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New book challenges old adage that religion and politics don’t mix

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The impact of Christianity on Australia’s Prime Ministers has been downplayed or ignored by historians and commentators, according to a new book launched overnight by Bible Society Australia.

Titled ‘In God They Trust?’ and authored by Roy Williams, the book has been launched in what Bible Society CEO Greg Clarke calls “a fairly strategic time, as we head to a federal election, and when the leaders of both major parties are outspoken Christians. I think I’m right in saying this is an unusual thing in Australian politics.”

According to Clarke, there are a number of issues likely to ignite – and in fact already igniting – fierce debate among religious people in the lead up to the election including refugees, education, bioethics and the environment.

“The role of religion in politics has never been so hotly disputed in our time,” says Clarke. “And I think after launching this book, you could never run the argument that religion and politics don’t mix in Australian life.”

Speakers

L-R The Hon Mike Baird, NSW Treasurer; Senator The Hon Ursula Stephens; Roy Williams; Greg Clarke

Labor Senator Ursula Stephens and NSW Treasurer Mike Baird helped launch the book at Parliament House in Sydney, ensuring what Clarke called a “politically balanced book launch”.

Senator Stephens called the book “provocative in many ways”, congratulating author Roy Williams for exploring a religious categorisation of Australia’s leaders that offers “an interesting and important lens in which to view the decision making of our Prime Ministers”.

Treasurer Mike Baird said the book’s theme represented exactly the sort of thing we should be talking about in the lead up to a Federal election.

“If you ask people about politicians, they’ll know what they look like…what they wear…they’ll know if they’re good speakers…or what their policy positions are. But often what you don’t know is the true person: what makes them tick? What is their character, their values? Who are they? Who is this person elected to represent you, their state, their country? I think that’s a very worthwhile question.”

Baird said that Williams’s book examines the difficult decisions that only a Prime Minister would understand, being the one ultimately responsible, how they come to those decisions and what values they bring.

Author Roy Williams says politicians – unfairly in his view – are held in pretty low esteem these days.

But, quoting from the book’s introduction, Roy said “…to say that we have been uniquely blessed in human history is scarcely to exaggerate. For this state of affairs our Prime Ministers surely deserve some credit— perhaps a great deal—since under Australia’s Westminster system of government the Prime Minister has always wielded huge influence. In today’s era of concentrated executive power, his or her personal belief-system matters more than ever.”

Williams says a person of active religious faith cannot help but be guided by a sense of providence or mission: “Their mindset must be different to that of a person who assumes this world is all that there is.”

The book launch at Parliament House in Sydney last night.

The book launch at Parliament House in Sydney last night.

According to Williams, almost all our Prime Ministers have “thought long and hard about God.”

“The majority attended church schools or had at least one fervently Christian parent. Two—Bob Hawke and George Reid—were the sons of Protestant clergymen. Four were Sunday school teachers and three others were lay preachers, including Kevin Rudd in China when he lived there as a diplomat. Several lived in families riven or affected by anti-Catholic prejudice. Many enjoyed close relationships with leading churchmen or theologians of their day – both Australian or foreign, and six married women who they meet at church or at church activities.

“Modern tendency has been to downplay or dismiss the faith of our past leaders. But in general, our Prime Ministers have been much more spiritually minded than the people they lead. “

During questions, Williams was asked which Prime Ministers knew their scriptures the best.

Unequivocally, he answered:  “Alfred Deakin. The most religiously minded Prime Minister we’ve ever had.”

“He knew every religion back to front. He wrote hundreds of private prayers, hundreds of pages about theology. He treasured the scriptures. Billy Hughes was another: notorious for blasphemy, but he also knew the Bible.

“In the modern era – and this was a surprise to me – Gough Whitlam. Whitlam’s knowledge of Christianity is second only to Deakin. Now of course, the gospels make it clear that there’s no greater message than that faith and knowledge are not the same thing. But in terms of sheer knowledge of the Bible: Gough.”

Want the book? Get it from Bible Society’s online bookshop: www.biblesociety.org.au/pm.

Read Greg Clarke’s opinion piece on In God They Trust? here.

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