While many Australians might say they are losing faith in politics among our political leaders faith is not in short supply.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been very upfront about his Pentecostal beliefs. In his maiden parliamentary speech he drew on Bible references and quoted Abraham Lincoln about how being on God’s side was his greatest concern.
However, Morrison is far from alone in being a professed Christian among recent Australian political leaders.
At the national level, political heavyweights Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten, Kevin Rudd, Kim Beazley, John Howard and Peter Costello have all been practising adherents, and sometimes converts, to the Anglican and Catholic traditions.
With each census showing a steady decrease in the number of Australians identifying as Christian it seems a paradox that the nation’s political leadership is so comparatively devout.
However, Rev Dr Geoff Thompson, who is co-ordinator of studies – systematic theology at Pilgrim Theological College, doesn’t find this so remarkable.
“It shouldn’t surprise us in one sense that perhaps Christians will be overrepresented in political processes because Christianity is one of the traditions that cultivates some sense of community responsibility and commitment to the common good,” he said.
Geoff notes that Christian leaders, such as Morrison, are emerging from traditions outside the established and mainstream denominations.
“What is most interesting in this post-Christian moment is that many of Christian politicians who are attaining the highest profile are coming out of church traditions that didn’t belong to Christendom, they are almost post-Christendom,” Geoff said.
“Perhaps it is because those churches aren’t hampered by the legacies of Christendom, maybe they feel more confident to enter the public space. Or it could be because they see something very distinctive about Christianity that they feel it has been lost in the public space.
“There would be some in those churches who obviously see the secular as far more problematic than the mainstream Christian churches do because the established traditions have lived with the secular for a couple of centuries and in a sense know how to negotiate their way through it.”
Geoff said he was not too concerned about the mainstream churches’ weakening position as the public religion.
“We’ve had a pretty good innings,” he said.
“Mainstream churches have for a long time had the ear of the public on matters of religion and matters of theology. The churches are more aware that they no longer have a dominant role.”
In this context Geoff said that an outspoken promotion of Christianity and Christian values was something comparatively new in Australia.
“I would have thought 20 or 30 years ago it was one of the points of contrast between Australian politicians and American politicians was exactly this – American politicians talked about God, Australian politicians did not,” he said.
Derek McDougall, who is Professorial Fellow in the University of Melbourne School of Social and Political Science and a member of St Andrew’s Uniting Church Alphington-Fairfield, said there were still some distinctions between US and Australian public Christianity.
“I don’t think we have a Christian right in the sense that the US does, thank goodness,” Derek said.
However, Derek admits the most vocal proponents of a Christian point of view in recent debates such as same-gender marriage, religious freedom in schools and voluntary assisted dying have often been from the right side of the political spectrum.
“There’s a certain perception as to what the Christian view is,” he said.
“Often the press and people outside the church identify the Christian position as what is to me an essentially conservative Christian position.”
“If you say liberalism is the dominant culture in Australian society, a lot of people who adhere to that position implicitly think of the Christian position as being a conservative. They don’t see the more liberal Christian as represented by the Uniting Church.
“Even though the Uniting Church might make statements on some issues, sometimes you think the Australian Christian Lobby is quite prominent. It’s quite good at getting its viewpoint out there with a very politically conservative position.”
Derek noted that an often neglected part of the Prime Minister’s story was that he grew up in the Uniting Church.
As to why it might seem the more conservative Christian voices speak the most loudly, Derek offered a few theories.
“They might have a clearer position. In a church like the Uniting Church there is more recognition of the complexity of issues, allowing for shades of grey,” he said.
“You can also say that the media promotes this because it dramatises some of these issues and makes for better copy.
“I had a colleague, a radical feminist, who used to find the Uniting Church position rather annoying because it didn’t fit in with her thesis that religion was basically misogynistic.”
Derek points out there is no uniform Christian position on many, if not most, issues and these differences manifest not only between denominations but inside the larger ones.
“It’s simple to talk about the Christian view but it’s usually the Christian views – plural,” he said.
“With Turnbull and Abbott it shows how you have different approaches within the one (Catholic) tradition.”
Derek said that even when politicians described themselves as Christian, or even as belonging to a particular type of Christianity, that did not necessarily direct their decisions in a straightforward way.
“I agree with Scott Morrison when he said the Bible is not a policy handbook,” Derek said.
“Obviously interpreting the underlying approach in terms of everyday issues can be quite complex. There is not just one Christian position. I think it is important to think through the requirements of justice in relation to a whole range of issues affecting the Australian community.”
Derek said in view of the declining number of Australians who call themselves Christian, politicians who were intent on governing were looking to build coalitions and couldn’t just rely on the religiously likeminded.
“We don’t really have confessional Christian parties in Australia like the Christian Democrats in some European countries,” he said.
“On a lot of issues we might find ourselves combining with a lot of people in Australian society who are not specifically Christian who might have a more liberal or conservative outlook,” he said.
“You can see from the census results that we are an increasingly pluralist society and that doesn’t just relate to religion, but to a whole different range of issues.
“We want to reflect our own tradition but not in a closed way – we want to engage with a broader debate in society.
“It’s fair enough to have your religious beliefs but when you are in the public space you have to argue your case with criteria that are accessible to everybody.”
The recently published book God is Good for You: A defence of Christianity in troubled times by journalist Greg Sheridan explores the links between Christianity and politics in Western societies and Australia more specifically.
Sheridan, writing from a conservative Catholic perspective, interviews a number of politicians about their religious faith, including Uniting Church member Senator Penny Wong.
Although the Christian politicians are on both the right and left of the conventional political perspective, Derek says Sheridan draws out a common theme in how their Christian beliefs influence them.
“Generally from a political perspective it was to do with some notion of justice or fairness and getting a deeper sense of that through the Bible or through significant Christian leaders up to the present,” Derek said.
“How you go with that goal of justice to the range of issues that the various jurisdictions in Australia are responsible for is another matter.”
Sheridan argues that in the contemporary West, Christians should consider themselves a bold minority.
“Perhaps it is ironic that we have all these leaders identifying as Christians and yet we feel we are a minority,” Derek said.
“However, it’s not as if those leaders as Christians are governing of advancing policies from a narrowly Christian perspective as if they are defending the interests of Christians only.”
The liberal idea of a separation between church and state, Sheridan argues, is part of the legacy of Christendom.
Commonly this argument invokes the command of Jesus, found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.
Derek, however, says that Scripture does not necessarily mean the political and spiritual realms should be kept separate.
“You can also interpret that text as Jesus is being a bit clever here because if you are a Christian everything comes under God,” he said.
“People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that the Christian faith applies to the whole of life and he was against that traditional Lutheran position where you had that kind of “render unto Caesar” approach that did lead to privatisation of religious belief.
Derek argues that Christians should be involved in public life as a way of expressing their faith.
“I shared an office for a period of time with Brian Howe, who was deputy prime minister under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.
“If you know him well you would also know he is a Uniting Church minister. He’s sort of influenced by someone like Reinhold Niebuhr and the idea that justice is being love at the level of society.”
Derek says Christians shouldn’t just engage with issues that specifically affect churches and their schools and agencies, such as religious freedom or voluntary assisted dying, but also with more general issues such as what is being taught in both public and religious schools.
“The whole curriculum really is based on assumptions about meaning of life so why aren’t we debating that and where is the Christian voice in the public schools?” he asked.
“I think we should be more forthright in expressing our views. Not necessarily at an institutional level but just get involved.
“That is good advice for all Christians – you should be engaging with people coming from other perspectives. Often you will agree on specific policies and you will have different views from other people who identify as Christians, that’s just politics.
Geoff Thompson is also reading Sheridan’s book and says, as the title God is Good for You indicates, it puts forward a utilitarian argument that ethics has to be based in something transcendent, such as Christian belief, or it becomes arbitrary.
However, Geoff expressed some scepticism about this point of view.
“In the past that assumption between some transcendent of origin ethics and the reality of ethics was accepted,” he said.
“The reality is we live in a context now where people argue for different sets of ethics.
“I don’t think it’s the case once you dispense with God you enter an ethical vacuum – what you enter is an ethical plurality. The issue is that people don’t believe in God but they have ethical values.”
Although Sheridan does not refer to the Judeo-Christian tradition, this has become a fashionable phrase for politicians and other commenters who argue as Christianity fades the West is losing a valuable cultural inheritance.
Geoff says that although one can perceive how Western society has been influenced by Judaism and Christianity, he views the promotion of a Judeo-Christian ethos as not particularly helpful.
“The utilitarian argument is very amenable to people who want to place the church and Christianity inside this narrative that I think people use for various purposes, sometime political ones,” he said.
“However, what it takes the church away from is what emerges out of ministry of Jesus.”
Geoff notes that the Judeo-Christian terminology has become more widespread after the 9/11 terror attacks and is often used as defensive contrast to the Islamic tradition.
In a Guardian article earlier this year Geoff harked back to Morrison’s maiden speech and its ambition to copy Lincoln in taking God’s side – and that “taking sides” is not theologically sound because God is on the side of all of humanity.
“The whole language of taking sides is not helpful. The Christian call is not be on God’s side but to do God’s will and I actually think that’s a different rhetoric altogether,” Geoff says.
“When you take that language of sides into the adversarial world of Australian politics or American politics, I just think it is unwise in that context.
“I’d prefer us to find language of doing God’s will or participating in God’s mission.”
Geoff noted that for Christians exercising power has always been a vexed matter.
The early followers of Jesus were largely those who felt dispossessed and marginalised under Roman rule.
“Christianity has had an issue with power from the very beginning because it was the powers of the day that crucified Jesus,” he said.
“Early Christians seemed content not to wield power. At the same time, Christianity did not want to be uninfluential. It actually did want to shape societies, even if only at a local level.
“They weren’t just waiting for heaven, but were called to fashion particular ways of life. And you can’t do that without exercising power or influence.”
Geoff said when Christianity became politically and culturally dominant this posed a challenge for the church.
“What it ought to do, and what we ought to do as the inheritors of that, is to exercise extreme self-criticism, finding ways about being honest about what power you actually have and being aware of the capacity to use that power in such a way that is foreign to the way of Jesus,” he said.
“The churches have to be intentional about divesting themselves of some of the power they have inherited, but also be wise to some of the ways that they can use power for good by being disciplined in the use of that power in the way of Jesus.
“The issue is not power itself, but how power is used.”