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“The Bible is not a policy handbook”: Yet another Christian Australian PM

“The Bible is not a policy handbook”: Yet another Christian Australian PM

Andrew Connell examines recent trends in religious affiliation amongst Australian Prime Ministers, and what they tell us about the future role of Christianity on the political landscape.

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Scott Morrison, Australia’s new Prime Minister, is a committed and conservative Christian. His Who’s Who entry lists ‘church’ as one of his main interests– and that church is a Pentecostal mega–church in the Sydney suburbs. Although Morrison’s faith was one of the first things that headline writers in the UK (where he is little known) identified about him, in some respects it is a continuation of recent trends in the leadership of Australian politics and in particular of the leadership of the conservative Liberal Party. In other ways, however, Morrison‘s accession to office may be a sign of change.

Perhaps surprisingly, most recent Australian Prime Ministers have had a declared Christian faith. John Howard (Liberal, 1996–2007) was brought up as a Methodist, but has for most of his adult life worshipped in the Anglican church; his successor Kevin Rudd (Labor, 2007–2010 and 2013), is also usually described as an Anglican, although he was brought up as a Roman Catholic and as a student worshipped in the Uniting Church (a union of Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians). Morrison’s two immediate Liberal predecessors, Malcolm Turnbull (2015–2018) and Tony Abbott (2013–2015)   are practising Roman Catholics, Abbott (who spent three years studying for the priesthood as a young man) from birth and Turnbull as an adult convert. All four of these are what the leading Australian scholar of religion and politics, John Warhurst, has categorised as ‘observant Christians’– regular churchgoers who have shown evidence of taking their faith seriously, at least in their personal lives. The religious status of Howard’s predecessor Paul Keating (Labor, 1991–1996) is contested: while he was an active Roman Catholic as a young man, Warhurst describes him as a ‘conventional Christian’ (defined as an occasional churchgoer) and a ‘cultural’ Catholic– although another scholar, Roy Williams, has argued that Keating’s Catholicism is ‘more than tribal’. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that almost all of Australia’s Prime Ministers over the last quarter century have been practising Christians: only Julia Gillard (Labor, 2010–2013), who is usually seen as an atheist, has been a clear exception.

In this respect, then, Morrison’s faith is not exceptional. Nor is it unusual that, as a former member of the Uniting Church who is now a Pentecostal, he has changed his denominational affiliation: as we have seen, he has this in common with Howard, Rudd and Turnbull (although Turnbull’s earlier Presbyterianism, unlike Howard’s Methodism and Rudd’s Catholicism, had been largely nominal).  But Morrison is unusual in that he is the first of Australia’s observant Christian Prime Ministers who is not a member of a traditional denomination.  This, perhaps, tells us something about Australia’s changing religious and political landscape.

For much of the twentieth century there was a clear religious division in Australian politics. The Liberal Party, and its conservative predecessors, was heavily identified with an Anglo–Scots elite which was Anglican and Presbyterian in religion, and the Labor Party was strongly Catholic. This sectarian identification broke down from the 1960s onwards and is now largely extinct: while in the 1950s there was only one Catholic Liberal MP in the federal Parliament, by the turn of the century John Howard’s cabinets contained several high–profile Catholic ministers. But, as Warhurst argues, the Anglican and Presbyterian churches have, historically, enjoyed the highest social status in Australia, and while it has not been uncommon for Australian Prime Ministers to have changed their (active or nominal) denominational allegiance at some time in their life, often on marriage, they have usually (like Howard and Rudd) ‘traded up’ to one of these churches. In the late twentieth century Roman Catholics overtook Anglicans as the largest single Christian group in Australia and it may be fair to say that their social status has risen (as Abbott’s and Turnbull’s leadership of the Liberal Party might suggest).  Nonetheless, the 2011 census showed that Catholics, Anglicans and the Uniting Church between them accounted for over 75% of Australian Christians, and the faith of Australia’s political leaders has largely reflected that.  Indeed, both Howard and Rudd sit fairly lightly to denominational differences, and part of Rudd’s political appeal was that his post–sectarian but nonetheless mainstream Christianity was seen as unthreatening and even reassuring by Australia’s ‘vicariously religious’ voters.

However, Pentecostalism is the fastest growing stream within Australian Christianity. American–style mega–churches are a feature of Australian church life:  probably the best known of them, Hillsong, has, like Morrison, its roots in the Sydney suburbs. Under Howard, the Liberal–National Coalition went out of its way to court the Pentecostal vote, particularly in response to criticisms of some of its policies from mainstream church leaders, and in 2004 an electoral deal with a small Pentecostal–based party helped the Coalition win at least four marginal seats in the federal general election.  Although part of the platform upon which Rudd won the 2007 federal election was based on a reclaiming of Christian language for the centre–left, and Catholics rather than Pentecostals have been most prominent among the subsequent Liberal leadership, Morrison’s accession to office may indicate a shift in the balance of Australian political Christianity.

Will this make much difference to government policy? Probably not.  Howard, Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull were all reluctant to let their faith directly shape their policies– indeed, many of their policies have been fiercely criticised by church leaders, especially in relation to a tough line on asylum–seekers (with which Morrison has been strongly associated).  Faith has provided Australia’s recent Prime Ministers with personal motivation and sometimes rhetoric, but not policy prescriptions, and Morrison himself has said that ‘the Bible is not a policy handbook and I get very worried when people try to treat it like one’. But his accession to office shows that even in such an apparently secular country as Australia, religious faith in politics is still alive– and is changing.

 Image by Scott Morrison Facebook available in the public domain. 

Andrew Connell

Andrew Connell

Andrew Connell is a researcher and academic based in Cardiff and contributed chapters on Tony Blair and Kevin Rudd to The Mighty and the Almighty: how political leaders do Go (Biteback). @andrewpconnell

Posted 28 August 2018

Christianity, Faith, Global Politics, Politics

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