Religion still matters if last night’s roll-up at the 2010 Make It Count event, organised by the Australian Christian Lobby, is any guide. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott appeared separately at Old Parliament House in Canberra before an audience which included Cardinal George Pell, the Anglicare executive director Kasy Chambers, Hillsong’s Brian Houston and World Vision’s Tim Costello.
Others included representatives from the Uniting, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Coptic Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox churches and the Salvation Army.
The Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader spoke and answered questions about the values that should define Australia after the election. The function was webcast to thousands of Christians at hundreds of churches.
Rudd and Abbott are both busy. They would not give up this amount of time if they did not believe the audience was important or if they felt uncomfortable talking as Christians to other Christians.
Among the inner-city types who frequent taxpayer subsidised literary festivals, what Michael Burleigh has called sneering secularism is all the rage. Witness the recent successful tours to Australia of such proselytising atheists as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
The teachings of Dawkins and Hitchens seem to have enthused secular flocks in Ultimo or Melbourne’s Brunswick.
But not so much in the outer suburbs and regional centres where God is anything but dead.
According to the census, some two-thirds of Australians regard themselves as Christians. When Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims are added, it is evident a high percentage of Australians are believers.
The theme of the conference, 2010 Make It Count, indicates the Australian Christian Lobby, led by the former commander of the SAS Regiment, Jim Wallace, believes Christians are entitled to know the policies of Labor and the Coalition before they vote at the forthcoming elections. This is a perfectly legitimate activity for any organisation in a democratic society, including secular and atheist ones.
Religion in Australia has invariably been a private affair, as befits an officially secular society. Some prime ministers have been believers but none projected their religious views on to society in general.
The list includes the Catholics Jim Scullin and Joseph Lyons and such Protestants as Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Robert Menzies.
However, especially in recent times, a number of prime ministers have exhibited signs of apparent agnosticism, including the Coalition’s John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser and Labor’s Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke. Paul Keating and John Howard were known to come from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds respectively but neither spoke much about their religious beliefs in public.
There have been a few times when leaders of both the Labor and Liberal parties have been affirming Christians. This description fits Rudd and Abbott – even though some commentators like to focus on the Opposition Leader’s faith while playing down that of the Prime Minister.
Rudd’s mother was a Catholic and his father a Protestant. He was brought up a Catholic and for two years was a boarder at the Marist Brother’s College in the Brisbane suburb of Ashgrove. In 2006 Rudd told Julia Baird on the Sunday Profile program he began to attend Anglican churches when he met his wife, Therese Rein. But Rudd has always claimed he never formally separated from Catholicism.
Abbott was brought up a Catholic. As the Opposition Leader makes it clear in his book Battlelines, he regards himself as an imperfect Catholic.
This is not an unusual position for a member of a faith which regards sin as a manifestation of The Fall of mankind and believes in confession (or reconciliation) leading to eventual redemption. In this sense, all Catholics – including the Pope himself – are imperfect. It’s just some are more imperfect than others.
In his 2006 essay in The Monthly, Rudd described the German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), who he said was a “peace activist”, was the man he most admired in the history of the 20th century. Fair enough.
But Bonhoeffer supported the laudable move to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Moreover, the Lutheran pastor was a fervent opponent of abortion.
In Battlelines, Abbott described the Catholic political activist B.A. Santamaria as his mentor. Yet Santamaria had little time for the Liberal Party and declined to support Abbott’s decision to contest preselection in 1994. What’s more, Abbott has little of his mentor’s zeal. Like the Prime Minister, Abbott is a pragmatic politician.
There is little doubt Rudd’s ability to present himself as an economic and social conservative in the lead-up to the 2007 election helped Labor to its stunning victory. This time around, the Coalition has a leader who is just as prepared to proclaim his faith in public as Rudd, even if, unlike the prime minister, he does not do media doorstops outside his local church on Sundays. The sneering secularists like to dismiss believers as idiots or worse. Yet Rudd and Abbott are among the most formally qualified politicians to hold leadership positions in Australia.
It is fashionable for members of the press gallery to refer to the unpopularity of the leaders of Labor and the Coalition. But both have an approval rating of about 40 per cent, which suggests most Australians are satisfied with the leaders of their party of choice.
Political parties take believers seriously for a number of reasons – including the fact that most politicians have a better idea of what makes Australians tick than those members of the intelligentsia who deride all belief systems apart from their own secular ideologies.