Governments bearing moral gifts

In her excellent study God under Howard: the Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics Marion Maddox describes in admirable detail the Howard Government’s use of religion for political ends. Since she is less concerned to study the religious right than to analyse the use of religion by the political right, she leaves open questions about the changing relationship between religious faith, secular philosophies and churches in Australian public life today.

By her account, the Howard Government’s major goal has been to promote economic change based on liberal theory. Individuals are increasingly more responsible for their own welfare in a competitive economy, and can expect less support from their own associations or from government programs.  These changes create anxiety. The Howard Government has deflected that anxiety by espousing a conservative social order. It is then able to champion Australian values and to focus popular resentment on ‘people not like us’—those distinctive by race, gender or plight.

In developing her thesis, Maddox describes how this political program derived from the United States and was adapted for use in Australia. Australians are suspicious of an overt appeal to religion in political speech. But they speak easily of values and social attitudes, and are interested in individual spirituality. The influence of explicitly religious groups on public issues is therefore usually masked.

Maddox describes in some detail the importance of the Lyons Forum in the Liberal Party and its strategies. It created cross-party alliances that criticised the ABC coverage of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and later overturned the Northern Territory legislation on euthanasia.

Other religious groups have also invited politicians to their gatherings, and have established informal networks among them. Large religious conventions have also allowed government ministers to endorse these groups and to praise their social values.

The Government has been less accommodating to the mainstream churches, which have generally been critical of the social effects of liberal economic policy. It maintains close connections with institutes, like the Institute of Public Affairs, that are sponsored by business groups and work to counteract church criticism of liberal capitalism. Representatives of these groups often comment in the media on public and religious issues.

The Government also tries to divide the church constituency. It questions the right of church leaders to take moral stands on social issues like refugees or the Iraq war, on the grounds that many church members would not support them. It has also offered patronage to leaders of churches who subtly dissociate themselves from criticism of the liberal economic order. More directly, it has co-opted church groups to carry out tasks that governments had once undertaken. By putting out to competitive tender contracts to administer aged homes or unemployment services, the Government is able to favour groups that lowered its costs by drawing on voluntary labour. It is also able to mute criticism of its policies among these groups by the implicit or explicit threat to remove their funding.

Both in the US and in Australia today, these political strategies seem inexorably successful. The combination of liberal economics and the symbolic endorsement of conservative individual social values has brought electoral success and has marginalised critics.

Maddox demonstrates in detail how political parties use religious and moral beliefs for their own ends. She makes her points easily and persuasively. Her book also suggests a significant cultural shift that preoccupation with the ‘religious right’ conceals. In public life, values concerned with home and intimate relationships formerly lay outside the concern of government and political life, while values to do with equity, economic policy, the treatment of immigrants, and the making of war were part of open political process.

This has changed. Values formerly private have been politicised, while hitherto public values have been privatised. As a result, institutions may now freely push for legislative change on matters previously regarded as reserved for individual choice, whereas institutions that criticise economic liberalism, the treatment of asylum seekers or the Iraq war are attacked and marginalised. Such matters are reserved for the Government and the individual conscience. Churches and other institutions may not properly criticise them.

This significant and subtle change bears reflection. The instinctive response has been to canonise the previous settlement, and so to attack groups that seek to put personal moral issues on to the public agenda. In this response, the phrase ‘religious right’ is easily used as a pejorative, connoting alien roots in the US, and a preference for divisive and manipulative strategies. Critics will also often describe religion in terms of social pathology. Its growth and strength are seen as a neurotic and self-regarding response to social change, regrettable in a properly secular society.

This account is inattentive to the changes in the religious, cultural and political environment in Australia that lead people to join or take part in the services of new religious groups, like Hillsong. We need to know why people with passionate commitments to what Maddox describes as a conservative social agenda take an influential role in established churches, and seek to influence public policy. We also need to know what makes it possible for governments to manipulate the agenda of such groups.

We need to address these questions through conversation with the people themselves, and not simply by making assumptions about what they must be like. In Mannix’s phrase, we must see them as ‘people like us’. This kind of inquiry lies outside the scope of her book. But she offers a model for such reflection when discussing the relationship between Howard and the Methodist Church in which he grew up. She notes the common theories that either derive Howard’s political views from those of an Anglican Church to which he does not belong or, on the basis of stray comments from Methodist spokesmen, that deduce them from the supposed conservative political values of the Methodist Church. They fail to notice that the congregation to which John Howard belonged espoused quite radical views on race and immigration. The tension between his attitudes and those of his church provokes more fertile questions than does the assumed harmony.

I cannot offer a general view on why people join religious groups or adopt strong moral positions. But those to whom I have spoken say unsurprisingly that in their new beliefs they have found something precious. Their acknowledgment of God offered a broader meaning to their lives and some direction in living it. For some, this discovery led them to perceive a lack in Australian society of shared moral values and of encouragement to live well.

Many believe, too, that the moral values, which they espouse, are important not simply for their own lives, but for a healthy and prosperous Australia. Australia would be a better society if, for example, there were greater protection of life at its beginnings and its end, less access to pornography, and more support for marriage as traditionally understood.

It seems a little crude to describe people who have these attitudes as the religious right. Certainly, their moral attitudes are supported by religious beliefs. But in many cases they appear to be shaped by a moral reflection which precedes religious belief, and which would survive even the loss of religious belief and its authorities. The complex relationship between religious faith and moral positions can plausibly be oversimplified by the use of the term Religious, because some church traditions derive their moral positions from the Bible, and will justify them by appeal to the Bible. Their adherents, however, may differ from their leaders in deriving their moral views from a particular view of humanity that they find confirmed
in churches and in other religious bodies.

Nor does the word ‘right’ do justice to the views of new religious groups, which often adopt attitudes associated with the left, like the defence of asylum seekers and opposition to the war in Iraq. The distinction between right and left is often based on attitudes to the maximisation of individual freedom. By this criterion churches and other religious groups may well be on the right. But it may be more helpful to define the left by its ascription to communal values such as equality of opportunity, participation, making the fruits of prosperity available to all, and structuring society in a way that supports its weakest members. By these standards, members of churches and Religious will be found both on the left and on the right.

Whatever of the characterisation of people with strong moral and political views, the key question posed by the shift to make personal values a matter for political action has to do with defining what kinds of action are proper. How are people who believe that issues of personal morality such as abortion, euthanasia and marriage relationships are so important for a good and humane society that they ought to be subject to regulation and legislation, to make their case? I find it difficult to argue that it is not proper, either for them or for those opposing their views, to organise, to seek to have their views favourably represented in the media, to take direct action, and to seek to influence politicians. Whether such activities are wisely undertaken either by small groups or by churches is another matter.

Indeed the shift in the scope of politics raises as many difficult questions for churches as it provides opportunities.

First, should they welcome, totally oppose, or be selective in their response to the new settlement? I believe that they should cautiously welcome the inclusion of personal moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and pornography on the political agenda. But they should simultaneously insist that the question at issue in public debate is not directly whether particular practices are morally justifiable, but whether regulation of them is necessary in a humane society. The churches should also reject strongly the move to privatise public moral issues such as war, the treatment of asylum seekers, and the regulation of capital and labour. They should insist that groups critical of government policies should not be penalised, and oppose the tendency of governments to remove themselves from accountability on public moral issues.

Second, should the churches align themselves with governments that offer this new settlement? I believe that they should be highly suspicious of politicians’ motives in this area, and of what governments will take from and give to churches. As Maddox points out, the goal of governments is to secure agreement or acquiescence in an economic order based on competitive individualism. It will wish to neutralise opposition from churches and other groups, and to reward acquiescence. Thus, it will reward church leaders who either endorse government policies or undermine opposition within churches by aligning themselves with groups critical of the churches’ commitment to public morality. The reward will take the form of symbolic gestures that enshrine conservative social values or of financial or legislative support for educational or other ventures.

The reason to be wary of governments bringing moral gifts is that the symbolic gestures they offer will rarely address the root ills in Australian society, and often mask them. They often substitute ideology and prejudice for a realistic analysis of society and the development of an effective and perhaps expensive policy to address its ills. The churches’ self-interest also counsels caution. A merely symbolic defence of personal values can easily rebound on those who associate themselves with government policies. In Spain, for example, the Catholic Church allowed itself to be wooed by a conservative government. When the government fell, the Church shared its unpopularity, and has been powerless to resist quite radical legislation on social and religious issues.

For churches, the deepest and most difficult challenge is to persuade Australians to recognise that the welfare of Australia demands policies and legislation on matters of personal and public morality. They need to make the case in public argument. This requires moving beyond arguments based on ideology and on slogans, to analyse dispassionately the current practices in Australian society and their effects, and to make the case that changes in policy would both benefit Australia and actually lead to real improvement.

The third question posed to the churches is: what lies at the heart of their ethic? Broadly speaking, there are two accounts of what is central in Christian life. The first emphasises the domestic sphere as the place of fidelity, with the result that domestic relationships and their emphasis on personal honesty, faithful and controlled sexuality, and respectful child raising, have the central place in their ethic. The family is the household of God.

The second account emphasises the following of Jesus in his mission to the excluded and the stranger. Kindness to strangers, and particularly to those whose dignity is most assailed, will be paramount. Family will be regarded with some suspicion, as it is in Mark’s Gospel, because preoccupation with family so easily distracts from the universal and radical following of Jesus.

These two emphases are held together with some tension in Scripture. The challenge to churches is to hold them together so that both domestic and public virtues are given full weight.

Finally, the opportunity for churches to influence public policy on issues of personal morality must inevitably make them ask how they are to see other religious bodies. Starkly put, the question that they face is this: is the greatest sin facing churches idolatry or atheism? Should Christians rejoice in the number of converts to Christianity or theism in Australian society on the grounds that the cause of God is promoted? This is to give priority to the struggle against atheism. Or should they carefully evaluate both their own and others’ teaching and practices for their coherence with the teaching and death and resurrection of Christ? This is to give priority to the struggle against idolatry, which begins in the believer’s own heart and mind. If idolatry is a concern, then the rise of a piety that is comfortable with economic individualism must trouble any church. 

God under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, Marion Maddox. Allen & Unwin, 2005. ISBN 1 741 14568 6, RRP $29.95

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Lest we forget

  • Juliette Hughes
  • 27 April 2006

Dad’s and Uncle George’s stories come back to me when I consider the upcoming series on SBS As It Happened: Germany’s War.


Film reviews

  • Zane Lovitt, Siobhan Jackson
  • 27 April 2006

Reviews of the films Bad Education, Young Adam, Look at Me and Robots.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up