The recent national conference of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) raises broader political questions. The event was held in Canberra and featured Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as keynote speaker.
The ACL will not go away. Despite serious academic criticism from Professor Rodney Smith of the University of Sydney questioning its claims to political influence, it is now established in the top echelon of lobbying groups.
Media reports noted that appearances at ACL conferences 'have become something of a political rite of passage in recent years'. That is a major achievement. Since Kevin Rudd and John Howard agreed to an ACL-sponsored forum prior to the 2007 election other leaders have followed almost routinely. Julia Gillard did withdraw under provocation from the 2012 conference but she made time for an interview with Jim Wallace of ACL prior to the 2010 election. On that occasion Rudd and Tony Abbott had already featured in the pre-election debate in June 2010 just days before Gillard ousted Rudd.
Like most other pressure groups the ACL, founded in 1995, boosts itself shamelessly in its search for donations and members. It claims to be a 'Voice for Values' and boasts 30,000 members. It reckons it has become 'one of the premier political lobbies in the country' and that it is 'growing in size and influence'. These are big claims, but measured by its growth and positioning ACL has been successful.
First it has effectively taken over the term ‘Christian’ in politics, though it does not claim to be the peak Christian voice. The name says it all. The major churches are fading by comparison, their image blighted by child sex abuse and falling attendances.
It is a sleight of hand, of course, to infer that the 64 per cent of Australians who are Census Christians subscribe to the ACL agenda. Half of them are Christian only in name and the other half includes many progressive Christians who do not accept at all any purported representation by the conservative ACL. But church leaders, like the new Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, also on this year’s program, have enhanced ACL’s image.
Secondly, it has demonstrated professionalism and creativity. It has invested in its future through its Lachlan Macquarie internship program and done innovative things, like broadcasting leaders’ debates before federal elections.
Thirdly, it has continued to attract Australia’s political leaders to its conferences. Politicians respond to opportunities so their presence is always a good test of potential group influence. ACL conferences are now on the political circuit even for those wary of them.
This is the first general lesson for politicians trying to reach as wide an audience as possible. The middle ground can be reached through unsympathetic audiences. Centrist voters follow the media reports that emanate from such events. This wider audience is always more important than the relatively small group in attendance. Labor MP, Shayne Neumann, who also spoke at the conference (in support of constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians, a cause ACL supports), was right to praise Shorten for his decision to speak.
But the second lesson is that there are costs for centre-left leaders addressing such groups. They certainly must be careful not to alienate their own core constituency in doing so. More importantly they must take care to be true to themselves by not exaggerating the place of faith in their own lives when they engage with faith communities. They should always stick to their own ground not that of their audience.
Shorten started with a story about getting advice from his local priest at Moonee Ponds about beginning his speech with something from the Scriptures (it turned out to be the Beatitudes). He ended with a long quote from Wesley and in the middle quoted John Fitzgerald Kennedy about leaders being responsible to all faiths but obligated to none.
Only those who know Shorten well can say whether he was really being true to himself. My advice to any speechwriter working for a leader who is not deeply religious is never to lay religion on too thick. There is a thin line between respecting the values of your audience and being untrue to yourself. The personal remains dangerous political territory.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.
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Father John George
03 November 2014
The article is strong on negative innuendo but weak on specifics'.
I note The ACL is politically active in Australia as a socially conservative lobbying organisation. They have been involved in several controversies, including censorship and LGBT issues such as same-sex marriage and adoption and parenting.
So what's the big deal? We are a free democracy no kristallnacht or progroms so far!
04 November 2014
Wise words here. Kevin Rudd's ownership of Christian faith was totally counterproductive for him when a yawning gulf developed between his faith claims and the way he treated others. Better for public persons to under promise in matters of faith and over deliver.
04 November 2014
The Australian Christian Lobby is certainly not as conservative (read "extreme" in the latter case) as something like Rise Up Australia and Catch The Fire Ministries, both led by Danny Nalliah, are. I think this is important for most semi-religiously literate Australians (as, sadly, an increasing proportion of our fellow countrymen and women are) to know. You are correct, many what would have once been unreserved followers of the mainstream Churches (Catholic, Anglican, Uniting and similar) have tended to give their moral support to the ACL, because of the horrific, widespread and appallingly dealt with paedophilia scandals, where the behaviour of Church leaders was atrocious, often seemingly condoning and protecting and totally un-Christian. It has taken back breaking work by inspired leaders like Archbishops Phillip Aspinall and Bill Morris to begin to turn this perception around. Sadly, most Church leaders are not of this calibre. Most conventional Churches are also highly clericalist and hierarchical in leadership - a style in marked contrast to the current Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury. It is no wonder that ACL, with lay leadership of those of the calibre of Jim Wallace, has attracted major support, as it tends to concentrate on major moral and political issues, rather than in house administrative routine as the Churches tend to. They are often boring and irrelevant.
04 November 2014
It's very sad that the the ACL's only "Christian" message to the world, and it's main message and preoccupation is about opposing same-sex marriage. Is there anything else they have to say?
04 November 2014
Christianity and Political Lobby Groups make unlikely bed-fellows. The ACL seems to be embracing Christian values as a means of attracting votes. Clive Evatt discovered that in his time attacking Catholics would gain more votes than it would lose. While no mention is here made of Islam, the implication is readily available. When Islam is mentioned the great contributions made by Islam are rarely mentioned. The Enlightenment is credited with the uplifting of Europe from the Dark Ages. But where did the Enlightenment come from? From the Muslims who had preserved the Classical learning that the Christians had effectively wiped out. A Political Lobby
Group would do better to embrace a more inclusive Title and Agenda
04 November 2014
Catholic leaders in this country would be well advised to learn from the recent history of the alliance to counter Obama Care. This coalition of between the US Catholic hierarchy the evangelical far Right. This arrangement was soundly rejected at the last presidential election has gone belly up probably as a result of the last papal election. The culture warriors within the US bishops conference had enjoyed the ideological support of the theist and deist NeoCons, Catholic social conservatives like the Acton Institute, The Napa Institute, Legatus, Crisis Magazine etc but that has become well and truly unravelled. The consistent preaching of Francis has affirmed and validated the Social Gospel in the Scriptures, in the Popes especially since Leo XIII, economic distributism with its justifiable criticism of the cynical principle of the trickle down economics and the Gutierrez vision of Liberation Theology. One has only to read the journals of Catholic conservative to see the toxic levels of hostility generated against Francis with the attendant rage and resentment, All the Australian Bishops need to do is to publish another brace of statements affirming their condemnation of hard line free market economics, denial of climate change tendencies, the out of control plundering by banks, privatised utilities and the dramatically growing divide between the obscenely wealthy and the struggling poor. I wager the Catholic arrangement with the ACL would disintegrate very quickly indeed.
Rev John Smith
04 November 2014
Thank you for a well balanced article. I have been labelled a 'progressive'Christian and as such I have a great concern that the majority of the Australian public believe all Christians adhere to the elitist, homophobic, judgemental and conservative approach of the ACL. We certainly need an alternative Christian voice that speaks with reason and compassion on political and social matters and represents the majority of Christian adherents such as the "A Progressive Christian Voice (Australia)".
05 November 2014
I am not sure the silent majority of Christians in this country, underwhelmed and alienated as they feel from their Churches and putative leaders, would subscribe to either extreme as represented by Pastor Danny Nalliah or the self-confessed "progressive" and rather dubiously claimed "majority" as exemplified by the Rev John Smith. Therein lies the problem. You need real exemplars such as the current Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury who genuinely put the Christ back into Christianity not grandstanders who seem more interested in their dubious theologies or pet social causes than the real stuff. Aye, there's the rub.
05 November 2014
This body does not speak for me, although it is possible that some of their views may be ones I also hold. It is a Protestant organisation. Some of the comments here repeat the tired old complaint that the mainstream churches have 'failed', are scandal-ridden, too 'clerical' etc. Catholics must stay true to our core beliefs and by all means cooperate with other groups from time to time. I much prefer the Centre for Public Christianity, also primarily a Protestant group, but not narrow-minded, judgemental and negative, and of a much higher intellectual calibre than the so called Christian Lobby. as for the unseemly spectacle of politicians trying to court, placate, cosy up to, this group, it is distasteful in the extreme.
Neil De Cruz
05 November 2014
Anyone whose opinion is worth anything will know that the ACL is not a one issue group. They have been focussed on several different battles, including Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Peoples, Increasing the Refugee Intake, Persecution of Christian Minorities in Islamic Countries, Freedom of Conscience for Doctors forced to refer patients for terminations, Foreign Aid.... Only the ignorant at best, or those who can't bear to see orthodox Christianity thrive, at worst would denigrate the ACL by labelling them a one-issue group or a right wing group. Their existence transcends ideologies and is only motivated by ensuring that Christ like ideals are placed first and foremost in the public square.....Good on them!!!
06 November 2014
Thank you Neil De Cruz for your accurate description of the work of ACL. I am a Catholic and a long standing member of ACL- membership is across the denominations.I know other Catholic members.The ACL is non- political and as Neil says upholds Christ like ideals in the public square.I also say an emphatic good on them!!
07 November 2014
John Warhurst must be commended for prefacing his article with the clip of the ACL spokesperson at the Conference in Canberra thereby allowing the organisation to speak for itself. As I said in my previous post, I think it is a grave mistake to put the ACL at the "extreme" end of Christianity and thereby parody/disparage them, hopefully into insignificance or irrelevance. This is a cheap rhetorical trick and unworthy of the people who attempt it. I am not a member of ACL and do not, necessarily, see eye to eye with them on every issue. However, I am impressed by people like Jim Wallace. Many/most of them I would surmise are members of mainstream Churches. That may be a concern to proponents, both clerical and lay, within those same Churches of what is now termed Liberal Christianity and what was once known in Anglican (and other) circles as Modernism. Liberal Christianity can also be parodied as "Christianity Lite". "Homophobia", I fear - a very nasty thing which I don't condone nor ever have in any way - is often used as a bludgeon to metaphorically beat the opponents of Liberal Christianity who often differ from its proponents because they are more committed to the traditional Christian doctrinal issues which the Catholic Church adheres to.