Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Australian Christian political lobby comes of age

No. 60 - 22 August 2007

By Rod Benson

On 9 August Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd courted the Christian vote in a two-hour televised event organised by the Australian Christian Lobby. Both leaders made election-style speeches and answered questions from church leaders during a webcast streamed to an estimated 100,000 Christians in churches and church halls around the country. The event, described by one journalist as the unofficial launch of the 2007 election campaign, cements the reputation of the ACL as the nation’s premier religious lobbyist.

After preliminaries, Mr Howard began his speech by appealing to the legacy of William Wilberforce and “the Judeo-Christian ethic,” and derided atheism as “profoundly unhistorical.” He mentioned the parables of the Good Samaritan and the talents as articulating fundamental ethical principles, describing the church as a force for the profound good of the community. He acknowledged the opposition by some Christians to recent federal laws allowing human embryo experimentation and the use of the abortion drug RU486, but addressed social justice issues almost exclusively in a lively 35-minute address.

Mr Howard announced a new initiative to restrict internet pornography, promised support for religious schools and school chaplaincy, and advocated tackling global poverty by reducing corruption and trade barriers. He briefly mentioned a duty of care to Australia’s indigenous peoples, and climate change, and suggested that Australia might embrace nuclear power “if there is economic justification.”

In contrast, Mr Rudd began by drawing attention to his own “garden variety” Christian faith, which he described as his compass point, “shaping the view I bring to the public sphere.” In a speech of equal length, he proposed the need for “hard heads and soft hearts” in public policy, where the “big” issues of economic management and national security did not displace concern for an adequate social safety net, hearing “the voice of the voiceless,” and preserving compassion as “one of the great human strengths.” He promised that, if elected, a family impact statement would accompany every Labor cabinet submission.

Mr Rudd spoke on the erosion of family and leisure time resulting from recent industrial relations reforms, and outlined plans for affordable housing, investment in education, setting ambitious carbon emissions targets, addressing global poverty by working to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, advancing Australia’s place as a middle power diplomacy, dealing compassionately with refugees displaced by war, and implementing longterm measures to address indigenous problems.

Questions from selected church leaders followed the speeches. Mr Howard took 20 minutes to answer five questions while Mr Rudd was limited to four questions and 12 minutes. The ten questions, drawn from a much larger range of questions from interested groups, and vetted by the ACL to encourage fair representation and balance, focused on the following subjects:

1. Personal qualities necessary for authentic leadership, and the place of religious faith in forming these qualities
2. Howard government’s “lack of compassion for vulnerable people in society”
3. Policies to address the growing inequality and lack of work-life balance
4. Retention of only Christian prayers to open Parliament each day
5. Possible increase of aid toward the goal of 0.7 per cent of GNI
6. Defining de facto marriage to include homosexual couples, and parenthood as gender-neutral
7. Processing and welfare of refugees arriving by “irregular means”
8. Protecting religious freedom in the light of a possible Bill of Rights
9. Better health, education, employment, land protection, human rights and safety for Aboriginal people
10. Measures to address global warming and other key environmental matters

In the event, Mr Howard was asked questions 1-5; Mr Rudd was asked questions 1, 6, 7 and 8. Neither leader was asked any question on indigenous issues or on the environment. The omission of the question on indigenous issues was particularly disappointing in the light of the federal government’s “takeover” of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities in response to concern over child sexual abuse and neglect. Likewise the fact that no questions were asked of the government’s failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol or commit to binding carbon emission targets, or the alternative government’s policies to address climate change, was regrettable.

It was clear that the key policy issues occupying the minds and hearts of many Australian Christians in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election are reducing global poverty through increased and targeted foreign aid; reducing human-induced climate change by adopting ambitious carbon emission targets and viable alternatives to fossil fuels; developing suitable policy instruments to address the perception of a growing inequality between the rich and poor in Australia; protecting the freedom to practice religion according to conscience amid threats of legislative and punitive measures to curtail religious freedom; and engaging the vigorous debate on Muslim immigration to Australia with reference to what has occurred in western Europe.

It was also clear that the event attracted a wide cross-section of the Australian Christian churches. Although the Uniting Church delegates withdrew from participation, the presence of several Anglican and Catholic bishops was evident. Catholic involvement was crucial in the ACL’s strategy to build a broad coalition of Christian support. The fact that both Howard and Rudd were seated beside the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Philip Wilson, and that he alone asked questions of both leaders, did not go unnoticed. At least demographically, the participation of large suburban Pentecostal churches was also strategically important for the ACL. Indeed news reports of the event carried images of worshipping crowds at churches such as Hillsong in Sydney, which presumably paused to watch the webcast.

On the following day, the ACL hosted a breakfast for church leaders where Jim Wallace spoke frankly about his strategies for winning the “culture war.” He cast the ACL as a “centrist” lobby in contrast to what he saw as the polarisation of contemporary American Christian political engagement into opposing “Christian Right” and “Christian Left” factions. The phenomenal success of the ACL webcast (not least its technical aspects), and the impressive list of attenders, demonstrates the lobby group’s strong credentials and bodes well for the future.

But the question remains whether the media, and the mainstream churches, will now accept the proposition that the ACL represents a truly broad church whose policy interests span the spectrum of “social justice” and “moral issues.” Another question is whether the ACL can hold the political “centre” together in the face of strong pressures from churches and other groups for whom polarisation is in their best interests.

What is, I think, beyond question is that Christian views, and Christian voters, are being taken seriously by politicians, political parties and the media in Australia. Or, if they are not, as is the case with the Australian Democrats, it is at a high cost to the party’s credibility. Reality belies the caricature of Australia as a secular, post-Christian democracy. Practical spirituality, religious belief, and moral issues shaped by religious commitments all influence Australian political culture and help to determine the orientation of public policy.

The federal election will be fought around policies and ideals shaped by religious communities. The two candidates for Australia’s top political job, both professed Christians with alarmingly different views on the essence of Christianity and how one’s faith plays out in the policy arena, are actively courting Christian voters. The ACL has provided a welcome boost to the credibility of Christians in the public life of the nation, and a potentially united voice for concerned Christian citizens of all persuasions.

That has to be good for our liberal democratic tradition as well as for public Christian morality.

Rev Rod Benson is founding Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney, Australia.

Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of up to 1200 words that contribute to analysis and debate on issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

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