Is there a “Christian vote” in Australia?

If you’re interested in the interface between politics and religion in highly secular cultures then, whatever your religious or irreligious leanings, I strongly encourage you to click through and read the essay “God Under Gillard: Religion and Politics in Australia” by Marrion Maddox on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.

Marrion lobs a number of well aimed hand grenades at media stereotypes of the “Christian vote” in Australia. Indeed, I can now see I’ve been victim to a few myself.

How many Australian Prime Ministers have been committed Christians? 

Most educated Australians realise Julia Gillard was hardly the first Atheist to lead the country. But have you ever wondered how the numbers stack up overall?

“In his recent study of the faith of Australian prime ministers, John Warhurst has concluded that, between Federation in 1901 and the overthrow of Labor leader Kevin Rudd in 2010, four prime ministers were “articulate atheists or agnostics,” while a fifth’s atheism or agnosticism, though not explicitly articulated, could be inferred from his statements and actions.”

“Warhurst classified eight prime ministers as observant Christians (understood as attending church at least monthly during their prime ministership), two as conventional (occasional churchgoers) and nine as nominal (attending only for formal and official occasions).”

In other words, the ratio of atheists and agnostics to committed Christians and occasional churchgoers has been 5:10. That’s 50%! Now consider the elephant in the room, the nominal Prime Ministers, those who’s religious identity was little more than a vestigial organ. Though rarely acknowledged in politicised religion vs irreligion debates, its clear that nominal Prime Ministers have rivalled the committed Christians.

Looking at more recent history Marion notes, “The most striking feature of Warhurst’s analysis is that he classes only two post-1950 prime ministers as “observant,” and those are the most recent in his sample: John Howard (1996-2007) and Kevin Rudd (2007-2010).”

Speaking of Howard she says, “Despite surface similarities to American-style religious politics, the Australian version is no straightforward importation of American “family values” ideas with a Christian gloss, for at least two reasons. First, as discussed above, Australia simply does not have the religious voter base which, in the United States, retains the capacity to swing election results. Second, and at least as importantly, Australia has compulsory voting.”

So how do we interpret the sensationalist headlines? “The attention paid to Gillard’s announcement of unbelief was a reaction to the tone of the prime ministerships of the immediate past, rather than (as many of those making the comments assumed) to long-standing tradition. The novelty in 2010 was less that a Prime Minister lacked faith, than that Australia’s commentariat now cared.”

How right wing are Christian voters in Australia?

Much as the Australian Christian Lobby would wish otherwise, Marrion disputes the easy equation between religious commitment and political conservatism, stating “those religiously-committed voters are far from a uniform block, politically. Australia’s religious left has gained far less media attention in recent decades than its religious right, but, both historically and today, it makes nonsense of any easy equation between religion and conservatism.” 

Get some perspective in other words. “The idea that Australian politics includes a block “Christian vote” goes back only to the aftermath of the 2007 election. Until then, the traditional, albeit dwindling, Catholic support for Labor had provided Australia’s nearest thing to a religio-psephological chestnut.” The religio-political equation is much more complex in Australia than sound bites and popular opinion suggest.

How intollerant and racist are committed Christians in Australia?

This was the bit that really surprised me, really surprised me. Who are the most xenophobic Australians? Apparently, it’s neither the most religious, nor the irreligious, but the nominals!

Despite disagreeing in so many ways on so many different things, it would seem strong Atheists and strong Christians stand side by side against racism and for refugees (despite most of us not realising it). Citing a study by Hans Mol she observes, “Mol also asked how respondents felt about someone who wanted to keep Asians out of Australia. The more regularly Mol’s subjects went to church, the more likely they were to disapprove of such prejudice. Less regular attenders were increasingly likely to approve of, or at least tolerate, someone wanting to keep Australia Asian-free.” In contrast to conventional wisdom, he found “Nominal Christians, attending irregularly or not at all, had the most exclusionary racial attitudes.”

So what’s with the religiously inspired xenophobic rhetoric we’re all subjected to? “Here, Mol offers a hint as to the appeal of a conservative, religiously-inflected politics to a highly secular electorate. The appeal was unlikely to be to the small, politically engaged and also politically divided body of the religiously committed, whose votes were, in any case, likely to be relatively firmly locked in with one side of politics or the other. Instead, it was mainly to the much larger part of the Australian electorate that, while remaining personally uncommitted with respect to religion, regarded Christianity as a benign, if vaguely-conceived, force for some conservatively-understood notion of social good.”

Ever heard the phrase, “A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous?” It would seem that those with the most naive understanding of religion are the most likely to be swayed by religious sounding but politically motivated identity politics.

How religious is the private school debate?

Consider then how the religious naivite of nominal Christians plays into other aspects of public life, such as the debate over private schools. Marrion observse that “the attraction of such schools to minimally or non-religious parents was often that they imparted “values,” something children were perceived to need and the wider society to lack.”

“Given that a significant number of parents sending their children to such schools are not doing so out of a commitment to the school’s religious vision, and that the more extreme religious positions of some such schools would be likely to deter uncommitted parents with sufficient religious literacy to discern it, we could say that the parents’ religious naivete appeared to be at least a partial condition for the schools’ success.

Conclusion

I found “God under Gillard” to be a timely reminder to remember the majority and recognise where they are at. To remember that committed Christians, left wing activists and right wing fundamentalists alike, are numerically insignificant in Australia, even in terms of religion. To recognise that the nominals – those who retain a religious identity but don’t retain much religious knowledge – are the battleground of identity politics whether we like it or not. And if we wish to combat xenophobia, its with the religiously naive majority that we need to start.

9 thoughts on “Is there a “Christian vote” in Australia?

  1. Hey Matt, I found your blog as I researched for a blog project. Would you drop a me a line, I think you might be interested in what I’m doing. bookgirl4 [at] att.net.
    Thanks!
    Jessica

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  2. Thanks, Matt for posting the research and discussing an important subject from an interesting viewpoint.
    A quick comment: “Nominal Christians, attending irregularly or not at all, had the most exclusionary racial attitudes.”
    Although I am a Christian passionately devoted to the Way, Truth and Life of Jesus Christ, I “attend” church irregularly due to several factors, including the concept that I “participate in”/”comprise by my person part of THE church” rather than “attend” it, and have consciously participated in projects involving racially INclusive philosophy and activity. There may be a significant number of others in the same category, but I think it would be difficult for research to quantify.
    Have you given much thought to a strategy to transformingly educate “the religiously naive majority”?

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  3. Lucy
    I agree it would be difficult for researchers to quantify people such as yourself. I doubt they’d classify you as nominal but you could be scooped up in the irregular attenders, depending how they classify irregular attenders. Interesting to think of where house church Christians would fall into this. That being said I have my doubts as to the statistical significance of house church attenders in Oz. I find they’re are distinct minority.
    As for the nominal majority. No easy solutions, not off the cuff anyway, but it does help me to focus on some things which are right in front of my face.

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  4. Matt,
    I read a business book called ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ a few years ago which challenged me to think of the 95% of Australians who do not attend church as the focus for my engagement. In business terms this is the uncontested market. In the church we tend to contest over the 5% – wanting them to believe what we believe or pointing out what is wrong about their beliefs. While the 95% is the focus for mission I think that the churches need to think about how they brand themselves especially the less conservative churches if they are to have a stronger influence on the formation of opinions by people who nominally claim to be Christian. This is difficult for people who hold less defined theological views. I guess the challenge is to brand the church in ways that both appeal to nominal Christians (or their aspirations)and express what the church values. There is a lot more thinking to be done on this…

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  5. Trevor, in writing this I wasn’t focusing on the evangelistic implications so much. What shocked me more than anything was the realization that I’ve bought into fundamentalist stereotypes far more than is warranted and failed to pay sufficient attention to the xenophobia of nominal Australians. In effect, I’ve allowed the fundamentalist noise to deafen me to the broader problem. In this game, religion is a pawn, not a queen.
    That being said, yes, I also recognize I’ve paid insufficient attention to nominals evangelistically. I’ve tended to pay more attention to people who care about religious conversations, to Pagans, to Buddhists, to Muslims, to Atheists, to people who already have religious (and irreligious) commitments, even where they disagree with my own. It’s the apathetic who I struggle with more, but they are the majority, so I should not be apathetic about them.

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