The future of Australian secularism: Religion, civil society and the American alliance

Carole M. Cusack, The University of Sydney

Marion Maddox God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2005 (xiii, 386 pp). ISBN 1-74114-568-6 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Robert Garran True Believer: John Howard, George Bush and the American Alliance, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2004 (v, 228 pp). ISBN 1-74114-418-3 (paperback) RRP $24.95.

That Western society has changed dramatically since the middle of the 20th century is irrefutable. There is less agreement about what caused the changes, and whether they have been beneficial. One barometer of change in Western society is the level of ‘social capital’ (a concept popularised by Robert D. Putnam), which results from high levels of investment by citizens in their community. Putnam’s investigation of American society, Bowling Alone (2000), considers the full range of changes affecting America (and all western societies): declining participation in institutional Christianity; less involvement in sport and recreational clubs, politics, charitable causes, and volunteer work; and a radical re-shaping of the family though divorce, a lower birth rate, and a disinclination to marry at all. These trends, Putnam argues, result in diminished social capital. Putnam’s analysis of America holds for the three Anglophone members of George W. Bush’s ‘coalition of the willing,’ America, Britain and Australia, and may explain why hawkish, right-wing governments are the people’s choice at the start of the 21st century, despite an unprecedented liberality and inclusiveness throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Putnam notes a range of factors responsible for civic disengagement: suburban sprawl; the popularity of television and electronic media; changed work patterns, including the large-scale entry of women into the workforce; and generational changes resulting in the ‘replacement of an unusually civic generation by several generations [Baby Boomers, Generations X and Y] … that are less embedded in community life’ (p. 275). In the United States, where voting is optional, these developments dilute democracy, and societies with low participation rates tend to become distrustful. Untrusting citizens call for tougher, ‘law and order’ focused governments, resulting in the election of increasingly right-wing political parties.

At the same time, western societies have developed consumer cultures that encourage the private pursuit of material goods over the public pursuit of common goods (Lyon 2002 [2000]). A more pressured society of isolated consumers is a way of seeing the long-term impact of ‘secularisation’ (Bruce 2002, pp. 10–11, 25–26) on western cultures. The role of religion in the diminution of civil society is yet to be elucidated, but while America is certainly a nominally secular state, it remains a notably religious (Christian) society, whereas Australia is very secular, and Britain almost entirely secular. Secularisation is linked to individualism and consumerism (Bruce 2002, pp. 10–11; 25–26) because all encourage a privatised ‘spirituality’ rather than the traditional membership of a religious institution. The classic formulation of the secularisation thesis is ‘the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols’ (Berger 1967, p. 107). This leaves America’s secular status unclear, especially when examined in the context of the formation of social and foreign policy.

America is a nominally secular state, but it remains a notably religious (Christian) society.

What is fascinating about the governments of John Howard and George W. Bush is that despite this powerful social trend, they have consistently attempted to reverse the decline of Christianity and to place certain government functions, such as job creation agencies, educational institutions, and welfare provision, back in the hands of the churches. Why is this so, and what does it mean?

Marion Maddox’s timely book, God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics (2005) identifies the disjunction between Australia’s secular culture and the curiously successful adoption of American-style religious rhetoric by John Howard and his ministers. The Howard Government combines a commitment to economic deregulation with a very conservative social agenda. God Under Howard chronicles a sequence of issues establishing Howard’s conservatism: overriding the Northern Territory’s euthanasia legislation; promoting a narrow definition of family in law and social policy; the scandal over the Hindmarsh Island Bridge, and the winding back of Aboriginal land rights and native title; and the mandatory detention for asylum seekers and the ‘children overboard’ claims. The book prompts the reader to question whether the Howard Government is not attempting to promote an agenda designed to undermine the confidence of Australians in a multi-faith, multicultural society.

Maddox argues that in justifying his government’s stance, John Howard employs his re-working of the Australian myths of mateship, equality and a ‘fair go’ with a distinctive neo-conservative twist. Action to counter problems of discrimination does not, in this worldview, correct or compensate for systemic inequality; rather it is portrayed as ‘special pleading’ which makes ‘ordinary’ Australians resentful. Everyone is to be treated in the same way, which homogenises difference and creates a culture of blame toward those who persist in maintaining their distinctiveness (Aborigines, Muslims, visible social groups).

John Howard explicitly identifies Australian values with Christian values.

More significantly, in view of Australia’s great religious and ethnic diversity (as well as the secular tenor of public affairs), John Howard explicitly identifies Australian values with Christian values. Different views are presented as the preserve of ‘special interest groups,’ and the ‘mainstream’ is characterised as frustrated by these groups, silent, and identified with conservative Christianity in the main. Here, Maddox’s argument is particularly intriguing; she asserts that American-style religious rhetoric has been successful for several reasons, some of them hidden below the surface, others more obvious.

One advantage of employing such rhetoric and focusing on ‘values’-oriented policies is that ‘the Christian vote’ (linked to churches such as the Assemblies of God, the base of emergent political party Family First, and Sydney’s Hillsong, visited by Peter Costello in 2004) is easily secured. However, although disproportionately influential because concentrated in marginal electorates, this vote is at most 5 per cent of the population. Maddox interestingly suggests that secular Australians continue to code being ‘religious’ as a positive; even if they are not religious themselves, they believe that ‘religion is a good thing for other people to have’ (p. 188). What secularists (those seeking a society governed secularly) do not recognise is that the Christian rhetoric employed by Howard may signal to Christians its willingness to disable important elements of Australia’s secular state.

Howard’s determined efforts to engage the Christian churches in the provision of services usually the responsibility of a secular government (welfare, job placement agencies, health, education) are plain to see. The ideology that drives these policies is more difficult to identify, and might be missed by secularists (although conservative Christians recognise it). In America, Dominionists and more extreme Christian Reconstructionists such as Rousas J. Rushdoony and Gary North, promote a radical agenda. They argue that Christians should take all elected offices and enforce God’s law over any secular law. This is because, as Maddox explains, they believe that:

The state has nothing to do with human well-being. That is up to God. If God favours you, you will be rich. If you are not rich, it means God has not favoured you, no doubt for a good reason. It is not up to the state to make you well off, comfortable or financially secure. The state’s job is to ensure that those who do not choose a godly life are at least compelled to observe its externalities, making society entirely unthreatening for those who do. The ‘chosen’ get to live entirely unfettered by government, whose role is limited to restraining sinners (p. 272).

Maddox knows that not all of Howard’s supporters are believers.

Maddox knows that not all of Howard’s supporters are believers, but this theological agenda dovetails perfectly with radical economic deregulation, which substantially increases its attractiveness for those conservative Australian politicians whose Christianity is at best lukewarm. Maddox claims that the main difficulty facing Australian secularists is that they fail to recognise the theological agenda, and if it is pointed out to them, they fail to appreciate its significance. The most controversial material in the book examines what Maddox sees as the anti-democratic sentiments of members of the Federal Government and Christian conservatives alike: should the reader laugh or cry to hear that Sitiveni Rabuka, who led a military coup against the democratically elected government of Fiji and subsequently established a theocracy, is held up as a model at a 1998 Leadership Forum (p. 287)? Maddox’s ‘Epilogue’ records conversations with Christian parliamentarians who argue that the Bible does not prescribe democracy, and that monarchy, dictatorship or theocracy are acceptable if the people holding office are Godly.

Robert Garran’s True Believer: John Howard, George Bush & the American Alliance (2005) examines the effects of George W. Bush’s policy on Australia through Howard’s enthusiastic embracing of the war in Iraq. Garran argues that Bush’s presidency of the United States has been distinguished by his openness about his conservative Christian beliefs and the extent to which his faith has dictated social and foreign policy. The American alliance is important to Howard, who has long sought to tie Australia to Anglophone allies rather than the Asia-Pacific region. Garran chronicles how Bush’s Christian and neoconservative advisers pushed for the removal of Saddam Hussein after the September 11 attacks, despite there being no evidence that linked al-Qaeda to the secular state of Iraq or its dictator.

Garran argues that the attacks on America in September 2001 and the war in Iraq have fuelled the formation of new anti-terrorism bills in Australia, America, and Britain; the detention without trial of captives from the war in Afghanistan (including Australians David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib) at Guantanamo Bay; the detention of Islamic asylum seekers; and the invocation of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ scenario. The identification of Westernness with Christianity made the rejection of Islam logical, and Bush’s use of the term ‘crusade’ cannot have been accidental, redolent as it is with historical associations. The key role that America plays in maintaining Israel, and the volatile state of the Middle East, contribute substantially to Islamic resentment of the West and the United States.

These books prompt readers to take a reality check.

Garran is concerned that Howard’s enthusiasm for Bush’s war, and his disregard of the United Nations and Europe, has placed Australia in a dangerous position. The Bali bombings of 12 October 2002 was a clear signal to Australia that Islamists considered Australians a target, and that attacks on Australian soil are possible. Australia may be in greater danger through its involvement in the ‘coalition of the willing’ waging the global ‘war on terror’. It is useful to read Garran in combination with Maddox, as he makes little of the theology underlying Bush’s foreign policy. It must be noted that many conservative (and fundamentalist) Christians believe that the foundation of the modern state of Israel ushered in the end times, and that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the Last Judgement are at hand. It seems extraordinary that in the 21st century, in countries where church and state are theoretically separate, such beliefs contribute in any way to foreign policy.

For Australia the war on terrorism contributes to the process of civic fragmentation that the Howard Government has fostered since coming to power in 1996. Civil society could perish in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, where difference is treason (Muslims are all potential terrorists, homosexuals are enemies of the family, and anyone disagreeing with the government is routinely accused of being ‘un-Australian’); where trust in politicians is low; where people struggling with poverty, mental illness or the care of aged family members receive too little help; and where rates of depression and youth suicide continue to rise.

The Howard Government did not create these ills, but it can be argued that it intensified them and makes little effort to alleviate them. In view of Australia’s ageing population, falling birth rate, the loss of permanent employment to contract and part-time jobs, and the increasing gap between rich and poor, Australians might shiver at Peter Costello’s March 2001 comment that ‘We just ought to get governments out as far as possible, out of family lives, you ought to let the non-government institutions of society, like the family and the school and the community and the church take a lot of the slack’ (cited in Maddox p. 221).

The challenge is to restore the faith of ordinary Australians in a just and fair society.

These books prompt readers to take a reality check. Only 9 per cent of Australians attend church and we are traditionally a secular nation, this fact stemming as much from our lawless convict beginnings as it does from the secularism of the contemporary West. Admittedly, America is anomalous, manifesting high levels of Christian commitment (partly due to its origins, settled by the Pilgrim Fathers, who were essentially religious refugees) despite secularisation (Bruce 2002, pp. 204–228). However, conservatives and Christians argue that the decline in social capital and civic engagement is due to loss of faith in Christianity; return to the churches, they claim, will cure society’s ills. The outlook for Christian revival is not so positive in reality. Secularisation cannot be reversed, and in the religiously deregulated marketplace, Christianity is but one option among a multitude of world religions, occult, and esoteric systems, new religions, and personal spiritualities. Christianity will never again enjoy market dominance in the West, the land of choice.

Australians have to look elsewhere for a renewal of civil society. However, the election of the Coalition to a fourth term with a majority in both houses from July 2005 means that the legacy of communal fragmentation may be far greater than can presently be imagined. Maddox and Garran offer challenging insights into our present situation. They should be read as widely as possible. The challenge is to restore the faith of ordinary Australians in a just and fair society, where attention is paid to more than economic growth, and where participation results in social capital, a source of riches that advantages everyone.


Berger, P. 1967, The Social Reality of Religion, Faber and Faber, London.

Bruce, S. 2002, God is Dead: Secularization in the West, Blackwell, Oxford.

Lyon, D. 2002 [2000], Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern Times, Polity, Oxford.

Putnam, R.D. 2000, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York, Touchstone.

Carole M. Cusack is Senior Lecturer and Chair of the Department of Studies in Religion at The University of Sydney. Her research interests include factors influencing religious conversion, secularisation and the growth of new religions, and European mythology.

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