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Religion and politics in Australia

October 18th, 2004

Now that the prospect of Family First holding the balance of power in the Senate has receded (though not in a good way!) there are a few questions I’d like to raise. Reading all the stuff about the rise of movements like Family First, it struck me that I’ve been reading and hearing about this kind of thing for a long time, in two forms. The first is with reference to the growth of conservative/fundamentalist/pentecostalist/evangelical[1] church groups either within or at the expense of mainstream denominations. The second is the idea that these groups will exert increasing political influence, as they do in the United States.

I’ve been hearing the second claim at least since Fred Nile was elected to the NSW Legislative Council in 1981. Even before that, the Bjelke-Petersens drew heavily on support from conservative church groups. And, while the base for the DLP was within the Catholic Church, it had a broadly similar policy position. It’s my impression that there’s a fairly reliable support base of 5 per cent of the population for this kind of politics, and that this proportion hasn’t changed much in many decades.

On the first question, I don’t have any good information, but my impression is that the news stories tend to focus on dynamic and expanding churches, ignoring the fact that there is contraction as well as expansion going on. I don’t think the census gives the kind of breakup that is needed here, but maybe readers are better informed than I am.

While I’m on this topic, Don Arthur has raised some more general issues of interest, to which I hope to respond soon.

fn1. For my purposes, the distinctions here aren’t critical except as they bear on attitudes to political activism or quietism

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  1. Homer Paxton
    October 18th, 2004 at 13:30 | #1

    you are missing two things here JQ.

    first the basis for votes for these previous parties were in fact nominal christians. ( The census has most Australians labelling themselves christians yet they do not go to any church!) I expect this is so with Family first. The work is done by committed footsoldiers however.

    the second is these ‘groups’ you have lumped together are many and varied. I probably agree with them on social issues but disagree on economic issues thus which way do I vote?

  2. October 18th, 2004 at 13:37 | #2

    These organisations are filling the vacuum left behind from the collapse of social capital. More thoughts here.

  3. Malatesta
    October 18th, 2004 at 13:58 | #3

    The rise of FFP parallels that of the Greens, for reasons that have to do with ‘groupthink’, rather ascribing some mysterious and motivating force to a particular religious belief. If Hare Krishnas were as numerous as the fundagelicals, would they be into politics? On the grounds that they would be composed of young people, with enthusiam, common purpose and lots of social interaction with each other – probably Yes.
    It is predictable that the fundies are attracted to conservative policies, because that reflects the concerns of people with dependant children.

    The best thing the ALP can do for itself, is to ask those of its’ luminaries, who profess belief (any belief), why the party seemed to overlook the FFP. Was the FFP dismissed because traditional beliefs are thought to be incompatible with modern social democracy? If that is what Labor believes, then the sooner it comes out with it, the better. Then they can retire to the backbenches and wither away, while the rest of us go on. But I think Social Democracy is the only effective counterfoil to the cult of manifest destiny, whether it’s the English or American form. Labor will have to devise an organisational structure that accepts a broader range of intellectual contributions. The old meeting halls, where enlightened atheism shouted down all belief systems, should be closed forever. Perhaps a couple could be preserved, maybe move one next to Captain Cook’s cottage.

  4. kyan gadac
    October 18th, 2004 at 14:48 | #4

    The idea that fundamentalism as preached by the Assemblies of God or the so called Christian life centres truly reflect the teachings of Christ is just garbage. Although these churches have grown significantly in teh last 30 years, it has more to do with effective marketing than any claim to religous truth.

    The assumption seems to be that because something is popular therefore it must be right is just bad logic.

    The real evil that is being done in the name of Christianity by these churches is their teachings of prejudice and hatred towards Islam and their anti-scientific, anti-intellectual opinions(calling them beliefs is giving them too much credence). The fact that these views give credence and support to right wing capitalist politicians ensures their continued patronage and protection from the gaze of auditors of both the spiritual and financial kinds.

  5. October 18th, 2004 at 16:25 | #5

    The National Church Life Survey is conducted every five years. On their numbers, 1.5 million people are dedicated enough to make it to a Christian (as defined by the organisers) church each week. Sample size is 435,000.

    IIRC, NCLS sell the full results of the survey for about $80. It includes detailed breakdowns on beliefs and attitudes of those surveyed, from which you might be able to work out how many would fit into your definition of “conservative.” There’s also some analysis on their website, from which you might be able to get the information you need.

  6. John Quiggin
    October 18th, 2004 at 16:44 | #6

    Thanks for this Alan. The results are certainly interesting. The churchgoing population is divided almost evenly between Catholics and Protestants (I would have expected more Catholics) and the Protestants in turn split about evenly between mainstream (Anglican, Uniting, Baptist, Presbyterian. Lutheran) and evangelical/pentecostal.

    The implication is that, on an average Sunday, about 2 per cent of the Australian population attends an evangelical/pentecostal service, which doesn’t look like a burgeoning mass movement.

    Until a couple of weeks ago, I had regarded Assemblies of God as an also-ran, and was surprised at their big role in Family First. But the numbers show them as easily the biggest of the non-mainstream churches.

  7. derrida derider
    October 18th, 2004 at 19:18 | #7

    Hey, get a grip people – FFP got just 2% of the primary vote. Their Senate presence is a fluke of preference swapping.

    One and a half million churchgoers in a population of 21 million, eh – so much for some churchmens’ insistence they have a right to dictate to the rest because “we are a christian nation”.

  8. October 18th, 2004 at 23:03 | #8


    1.5 million is the number of bums on seats – err, people in pews – on a typical Sunday. Some people would be away due to unusual circumstances, and others don’t or can’t make it to church every week, so take 1.5 million as a lower bound.

    For an upper bound, we can look at the ABS 2001 census which shows 12.5 million people identifying themselves as having some kind of Christian religious affiliation.

    Not that large numbers of believers make a creed right, but 1.5 million people aren’t to be sneered at. Bob Brown, for instance, isn’t backward about telling anybody what to do, and he has far fewer supporters than Jesus 😉

  9. October 19th, 2004 at 09:50 | #9

    John, wait until the AEC releases the electoral funding figures before writing the FFP off.

  10. Homer Paxton
    October 19th, 2004 at 10:51 | #10

    alan is correct in directing people to the NCLS however it is possible when one looks at specific questions that people who are going to church do not believe in the essence of Christianity which is both the cross and ressurrection. This is very popular for instance in parts of the Anglican denomination and most parts of the Uniting Denomination

  11. John Quiggin
    October 19th, 2004 at 12:42 | #11

    I didn’t mean to write FFP off. I think it’s quite likely that they will be around at the next election, which is partly why I am still paying attention to them.

  12. Martin
    October 19th, 2004 at 19:49 | #12

    I had thought the Assemblies of God were a relatively mainstream denomination. Why is everyone treating them as if they were some kind of wild-eyed fanatics? Is there any evidence behind all this or is this just sectarian anti-religious prejudice?

    OK, one of them wanted to burn lesbians, but then all movements get a few loonies, and you would hardly want to judge the left or the environmentalists by their lunatic fringe.

  13. John Quiggin
    October 19th, 2004 at 21:21 | #13

    Martin, I haven’t described the AoG in terms like this, and I don’t think any of the other participants in this discussion have done so, though Homer Paxton obviously doesn’t like their theology.

    I’ve used the term “mainstream” to describe the denominations that have been around in Australia for a long time (say, 100 years +, treating Uniting as a continuation of its predecessors). In this sense AoG are not mainstream, but I think this is a pretty neutral description.

  14. Martin
    October 19th, 2004 at 21:53 | #14

    John, you might not have been, but the blogosphere generally…

  15. Martin Pike
    October 20th, 2004 at 09:32 | #15

    He’s not me by the way. What I’ve seen of their operations I think there is certainly a prima facie case for them being pretty out there…

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