God isn’t a stranger in the suburbs

“BELIEVE it or not, God is back in fashion. As Australians get ready for Christmas Day, there is a stoush going on in Sydney about whether Lord Mayor Clover Moore has killed Christmas by saving on decorations and reducing the traditional symbols of Christmas and Christianity.

Meanwhile, there is another mini debate raging about the words John Howard and Mark Latham have chosen for their Christmas cards. Howard has wished recipients of his cards a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” while Latham has gone politically correct and left “Christmas” out, offering only “Seasons Greetings”. As has NSW Premier Bob Carr. The implication is that Labor is not happy to be seen as pro-Christian. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has called on all Christians to proudly display their faith during the festive season. God has certainly gone political.Labor’s Kevin Rudd is concerned that the ALP’s failure to make itself sympathetic to Christian groups before the October 9 federal election cost it votes in marginal seats. So much so that during the last parliamentary sitting he called a meeting in his office to discuss Labor and religion. The meeting was packed.

It’s strange that it took so long for Labor to notice what has been happening in suburbia. For a decade or more, religion has been making a comeback in Australia. Not the religion of the 1950s, with its strictures and overarching piety, but a community-based spirituality that attracts followers from the middle class and young families. Much of it is evangelical. But even Catholic churches in the outer suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney are full again on Sundays.

And a lot of it is now based around new and growing outer suburban and regional Christian schools. Figures show that in these areas the numbers of those who attend church are substantially greater than in inner-city areas of the main metropolitan centres. These church-goers are likely to be comfortable but not rich; they have children and they believe in “family values”.

The rise in the proportion of students attending private schools, principally Catholic or Christian institutions, is partly a result of this revival of interest in Christianity. And it’s not hard to see why.

Among the reasons are what Labor’s Lindsay Tanner has called the “negative social consequences” that flowed from the “liberation battles of the 1960s and ’70s” – dysfunctional family life for so many, drugs, street children, overcrowded jails and so on.

From much of that, people are now seeking safer communities and safer codes to live by – all of which religion does provide. They are people who have most of what they need in a material sense but are looking for something more. It’s a search that’s centuries old, in fact.

But something else is at work here. For two decades, Australians have increasingly been weaned off the protection of institutional career paths, whether in the public service or big business. Forced back to individual skills for survival, people are focused as never before on self-development and on personal goals that require discipline and aspiration.

Character building is seen as central to success. Parents want not only a good education for their children but a good moral education. And religious faith, with its emphasis on codes of behaviour, all ready-made and tested, attracts those who are eager to improve their lives. It’s no coincidence that so many of those attending the new evangelical churches are from the prosperous aspirational class. Hillsong Church in Sydney is one example of this phenomenon.

And then there is the impact of September 11, 2001. This cannot be ignored as a factor that has caused the West to re-examine the principles it values. This undoubtedly explains much of the reaction to any dumbing down of the traditional symbols of Christmas. Even Australian Muslim and Jewish groups have reacted in the past week to the debate about Christmas. Muslim spokesman Keysar Trad has said that most Muslims are happy to use the expression “Merry Christmas”, adding that the spiritual leader of Australia’s Muslim community had criticised the minority of Muslims who did not accept these words. And speaking for many in the Jewish community, Yosi Tal wrote in a letter to the editor that the words did not offend him.

True, the 37 per cent of Australians who lean towards the church and Christianity do not constitute a majority. But they add up to a significant proportion, especially if they are concentrated in particular areas, which enables them to be influential politically. As if to confirm this, in his final message to parliament Howard called Jesus of Nazareth “the most significant figure in human history”.”

Article published in The Australian

'2012