The recent #LoveMakesAWay protests in Melbourne and Sydney, involving church leaders and activists from the major Christian denominations, shone a light on the contradiction of religion in Australian politics. Politicians like to be associated with the traditional values of Christianity, but being held accountable to them is less convenient.
The wording of Section 116 of the Constitution seems clear enough, closely modeled on the First Amendment of the US Constitution – The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.
No prohibition on the expression of faith and no specific requirement for adherence to a specific religion.
Except when it comes to the political sphere in this country, where there have been increasing efforts to establish Christian bona fides.
The idea is to express the morally upstanding character of the politician, through the occasional mention of God or a photo-op at their local church. It is values shorthand.
After all, George Bush’s two terms as President benefited from his often expressed religious faith, despite a seeming disinterest in outlining and defending government policies with any depth. Who could forget his statement in 2004: “God loves you, and I love you. And you can count on both of us as a powerful message that people who wonder about their future can hear.” Somehow those two sentences are intensely powerful as an expression of personal faith, while simultaneously utterly vague.
When Tony Abbott entered politics in 1994, he nailed his colours to the mast: “Our challenge is to answer uncertainty with conviction and to refute doubt with faith.” His years in a seminary had earned him the nickname the ‘Mad Monk’ during his subsequent journalism career. The prospect of Abbott advancing politically seemed unlikely, given his tendency to say exactly what he was thinking (not an advantageous quality for a politician).
Yet during his time in public office, Christian values have been relied upon to prop up authoritarian rhetoric (which to be fair, is a tradition we can date back to Saul’s fateful quest to Damascus). From Howard’s increasing mentioning of his own Methodist faith to Kevin Rudd’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer hero-worship, the trend firmly set in. Key critics in the media focused on Julia Gillard’s atheism as a negative aspect of her prime ministership. Not since the split of the Australian Labor Party in 1945, courtesy of B.A. Santamaria’s agitating for a Christian ‘Movement’, has religion been such a strong determiner.
There was a telling quote from Monika Wheeler at a 2005 Evatt Sunset seminar describing how party membership was declining in comparison to religious groups like Hillsong:
“One problem that we have is that people who are going to Hillsong services think that they are doing something for society.”
The message was clear to all concerned; religion was a vote-getter. It conveyed to voters that the candidate in an election had moral worth and tradition behind them, unlike the messy argumentation surrounding ‘secular morality’. Australians were seeing religion as a firmer source of values than the business of government.
However, this had consequences. Rudd and Abbott were both shamed by religious protesters for their policies surrounding the detention of asylum seekers.
The Labor leader, returning to the spotlight from exile, suddenly found his hero worship of Bonhoeffer – notably, a people smuggler who helped Jews escape the Nazis – an inconvenient bar to have to measure up to. Abbott’s Jesuit education seemed to have left him unable to present his argument on asylum seekers coherently, stating on ABC Perth in July 2012 “I don’t think it’s a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door”.
The arrest of 13 church leaders in Melbourne as part of the #Lovemakesaway peaceful protest against the detention of child refugees feels like a turning-point. It’s a reminder that Christianity is not simply the authoritarianism of St. Paul and the Holy See, but also contains a tradition of radicalism from when a carpenter stood up to Pharisees and Romans.