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 handgrenades 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 realize 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."
I found "God under Gillard" to be a timely reminder to remember the majority and recognize 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 recognize 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.
Teaching can take many forms. In eastern religions like Buddhism and Taoism it often comes in story form. But story based teaching is not foreign to Christianity either, not when you stop to think about it. Indeed, Jesus was a master of the art. Here's a story I came across through a link circulated to me via the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand:
Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to visit the hermitage and ask if by some possible chance the hermit could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The hermit welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the hermit could only commiserate with him: “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in all the nearby towns. So the old abbot and the hermit commiserated together. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the hermit responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the hermit say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just commiserated and read the scriptures together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered these words and wondered whether there was any possible significance. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one?
Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.
Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the hermit did mean Brother Elred.
But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.
Of course the hermit didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the hermit’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
I find myself lamenting the dearth of deep conversation on the web. In an ironic sort of way, social networking seems to have made the web a lot less social. We've become more superficial, less reflective. Yet, sometimes slow is good. Jesus took time away from the crowds to focus on the disciples. Sometimes we have to focus to be more genuinely social, even in cyberspace.