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Religious right on rise in Australia

With the support of Prime Minister John Howard and his Liberal Party, the religious right is a growing force in Australian politics.

Though church attendance and religious views in Australia were traditionally more closely akin to New Zealand, the rise in conservative Christianity resembles trends in the United States under President George Bush, says Victoria University Religious Studies lecturer Dr Marion Maddox.

“Although conservative Christianity does not have a big grassroots base in Australia like it does in America, the Howard government has been adept at promoting ideas such as family values, morality, and Judeo-Christian ethics. They have gathered support from people who don’t identify as Christian but think religion should shape behaviour and provide values,” Marion says.

The Howard government has also promoted policies in line with this moral stance. They include tax rules that favour families in which only one parent works, laws against gay marriage, restricting the access of single women to in vitro fertilisation, and vilification of Muslim asylum seekers.

These findings are the result of research Marion has done on the influence of religion on Australian politics. They are contained in her new book God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics.

Ironically, Marion observes, John Howard is not a particularly religious person himself. He told a television interviewer recently that he attends church ‘more often than Christmas and Easter, but certainly not every week’, and he declined to be interviewed for Marion’s book.

“Though he now claims to be Anglican, John Howard says his values were shaped by his Methodist up-bringing in Earlwood, Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s. I found it strange that he would attribute his social conservatism to his Methodist background because I also went to a Methodist congregation near Earlwood.

“We looked at the Methodist newspapers of the times and the views the Methodist Church espoused then were the opposite of those he advocates. For example, the church called for an open door for refugees while the Howard government has put in place restrictions on refugees.

“In the 1960s the Methodist Church in New South Wales was campaigning to recognise the Aboriginal people as the original owners of Australia and give them reparations for the loss of their land. John Howard has refused to say sorry and will not allow the word ‘owner’ to be used for occupancy prior to Europeans.”

Marion says John Howard has increasingly inclined toward the religious right since he regained leadership of the Liberal Party with the support of conservative Christian groups such as the Lyons Forum.

Another party on the religious right in Australia is Family First. Pastors from the Assembly of God established Family First and many of its candidates in the last election were pastors in that church. Though Family First won a Senate seat in those elections, Marion says they are not a significant political force.

“Family First gained 1.9 percent of the vote and only gained the Senate seat through an elaborate series of preference deals. Australia has a strong two party system so why would anyone vote for them when a major party has tied the colours of the religious right to its mast?”

Despite its conservative stance on moral and economic issues, Marion says the religious right in Australia has never gone down the racist path of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Even conservative churches have been strong advocates of Aboriginal rights.

The Howard government has had a somewhat turbulent relationship with the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. On one hand, government ministers have told the churches to stick to spiritual matters and not meddle in politics. On the other hand, the government has contracted out many social services to church agencies. One of the conditions churches must agree to when assuming those contracts is they will not criticise government policy.

Marion observes the overall effect of these trends has been to shift the understanding of what it means to be Christian in Australia. In the past Christian could mean support for social justice and liberal ideas, now it has become shorthand for conservative.

Marion holds a PhD in theology and another in political philosophy. She joined the faculty of Victoria University, Wellington in 2000. Her book God Under Howard is published by Allen and Unwin.