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. In the lead up to the Federal election, Williams also wrote a special profile on Tony Abbott for Eternity, to coincide with the extract on Kevin Rudd we’ve also published on our site. To read that extract from In God They Trust on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, 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.
Tony Abbott’s faith is robust and deep-seated. For many years he attended Mass daily at churches in Sydney and Canberra, and although no longer so assiduous, he is still a committed practising Catholic. Like Rudd, he has also been a prolific writer about religion and politics.
One of Abbott’s recent biographers, David Marr, has suggested that there are two distinct sides to his character. On the one hand, there is the unscrupulous “political animal”. On the other is the passionate believer in muscular Christianity, who has always been on an “essentially religious mission in a secular world”.
This Abbott rejects the notion that politics is a managerial exercise. Rather, it should be “a way of giving glory to God”. Abbott’s political conservatism is, in Marr’s nice phrase, “coloured a clerical purple”.
It seems fair to say that theology per se has never been Abbott’s prime interest. His pronouncements about metaphysics tend to be bold and general.
For example, in his President’s address to new students at Sydney University in Orientation Week 1979—an unlikely occasion, indeed, for earnest Christian evangelism!—he said: “All physical objects, all human works are quite insubstantial in the parade of eternity—only God endures. In all ages progressive thinkers have announced the death of God.”
In his 2008 book Battlelines, he laid out his conception of the greatest Christian truths:
“[They are] to love God with your whole heart and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. This second commandment is rightly the whole basis of human ethics.
“‘What would you want if the boot was on the other foot?’ provides the best answer to so many moral dilemmas.”
Yet as another biographer has observed, Abbott “has also made a point of denying ever having made a political decision on religious grounds, and says he never will.” I suspect this is knee-jerk defensiveness on his part, a response to those who dub him “the Mad Monk” or “Captain Catholic”.
In any event I do not believe him and do not want to believe him. If the genuinely Christian side of Abbott holds sway he has the capacity to be a fine leader.
Abbott would be an unlikely Liberal Party Prime Minister in several ways. His Catholicism is unique in and of itself, but so is his disinterested attitude to money and professional prestige. He never practised as a lawyer. He was once a trade unionist and a hands-on manager of a concrete-batching plant.
There is a joke in big-business circles that Abbott will be Australia’s first DLP Prime Minister—but it is a joke told uneasily.
Apart from his upbringing (both his parents were practising Catholics) and the “softening” effects of marriage and fatherhood (he and his wife Margie have three daughters), a number of factors have shaped Abbott’s Christian worldview.
One was his schooling: it was exclusively in the private system. He attended a trio of excellent Catholic institutions on the north shore of Sydney: Holy Family Convent, in Lindfield; St Aloysius’ College in Milsons Point; and St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, on the Lane Cove River.
St Ignatius—known popularly as “Riverview”—is perhaps the best and most prestigious Catholic boys’ school in Australia. It is an all-male institution run by the Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus, the religious order founded in Spain by St Ignatius of Loyola in the mid-sixteenth century. Jesuits are known colloquially as “God’s Soldiers” and have a duty to evangelise. They swear a special vow of obedience to the Pope.
Perhaps the best advice that Abbott received at Riverview was “to read with voracious appetite”. My impression is that he has read widely down the years, but that he has not read the scriptures as often or as closely as he should have. Nonetheless, his respect for God’s Word is patent: he recently remarked that “Western civilisation is inconceivable without the Bible”. No doubt the Jesuits at Riverview hammered this theme.
Another formative experience of Abbott’s life—religiously and otherwise—was his time at Sydney University. In the “gap” summer of 1975–76, he had attended a month-long camp run by B. A. Santamaria’s National Civic Council, and was inspired by the message. When he arrived on campus in early 1976 he began to board at St John’s (Catholic) College and joined the Democratic Club. Soon he was running the show.
He met Santamaria himself while in Melbourne at a bi-annual national conference of delegates of the various Democratic Clubs throughout Australia.
The effect was life-changing. Above all, Abbott imbibed the message that politics is, or should be, a calling or vocation. He remained in contact with Santamaria—his mentor—for another two decades, seeing him several times a year until his death in 1998.
A third important phase in the shaping of Abbott’s consciousness was his time at Oxford University from 1980–83. In his last year at Sydney he had won a Rhodes scholarship and this was the springboard for what was, perhaps, the defining experience of his life.
Importantly, it was at Oxford that he met and befriended Paul Mankowski, an American Jesuit of Polish-Irish descent. Abbott wrote in Battlelines: “I doubt that I have ever met a finer man”.
When Abbott returned to Sydney in mid-1983 he announced to family and friends that he had decided to become a priest. Many people were surprised by the decision. His closest female friend at that time, Megan Kenny, was one person especially “puzzled”. According to biographer Michael Duffy, “she was a Catholic and had known [Abbott] for years, but could not remember one instance when he had talked about religion or his spirituality”. It appears that the religious side of Abbott’s nature emerged fully only once he had left Australia.
At all events, in February 1984, Abbott commenced his studies at St Patrick’s Seminary in Manly.
To say the least, he did not thrive there. From the beginning he felt like a “fish out of water”. On March 27, 1987, after enduring just over three years of misery and disappointment, he quit in frustration. A few months later he wrote a candid account of his experiences for The Bulletin magazine, an article entitled “Why I Left the Priesthood”. It was published over five pages in the issue of August 18, 1987, and is another must-read for anyone wanting to understand our prospective Prime Minister.
Reading between the lines, I sense that the core problem was Abbott’s lack of fully-reasoned faith in the Vatican’s traditional teachings, the teachings he was supposed to believe in and defend against all comers. It unnerved him to have those beliefs questioned by liberal theologians at the seminary. Tellingly, Abbott has recently admitted that “the living Jesus of Christian faith was [i.e., in 1984–87] only a second-hand presence in my life”.
If that is so, it puts in perspective all of his other complaints about the seminary: the requirement of celibacy, for instance, and the allegedly “homosexual culture” there. His secular critics have tended to focus on these. More generally, they have speculated about how Abbott’s Catholicism may impact on public policy if he becomes Prime Minister.
Abbott has deprecated the notion of “Vatican diktat”. Yet he has also referred approvingly to the Catholic belief that the Pope is “no less than the Vicar of Christ”. The most comprehensive, recent statements of his views about Catholicism are to be found in two pieces he wrote in July 2008 on the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Australia for World Youth Day. He proffered some fond but not uncritical musings about his church.
My personal view is that radical secularists—and, to the extent they still exist in Australia, anti-Catholic Protestants—have little to fear from Abbott. As regards at least three momentous recent matters of public policy—the Iraq War, refugees, and neo-liberal economics in the wake of the GFC—Abbott has adopted positions squarely at odds with the Vatican’s. And Abbott’s personal opposition to abortion is just that: he has stressed repeatedly that he would never enforce recriminalisation.
Same sex marriage
This is one genuine point of difference between Abbott and Kevin Rudd. Abbott remains opposed and has declined to grant federal Coalition MPs a conscience vote on the issue. Rudd, on the other hand, has recently reversed his opposition. He set out his reasons in a 2,000 word article posted on his website on 20 May 2013, about a month before his reinstatement as Prime Minister (but two weeks after my book In God They Trust? went to press!).
While upholding the right of Christian churches and other religious bodies to continue to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, Rudd argued that “the secular Australian state should be able to recognise same sex marriage”.
“Many Christians will disagree with the reasoning I have put forward,” he acknowledged. “I respect their views as those of good and considered conscience. I trust they respect mine as being of the same. In my case, they are the product of extensive reflection on Christian teaching.”
Same sex marriage is a divisive issue. It splits families, and Rudd’s and Abbott’s are no exception. One of Abbott’s sisters, Christine Forster, is a lesbian who supports same sex marriage. Rudd’s sister, Loree, who once trained as a nun, is an implacable opponent. She resigned her ALP membership over the issue.
Read Kevin Rudd’s profile by Roy Williams. Click here.