Religion and Politics: opportunity or threat?

Lyn Allison / 05 December 2014

This article was first presented at the “Separating Church and State” Conference in Melbourne, June 2006. The conference was supported by the Rationalist Society of Australia, the Australian National Secular Association and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies.

DOES God have a place in government? Are we seeing a change in the relationship between religion and politics in Australia? What relationship should exist between religious authorities and the government in a democratic, multicultural secular society such as Australia?

While these issues have always been with us, these are questions that have taken on an increased resonance in recent times. I will not go into the history of the constitutional issues surrounding church and state, nor the substantial taxation benefits that religious entities have access to. You will no doubt hear more on these matters from others who are speaking at this conference. What I would like to do is to highlight some of the ways in which religion and politics are already showing a greater entanglement within the federal political sphere.

Before going any further I would like to make it clear that to examine and even question the role of religion in politics is not an attack on the churches or on people of faith. The churches play an invaluable role in providing care to often neglected sectors of the community – particularly in an environment where the government fails to do so, such as refugees on temporary protection visas who are prohibited from earning money or accessing the public health system. And of course modem Australia’s striving for tolerance and compassion requires respect for followers of all of the major world religions and atheists, unless we are to succumb to religious prejudice.

However, if the relationship between religion and politics is undergoing a transformation in Australia, then it is surely the responsibility of those involved in governing for all Australians to consider what is driving this transformation, what the implications might be and what shape this relationship should have.

Religion is perhaps more visible now in Australian politics than it has been for almost thirty years. There would seem to be a growing lobby from within the religious right whose overt mission is to exert influence over public policy making in Australia. For some time there has been a federal Parliamentary Christian Fellowship which meets during sitting weeks to read passages from the Bible and exchange views and personal anecdotes on how their faith is tested within politics.

It is an interdenominational membership (as long as you are Christian of course) which crosses party membership, there is no roll call at meetings and minutes are never taken. It is not easy to get the exact numbers but reports have it that the group draws on a regular pool of between 60 and 75. The total number of federal MPs and Senators is only 226, so it would seem that our federal Parliament at least has more than its fair share of committed Christians. This would certainly appear to be the case within the inner sanctum of the federal Cabinet.

The federal Health Minister and a devout Catholic, Tony Abbott, is on the record as saying that one of the significant, largely unacknowledged, phenomena of recent Australian politics is ‘the Catholicisation of the Coalition’. As Abbott puts it, there are four ‘pretty serious Catholics’ sitting around the cabinet table: himself, the Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, the Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, and the Workplace Relations Minister, Kevin Andrews. Abbott has said that: ‘This is a cabinet which is conscious of our Christian heritage, many of whose members are fairly enthusiastic practising members of one or other faith.’

The federal Parliamentary Christian Fellowship organises regular prayer breakfasts – which are addressed by invited ministers and last year a Christian chaplain was appointed to the Parliament. In 1993 a Parliamentary Prayer Network was established for people to gather and pray in Parliament House. This group has a schools program which links Christian schools with members and Senators. And you can contact them if you are interested in upcoming elections – not their own but state and federal government elections. In 2005 the Parliamentary Prayer Network hosted a two-day conference in the great hall of Parliament House – a conference on the theme of ‘Prayer, Nations and Government’, which included church services. The guest speaker at that conference was Texan prophet Cindy Jacobs who believes that Christians must take over the world through its governments, exhorts Christians to train their children for martyrdom on the mission field in the final clash of civilizations and has prophesied that Australia will become a theocracy.[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]”Christians must take over the world through its governments” [Cindy Jacobs, Texan prophet][/quote]

Only a few years earlier, supporters of greater freedom for Tibet,  its culture and religion in particular,  were refused permission to have the Dalai Lama speak in the same space.

There is also the shadowy Lyons Forum within  the ranks of the Coalition MPs. The Lyons Forum doesn’t proclaim itself a Christian group but has never rejected the tag ‘ultra-conservative Christian faction’  and certainly to the 40-50 or so conservatives who are members of the group, its primary role is to pursue the interests of ‘families’. Religion is the subtext in its strong views against abortion, pornography and the recognition of same-sex relationships. This group was arguably at its hey-day in the 90s but was reportedly reformed in 2003 to reinvigorate its push for government policy in line with traditional Christian values.

And we must not forget that in recent decades, the delivery by religious organisations of services  that were formerly the province of government agencies has increased substantially. The Commonwealth employment services, worth hundreds of millions of dollars,  were  contracted out to largely faith based organisations. Religious organisations run public hospitals and residential aged care and disability services.

Funding changes under the Howard  Government have substantially increased taxpayer money for non­-government schools, the majority of which are church­ based. In the past few years churches were actively encouraged to tender for contracts to provide counselling in custody disputes under the new Family Law Act; and earlier this year church run services were encouraged to bid for new government monies to provide pregnancy and abortion counselling  services. And just last month Mr Costello was calling on the churches to become more involved in providing child care.

The prominence of religious based organisations in the provision of services, while arguably valuable, can be problematic. Delivery of social services can be effective and respectful of religious liberty; however religious provision can mean clients are denied services available elsewhere. The Catholic Church, for instance, will not conduct vasectomies, tubal ligation or  abortions, though they arc legal and routine in other public hospitals. People in many parts of Australia are discriminated against by having no alternative hospital provider – Bendigo is a case in point.

Similarly, pregnancy counselling services run by religious-based organisations and receiving government funding  provide   false  and  misleading advice about abortion, or refuse to provide women with information about clinics and hospitals that provide terminations.

And of course we have seen a number of government appointments that have called into question the intersection of church and state. The ill-fated appointment of Archbishop Peter Hollingworth as Governor-General,  at a time when abuse of children in church institutions was being hotly debated, and in the context of his inadequate role in responding to the problem, was contentious to say the least. Less attention was given to the subsequent appointment of Major-General Michael Jeffrey, but he did not hide his strong religious beliefs either. More recently the Government appointed as chairman of the new so-called Fair Pay Commission a man who declared that God would guide him in making minimum pay conditions.

Political leaders and would-be leaders are now speaking publicly about their religious faith and openly courting the devotees of the new evangelical churches. Australian National University historian Paul Pickering examined the first speeches of federal parliamentarians and found that while God was only mentioned  once by the 1975 intake of coalition politicians, the 1996 Howard group gave ‘the family’ 134 mentions, along with numerous references to God and Christian principles. This suggests an increasing emphasis on talk of religiosity and family amongst politicians.  One can only wonder what an analysis of the 2004 intake might show.

At the last federal election in the seat of Greenway, the New South Wales Liberal Party actually endorsed a member/employee of Hillsong, the largest Pentecostal church in the country, and successfully wrested the seat from the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Church members were active in the candidate’s campaign and Hillsong “Emerge”, a Hillsong offshoot whose facilities and programs range from medical centres and emergency relief services to drug and alcohol programs, personal development and recovery programs, received a $414,000 grant for crime prevention – a grant that was subsequently withdrawn after allegations that the organisation had deceived and manipulated an Aboriginal community to get the money. Hillsong also runs the no-doubt lucrative chain of Gloria Jean coffee shops with, we understand, largely volunteer labour.

The Liberal Member for Canning, Don Randall is reported to have launched his campaign at the Perth Christian Life Centre and to have said that people should vote for Mr Howard on the basis that he was a Christian, while Peter Costello made a pre-election visit to Hillsong. And of course the ultra conservative, religious-based, Family First Party won its first seat in the federal Senate at the last election and has already played a role in  helping the Government pass some unpopular legislation.

As has been pointed out by a number of commentators and authors, the Government’s talk of values appeals to conservative social attitudes on personal moral issues such as abortion, drug use and gay marriage, and cultivates support from religious groups. Brendan Nelson’s comments that he would not oppose the theory of ‘intelligent  design’ being taught in schools is a typical example of appealing to religious sensibilities, as is the ‘values’ in [or not in] schools debate.

We need to understand that pandering to religious sensibilities, the influence of the churches and the religious faith of parliamentarians is having a significant impact on public policy.[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]pandering to religious sensibilities, the influence of the churches and the religious faith of parliamentarians is having a significant impact on public policy.[/quote]

The successful attack by, amongst others, Anglican Archbishop George Pell on Labor’s promise  to reduce Commonwealth funding to wealthy private schools during the last federal election shows that even the most embarrassing back-downs are possible.

The gay marriage ban legislation responded to the conservative religious lobby, and both major parties were prepared to turn their backs on a significant number of gay and lesbian voters even though the rest of the population is not affected in any material sense by the restriction. In fact, the issue of same sex marriage was not thought to be an issue for anyone in Australia in lead-up to the 2004 election – an idea imported from George Bush which apparently worked for him in attracting the conservative vote. Like so many other Howard moves, it was designed to wedge the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and, like so many times before, they caved in and voted with the Government.

This month the Australian Capital Territory parliament passed legislation to allow civil unions,  the  wording of which was painstakingly  worked  through with the federal Attorney General but, not satisfied, the Government quashed the legislation. This time the ALP voted with a motion to disallow the quashing instrument and some of their Senators would no doubt have been on the other side were it not for the fact that it represented a trampling of Territory rights. The Northern Territory voluntary euthanasia laws met the same fate, though through a conscience vote.

A couple of weeks ago, the Queensland Government tried to change their Education Act to make religious education in schools ‘opt in’ rather than ‘opt out’ and to broaden the definition of what can be taught in religious education to include ‘religious and other beliefs’. This was met by a scare campaign suggesting that cults would have access to children.

Not to be outdone, the federal Minister for Education Julie Bishop put out a press release saying the Queensland Government would allow cults and fringe groups to teach witchcraft and paganism. She also regurgitated the federal Government’s values in schools furphy saying: ‘Queensland schoolchildren shouldn’t be taught in a moral vacuum imposed by political correctness gone mad’. Of course coming from the Minister who has control over schools funding, this carried some weight and the Queensland Government backed down.

The long and devastatingly effective parliamentary career of former Senator Brian Harradine shows how powerful an individual’s religious convictions can be. His work led to medical abortion – the RU486 abortion pill -being effectively banned in Australia for ten years, even though abortion is legal here and RU486 had been safely used by women in at least 35 other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

I count as one of my most important achievements the initiation and prosecution of the bill that wrested from the health minister the veto over its approval for use in Australia. This veto, particularly under the current health minister, was enough to stop any pharmaceutical company even thinking of making an application. After all, the minister holds the purse strings on the subsidies provided to for pharmaceuticals and, as his threat a few weeks ago showed, he was prepared to use those strings.

The lengthy debate on RU486 had very strong religious overtones and the outcome was a blow to those who oppose abortion and indeed to the Prime Minister. Catholic MPs voted overwhelmingly against the bill and in the Senate more men voted against than for (54%). Happily, 90% of female Senators voted for the bill , ensuring its passage.

Another of  Senator Harradine’s legacies was a ban on Australian aid for abortion training and services, research trials and activities, which directly involve abortion drugs. This prohibition applies even in countries where abortion is legal but where thousands of women die every year from unsafe terminations for want of trained medical staff. AusAID has only recently re-established a section in the department for health. They were so hounded by Senator Harradine that it was easier to get rid of them and as a consequence our interest in funding health, particularly sexual and reproductive health , fell away completely. We know that women speaking out on this issue – mostly through our now very active Parliamentary Group on Population Development – has given the department the confidence to go forward on these issues.

The Howard Government’s push for adherence to Judaeo-Christian values is particularly interesting. Not so long ago the Prime Minister insisted that those who come to Australia and don’t share those values should be sent back. How this would be policed or implemented is anyone’s guess. Deporting a person for a breach of the law is one thing but how does this work with Christian values?

It is the case that the dominant religious stream in Australia is Christianity, but we now have all the major religions of the world practised here. Does this tack not run the risk of encouraging prejudice against non­ Christian ideas, beliefs and practices? It also pretends that the values that underlie the non­ dominant religion, or indeed those with no religious affiliation, are inconsistent with the values of the dominant.

Howard’s ‘us and them’ rhetoric has also been applied to Indigenous people, asylum seekers, welfare recipients and homosexuals, opening the way for damaging divisions in society, legitimising intolerance and indifference.

Australians have accepted the involvement of churches in delivering social and educational services but on the proviso that the churches would not use public funding to impose their religious beliefs.

I think Australians have accepted the involvement of churches in delivering social and educational services but on the proviso that the churches would not use public funding to impose their religious beliefs, values and practices on users of those services, nor to discriminate against those who did not share them. This compact has been strained as some religious groups have, perhaps emboldened by the government’s courting of the religious right, denied services, provided inaccurate and misleading information and even imposed ‘conversion’ quotas, as was reported to be the case in a job placement agency.

It seems to us that the more religious the parliament is, the more likely it is to have scant regard for the separation of church and state and the more likely to find religious reasons for decisions – reasons that will be incomprehensible to many non-religious people. Religiously motivated government policy-making, whether based on sincere religious ideology or as a concession to religious constituents, also runs the risk of making superficial responses to complex social phenomenon.

Kevin Andrews, Tony Abbott and Brian Harradine show that individual religious morality can prevail over the wishes of the majority of the public and stifle debate on difficult issues. Rather than exploring the moral and practical questions in voluntary euthanasia and developing effective responses, a simple just-say-no was the response. This  stopped  voluntary  euthanasia  in its tracks and effectively prevented any further analysis and consideration of the issue.

Similarly, the focus on narrow personal moral issues around sexuality, drug use and start and end of life decisions diverts attention from  broader morality issues such as income distribution, social inequity and decisions to go to war.

In the government’s angry response to mainstream church criticism of its attack on Iraq, its treatment of asylum seekers and the unfair changes to industrial relations, its rhetoric focussed on personal values, steering well clear of rights and democratic principles. Given the success of this tactic it is possible that other political parties and would-be parties will emulate Howard’s co-option of values and religion to further their political agenda.

The Labor Party at the last federal election established its own ‘Faith, politics and values’ working group. Apparently the brief from shadow cabinet was to reach out to religious communities and explain that Labor has its own traditions grounded in the gospel.

All of this is not to say that people of faith should not participate in politics, or that churches have no role in the political process, but there must surely be limits and it is reasonable to expect that that participation should, as nearly as is possible, reflect the views of the general public. In a democratic society, parliamentarians are accountable to the broader community, not just those who share their particular religious views.

It should also be the case that government policy making is based on science and reason. The decisions to fund chaplains in schools rather than non-religious counsellors or to encourage so-called intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution have little basis in science or reason.

A fully functioning democracy needs debate and compromise, however, many fundamentalist religions deal in absolutes and non-negotiables.

The Australian Democrats are concerned about the influence the growing conservative neo-liberal religious right is having on public policy and the transfer of government services to the religious sector. We see this as compromising freedom, equality and tolerance and that without the separation of church and state, governments are compromised in their duty to treat all citizens equally and to remain religion-neutral.

Unlike other countries Australia does not have a history of debate and discussion about the appropriate interface between church and state. Current issues now provide an opportunity to start a real debate on the need for and ways of separating church and state. Other countries are doing this. Norway is consulting nationwide on formal separation.The Democrats believe it is time that Australia followed suit.

Improving transparency and moving to a true separation will strengthen our democracy and enable us to better respect the views of all citizens and treat them more equally.

All the more reason.