Why Australia’s “Religious Right” are Divided By A Change in Leadership

It’s the end of a big week in Australia, with plenty of us left licking wounds. Despite Pentecostal pastors’ warnings, even they couldn’t resist an inflammatory tweet or two. This is a classic case where the “religious right” that many Australian scholars consider a homogeneous unit stand divided despite their common religious belief.

(In other words, this post may explain why you can’t bear your new friend from church online).

Let’s start with things we agree on. Here is an Australian, named Tony Abbott.

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He’s a good bloke. And he was Australia’s prime minister for one year, 361 days. That’s no small achievement, we Australians are a rowdy lot. Abbott had good days but also a number of bad ones while in office. During his leadership, Australia was in the media regularly. And Abbott managed to be the centre of attention, while doing some silly things:

Look, there’s no need to harp on. The guy had a magic talent of getting himself into the press. For all the wrong reasons.

It created a particularly awkward situation for Australia’s Christians, something Tony highlighted in the moments before the “#Libspill” vote. And, his final speech concludes:

Finally, I thank my country for the privilege of service. It is humbling to lose, but that does not compare to the honour of being asked to lead.

In my maiden speech here in this Parliament, I quoted from the first Christian service ever preached here in Australia. The reverend Richard Johnson took as his text ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his blessings to me?’

At this, my final statement as Prime Minister, I say: I have rendered all and I am proud of my service. My love for this country is as strong as ever and may God bless this great Commonwealth. 

Tony is a devout Catholic, and I’m sure his sentiments are pure. He did his best. It’s over now, and he probably does pray that God would continue to bless Australia.

But, it was noted by the press as unusual that an Australian Prime Minister use this much religious language to address our secular nation. It’s clearly written for his most loyal supporters, conservative Christians.

These Christians take literally the biblical passage “Fear God. Honor the King” (1 Pet 2:17 NJKV; also see verse 1-2 & 13). The word ‘honour’ is rarely used in Australian culture, but is a value they hold – in this case interpreted to mean something like “do not criticize the government”. The logic is that criticism often leads to disunity, and disunity promotes anti-Christian behaviour (violence, rioting, etc). They would much prefer to leave politics alone, peacefully sing together, and pray (Col 3:1-2). And of course, there’s wisdom in this.

For these Christians, if the Prime Minister eats a raw onion, then laughing about it online with your friends is anti-Christian behaviour.

These Christians tend to like one, authoritative voice speaking on behalf of any organization – most particularly the government, and the church. Thus, obviously, laughing at the person with responsibility of spokesperson is disrespectful – it challenges their authority, and therefore the institution itself.

Flying around the internet this week was a range of views – some mocking the former Prime Minister, others angrily defending him while decrying the new government as “bullying” and “back-stabbing”. A memorable response was from my Christian friend who affectionately dubbed our new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, “Brutus”.

The passage right-wing Christians quote most often states that Prime Ministers are appointed directly by God (Romans 13:1). And thus, whether or not they know it, they back the idea of an autocracy. This is similar in logic to European theological doctrines in which God appointed both King, and church leaders into authoritative positions. In this sense, to challenge the King is to challenge the church.

Thus, the most appropriate online response is for Christians to stay silent, and pray for their leaders. Hopefully, they pray that a leader would be motivated to be kind, humane, and act on their behalf. It’s a spiritual contract that seems to lend itself to a particularly stable type of world.

And it creates an interesting tension, that relates to and is outworked within religious frameworks. Because singing, or “Praise & Worship” isn’t the only biblical response to government. Jesus seemed to have a subversive sense of humour he used often against the Pharisees, and he also didn’t get on very well with the Romans, who crucified him.

Not only this, our world is changing fast, and urban centres all over the world are dominated by “Cosmopolitanism”. This ideology has been identified by scholars from Hegel to W.E.B. Du Bois, to Ghanaian Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in the post-9/11 world. Most generally agree that cosmopolitans elevate the ‘politics of ideas’ over the ‘politics of identity’ (Clarke & Jennings, 2008, 267).

Let me explain. Cosmopolitans are a globalized generation of highly educated people. They come from all races and ethnicities – and yet, they have striking similarities. Cities around the world all host large communities of cosmopolitans – e.g. Beirut, London, Melbourne and Delhi.

This group read a lot, and they compare books. They get news quickly from the web, and interact with it online. Because they are so diverse, they don’t expect that any one voice could represent the institutions they participate in, let alone the nation. They believe that all ideas should be expressed, in order that the best ones can win. In this sense, they are a product of the information age. They think differently to their conservative parents, and siblings, who refer to the ‘traditional’ ways things are done.

Cosmopolitans have big dreams. They want to (and do!) work hard in multinational corporations, in banks, and/or universities. The more competitive, the better. But on their weekends, they probably just kick back at the movies with their conservative buddies. They like poetry, and are considered “omnivores” when it comes to music, consuming both high class (classical) and low class (pop) genres.

Cosmopolitans are the new global elites.

But this isn’t what you think – it’s an anti-elite system. Cosmopolitans don’t work from daddy’s contacts, and they aren’t necessarily impressed if you flash a BMW or Mercedes symbol on your key-ring. They believe in meritocracy. A meritocracy is a system in which the most competent or skilled people take charge.

And there are plenty of Christian cosmopolitans.

They’ve read the bible – in fact they’ve studied it in depth, and are convinced it’s the best explanation for the meaning of life.

But… in regards to politics, they see differently to their conservative church friends. They believe that while God always has ultimate say in who comes into power, “time and chance happen to all” (Ecc 9:11). They believe God has an interactive relationship with the world, and grants power to people who give governments power. When talking about political leadership, they separate it from church leadership, citing 1 Samuel 8, a passage in which Israel cries out and God grants them a King, with all the problems that entails. The story of Israel shows earthly politics as a temporary system. Kings are highly fallible. And thus, cosmopolitans tend to think that leadership must be held accountable to the people.

The world is full of cosmopolitans now, particularly in urban areas. And they are drawn into Australia’s fast-paced Pentecostal churches that value excellence, and offer service options on the weekend.

But regarding people, cosmopolitans tend to think there is oversupply. People move, and change. And so, they believe that if a leader ceases to be the most competent or skilled, they should step aside (or be stepped aside) for the good of the community. Cosmopolitans do fine with change. After all, they live in an age where moving global capital designates state success. Failure is as common as success is nowadays, it seems. But failure can be surpassed, if you respond quickly enough.

Cosmopolitans tend to rate ideas not on their own opinion – but the response of the collective. So, if a Prime Minister eats an onion with the skin on, then they laugh about it on facebook, not because they are trying to ruin the country, but because they are trying to work out how to build it. If someone’s antics seem counter to nation-building, to talk about it seems natural. Should he do that? Why would he do that? What does it mean for us? This is the kind of banter an cosmopolitan engages in at the water cooler, and now in the online space.

So… oh look, here comes Mr Turnbull, walking down the corridor. He’s competent. At many things. Running businesses. Speaking articulately. Not eating raw onions in public. Maybe he wasn’t directly elected by the people. But he’s in touch with the Australian cosmopolitans.

And he can see their fears – that Australia is becoming an autocracy. Or at least, it would be until Labor’s next, landslide election. Turnbull sees that with himself and Julie Bishop, it is possible to communicate Australia as a meritocracy. He believes he can implement a new system, in which the most competent person is in the job, and where the best ideas win. In his dreamy, unicorn filled world, policies either are the best ideas, or they are declared the best ideas, and everyone waits for a better one to become more popular.

While the pews are filled with cosmopolitans, the Australian church leadership is by far weighted towards conservatives.

So, the question is, will Turnbull be able to stand the scathing responses from religious right leaders? And, does the conservative Christian voice still have enough power to bring back an autocracy?

Only time and God can tell.

3 thoughts on “Why Australia’s “Religious Right” are Divided By A Change in Leadership

  1. Using the phrase religious right in this country is grossly over stating things. We don’t really have a religious right as in America. The closest thing we have is The Australian Christian Lobby who refuse titles like this. They would brand themselves as Conservatives which is very different. Likewise your scornful descriptions of Pentecostals many of which I would agree are naive in their use of scripture, nevertheless I have heard all of this countries mega churches interpret ROM13 in an orthodox sense which allows critique of those that temporarily sit in high office.

    I don’t know you but would hazard to say that you’re a cultural Leftist who takes cues from Leftist social media. The fact that your’re not as self loathing as a Green is re assuring though. No amount of study will help you if you’re already off course.

    1. I have no idea what you’re talking about. My own location is irrelevant to this post, which speaks about an emerging divide within the Conservative or Religious Right in Australia, with which you seem to identify. However, I’m a Centrist, and a Pentecostal, and I’m not taking any cues from “Leftist social media”.

      I made no reference to North American politics, nor did I mean to infer one. There *is* a religious right noted in the Australian literature… Please see:

      – Maddox, Marion. “God under Howard: The rise of the religious right in Australia.” Allen &Unwin, Sydney (2005).
      – Edwards, Jane. “‘Marriage is sacred’: The religious right’s arguments against ‘gay marriage’in Australia.” Culture, health & sexuality 9.3 (2007): 247-261.

      I’m sure these references will give you an overview of the discussion. You can form your own views from there.

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