The Religious Left Strikes Back

Image thanks to Sharyn Raggett.

The signs were everywhere. Rapturous applause for Peter Costello at a Hillsong convention. A full page pro-PM ad paid by the Exclusive Brethren. Preferences flowing from Family First. In 2004, it was a done deal: God had endorsed the Coalition.

In the aftermath of that election, the secular Left helped align faith politics to conservatism. In 2005, Marion Maddox penned God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australia drawing a connection between biblical and market fundamentalists. Then Amanda Lohrey, in her 2006 Quarterly Essay, Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia, explored how Gen Y’s fascination with the Pentacostal rock-God translated into Howard votes.

Today, however, the idea that people of faith will vote as a block for the Coalition at the Federal election seems fanciful. Faith politics may still shape the election result, but largely because of a progressive Christian backlash against the so-called rise of the religious Right. Christian social teaching on a just wage and stewardship over the environment has ensured Workplace Rights and Climate Change are vote shaping issues, while the politics of personal morality fails to gain traction.

In fact, the swing away from personal morality politics by Christians has been made possible by WorkChoices. Like the rest of the community, Christians are troubled by the impact working life is having on families. In 2004, 34 per cent of respondents to a National Church Life Survey nominated their workplace as a source of insecurity and stress. A quarter of those surveyed were most fearful of losing their jobs in future workplace restructures. As Workchoices has made dismissal and redundancy for purely ‘operational reasons’ much easier for employers, workplace relations has grown as a concern for people of faith.

WorkChoices represents a threat to family, to work-life balance, and to Sunday as a day of prayer and rest. Consequently, representatives of every mainstream Christian Church have spoken out against it. Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists and the Uniting Church all are united in their criticism and condemnation.

After the ACTU, concerned Christians are the next biggest critics of extreme IR policies. The Australian Catholic Bishop’s Council for Employment Relations articulates the Christian concern about WorkChoices best:

Clearly, poor wages, excessive hours, irregular work and job insecurity will affect the ability of family to function, meet day to day needs and provide for the future.

Many Christians believe that WorkChoices is immoral and inconsistent with church social teachings about the protection of the poor. ‘As a relatively rich society,’ observes Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, John Harrower, ‘we can afford to be generous.’

But is it not just the Christian social justice lobby who is concerned. Family First Senator Steve Fielding, a member of the Assemblies of God Church, has been a surprisingly strong opponent of WorkChoices. He voted against the introduction of the Government’s IR reforms and introduced his own private members Bill aimed at restoring family-work balance.

Fielding’s election to the Senate in 2004 was supposed to provide moral support for Coalition economic policies through adherence to the ‘prosperity gospel.’ It was widely assumed by both the conservatives and the secular Left that Family First would endorse US-style theology preaching wealth and material success as the just reward for following the Godly path.

But in a recent, under-reported speech to the Sydney Institute, Senator Fielding has asserted that ‘economic liberalism is incompatible with social conservatism’, savaging the Government’s WorkChoices legislation as an example of the disconnect. He accused both major Parties of ’embracing market fundamentalism at the expense of Australian families’ and called for economic policies to be reframed to focus on ‘what’s best for the family and what’s best for children, not what’s best for the market and employers.’

Fielding’s speech was not at all what John Howard, Tony Abbott and Costello had in mind when they began cultivating the Christian vote with an appeal to ‘family values.’ WorkChoices has created a wedge between people of faith and the Coalition and nothing can be assumed by them about the Christian vote as a consequence.

The progressive Christian voice has not confined its outspokenness to fair workplaces. In early 2007, The Climate Institute united 16 faith groups, including the Australian Christian Lobby, in a declaration of Common Belief about global warming and the environment. Churches are not newcomers to environmental concerns. Eco-theology widespread religious reflection on the human relationship to the earth and environmental crisis has been occurring across faiths since the mid-1960s.

Faith groups have helped mainstream green politics and taken the skepticism and disbelief out of the climate change debate. Howard’s environmental Darwinism he asserts that Australians will simply adapt to extreme climate change has not unsurprisingly found few friends in the Christian movement. His approach is out of step with most Christians who believe God has given them stewardship over the environment, a responsibility for preserving the Earth for future generations. Christians expect ethical leadership that preserves the long-term global common good, not just the short-term national interest.

Christians are impacting on social policy in other ways: passionate Young Christians are behind the Make Poverty History Campaign; the reports of Christian welfare agencies, such as St Vincent De Paul, first revealed the housing affordability crisis; Christians speak out against the mandatory detention of refugees, capital punishment abroad and the unlawfulness of the War in Iraq.

The religious Left is a force to be reckoned with in Australia.

Nobody knows this better than Tony Abbott, the moral compass of the Coalition. Before offending dying asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton and swearing at Nicola Roxon, Abbott saved his abuse for the Christian social justice lobby, particularly Catholics speaking out against WorkChoices. In several papers given during 2007 to Catholic University students, the Institute of Public Affairs and The Australian, Abbott has consistently attacked Catholics speaking out on WorkChoices as communists in disguise.

Since the rise of Kevin Rudd to the ALP leadership, the Coalition has clearly been concerned about the electoral consequence of Christians swinging away from the Coalition. Abbott, the would-be-monk turned Federal Minister, has had the unenviable task of discrediting Rudd’s assertion that ‘the starting point for Christianity is a theology of social justice.’ Faced with religious leaders speaking out against Government policy on a range of social issues, Abbott was forced to declare that Christians were only welcome to participate in public debate on life issues such as abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia. He said this was because ‘sanctity of life is of a higher moral order than the promotion of social justice.’

When even the Australian Christian Lobby praises itself fo
r shaping economic and social policy of the major Parties, the Coalition’s attempt to control the issues on which Christian’s vote looks desperate.

Abbott’s attack on progressive Christians, particularly the Catholic social justice lobby, is not merely theological semantics it’s also a numbers game. Abbott has earnestly used ANU research analysing Catholic voting patterns in the 2004 election when 49.5 per cent of Catholics voted for the Coalition compared to 40.1 per cent for Labor. But Christian voters swing too, as the Bush Republicans found out, to their shock and awe, during the 2006 US mid-term elections. According to US lobby group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, 55 per cent of Catholics voted Democrat in the mid-terms citing the Iraq war, government corruption and a growing economic inequality in the US as reasons for a change of heart. This represents a 7-8 per cent swing.

With Catholics making up just over a quarter of the Australian population, a similar 7-8 per cent swing here would be catastrophic for the Howard Government.

Like promises on interest rates, the Coalition’s attempt to use the Christian vote to provide moral support for its policies may be coming back to haunt it paying the price in 2007, for attempting to stereotype the Christian vote since 2004 as a homogenous, life-issues-centric constituency.

Australian Christians value their vote beyond the limits imposed on them by conservative politicians. And secular commentators.

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