The cover design for the hardback edition of this collection of historical profiles carries an ominous hint for what lies within.
Overlaid on top of an image of Parliament House in Canberra at night is the book’s title, with the preposition sitting within the circle of ‘GOD’. It is suggestive of the need to fortify Christian values in Australian politics. ‘They trust?’ similarly hints at a threatening aspect, can ‘they’ in turn be trusted? It is an image that smacks of paranoia towards state power.
The premise of an investigation into the religious views of Australian prime ministers is a fascinating one. At what point does the deeply held personal faith of a politician conflict with necessary political pragmatism? Unfortunately Roy Williams has produced a slim tome content to make personal assertions in place of genuine analysis.
In part this is due to the difficulty of ascertaining the views of long-dead individuals. Fatally for Williams’ project, however, he is given to interpreting what information is available to fit his own thesis – that Christian faith has been essential in the progressive development of the Australian state.
Given the calamitous events of two World Wars and the Cold War fear of the atheistic Soviet Bloc, the professed Christian faith of leaders was of great importance for the predominantly Christian public.
Williams does not allow for political expedience in such matters though. Instead anecdotal proof is relied upon where personal testimony is unavailable. More problematic, Julia Gillard’s professed atheism is dismissed – “[f]or reasons I will seek to explain, Julia Gillard does not belong in the ‘atheist’ category.” The only explanation offered is the refusal of editors on Wikipedia to list Gillard as an atheist.
Bob Hawke’s antipathy for “organised Christian religion” is attacked for a failure of logic.
“[T]he myriad (human) failings of the churches down the centuries are undeniable, but they do not disprove the existence of God”.
The attributed quote does not reflect a loss of faith, but a break from the institution of the Church. Williams’ argument is made vulnerable by this tendency to leap to conclusions.
Tellingly, the most revealing, and detailed, chapters relate to politicians still living and amenable to being interviewed – John Howard and Kevin Rudd. Their reminiscences do address the topic of political pragmatism and cast an unflattering light on the weaknesses of the preceding sections.
Climate change is briefly touched on by the author with the following personal assertion – “mankind is just too lazy and selfish to act upon it seriously, and accordingly, our fate is in God’s hands.” When the interviewee is not forthcoming, editorialise.
As Williams clings to the notion that professed Christian values – even tenuously maintained – are essential character traits, he is forced to make even more allowances for personal failings.
There is an unusually wistful concern throughout for the state of these prime ministerial souls at the moment of death. Joseph Chifley’s philandering is hand waved as a consequence of his wife Elizabeth’s ill health. Apparently abstinence was a step too far for this ‘good Christian’.
In the chapter on Harold Holt, Williams crosses the line, giving credence to the rumours of an alleged suicide in 1967.
This in turn, he suggests, was caused by mental anguish left unchecked due to Holt’s unbelief.
Mental illness is a burden on many individuals, regardless of their religious faith. Williams tacitly acknowledges this (“modern knowledge of mental illness makes it dangerous to moralise”), but then continues to assert that Holt committed suicide as he had no fear of Divine judgement.
There is a nasty undertone to the passages on Holt, which the author’s mealy-mouthed prevarications cannot disguise.
This is a frustrating read that fails to do justice to a fascinating premise.