It’s some years now since I reviewed Marion Maddox’s study of the influence of religion and religious values on the second Howard government in Australia. (Marion Maddox, For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics, 2001.) Since then we have had a major shift in world politics, elicited by the Bush Administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. (Think of what that very name implies!)
This week, the newspapers carried the findings of an interesting study of our federal parliament (in Australia) and the references to God, to faith and to the Bible, during speeches in the house.
God has made a big come-back. Indeed, in Australia, it seems acceptable to speak of faith in ways that have perhaps never before been acceptable.
In The Age newspaper, on June 30th, Mark Davis reported on a study by Melbourne University politics researcher Anna Crabb, who analysed 2422 speeches by 60 prominent federal politicians. Crabb looked for words such as Christ, church, faith, pray, Jesus, Bible and God, and her finding is most interesting.
‘In 2000, 9 per cent of the speeches in Ms Crabb's sample used religious terms. The proportion increased in each of the following five years, reaching 24 per cent in 2005, before easing to 22 per cent in 2006,’ writes Davis.
Even more interesting: ‘Liberal and National MPs were initially more likely to use religious language than their Labor counterparts. From 2004, however, prominent ALP politicians referred to Christianity in their speeches almost as frequently.’
‘Ms Crabb said the findings demonstrated a break with the past in Australia, where politicians rarely put their faith on public display and were careful to maintain a separation between affairs of church and state.’
When asked what factors might explain this shift, Crabb suggested several reasons. The demise of sectarianism, especially inside the Australian Labor Party, contributed to a greater willingness to use Christian ideas in political debate.
It is also true that in recent years a number of matters have been dealt with as ‘conscience votes’, such as a debate about an abortion drug, or stem cell research. These debates certainly led many Members to explain their attitudes in terms of Christian values and morality.
But here is the most interesting finding: ‘Ms Crabb said the main explanation was what happened on September 11, 2001. The terror attacks on the United States not only led to significantly more references to Christianity in speeches on foreign relations, they also prompted a wider erosion of the view that political decision-making should be based on rational arguments rather than religious faith or doctrine.’
I am not convinced that it is so simple. It seems to me we have experienced a much deeper corrosion of the older paradigms of materialism and progress. In fact, many people have come to realize that accumulating more and more things is not a meaning in itself. Life is surely more than that. Clive Hamilton’s study of the dis-ease of ‘affluenza’ suggests that the pursuit of well-being and personal freedom through owning more and more has been found wanting.
Furthermore, ‘progress’ seems to have eluded us entirely. The old paradigms of political debate, between ‘Left’ and “Right’ have also begun to unwind, significantly. Values and relationships are once again able to move back into the frame. Astute leaders have realized this, in their own ways. John Howard and his government sought to win the Christian communities’ support by engagement with groups such as the Hillsong Church, the Exclusive Brethren, but most particularly by funding School Chaplaincies. It is interesting that Kevin Rudd’s government has not followed suit on the first and second of these, but neither has it wound back the Chaplaincy funding. I wonder how long it will last.
So where will this lead us? One hopes that we will not end up like the United States political culture, in which ‘religious’ votes can determine the outcome of elections. I doubt it very much.
On the other hand, I find it hopeful that at least some of our leaders call us and invite us to consider faith and values, and how these things might guide our lives. Clearly there is a new place for faith and values in political discourse. Apart from anything else, this can only lead to greater disclosure and honesty. Here are just a few examples of these statements:
Kim Beazley (Opposition Leader), October 2005: ‘For a long time many people in public life have strictly avoided discussing values and faith, to observe the traditional separation of church and state. This approach just isn’t tenable any more.’
Tony Abbott (then a Federal Minister), March 2004: ‘A Christian life means constantly striving—and constantly failing—to be more like Jesus … This is not easy for anyone but is especially hard to reconcile with the hyper-partisan culture of Australian politics.’
Malcolm Turnbull (now Opposition Leader), November 2008: ‘Jesus is full of very sensible advice on a whole range of matters, including some business matters.’
Wayne Swan (now Federal Treasurer), September 2006: ‘It would be a good thing if we in politics in Australia spent more time reflecting on the Scriptures.’
Kevin Rudd (now Prime Minister), May 2005: The church is and remains an overwhelming force for good in the world, and in that spirit, the church, and God through the church, should not become the property of any one political party.’
There is a new book studying the resurgence of religion in public life, and the end of the old presumption of secularism as the dominant tide in modernity and progress. It’s called God is back. I am looking forward to reading it.