Willett is reassured by Family First Party (FFP) leader Andrea Mason’s statement that, ‘it’s not a Christian party, it’s a secular party … based on family values’. Willett concedes that ‘no-one seriously believes these claims’, but argues that ‘they do confirm that the FFP and the Assembly of God (AoG) are perfectly well aware that there is no place for religion in Australian public life’.
On the contrary, the Christian Right should still concern us. What the avowals more likely confirm is that the FFP and the AoG are well aware that, for a political party, admitting a religious agenda to anyone outside religious audiences is very poor PR. From the early 1990s, US Christian Right organisations such as Focus on the Family, the Heritage Foundation and the Christian Coalition began advising their recruiters to avoid speaking ‘Christianese’ religiously-charged language welcome to the converted but unnerving to secular electorates. The overtly religious politics of the Moral Majority and the 1988 Pat Robertson presidential campaign gave way, under the direction of political handlers such as Ralph Reed and Paul Weyrich, to a more ambiguous rhetoric. ‘Family’, ‘values’ and ‘commonsense’ took the place of sin and damnation. It worked: Christian Right ‘stealth campaigns’ helped sweeping Republican successes in the 1994 Congressional elections, setting the stage for so much that has followed.
As the US religious right learned in the early 1990s, the surest path to power in a two-party system is through one of the major parties. My book, God Under Howard: The rise of the religious right in Australian politics, tells how a particular kind of conservative, American-style Christian fundamentalism gained sway in the Australian Liberal Party, returning John Howard to the leadership and then being nurtured by him and members of his front bench.
While Howard regularly affirms that, ‘I respect fully the secular nature of our society’, he has embraced the US Christian Right’s focus-group tested quasi-religious code words. Think of him championing heterosexual marriage as the ‘bedrock’ of society, worrying about ‘values-neutral’ public education, encouraging mothers out of fulltime paid work. Coupled with his and Costello’s strategic appearances at conservative churches such as Hillsong and Oxford Falls Christian City Church, the new Christian Right catch-cries carry just enough religious echoes to appeal to the Hillsong vote, while the theological reverberations remain quiet enough to avoid scaring secular voters.
Religiously-committed politicians have always been in all parties. Liberals long assumed a quiet, establishment Anglicanism, or perhaps diligent, small-business-oriented Presbyterianism. The difference now is the kind of religion being embraced.
The trend has concrete policy implications. An example is the government’s preferential funding of low-fee, outer-suburban Christian schools. The Australian Associations of Christian Schools, an umbrella organisation covering over 250 such schools with 75 000 students, requires its 5 000 teachers to subscribe to the fundamentalist belief that the Bible is the ‘infallible and inerrant revelation to man, and the supreme standard by which all things are to be judged’. Since biblical inerrancy is usually shorthand for creationism (rather than evolution) and ‘male headship’ (not gender equality), voters might wonder how much their government endorses.
Both Hillsong and Christian City Church (the latter with on-site business school) promote a blessed-are-the-rich ‘prosperity gospel’ in which flashy cars and property empires become signs of God’s blessing. They emphasise personal holiness rather than social justice, and individual acts of charity over state welfare. Such theology is a neat fit for a government that stresses market capitalism and privatised economics over social welfare and collective responsibility for one another.
No wonder, then, that Howard, Costello and their colleagues have worked hard to either tame or sideline more traditional churches, which stress mutuality (rather than new-fangled ‘mutual obligation’) and equality (even if that means giving extra help to the disadvantaged). Such churches are told to stick to ‘spiritual’ concerns. Meanwhile, Howard and Costello welcome new fundamentalist and Pentecostalist colleagues, such as Louise Markus in Greenway and Michael Ferguson in Bass, and promote religion in modern Australian politics; it just happens to be a kind that works for a socially-conservative, business-oriented government.
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