Rosaries, ovaries and chicanery: Religion and politics in Australia

Tony Smith

Gary Bouma Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2006 (248 pp). ISBN 0-52167-389-5 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Frank Brennan, Acting on Conscience: How Can We Responsibly Mix Law, Religion and Politics?, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 2007 (267 pp). ISBN 0-70223-582-2 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

While church and state can be separated in theory, people do not necessarily distinguish between religion and politics in practice. Most western democracies exhibit a balance between the two that is partly formal and partly tacit. Western states legislate to guarantee the individual’s right to worship privately and publicly, while religious institutions restrict themselves to matters spiritual. Recently, the Australian contract has been challenged by several developments, including the image of an aggressive Islam, the changing nature of religious affiliation, and the eagerness of politicians to augment their power. When federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd wrote of Labor’s need to ensure that its Coalition opponents could not cast themselves as having greater claim to the support of Christians, Minister for Health Tony Abbott accused Rudd of introducing religion to politics (Abbott 2007; ABC News Online 2007a; Burchell 2007; Hamilton 2007; Rudd 2006). As Rudd seemed to be responding to a challenge rather than initiating one, Abbott’s charge was contentious.

Of course politicians often disagree, especially as an election draws near. When the debate about religion and politics seems decidedly phoney, it is fortunate that two genuine scholars have recently produced works on the nature of religious affiliation in Australia. These contrasting books together illuminate the interaction between theistic and partisan beliefs. Gary Bouma’s succinct sociological assessment of religion today shows how the church-state balance is changing. Frank Brennan’s exercise in applying specifically Catholic doctrine to political issues shows why the spheres cannot be separated and why conflict results from their interaction. These works position the main arguments in a rational overview that should be coherent to all observers, regardless of where they sit on the continuum from theocrats to extreme secularists.


In the overtly political world of parliaments and parties, Tony Abbott represents a relatively new development. A generation ago, it was rare for Catholics to vote Liberal, let alone to join the party and make a career within it. When Abbott intended to use his ministerial control to decide the conditions for the release of a new fertility control drug called RU486, the parliament decided in a ‘conscience vote’ that the decision should be handed to the Therapeutic Goods Administration. The vote, which was supported especially by female MPs across the parliament, caused Abbott to suggest that some people believed that a Catholic could not be Minister for Health (Warhurst 2006, p. 68). This is one interpretation. It certainly means that when individuals accept the responsibilities of office they may face crises of conscience. Not all observers agree with Abbott’s interpretation, and some critics regard him as unique. Journalist Mike Carlton (2007) routinely refers to him as the ‘mad monk’, a tag to which Abbott objects. At times when Catholic church leaders criticise Government policy, however, having committed Catholics within Cabinet helps to soften concerns.

A generation ago,
it was rare for Catholics to vote Liberal.

Changing sectarian allegiances is one part of an explanation for Labor’s failure to win a federal election since 1993. Marion Maddox (2005) has drawn attention to the Howard Government’s exploitation of elements of the Christian religious right during the 2004 election campaign. Her detailed analysis provides some evidence that the Government encouraged the new ‘mega-churches’ including Hillsong in the aspirational suburbs of Sydney and courted electoral support from their members. Maddox also notes the success of the Family First Party as a sign that religious conservatives sought greater political influence. Her research suggests similarities with the position of conservative Christians in the United States, where voting behaviour has been linked to the type of Christianity professed. American Christian liberals through, for example, the ‘Sojourners’ movement headed by Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics, have sought to reassure voters that God is neither a Democrat or a Republican (see, for example, Wallis 2007). Conservatives are more likely to be linked to the Republican Party. Critic of liberal Christianity, Ann Coulter and author of Godless: The Church of Liberalism, was a key speaker at a conservative rally in Washington (Gawenda 2007).

Amanda Lohrey and Tom Frame have provided other interpretations of the interaction between religion and politics in Australia. In her inquiry into the changing nature of religious affiliation, Lohrey (2006) interviewed some young Australians about their views of religion and of politics. She identified new attitudes that were more likely to suit a socially conservative agenda emphasising individual responsibility. Lohrey concluded, however, that should conservative groups seem to be gaining too much power, they would create their own backlash in the process, and so ensure that their influence would be limited. Maddox (2006) notes a similarly optimistic belief among some US liberals that everyone should pursue their own interests instead of seeking middle ground. Their hope is that religious pluralism will create balance and modify outcomes.

Unlike Maddox and Lohrey, who sought to expose undue religious influence, Anglican Bishop Tom Frame (2006) examined the history of church-state interaction in Australia from the viewpoint of a churchman. He argues that churches and religious people have every reason to participate in politics, and that the supposed constitutional barriers have been misinterpreted. Frame argues that secular humanists have deliberately read the Constitution narrowly to suit their agenda, and that they have overestimated the influence of the religious right. Enter Bouma and Brennan.


Interest in religion has been renewed and accelerated since 11 September 2001.

Bouma notes that despite 20th century predictions about religion withering away before the rise of secular rationalism, there has been a renewed interest in religion and an acceleration following 11 September 2001. He argues that this rise is not a return to the past, but a reawakening in a socio-cultural context that is ‘secular, postmodern and post-Christendom’ (p. xiv). Bouma finds something distinctively Australian about the ways that we ‘experience religion and express spirituality’ (p. xiv). Traditionally we have displayed the following characteristics: a laid back attitude that shuns exuberant expression, infrequent church attendance except early and late in life, acceptance of inconsistency between belief and practice, lifelong adherence to a single faith, location of religions on the margin of society, and a view of the transcendent as distant and diffuse, but approachable, trustworthy, and accessible directly or through professionals (p. 35, pp. 45–47). These are traits of a religious attitude that is essentially a ‘communal and social hope in the heart’ (p. 27).

Bouma’s approach is explicitly sociological, especially where he draws on Census data to quantify religion. Based on the imperfect concept of ‘identification’, Australia’s religious recent demography shows greater diversity, rises in ‘spirituality’ and Catholicism, and demise of British Protestantism (p. 50). Through migration and conversion, the category ‘Other Christian’ has grown fastest among Christian religions identified, albeit from a small base. Among other religious identifiers, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus have increased strongly. Among those who supplied their own responses at the 2001 Census, the word ‘spiritual’ was prominent, with respondents less likely to be affiliated with formal organisations. Young people today are more likely to try several religions.

Bouma explains some clear trends in religious identity, affiliation, and practice. Christian churches have failed to maintain pace with social change, especially in clinging to outmoded concepts of family. Young people, who now marry later, have been alienated by the traditional condemnation of sexual relations before marriage. Bouma describes a ‘cultural macro-trend from the rational to the experiential and emotional as the dominant form of authority’ (p. 86). Orthodoxy has been replaced by ‘orthopassy’—emphasis on correct feelings’ (p. 93), and the ‘mega-church’ is the appropriate form of architecture for this trend. The mega-church fits the contemporary consumerist ethic neatly, and like the shopping mall, the mega-church is likely to have a huge car park to allow for mobility across suburbs (p. 114–115).

The mega-church fits the contemporary consumerist ethic neatly.

Religious organisations have reacted to these challenges by ‘revitalisation, fundamentalisation, innovation and marginalisation’ (p. 129). All Christian churches show signs of revitalisation when the public yearns for a centre for their grief or fears, but mega-churches have provided a haven for those people who react against the ‘post-family’ society. Bouma notes that because they have their own media, mega-church influence occurs without obvious mainstream media attention (p. 150). High demand groups such as Opus Dei show an inclination to withdraw from the world. Bouma notes a trend among the young to react against the laxity of their parents, and a growing tendency to wear religious identifiers such as crosses. There has been a change in political engagement as ‘many conservative evangelical and fundamental Christian groups move from quiescent withdrawal to active attempts to shape their societies’ (p. 160). Their direction is influenced by economic rationalism: ‘Individual responsibility replaces corporate responsibility; open, compassionate reception of refugees is replaced by detention centres; and harm minimisation replaced by blaming the victim’ (p. 161). Others have moved away from communal towards individual spirituality such as the ‘New Age’. For example, Australians identifying with ‘nature religions’ increased by some 130 per cent between the 1996 and 2001 censuses (p. 162).

When spirituality is organised it becomes a religion and interacts with social policy as subject, source, shaper and implementer (p. 176). Religions are the subject of government action when the state seeks to influence religions, as can be seen in recent attempts to promote ‘moderate’ Islam as a bulwark against extremism, and in policies on education. Religions initiate and shape policy by requesting decisions in areas such as health where they have distinct beliefs about matters such as abortion and stem cell research. They offer suggestions about crime and punishment based on their notions of human imperfection and justice. Religious organisations also implement policy as welfare providers. Governments do not seem greatly concerned about making a Catholic agency a key provider although their clients will not all share that faith (p. 193).

Bouma says that future ‘core drivers’ will include the search for hope and meaning in an age of political instability and global warming, diversity and competition among religions, and the prevalence of faith-based education (p. 205). He identifies positive signs in youth spirituality, interfaith activities, and the growth of inter-spirituality and bricolage, or ‘the piecing together of cultural elements drawn from a variety of sources’ (pp. 208ff). He ends on a controversial note, suggesting that many Australians support politicians who promote ‘more humane values’ than those found in ‘corporatist and managerial approaches’ and notes that ‘some refer to these as family values’ (p. 212). Unfortunately, the politicians who advocate inhumane policies towards refugees and less privileged members of society seem to monopolise the rhetoric of ‘family values’.


Brennan is trying to reserve a place for the individual conscience.

In contrast to Bouma’s broad, rational overview, Brennan’s work emanates from a personal position at the conjunction of faith and political practice. Dubbed a ‘meddling priest’ by one prime minister who did not appreciate Brennan’s hard line on Aboriginal land rights, this Jesuit law professor has over two decades called attention to ‘democratically responsible religious views on vexed moral, political and legal questions’ (p. 3). In this book he revisits many of those substantive issues and broadens his focus to discuss the philosophical question of how persons of conscience can be active in religion and politics.

Brennan notes the need to ‘understand better the role of meddling priests, meddling imams and other meddling citizens who draw upon religious beliefs in their … political activity’ (p. 8). He argues that civil states should circumscribe ‘religion’s place at the (public) table’. Those who ‘unthinkingly repeat the moral claims of their religious leaders’ should have no right to ‘dictate the terms of political debate’ (p. 9). Brennan argues that there is a place for individuals to act on their deeply held beliefs, providing these are stated accurately and that they are distinguished from social mores that will be binding on all. Not surprisingly, this approach has brought him into disagreement with the authoritarian leadership of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Pell has attacked the notion of ‘primacy of conscience’ (p. 30). Brennan is, then, trying to reserve a place for the individual conscience in a space restricted and ‘fraught’ (p. 10) by both sides of the faith-politics balance.

Brennan considers several key case studies to illuminate the kind of thinking that he suggests is appropriate for applying conscience to political decisions. He touches on church teachings on embryonic cell research, assisted reproductive technologies, abortion, same sex marriage, sexual identities, euthanasia, Aboriginal land rights, poverty, employment, welfare, asylum seekers, education, war, terrorism, and security. His purpose is to find spaces within these debates where individuals can give primacy to their consciences and contribute to public debates in ways that are acceptable to everyone. Often, Brennan responds to criticisms, some from general categories such as ‘small “l” liberals’ who argue that religion should be kept out of politics (p. 18) and some from specific writers such as David Marr (pp. 172ff).

Conscience, Brennan concludes, provides the common ground between the religious and other citizens. In Australia, he suggests, the presence of religion is often acknowledged in the public forum by

the reverence of the silence. That is why we Australians need to be so attentive to keeping religion and politics in place. Each has its place and each must be kept in place for the good of us all, and for the good of our Commonwealth (p. 231).

Brennan’s moderate and persuasive approach should make it easier for people who want to act in good conscience in the public sphere. Their difficulty has always been to explain their conscientious beliefs independently when they happen to accord with religious teachings. Readers will judge Brennan’s success according to the sharpness of the distinction he maintains between religion and conscience. The religious will be encouraged to believe that they can maintain their beliefs and act with integrity in public debates.

Australians distrust intensity in politics and religion.

Secularists, however, might remain suspicious. Brennan’s strong advocacy for the primacy of conscience is blurred somewhat by a tendency to defend the rights of church leaders to make statements on public issues, especially when those statements can influence individual consciences without necessarily demanding strict obedience. It is a pity that he does not discuss the concept of the ‘conscience vote’ at greater length, because it raises issues of the legislator’s responsibilities and accountabilities. The parliamentary conscience vote occurs when party whips do not demand that MPs vote according to party policy. In fact, in these cases, MPs do not face any crisis of conscience. The term ‘conscience’ seems to apply much more directly on those rare occasions when MPs cross the floor because they have a conscientious objection to their party’s whip. If conscience is to attain an independent life, then it must be situated in the context of practical politics as well as the religious framework in which it has usually been considered.


A search for spirituality is sometimes offered as explanation for the recent upsurge of interest in Anzac Day celebrations to honour war veterans. The day marks the Australian military invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli in 1915. In Turkey around Anzac Day 2007, ‘secularists’ demonstrated publicly to express concerns that some Turkish political leaders wanted Turkey to become an Islamic state (ABC News Online 2007b). Given the distrust Australians show for intensity in politics and religion, such concerns are unlikely here. However, some observers recommend vigilance as they believe that Health Minister Abbott, having lost control of RU486, might implement a religious agenda through pregnancy termination counselling services (ABC Radio PM 2007c).

Some commentators have tried to predict the future for the relationship between religion and state in Australia. While their arguments have been stimulating enough, their conclusions tend to divide between optimism that religion will prosper politically and hope that affairs of state will remain secular. In Australian Soul Gary Bouma balances the prognostications with an objective view of the current dynamic relationship. In Acting on Conscience Frank Brennan shows that the distinction between the political power of organised religion and the conscientious responsibilities of ethical individuals makes the relationship much more complex than many commentators have acknowledged. Together they advance the discussion considerably.


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Dr Tony Smith is a Bathurst writer and frequent contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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