Sunday, November 1, 2009

Religion and Politics in Australia

Genevieve Kennedy

Both in culture and legislature, Australia’s relationship between religion and politics is one of firm separation. Despite this, and despite being categorised as one of the world’s most secular nations, Christianity has, to some degree, permeated both electoral and governmental processes. While church attendance among Australians has steadily declined to just nine percent, the influence of Christian lobbyists has remained relatively stable across Australian politics. Such religious representation may be seen in both federal and state elections, with the Family First party being the most visible religious grouping of this kind. Indeed, even elected politicians in entirely secular political parties are becoming more and more open about their religious beliefs, and how they affect their political philosophy and decisions. Other religious patterns that have emerged within Australian politics include religious themes at memorial events and debate over legislation that affects the moral code of Christianity. Case studies of Christian political parties and the Victorian bushfire memorial service shall prove that religion, particularly Christianity, still has a visible, significant impact upon Australian politics.

The global presence of secularisation has been debated strongly in the past several decades. Most secularization theories, advocated by the likes of Durkheim, Comte, Freud and Weber, asserted that religion would gradually fade in importance, and cease to be significant with the advent of industrial society (Inglehart & Norris 2004). However, various studies (Shah & Toft 2009) have shown that the rise of secularisation is not as clear cut as it may appear, with the United States consistently bucking the trend of Western nations, and fundamentalist religion continuing to rise in a number of regions. Indeed, Berger claims that, “The world today, with some exceptions... is as furiously religious as it ever was.” (Inglehart & Norris 2004, p.4) Inglehart and Norris (2004) have put forth a theory that considers the importance of human security and cultural traditions on the religiousness of a society. Their study drew the conclusion that reduced human security will heighten the importance of religious values, and heightened human security will reduce that importance. Inglehart and Norris noted that, “The result of these combined trends is that rich societies are becoming more secular but the world as a whole is becoming more religious.” (2004, p.217) “Separation of church and state” has become a standard phrase to describe the independence of a government from religion, however it has been noted that this “global shorthand” (Madeley 2003, p.234) is in itself Christo-centric. While debates over the benefits and disadvantages of governmental secularism will undoubtedly continue, Madeley has claimed that, “No state today is entirely secular or non-secular.” (2003, p.242)

Australia’s governmental secularism can be categorised as one of moderate separation of church and state. (Fox 2008) Within Australia’s constitution, which came into force in 1901, Section 116 is of greatest relevance to the secularity of government. Section 116 states, “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office of public trust under the Commonwealth.” (Mews 1989, p.12) Section 116 is essentially the only legislation which attempts to keep religion separate from the government. This would suggest that Australia’s secular government was a matter of cultural choice, rather than having to conform to a strict legislative decree. As Mews (1989) has noted, the legislation does not abolish the federal power to legislate on religious matters; however, this power has rarely been used.

While Mews considered Australia’s relationship between politics and religion to be “a combination of partnership and separation,” (1989, p.12) this is evidently not the case globally. Many Middle Eastern nations have a state religion of Islam, however, state religions are not restricted to this region. A number of South American nations recognise Roman Catholicism as their official religion, and European nations including Greece, Denmark, Norway and Georgia also have state religions. (Fox 2008) The religious circumstances of the United States are unusual. Being the exception to common trends among Western nations, American church attendance is remaining stable and religious conservativeness growing. (Shah & Toft 2009) However, amendments to the United States’ Constitution have forced a firm separation between church and state. Despite this, religion has a major impact upon politics, with fundamental Christians being essentially the base of the Republican party. Of all Western democracies (categorised as those belonging to Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand (Fox 2008), France has arguably the most secular government, to the point that the nation has been accused of being anti-religious. Despite an evolving global climate of governmental secularism, “there is as yet no sign that Australia has changed the century-old relationship between politics and religion.” (Mews 1989, p.12)

However, in the past decade, political parties based upon “Christian values” (Lohrey 2006, p.46) have received unprecedented success in Australia. Arguably the most visible and politically successful of such parties is the socially conservative Family First party. Rather than officially declaring the party to be Christian, and despite virtually all members having conservative, often evangelical Christian backgrounds, Family First leaders brand the party as “value-based” (Lohrey 2006, p.47). This tactic is used in an attempt to avoid bringing overtly Christian language into a secular Australian society which considers such discourse unacceptable in public life. Lohrey notes that Family First campaign workers “are coached in how to avoid speaking “Christianese” that might alert secular voters to a Christian crusade.” (2006, p.47) Christian Democrats’ New South Wales Director Phil Lamb, as well as leaders from other Christian parties, have criticised this tactic, stating, “Family First have not got the word ‘Christian’ anywhere on their website. I think that is quite deceptive. They are hiding the fact that they are Assemblies of God people.” (Lohrey 2006, p.46) This statement was echoed by Catholic commentator John Cleary, who said, “You are either a political party that is Christian and proud of it, or you are a conservative party using Christian networks and trying to disguise it.” (Lohrey 2006, p.46) Despite such criticism, Family First currently has three members of parliament in office, with two in South Australia, “and Senator Steve Fielding in the Federal Parliament,” (Family First, 2009) having been elected in 2004. Fielding received less than two percent of the popular vote; however, preferences received from other political parties gave Fielding the victory. Family First’s unwillingness to openly declare itself a Christian party is representative of Australia’s cultural tendency towards secularism. However, Senator Fielding’s position on the cross-benches in parliament is one of power, and is indicative of a slow shift in the strictness of Australia’s separation between religion and government.

One recent occasion where church and state mixed was the government memorial service for the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, which killed 173 people. The service was classified as a multi-faith service, with representatives of major faiths present. While it was clear that organisers were cautious about the service remaining inherently secular, religious imagery remained present throughout proceedings. “A secular emcee [Master of Ceremonies] was deemed appropriately neutral” (Lohrey 2009), and secular music was chosen; however, church bells played a key role in the service. Media outlets noted that the venue, tennis stadium Rod Laver Arena, was turned into “a makeshift cathedral.” (ABC 2009) Amanda Lohrey noted that political leaders were careful to respect the multi-faith, if not secular, nature of the event, saying, “If they [Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull] had not been constrained by the secular nature of the occasion and had felt free to speak from their own religious conviction – Rudd an Anglican, Turnbull a Catholic – they may well have made a better fist of it [speeches].” (Lohrey 2009) Aboriginal spiritual concepts of rebirth were also present at the service, with Aboriginal elder Aunty Joy Murphy stating, “The spirit of the land will reclaim itself and the bush animals and the pets will return; this is nature’s way.” (Lohrey 2009) Overall, the Victorian bushfires memorial service was representative of the likely direction of Australia’s spiritual life – with religion being understated but present.

Statistically, the majority of Australians consider themselves to be a member of a religious group, with the 2006 census finding that only 19 percent of Australians are categorised as having no religion, and 12 percent declining to answer. (ABS 2008) This means sixty-nine percent of Australia’s population consider themselves a member of a religion, most commonly Catholicism or Anglicanism. However, an extensive NCLS Research study released in 2004 found that only around 1.5 million attend church on a weekly basis, equating to approximately 7.5 percent of the Australian population. (NCLS Research 2004) Such statistics are representative of Australia’s religious culture, which if not secular, is non-traditional. Even if an individual is not a practising member of a religious group, if they still consider themselves to be a member, it is likely that they will take a concerted interest in the group’s political and social circumstances and interests. This is one way in which “wedge issues” (Einstein 2007, p.173) such as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research become major societal issues. Einstein has claimed that inordinate focus on issues which religions have an interest in “obfuscates topics like...the lack of adequate health care, the widening gap between the rich and poor, and our disintegrating environment.” (2007, p.173)

Compared with many countries, such as the US, “Australia has invested little energy in public debate about the place of religion in a secular society.” (Murphy 2009) In part, this is because Australia has less of a religious base to mobilise – and what religious base does exist is far less conservative than, for example the ‘Religious Right’ in the US. Australia is far from a secular state, as has been discussed, but any religious practices or influence existing in government is generally minor and significant, and viewed as so by the Australian public. Such rituals include opening and closing federal parliament proceedings with the Christian Lord’s Prayer, a practice that began in 1901. (Mews 1989) However, such faith-specific rituals are rare in the Australian legal system. More commonly, the state acts “as a neutral referee between competing belief systems.” (Lohrey 2006, p.41). A strong example of this role is shown in criminal trials, where witnesses are given a choice between swearing an oath (“swearing to tell the truth by referring to a God” (Federal Court of Australia 2001)) or a secular affirmation. In an oath, witnesses may swear by whatever God is appropriate to their religion (Federal Court of Australia 2001).

While it is evident that religiosity in generally dropping among the Australian public, federal politicians are bucking this trend. Politicians are increasingly open in their beliefs, and frank in their acknowledgment that their spiritual beliefs affect where they stand on political issues. Historically, the religious beliefs of Australian politicians have remained private and unspoken. Murphy (2009) identifies the turning point for public faith as Bob Hawke’s 1979 declaration that he was agnostic. A Melbourne University which analysed nearly two and a half thousand speeches from 60 prominent federal politicians found that “federal MPs [Members of Parliament] are invoking Christian beliefs with increasing frequency to justify policies and articulate their values and visions for the nation.” (Davis 2009) The words Christ, church, faith, pray, Jesus, Bible and God were used in nine percent of speeches in 2000, increasing to 24 percent in 2005. The study coordinator, Anna Crabb cited the September 11, 2001 attacks as prompting a wider inclusion of religious faith and doctrine in politics. The Rudd government has continued this trend, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in particular, advocating a direct role for faith in leadership and politics. Murphy claims that, “No politician has ever spoken so frankly or linked his beliefs to political policy. His open and sincere religiosity even provided an ethical public persona that enabled him to battle John Howard for the hearts and minds of Christians.” (2009) It is clear then, that the general trend of secularism in Australia is not being replicated in federal politics.

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI issued a dire warning – “mainstream Christianity is dying out more quickly in Australia than anywhere else in the world.” (Lohrey 2006, p.40) This trend has not ceased, with less than one in ten Australians attending church on a regular basis, and nearly a third not identifying with any religion. Such patterns of secularism have not, however, been emulated in the political sphere. Conversely, politicians are becoming more open about their faith than ever before, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in particular supporting faith-based political policies. Christian political parties are making some headway in both state and federal parliament, and government-run events, such as the Victorian bushfire memorial, have strong shades of the sacred. Australians seem to be largely unconcerned by religion’s permeation of the political system, as lack of public debate shows. While this link between faith and government is currently relatively harmless, the Australian government risks being exclusionary to faiths other than Christianity if religiosity in government rapidly increases.


ABC News, Victoria bushfires: Nation honours heroes and victims, Accessed 19th October 2009, Retrieved via Google.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008, 2006 Census Quickstats: Australia, Accessed 18th October 2009.¤taction=201&action=401&textversion=false

Davis, M., 2009, Australia’s political lexicon takes a holy bent, Accessed 23rd October 2009, Retrieved via Google.

Einstein, M., 2008, Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age, Routledge, New York.

Family First, 2009., About Family First, Accessed 17th October 2009.

Federal Court of Australia, 2001, Affirmations and Oaths, Accessed 23rd October 2009, Retrieved via Google.

Fox, J., 2008, A World Survey of Religion and the State, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Frame, T., 2007, Anglicans in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Hamburger, P., 2002, Separation of Church and State, Harvard Press, United States.

Inglehart, R., Norris, P., 2004, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lohrey, A., 2009, Less is More, Accessed 19th October 2009, Retrieved via Google.

Lohrey, A., 2006, Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia, Schwartz Publishing, Melbourne.

Maddox, M., 2005, God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, Allen & Unwin, NSW.

Madeley, J., 2003, Religion and Politics, Ashgate Publishing Company, UK.

Mews, S., 1989, Religion in Politics: A World Guide, Longman International Reference, Essex.

Murphy, D., 2009, The voluble and the Word: amen to that, Accessed 23rd October 2009, Retrieved via Google.

NCLS Research, 2004, NCLS releases latest estimates of church attendance, Accessed 18th October 2009.

Phillips, D., 1996, Religion and Morality, MacMillan Press, London.

Rubenstein, R., 1987, Spirit matters: the worldwide impact of religion on contemporary politics, Washington Press, Washington.

Shah, T.S., & Toft, M.D., 2009, ‘God is Winning: Religion in Global Politics’, in Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion, eds Marshall, P., Gilbert, L., & Green-Ahmanson, R., Oxford University Press, New York.

Thompson, R., Religion in Australia: a history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

No comments: