Author Roy Williams has published a new book, In God They Trust – The religious beliefs of Australia’s Prime Ministers 1901-2013, published by Bible Society Australia. Below is an extract from the book’s chapter on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Williams has also written a special profile of Tony Abbott for Eternity. To read Abbott’s profile, click here.
Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are very different kinds of men, but both are sincere believers in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Indeed, not since December 1931, when Labor Prime Minister James Scullin faced off against the United Australia Party’s Joseph Lyons, have Australia’s two major political parties been led into an election by Christians so conspicuously serious about their faith. Both are products of their childhood and their experiences as young men.
Rudd attends church weekly and has done so for most of his life. In his home town of Brisbane he has worshipped for many years at St John the Baptist Anglican church in Bulimba. In Canberra he usually goes to St John the Baptist’s in Reid. During his diplomatic postings in Sweden (1981–84) and China (1984–87) he took the trouble to involve himself actively in local congregations. In China he was a lay preacher.
Rudd’s knowledge of Christian doctrine and history is extensive, and his everyday speech is littered with religious phraseology. When I interviewed him at his office in Parliament House in November 2012 he told me he had just embarked on a project to study Luke’s Gospel in the original Greek, so as better to understand the nuances of the Gospel writer’s message. I take him at his word that he exults in Mozart’s Requiem at Easter; that his favourite novel is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and that his favourite painters are the pre-Raphaelites, because their work is imbued with Christian overtones.
He was born on September 21, 1957, in Eumundi, a small town in Queensland about 20 kilometres south-west of Noosa in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. His father, Albert (Bert) Rudd, eked out a modest living as a sharefarmer on 400 acres (about 160 hectares) of land owned by a prosperous local businessman. There were five mouths to feed aside from himself: those of his wife Marge (nee De Vere), youngest son Kevin and three other children: Malcolm, Loree and Greg.
Bert and Marge had a “mixed” marriage. Marge was a strict Catholic – righteous, teetotal and thrifty, but not sectarian. Her favourite book was The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas, a popular 1940s novel about the crucifixion and its aftermath told through Roman eyes. She voted without fail for the DLP. Many years later, Rudd described his mother’s worldview as “old-style Queensland Catholic Country Women’s Association”. Need more be said?
Bert Rudd was of Protestant stock. Although much less religiously observant than his wife, he did not convert to Catholicism. Indeed, “he wanted no part of it”. He was a member of the local Masonic Lodge and politically conservative, maintaining inactive membership of the Country Party. When I asked Rudd about his father’s faith, he said the following:
“He died before I was really able to have anything approaching adult conversation with him so I really don’t know. What I do know is that as he was dying in hospital he had a quite deep spiritual experience and was supported in that by a hospital chaplain. And so what his lifelong beliefs were, the extent to which he reflected those beliefs in the way he lived, I couldn’t really comment; I was too much of a kid.”
It was Marge’s way that prevailed in the Rudd home. She and Bert were married in a Catholic Church (St Joseph’s at Nambour), and their children raised as Catholics. Indeed, the children were instilled with “a deep sense of the importance of faith”. They attended mass with their mother every Sunday at Eumundi. Rudd described to me “a tiny wooden country Catholic church—you’ve seen a thousand of them in Australia—and … all four of us sitting in line next to Mother in descending order”. There was also catechism classes every second Saturday. On Sunday nights they said the rosary.
Everything changed for the Rudd family on the night of December 14, 1968. Driving home from a social event in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, 100 kilometres to Eumundi’s south, Bert crashed his car into a telegraph pole at about 2am. He died eight weeks later of peritonitis at Royal Brisbane Hospital. Not long afterwards the surviving Rudds were forced to vacate their Eumundi home.
Bert had left little money and his modest life insurance was slow in coming. Initially Marge Rudd had no choice but to accept Christian charity from her family and a few neighbours in Eumundi. But there were limits to any such arrangements. Marge soon accepted that she would have to earn a dignified living to support herself and her children. She had trained as a nurse during World War II and decided to resume that vocation.
Unquestionably during this period, Marge Rudd’s robust, practical faith served her well. This made a huge impression on her younger son. Later in life he recalled his mother as “exceptionally stoic”.
In the meantime Kevin needed to get on with his education. For Marge this was critical: Kevin was an intelligent, knowledge-thirsty boy. In mid-1969, in deference to Marge’s financial predicament and her devout Catholicism, the powers-that-be at Marist College, Ashgrove (in Brisbane), agreed to waive their fees and to accept Kevin as a boarder.
To put it mildly, Kevin did not enjoy his two years with the Brothers. He once admitted that he preferred not to remember those days. “It’s not that the school was in any sense a bad school,” he told me. “I was just an unhappy kid. … [B]ecause my father had died I felt quite lonely, vulnerable. I was 11 years old. And then suddenly you’re thrown into this whole world you know nothing about.”
That world encompassed compulsory attendance at mass three mornings a week and regular prayers in the classroom. The school’s emphasis was on sport and its motto was viriliter age (act manfully). For an academic boy such as Rudd the atmosphere must have been uncongenial. He told journalist Julia Baird in 2006 that “it was tough, harsh, unforgiving, institutional Catholicism of the old school”.
The family’s move to Nambour in mid-1971 was another turning point in Rudd’s life. Nambour was a proud, upright town. Biographer Robert Macklin called it “the very buckle of the provincial Queensland Bible belt”.
Marge Rudd was a tough cookie and she expected a lot of her children. One’s God-given talents ought not to be wasted, and one’s duties ought not to be shirked, she believed. To do so was sinful. Her favourite biblical passage was from Christ’s exhortation to the disciples at the Last Supper:
“Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” (John 15:2)
Marge Rudd understood the critical importance of education. The Marist Brothers experiment had failed. In Nambour Kevin was sent to the state high school, and immediately his scholastic performance improved. And it kept improving, exponentially. Moreover, his behaviour was impeccable. “He was,” reminisced a fellow student, “the one with the halo”. By 1974, his final year, Kevin Rudd was the school’s star student. He had pushed himself extremely hard and it had brought forth much fruit.
On the other hand, Nambour High had killed his faith, ostensibly at least. Journalist David Marr has suggested that by 1974 Rudd was “a swaggering atheist”. I put this to Rudd; he smiled and said that he was “something close … an agnostic”. Certainly he had rejected notions of Papal infallibility, priestly authority and other formal strictures of Catholicism, but in all the circumstances of his life to that point this was scarcely surprising. Indeed it was almost certainly a blessing in disguise, God’s grace in action. Unlike most Catholic (or Protestant) teenagers who abandon their slender childhood faith, never to return to Christianity at all, Rudd soon rethought his entire theological position.
He took a gap year in 1975 and knocked around doing various odd jobs, at first in Brisbane and later in Sydney. While in Sydney, he attended services at various Protestant churches including a Church of Christ congregation in Earlwood, Wesley Mission and Scots Church in the city. Although he did not formally renounce his childhood Catholicism—indeed he never has—Rudd came to the belief that “denominationalism” was much less important to him than the basics of the Gospels.
By late 1975 he had chosen a broadly ecumenical path. He was bound for the Australian National University in 1976, and he chose not to apply to the (then) male-only Catholic college on campus, John XXIII. Instead he obtained a place at the Protestant co-ed college, Burgmann. On his application form for Burgmann he described his religion as simply “Christian”.
At ANU Rudd was uninvolved in campus politics—they were of no interest to him. Mostly he concentrated on his coursework, and in 1979 he graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Asian Studies. His extra-curricular activities were based around the Student Christian Movement. He was known at Burgmann as a wowser, “the opposite of bohemian.” He belonged to a group of evangelicals called the Navigators. It was at Burgmann College that he first read the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, starting with Letters and Papers from Prison.
It was also at Burgmann, on the first day of Orientation Week 1976, that he met Therese Rein, his future wife. They “fought like Kilkenny cats for the [first] year or two … in debates and discussions on the meaning of life and all the rest of it”. She was as earnest a Christian as he. At Burgmann she was asked by the Master of the college to establish “a series of solid Bible studies on Christianity and sexuality”.
Therese held similar views to Kevin on matters denominational. She too had been raised in a “mixed” household, but a tolerant one. She told Robert Macklin that her mother “thought of Anglicanism and Catholicism and Methodism or whatever as basically Christian, as did my father, so she was prepared to get married in a Catholic church”. But the priests objected, explaining that her mother would have to be rebaptised and reconfirmed and her father “was really deeply offended”. They married in an Anglican church.
Kevin and Therese were married on November 14, 1981 at the beautiful St John the Baptist Anglican church in the Canberra suburb of Reid. It was Therese’s church rather than Kevin’s; he had been worshipping at the Uniting Church in O’Connor. In opting for St John’s for his wedding and the Anglican Church thereafter, Rudd took the view that “families that pray together, stay together”.
Read Tony Abbott’s profile by Roy Williams. Click here.
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