agnostic strand among Australian Labor Prime Ministers in an earlier talk. Labor, despite being the party of Catholics for 40 years, is also the party of agnostics. Agnosticism is acceptable for Labor leaders within the party in a way that does not apply to the Liberals, where Christian adherence is more the norm.

The three most prominent prime ministers in this category are, following Billy Hughes at the time of WW1, John Curtin, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke.

Of the three Hawke has given the most extended explanation of his loss of Christian faith, which occurred during and after travelling as a young man with a Christian group in India as a member of a delegation to the World Conference of Christian Youth. For the other two the explanation was more intellectual and seems to have occurred even earlier during their secondary education.

Curtin is described by Geoffrey Serle as 'a tolerant rationalist'. There is a sense in which he replaced his Christian faith with his attachment to socialism. According to Serle, 'Labor and Australia were his two causes'. Curtin also rejected his Irish heritage.

Towards the end of his life he began to add 'God bless you' to the conclusion of his public speeches. Perhaps, speculates Serle, he was 'groping towards religious consolation'.

Whitlam, whose parents were staunch Presbyterians, made an intellectual departure as a schoolboy. He said, in typical fashion, that he had no working relationship with God, but 'an intense interest in the Judaeo-Christian religion.

After he entered Parliament in 1953 the Labor Party was mired in the Labor Split that led to the emergence of the Democratic Labor Party. He had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the divisive interaction of religious beliefs and politics.

He, like other Labor figures of his generation and even later, was disinclined to court trouble by speaking about their religious beliefs in public. This attitude was shared by many ordinary Australians and became part of entrenched Australian cultural attitudes.

At Canberra Grammar School Whitlam won the divinity prize but it was held back by the headmaster because of his evident lack of faith. Although he once described himself as a fellow traveller with Christianity he told his biographer Laurie Oakes that after attending St Paul's university college in Sydney he only went to church once more and that was to be married.

Hawke, 'a child of the Manse', made his agnosticism even more public than Whitlam, reflecting his much more open character. Later, in 1988, as he recalls in his autobiography, he made a remarkable outburst against the irrationality of Christian beliefs in the course of defending Aboriginal spiritual beliefs from attack at the time of the Coronation Hill mining debate.

To what extent has negative public attention been given to the beliefs, as distinct from the actions, of Australia's agnostic prime ministers? The short answer appears to be not much despite Whitlam's policy initiatives, including removing tax from the contraceptive pill and being pro-choice on abortion, and Hawke's well-known colourful lifestyle. Hawke was an extremely popular and long-serving PM.

Gillard vs Abbott

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, a practising conservative Catholic, each challenge the Australian mainstream in regard to religious beliefs. Arguably Gillard is to the left of the mainstream and Abbott to the right.

Abbott's presence highlights Gillard's beliefs in a way that a less religious opposition leader would not. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, given the bitterness of their relationship, they have steered away from arguments about belief and unbelief during the current contest.

Nevertheless they do offer a clearer contrast to voters in the way that Howard and Rudd did not because both seemed religious. Earlier agnostic prime ministers, like Whitlam and Hawke, were not faced with a clearly religious opponent as Bill McMahon, Bill Snedden, Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock were not notably religious themselves.

Electoral implications

There is mixed evidence to go on, macro and micro, for the political impact. The Australian Election Study of the 2010 election shows some evidence that Gillard's atheism made a difference to Labor's support among believers after a campaign when some religious leaders, such as the Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Barry Hickey, drew attention to it in the context of growing secularism in society.

Ian McAllister suggests the modest trend increase in the association between church attendance and a Coalition vote, after years of consistent decline, 'probably reflects the differing appeals of Gillard and Abbott to church attenders; Gillard's agnosticism clearly appealed to voters who never attend church, while Abbott's Catholicism appealed to frequent attenders'.

The contrast with the Rudd-Howard 2007 election, when Rudd closed the gap, is noticeable.

One study during the 2010 election conducted in the electorate of Eden-Monaro, suggests, on the other hand, that Gillard's atheism is not much of a disadvantage and may even be an advantage.

The Canberra Times-Patterson poll in Eden-Monaro, subsequently held by Labor, concluded that the religious views of the leaders when it mattered slightly favoured Gillard. It calculated that the net pro-Labor influence was 12 per cent while the net pro-Liberal influence was 9 per cent.

Women, those under 35 and Green voters were three categories noticeably drawn to Labor because of the religious factor, while men and over 35s were more evenly split.

Policy implications

Gillard is an example of a leader's personal beliefs being overshadowed by political and bureaucratic judgment. Her example calls into question the easy assumption, made during the Howard and Rudd periods, that religious equals conservative and atheist equals radical on social and other policies.

Her role in church-state relations has been business-like, even comfortable. This seems to include social and professional relations with Cardinal George Pell of the Catholic Church and Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Most recently she has personally intervened to appoint Monsignor David Cappo, Vicar-General of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide, to head the new Mental Health Commission, though he subsequently resigned.

The Government does have decisions to make later this year which may test the relationship. This includes not only same sex marriage but also the future of education funding, a traditional arena of church-state relations, following the Gonski Review. This outcome will be of great significance to the churches and to religious lobbies.

Conclusion

Unbelief, expressed as agnosticism, is not unusual among Labor prime ministers. It is also quite common within the Australian community.

But Gillard's atheism is one of a number of personal characteristics that set her apart. She is just a little bit different, a person who challenges social mores rather than quietly accepting them: first woman PM, first unmarried PM living in a de facto relationship, and first unequivocally atheist PM.

In policy matters it has yet to make much apparent difference. The church community lobbyists largely bother about policy outcomes, not the personal beliefs of those in government. They are pragmatists in that regard.

In electoral matters that may be the case too, though the Australian Election Study raises the alternative possibility that religious voters were put off by Gillard's atheism.

In a more general sense it has complicated the projection of the so-called 'Real Julia' to the community. The majority is still notionally Christian, even though church attendance has declined dramatically. The task of presenting herself as 'one of us' has been made more difficult, because explaining the connection between her beliefs and her policy positions has become more complex. 


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist. This is an edited version of 'Australia's atheist prime minister: Julia Gillard's unbelief in historical context', a paper delivered to the annual conference of the Australian Political Studies Association, Old Parliament House, Canberra, on 26 September 2011.

 

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Julia Gillard, atheism

 

 

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Existing comments

The historian and writer, the late Niall Brennan had it right about the fanatical edge of the kind of religion that has some adherents who do not mix in well with people of other beliefs or of little or none in respect to God. Christian Faith is about understanding and accepting people who do not hold all that we hold because polticis is about the art of persuasive discussion and of developing possibilities.

It is not about a religious bi-polarity in which a divisive winner take all and hostility prevail. Rome, along with the majority of Australian Catholic bishops, in their pre Vatican II wisdom, did not have 'voting guides' to 'help' the faithful in casting their votes. This is as it should be. It is up to the faithful with prudence and with the Church's full respect for their socio-economic backgrounds to have a very broad permeation of the faithful, like leaven in the dough, taking on the widest scope of policy areas in the political party of their choice.

This new self-referencing American form of Catholic culture wars is a false insinuation against people who desire to enter the ALP and make it better. Simple as that.
Michael Webb | 14 October 2011


On the topic of cults in general, consider the notion of the Cult of Personality: Religionists are fond of pointing to a historical handful of high-achieving charismatic psychopaths - the usual suspects; Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. - as emblematic of how a nongodfearing leader behaves. But history is also littered with devout mass murderers placing themselves at the center of influence.

What distinguishes atheists is that we hold up no personalities, not even such allegedly benign ones as Moses, Jesus or Mohamed, but rather like true conservatives we put principles first, such as the rule of law.

If some 10% of the U.S. population eschews responsibility to sundry gods and devils, at least 30 million people, why are they not running rampant in the streets wreaking havoc and destruction? Why are there not atheist street gangs or an atheist mafia? Why is it almost impossible to find a conscientious atheist in prison?

Because, as that preeminent poet of our era, Bob Dylan, has said. "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
Marty Kay Zee | 15 October 2011


ATHEISM

The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs.

The ironic and self-defeating orderly appeal to reason for the existence of a reasonless universe without order, whose purpose is to evidence that there is no purpose, and whose morality is to
argue that we should teach that there are no morals except that which they have reasoned for their purpose, which in turn, produces the ultimate emotional articulation of self-centredness which is fearfully bent towards the cover-up and suppression of belief an an ultimate
personal cause who brings order, purpose and judgement to all things

Makes perfect sense.

The devil himself, who, of course, is the author of the lies of Atheism and Modernity and the architect of a world of madness that has convinced many Catholics that there is something short of Catholicism that can stop the lies being told by the naturalists of the "left" to thwart their anti-Incarnational cousins in the naturalist "right" from winning the farce called elections. Readers of Eureka St. know that Catholicism is the one and only foundation of personal and social order.


Trent | 17 October 2011


John Warhurst shows all the objectivity and careful research one would expect from a Professor of Political Science in analysing the impact of religious belief (or lack of it) in a functioning pluralistic democratic society such as Australia is.

One area that I find puzzling is the behaviour the average punter expects from an atheist as distinct from what is expected from a publicly visible practising Christian (and a catholic to boot).
Those punters that I meet seem to a
ccept that Gillard's behaviour is consistent with the transparency with which she admits her atheism. She seems to approach issues with honesty, open-mindedness and willingness to act for the common good - without any religious prejudices.

Abbott, on the other hand, seems to approach issues with half-truths and exaggerations, a closed mind, and with the interests of the better off in society in mind. His aggressive and negative style does not gel with the model one would expect was set before him by his Jesuit and ecclesiastic mentors.

Gillard is lucky in that regard. She has no atheist icon to live up.

But maybe Abbott seeks to reclaim the Holy Land of Australia by a 21st century crusade.
Uncle Pat | 17 October 2011


A rather ho-hum description of a not-very-good politician, Gillard.

Like so many religionists, the author uses 'secular' as if it were the same as 'atheist', ignoring the broader and more accurate definition, that a 'secular' society is one that tolerates a range of views, religious and non, and is therefore a pre-requisite for religious life in Australia.

If the author objects to living in a 'secular' society would he be more at ease living in a
theocracy?

The offending line being this, "growing secularism in society".

As for Gillard, she is just a very shallow person, welded to the machinery of the ALP from university days, and only blurted out her ridiculous 'I am an atheist' statement to distance herself from the odious Rudd attachment to 'being religious'.

Her relations with Wallace and the ACL show her to be deeply afraid of him and them, in her ACL 'interview' just after becoming PM.

It was not long after that that she declared her 'values' to have come from her Baptist upbringing, as big a Porkie as Pinnochio produced!

However, she is not alone in parliaments in this nation in her ability to pretend one thing and live another quite different reality.
Harry Wilson | 17 October 2011


I am sure that god prefers the humility and empathy displayed by Julia Gillard to the cold hearted supporters of people smugglers. I am sure that the hottest places of hell are reserved for hypocrites like Kevin Rudd and other church going supporters of the deadly people trade.
Beat Odermatt | 17 October 2011


"god prefers the humility and empathy displayed by Julia Gillard", umm, like how she supports the continued detention of children in Australian jails, caught as crew on the boats bringing refugees to our shores while she clearly felt the need to send a rather shallow message to punters when she rang, and leaked the fact,the child in Bali?

Such humility, such empathy.
Harry Wilson | 17 October 2011


Both John and many of the posters here seem to think that religion and politics is a bipolar affair - Christians on one side, non-believers on the other. But Australia is no longer so simple. We now have more Buddhists than Baptists, more Muslims than Pentecostalists, more Hindus than Jews. Non-believers and non-Christian believers accounted for about 37% of the population in 2006, and I expect that will have increased substantially by the 2011 census. How will non-Christian believers respond to a 'practicing conservative Catholic' compared with a 'member of the generally secular Labor Left'? The answer is not obvious to me. I'd be interested in John's views on this.
Ginger Meggs | 18 October 2011


I hope Trent is not suggesting or even thinks that 'readers of Eureka St know that Catholicism is the one & only foundation of personal & social order'. I neither know nor believe this & I am sure I am not alone. I read Eureka St for its excellent journalism & interesting & broad views; nothing to do with its Catholicism or even Christianity (I espouse neither).
rosemary west | 23 October 2011


People seem to forget that most atheists are not anti-God, but anti-Theists. Theists put up a concept of God that is necessarily biassed by their particular culture and view-point, with all the ramifications involved. Christians, Muslims and Jews have all been called atheists when they rejected the 'gods' of different Establishments. Instead of judging people by lables, they should be judged by the effects they produce. There is just a grain of truth in the saying, "Everywhere good people do good things, and bad people do bad things. But to get good people to do bad things, you need religion."
Robert Liddy | 30 March 2012


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