It is my great pleasure to have written God & Menzies: The Faith that Shaped a Prime Minister and His Nation. The obvious question this book must raise is: What spiritually made our longest-serving Prime Minister tick?
In his own faith, Menzies was an old-style, broad-church Presbyterian who cherished the Scottish heritage of his church. As the son of a Presbyterian-turned-Methodist preacher, his faith also lived and breathed the spirit of John Wesley whom he revered for bringing life to the English Church in the eighteenth-century.
To be sure, Menzies’ form of Christianity was not deeply theological. In its breadth, it resembled the “mere Christianity” of C S Lewis with the Bible as its chief source. From his family background and the ministry of the Evangelical preacher, C H Nash, Menzies inherited a love of scripture “as the repository of our faith and inspiration”. Added to this, his faith was shaped by the socially-engaged Protestantism of the Melbourne University Christian Union which affirmed the importance of serving in public life to enrich the common good.
The interdenominational nature of this Union also furnished Menzies’ with a broad, ecumenical Christianity that transcended sectarian divisions. As Prime Minister, Menzies felt at ease in all church circles,
whether it was at a Methodist or Presbyterian Church service, a Salvation Army rally, or a Catholic gala dinner. In a 1963 speech, he remarked that “whatever branch of the Christian church we may belong to, we must all thank God that the work of the church goes on”.
Esteeming the Old Testament roots of Christianity, he admired the Jewish tradition and its remarkable contribution to Australia and the world. Menzies enjoyed an excellent rapport with Australia’s Jewish community, officiating at their events, denouncing anti-Semitism, welcoming post-war Jewish refugees from Europe and standing firm with Israel.
Menzies affirmed religious freedom for believers and non-believers alike. The freedom to pray, to worship, to assemble and to exercise one’s religious credo without hindrance was the defining hallmark of a free society.
For Menzies, freedom did not exist in a spiritual vacuum. A truly free society was just as much about responsibilities as it was about rights, and Menzies credited faith for giving people a “sensitive understanding of their obligations”. “In a civilised community”, he said, “not one of us can live to himself. In the immortal phrase of St Paul, ‘we are members one of another’. My freedom must be limited if I am to live at peace with my neighbour and their freedom”.
The nineteenth-century French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville once said that freedom cannot be established without virtue, nor virtue without faith, which is faith in something greater than ourselves. For Menzies, this faith was not in the utopian dream of communism, nor in a selfish consumerism, nor in whatever brand of identity politics, but in what he described as the old, yet new evangel of Christ.
For Menzies, and for millions of Australians, this message of New Life was the fountainhead of his enduring beliefs. His affirmation of human dignity and freedom, faith, neighbourly love, character, civility, honest work, family, community, and justice for all remain the guarantor of the “good life” for people of all creeds. May his ideals, and the faith that nourished them, be an inspiration to you all.
David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre. This is an edited version of the speech he gave at the online launch of his recent book, God & Menzies: The Faith that Shaped a Prime Minister and His Nation (Jeparit Press, 2021)