'Glory without power' a test for the Christian Right

“Power without Glory”, the title of the novel by Frank Hardy printed secretly by a band of Lefties, brilliantly described the corruption of the Australia of the mid-20th century.

A book about the conservative Christian Right in Australia today might deserve the title “Glory without Power”.

“Glory” because in distinction from their US equivalent, overwhelmingly the prominent leaders in Australia have theology within the evangelical mainstream. Another word might be “sound”. There’s not a reliance on the sort of prophecy that failed in the US, or excuse-making for the lifestyles of politicians they have rallied around.

The leadership of Australia’s conservative Christian groups can fairly be called “Bible people.” Here are some examples:

Martyn Iles of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) attends an evangelical church. “FIEC Church – the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, “who I hope won’t be too hurt if I call them Sydney Anglicans without bishops,” to use his words. FIEC is a growing network of churches that resemble a Sydney Anglican or conservative Baptist church, with reformed Calvinistic theology.

Martyn Lloyd Iles, to give him his full name, was named after the UK-puritan preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his theology is very similar – in a mainstream reformed, Calvinistic mould.

Peter Downie, the Family Voice National Director, has key roles in the Presbyterian Church of Queensland. Family Voice is a well-established campaigning group, mostly on family issues as the name implies.

Lyle Shelton, campaign director of the Christian Democrats, has a family background in the conservative evangelical Toowoomba City Church founded by his father, well-known pastor Ian Shelton.

Many conservative politicians are also from mainstream Christianity.

Andrew Hastie, the Assistant Minister for Defence – an up-and-coming Christian in the Liberal Party – attends an FIEC church when he’s in Canberra and Peel Presbyterian Church in his WA electorate. He formerly attended Shenton Park Anglican Church in Perth, where Sydney Archbishop Kanishka Raffel had a lengthy ministry. Evangelical insiders will also note he was married at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC – a bastion of conservative (theologically) evangelicalism.

Another example of a Coalition Christian is Eric Abetz, the Tasmanian senator who is a member of the Christian Reformed Church. The “Prayer Group” within the Coalition spans the Prime Minister’s Centre faction and includes members of the Right. I include these examples of Coalition MPs to show that the idea of a purely Pentecostal faction in the Liberals is not sustainable.

These are mainstream evangelical Christians. Eternity readers will have a range of responses to whether their actions in office or campaigning reflect their Christianity – that is an important but different discussion. The point here is that the conservative Christian leaders of Australia, our Christian Right, are theologically orthodox.

Powerful or powerless

A recent paper by Sydney University’s Dr David Smith gives a description of the declining policy influence of the Christian Right in Australia, especially compared to its more powerful American counterpart. Smith is an Associate Professor in American Politics and Foreign Policy in the United States Studies Centre with a special interest in a focus on religion in the US.

He writes: “The unique policy effectiveness of the American Christian Right, which operates almost entirely through partisan coalitions rather than institutional access, comes from its consistent ability to deliver a solid voting bloc for the Republican Party (Grzymała-Busse 2015; Wilcox 2009). Australia’s Christian Right cannot boast the same electoral power at either the state or federal level (Cameron and McAllister 2020; Smith 2009). This makes the Liberal-National Coalition an unreliable ally for the Christian Right on issues like marriage and abortion, where electoral majorities in Australia are not conservative.”

“This makes the Liberal-National Coalition an unreliable ally for the Christian Right on issues like marriage and abortion.” – David Smith

Smith cites Greg Bondar’s article in Eternity about the consolidation of Christian activists within the Coalition parties. To the examples above we could add Senator Amanda Stoker, the Minister Assisting the Attorney-General and widely regarded as a rising star in the ministry, and the influential Alex Hawke, Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Aff​airs and many others.

In a lesser sense, to the glory imbued by salvation is added a lesser glory in the political success of these and a host of other Christians in the Coalition. (There are Christians in other parties, but the presence of Christians in the Coalition, by inspection, is far greater.)

But, as Smith points out, many policy results have seen gone the opposite way from that desired by conservative Christians.

Same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and generosity in foreign aid advocated by a large number of Christians (not only Coalition voters) have gone in an unwanted direction. Abortion has been decriminalised around Australia, and euthanasia in all states but NSW and Queensland.

As a high-profile Christian conservative said to me as I covered an ACL rally in the lead-up to the postal survey on marriage – “we don’t have an argument on marriage that will convince the non-Christians”.

Australians as a whole no longer identify our nation as a Christian country.

Smith argues that Australians as a whole no longer identify our nation as a Christian country – a key difference from the United States. In the US, powerful campaigns by Christian conservatives see political advances, not least in the Trump makeover of the Supreme Court which may lead to a rollback in the abortion law. Slowly. But the self-conscious adoption of far-right Trump-style politics by some sectors of the Christian Right in Australia (not those mentioned in this story) has had a questionable effect.

Smith writes: “Parliament’s Religious Freedom Review, instituted by Prime Minister Turnbull in 2017 following the changes to marriage laws. The review, whose purpose was to determine whether Australian law adequately protects freedom of religion, received more than 15,500 public submissions (Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet 2018).

“These submissions provide a useful point of comparison with a similar review that took place nearly a decade earlier, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) Freedom of Religion and Belief in Australia Inquiry, which received 2,033 public submissions in 2008 and 2009. One analysis of the 2008–2009 AHRC review found that 40% of submissions to it ‘included the religio-centric assertion that Australia is a Christian nation’ (Nelson, Possamai-Inesedy, and Dunn 2012).

“In contrast, hardly any submissions to the 2017–2018 parliamentary review included this assertion. A search for the terms ‘Christian nation’ and ‘Christian country’ in the public submissions (which I conducted in May 2020) yields only seventeen substantial uses of the terms – around 1% of unique submissions and 0.1% of total submissions. Of these seventeen, only four assert that Australia is normatively a Christian (or Judeo-Christian) nation, and all of these came from private individuals rather than religious groups.”

As an example of group operating beyond the “Christian nation” paradigm, Smith cites the Freedom for Faith legal think-tank, which advocates for religious freedom for all religions in Australia. He argues that “The 2017 marriage plebiscite, occurring after Christian identification officially dropped to 52%, precipitated a decisive shift among Christian conservatives towards demands for protection of minority rights.”

Smith tells Eternity “There has been a shift in Christian Right campaigning toward what I would say is a more defensive stance, oriented around the idea of religious freedom. The think tank Freedom For Faith is a good and prominent example of this orientation. While it’s a Christian organisation, it speaks the language of pluralism, recognising that any politically acceptable defense of conservative Christianity must now involve a more general defense of religion in public life.

Eternity understands that Freedom for Faith would resist the “Christian Right tag”, which however underlines Smith’s thesis that Christian groups are adopting new postures.

“To extrapolate the church across the entire country and insist we are a Christian country is just wrong.” – Andrew Hastie

Smith says he has not been able to find any public reference by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Australia as a “Christian nation” or “Christian country”. Andrew Hastie, a key member of the Right faction of the Liberal Party, is quoted by the Christian journalist Toni Hassan as saying he is “uncomfortable when people start calling Australia a Christian nation [. . .] I think the church has a distinct role in society but to extrapolate the church across the entire country and insist we are a Christian country is just wrong” (Hassan 2017).

The recent history of the ACL is instructive. Smith notes that “The ACL during the period of the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments cultivated a ‘non-partisan’ image. In a comparative study of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada … The ability to seem ‘above politics’, as [American political scientist Anna] Grzymała-Busse argues, is an important resource for church or parachurch groups seeking institutional access. Much of the willingness of leaders like Rudd and Gillard to grant legitimacy to the ACL (and not to push against Christian Right policy agendas) seems to have come from their readiness to affirm the importance of Australia’s Christian heritage.”

But “the bitterness of Australia’s debates about gender and sexuality around the marriage plebiscite (see e.g. Law 2017) probably foreclosed any future policy influence the Christian Right could exercise outside of the conservative wing of the Liberal-National Coalition and other parties further to the right.”

It is arguable that Martyn Iles … has substituted one sort of influence for another.

Smith leans towards the conclusion that the ACL and the rest of the Christian Right have lost influence in the public arena. He tells Eternity “the ACL seems to have lost its prominence since the Marriage plebiscite and the departure of Lyle Shelton.” This is possibly ungenerous, or it may miss that the ACL has changed. It is arguable that Martyn Iles, who with Jim Wallace was the architect of the ACL’s success in holding off same-sex marriage in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period, has substituted one sort of influence for another. Iles is the product of ACL’s Lachlan Macquarie Institute and wants to build influence through training campaigners to match the Left.

ACL has deepened its reach in its Christian constituency, running the successful fundraising appeal during the Israel Folau controversy, and currently running a national series of mass meetings. Is it too much to say that it is becoming a mirror to GetUp! for Christian conservatives? In the same way that GetUp! serves as a gathering point for progressive Australians outside of a formal party structure, ACL is a gathering point for politically conservative Christians.

ACL is a gathering point for politically conservative Christians.

A big test for the political influence of Australia’s religious (not only Christian) conservatives is the fate of religious freedom legislation in the federal sphere. It should be noted that support for legislation to protect religious expression extends to Christians who may not see themselves as conservative.

Smith also identifies this as a central issue. He tells Eternity  “The new configuration of the Christian Right, largely located within the Liberal-National Coalition and focused on a more legalistic defense of religious freedom, doesn’t seem to put Christianity itself at the forefront of its engagement with public issues, instead focusing more abstractly on freedom of religion, speech and conscience.” (This tension between proclamation of the Christian message and lobbying also plays out in the new ACL under Iles, which emphasises proclamation much more than previously.)

Schools will be at the centre of this contest with their ability, or otherwise, to choose the sort of staff they wish, whether 100 percent Christian, or the majority stance of the newer “Christian school” movements, or the ability to specify Christians in key roles, which is the stance of some (not all) high-fee schools.

The ability of Christians to manifest beliefs online in particular – as in the Israel Folau issue – is a second key area of conflict. This is not only a Christian issue, but Christians with increasingly unpopular views will feature strongly.

Conservatives want a strong bill, some wishing for federal laws that will override the Victorian laws that ban “conversion therapy”.

Christians concerned with freedom of speech, and the continued presence of Christian schools – whether they identify as conservative or otherwise will hope for a measure of “power alongside glory”.

Sources cited in quotes from Smith.

Bondar, G. 2019. “Can ‘Christian’ Political Parties Survive?” Eternity News, June 28. https://www. eternitynews.com.au/australia/can-christian-political-parties-survive/

Cameron, S., and I. McAllister. 2020. “Policies and Performance in the 2019 Australian Federal Election.” Australian Journal of Political Science 55 (3): 239–256. doi:10.1080/10361146.2020.1776679.

Grzymała-Busse, A. 2015. Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hassan, T. 2017. “Faith and Politics Can Be a Volatile Mix.” Canberra Times, June 17.

Nelson, J. K., A. Possamai-Inesedy, and K. M. Dunn. 2012. “Reinforcing Substantive Religious Inequality: A Critical Analysis of Submissions to the Review of Freedom of Religion and Belief in Australia Inquiry.” Australian Journal of Social Issues 47 (3): 297–318. doi:10.1002/j.1839- 4655.2012.tb00250.x.

Smith, R. 2009. “How Would Jesus Vote? The Churches and the Election of the Rudd Government.”

Australian Journal of Political Science 44 (4): 613–637. doi:10.1080/10361140903296545.

Wilcox, C. 2009. “Of Movements and Metaphors: The Co-Evolution of the Christian Right and the Gop.” In Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by S. G. Brint and J. R. Schroedel, 331–356. New York: Russell Sage.