Back room religion

Marion Maddox, Macquarie University

Michael Bachelard, Behind the Exclusive Brethren, Melbourne, Scribe Publications, 2008 (314 pp). ISBN 9-78192137-228-5 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

‘Fly to Aussie and watch the ALL BLACKS every time!’ shouted the flyer in my letterbox, on a glossy photo of a night-lit rugby field. Allowing for the New Zealand habit of using ‘Aussie’ to designate a country, rather than a person, the ad was still perplexing.

On the reverse, running the words together in the manner of a medieval manuscript, were further enticements:

maybedonatetoacharityofyourchoice …

I knew who the ad was from, because it, and the similar brochures that had arrived over the previous days, had been the centre of a media storm. It was 2005, New Zealand was about to go to the polls, and Wellington’s political chat was abuzz with the pro-National campaign being run by a tiny sect of 19th century origin, whose members do not vote but who are clearly well aware that there are other ways to make a political point.

The perplexing bit was what they wanted readers to do. Voting is not the only thing the Exclusive Brethren eschew: they also don’t dine out or go on Caribbean cruises (since both would involve eating with unbelievers, prohibited since 1960 (Bachelard 2008, p. 33)) or donate to charity (unless the charity is one of their own very wealthy leaders or lavishly state funded schools (Bachelard 2008, pp. 72, 76)). The flyer, then, made no pretence of promoting their way of life. Instead, it brazenly exhorted New Zealanders to forget about the common good and demand ‘your share of the $7 billion surplus’ through tax cuts. To get it, the flyer advised, ‘USE YOUR PARTY VOTE TO CHANGE THE GOVERNMENT’—from Helen Clarke’s Labour to Don Brash’s National.

The intervention, subsequently the subject of a police investigation because of false addresses on the brochures, was not successful that time, and Brash lost the National leadership over his handling of the revelations. But the Brethren’s Kiwi outing was the first in a series of revelations about the sect’s intervention—sometimes legal, occasionally not, but always discrete to the point of being secretive—in campaigns in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia and Australia (Bachelard 2008, pp. 197–200).

You might expect that a sect which is small, fundamentalist and puritanical (except when it comes to alcohol, the use of which is actively encouraged (Bachelard 2008, pp. 57–58)) would be arguing for the usual swag of so-called ‘moral’ issues. And indeed, politicians who have been lobbied by the Brethren report that they are interested in same-sex marriage and other sex-and-family questions. But not, apparently, as interested as they are in persuading governments to lower taxes, weaken industrial relations protections and spend more on defence and less on healthcare.

The flyer made no pretence of promoting the Exclusive Brethren’s way of life.

Their biggest beef of all, though, was with the Greens—whom their now notorious ‘Green Delusion’ pamphlets accused of everything from wanting to ‘teach criminals “art”’ to hastening the extinction of the kiwi (which in New Zealand is a bird, not a person). (See Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2006a), which has a link to the pamphlets.)

So what are these Christian non-voters on about, and what possessed them to spend at least $370 000 supporting Howard and opposing the Australian Greens in 2004, US$636 500 in the 2004 US campaign and more than a million dollars in New Zealand (Bachelard 2008, pp. 197–200)? Journalist with Melbourne’s Age, Michael Bachelard, has produced a remarkable look behind the Brethren scenes.

To the trickle of tragedies which has seeped from time to time from the Family Court or through the public outbursts of outcast former members Bachelard adds a detailed, and chilling, series of detailed portraits of fractured families. If members criticise the leadership—and, sometimes, when they don’t—they can be ‘withdrawn from’, which means no contact with other church members. Not a dire punishment, perhaps, if you’re a once-a-year Anglican, but to the Exclusive Brethren, church is much more than Sunday. Family members who have been ‘withdrawn from’ are prohibited from contacting members still in the sect. Often, this means parents are cut off from young families, while Family Court access orders are flagrantly disregarded (see Chapter 9).

And Brethren work mainly in small businesses owned by group members and relying on the group for everything from office equipment to financial advice; so losing your affiliation almost certainly means losing your livelihood. With no experience in the very different non-Brethren world, which members are taught from childhood to fear and distrust, finding a new job must feel precarious to say the least.

As well as his telling pictures of life inside the Exclusive Brethren, and what happens if you leave, Bachelard has provided by far the most detailed information available to date about their political campaigns, Family Court activities and school system. The latter reads like a lesson in finding legal loopholes. In an environment where private schools are often massively over-funded compared to their poorer state counterparts, the Brethren are surely entitled to some sort of prize for creative school funding solutions. Bachelard notes that ‘with an estimated secondary-school population in 2007 of just 838 students, the sect’s six school networks would receive … almost $50 million in taxpayer recurrent funding in the next four-year school-funding round’, plus another half a million in 2007 for capital grants (pp. 212–213).

Brethren work mainly in small businesses owned by group members.

Far from being embarrassed about these elaborate measures by a very prosperous group to benefit from so-called ‘Category 12’ funding (p. 228), intended to relieve financial hardship, the group regards such activity as a virtue, even giving it a Biblical name: ‘spoiling the Egyptians’ (p. 110). Just as the Israelites, fleeing slavery in Egypt, were allowed by God to take Egyptian wealth with them, so the Brethren discern a divine plan to redistribute wealth from the wicked (non-Brethren) to the righteous (sect members). This redistribution happens via the tax system, school funding and Centrelink payments. Bachelard quotes one estranged member recounting how his son was taken to the other side of Australia—a common practice to keep children apart from their ‘withdrawn from’ parents:

He left on the Friday. On the Monday in my mailbox was a letter from Centrelink. I reckon they took him to Centrelink on the Wednesday before he left to get him to apply for the away-from-home rate of Youth Allowance (p. 110).

How disquieting should we find all this? Bachelard points out that the Exclusive Brethren is as much a conglomerate of small businesses as it is a religious faith; and many of its practices are commonplace in the business world. Seeking out ways to minimise tax and maximise a dip into the public purse is an accepted part of the Australian financial landscape. Lobbying politicians and financing ‘third party’ election campaigns is standard practice for everyone from the Business Council of Australia to the Australian Conservation Foundation. The Exclusive Brethren are certainly not the only church to seek audiences with political leaders in order to convey their opinions and advice—though they are the only one to do it with the phenomenal success relative to their numbers that Bachelard documents. The group’s private meetings with John Howard began long before he was Leader and continued throughout his time in the Lodge, while leaders of larger churches (for example, the Uniting Church’s national president Dean Drayton) and ecumenical organisations (such as the National Council of Churches, representing 4 million churchgoers) sought appointments in vain.

Bachelard repeatedly points out that the group is usually meticulous, and often successful, in ensuring that its activities are within the letter of the law. The worst he can say about their financial dealings, for example, is that they are ‘morally dubious’. While we might wish churches would conduct their affairs in ways less ‘morally dubious’ than those of, say, Wall Street buccaneers, experience does not necessarily inspire optimism.

So is he really accusing the Exclusive Brethren of doing anything worse, at least on the political and financial front (their dealings with the Family Court are another matter), than behaving as so many others do?

One aspect of Brethren life into which Bachelard does not delve is their theology. What actually motivates all this flurry of political activity, which is only sometimes connected to the group’s business or moral interests? It is hard to see, for example, what the group would have expected to gain from its 2004 proposal that John Howard distract public attention from ‘the Iraq war, the supposed ill treatment of Iraq prisoners and other contentious issues’ by announcing the building of a water pipeline over hundreds of kilometers, to be funded by the sale of government water bonds (p. 188). Similarly, it is hard to see what end was served by a New Zealand Brethren-owned business banning its multicultural workforce from using languages other than English, even during work breaks, and using its industrial relations exemption to bar a union representative from meeting the employees (p. 181).

The group’s founder was John Nelson Darby, a 19th century priest and Biblical scholar, who is remembered today also as one of the major voices in what is now called premillennialist dispensationalism—the idea that the world is wearing its way through seven eras, or ‘dispensations’, outlined in the Bible, and that once all are over Jesus will return and the world as we know it will finish. Followers of the movement (which extends far beyond the Brethren, to embrace many versions of fundamentalist Christianity) often scour the newspapers for clues in world events which offer clues as to the time schedule. Unrest in the Middle East is a promising sign, as the modern nation of Israel is understood to have a crucial role in the final countdown. So are natural disasters, outbreaks of disease, and extreme climate events. When the moment comes, Jesus will ‘rapture’ the faithful out of this world before dealing with the rest of us in ways which are often described with blood-drenched detail.

The Exclusive Brethren are not the only church to seek audiences with political leaders.

How much of this schema the Exclusive Brethren’s leadership subscribes to is hard to know. Members who have left portray theology as less important in the way members are taught than rules governing the minutiae of day-to-day behaviour. However, those who grew up in the sect often report a brooding sense that ‘every day might be your last’, as the Rapture is surely imminent. The leadership also appears to share other premillennialists’ conviction that the timing of the end is bound up with world events. Bruce Hales is reported as warning his followers, in a letter before the elections of 2004 in the United States and Australia, that if George Bush and John Howard ‘were not returned to power, “the rapture”, or end of the world, would be near’ (Kiong 2005).

That being so, one might wonder why the group would want Bush and Howard returned, even to the point of massive spending to bring it about. After all, the Rapture is premillennialists’ longed-for moment of vindication. The ex-members’ support website has posed just that question (‘Welcome to’, n.d.), and group representatives have used media interviews to refute the idea that they are trying to hasten the Rapture. No wonder—the Hales suggestion, taken together with the political campaigns, implies that, far from bringing it on, they are trying to hold it off. Some observers have linked this to the group’s 2004 decision to try to reconnect with estranged ex-members. In 2006, Four Corners interviewed several people, still scarred by their departure from the group, who had received approaches from Brethren leaders, offering apologies and acknowledgement that they had been dealt with unfairly (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2006b). Perhaps delaying the Rapture is a bid to buy time for this effort to regain the loyalty of severed members.

It is hard to know how to check such hypotheses with such a secretive group. And perhaps their theology is their own business. On the other hand, Hales’s linking of the Rapture with election results suggests that it might be an important piece in the puzzle of this group, whose actions have consequences which are very public, however hard it works to keep the background private. In turn, understanding that connection might help evaluate to what extent the group’s activities are just political and financial ‘business as usual’. Australian, New Zealand and American voters might wonder, for example, to what extent our democratic systems are being turned to the fulfillment of an apocalyptic timetable about which most of us are skeptical. The pamphlet that landed in my Wellington letterbox in 2004, exhorting me to indulge in an array of behaviours which its authors sternly avoid, might then seem less perplexing. A world awash in sin is ripe for Rapture.

In the meantime, Bachelard’s book is a unique and remarkable resource. Much of the research in the political chapter appeared first as newspaper articles, including one in The Age, which coincided with one of the group’s political advertisements on another page. It is in no small part because of his efforts that politicians now respond with caution to groups of ‘earnest, conservatively dressed men’ (p. 209) who explain that, though they do not vote, they would like to put large funds and numerous person hours at the addressee’s disposal.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2006a, Transcript of program ‘Elusive Exclusive Brethren’, Background Briefing, 30 April [Online], Available: [2009, Feb 24].

Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2006b, Transcript of program ‘Separate lives’, Four Corners, 25 September [Online], Available: [2009, Feb 24].

Kiong, E. 2005, ‘Sect members behind political pamphlets’, New Zealand Herald, 7 September [Online], Available: [2009, Feb 24].

‘Welcome to’ n.d., [Online], Available: [2009, Feb 24].

Marion Maddox is the leading authority on the intersection of religion and politics in Australia. She is currently Director of Macquarie University’s Centre for Research on Social Inclusion. Her book God Under Howard: The Rise of The Religious Right in Australian Politics was published in 2005 (Allen & Unwin).

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