Reviewed by Laurel Lloyd-Jones
Marion Maddox’s highly readable and scholarly investigation into the rise of the religious right in Australian politics provides a disturbing insight into how John Howard has co-opted God to support his own questionable agenda. Maddox, a religious studies academic and a leading authority on the intersection of religion and politics, unpacks Howard’s secretive connections to the U.S. Christian right neo-conservatives. Her investigation traces how the God of Howard-style conservatism entered Australian politics and what its influence has been and draws intelligent and conclusive evidence of these concealed connections.
First aroused by the saga of Hindmarsh Island and the subsequent Royal Commission Maddox became aware of secular Australia’s inabilility to relate to religion on its own terms, and how this produced significant consequences politically, leading to her more intense interest in the interaction between religion and politics. It produced outcomes so that a minority religious tradition formed an icon for the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ politics which catapulted Howard to power.
Maddox, who like Howard was brought up in a family that was staunchly Methodist, states that the Methodism of her childhood was unrecognisable compared to the religion and politics that have since formed the ‘family folklore’ of the Howard family. Howard brought up in the Earlwood Methodist Church was subjected to values which addressed the ‘evils’ of this world as those which disallowed the full status of citizenship to the indigenous community; world poverty; inveighed against racism declaring ‘the claim to racial superiority a peculiarly vicious form of sin’ and condemned ‘making money’ as a primary goal of life. Urging action for peace, disarmament, and campaigning for refugees it saw its role as providing a prophetic leadership for the nation. John Howard’s childhood church seems to have offered solutions lacking any similarity to that of the adult Howard’s policies
Maddox explores Howard’s unparalleled ability to play the race card, despite him denying it, naming the Hindmarsh Island controversy as a ‘morality play’ acted out in full view of the media and actively promoted by then Opposition Leader John Howard and his front bench entrenching views of the greedy power-brokers who were making damning remarks that democracy was ‘imperiled’ due to claims by ‘special interest’ groups. More recently Howard has again used such an opportunity to portray Asylum Seekers as possible terrorists and used threatening slogans to shore up his position.
Maddox finds that Howard’s ‘corrosion of Australia’s soul’ and the icon of John Howard’s childhood church background only works as a smokescreen and flies in the face of reason. John Howard’s brother Bob disputes that Methodism left an impact on his family and states that his parents weren’t into the social aspects of Methodism, and that their ‘politics’ related to small business and prosperity. When Australia considered a new constitutional preamble Howard decreed that it should begin ‘With hope in God’ and Maddox asks the question – which God? She offers the reader an answer stating that under Howard the market ‘has taken on divine qualities’ which requires ‘sacrifices, promises rewards, has opinions and emotions…. demanding propitiation…. beyond human control or prediction’. This jealous God calls for a single-minded loyalty which resents rival deities and sabotages community and family life, destroying democratic safeguards such as government funded welfare. Maddox doesn’t waste words in her condemnation ‘in place of love, it makes competition the fundamental value. Family values and individual responsibility turn out to be pious appeals to the old God behind which the Market God disguises its chaotic theophanies. At its most extreme, this God undermines democratic traditions while justifying hatreds: vilification of homosexuals, punishing the unemployed, cruel border protection and illegal war’.
In referring to Howard’s canny political skills avoiding clearly stating policies while working through others, she sees this adeptness resulting from his leadership ‘triple-bypass’ which left him highly skilled, able to manipulate issues while presenting a bland face of decency from arm’s length behind the scenes.
The destabilisation campaign to unseat Hewson by Howard supporter Chris Miles, following Hewson’s message of support to the 1994 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, was rewarded when Howard appointed him as Parliamentary Secretary to Cabinet until he lost his seat. Howard replaced him with Senator Bill Heffernan whose commitment to exposing public figurers with homosexual leanings was well known.
Howard’s use of diversions to detract from difficult situations is outlined at the beginning of the Senate’s first inquiry into the ‘Children overboard’ affair. Heffernan accused openly gay High Court Judge Michael Kirby of improper use of a commonwealth car and Howard told the House that he had no knowledge of Heffernan’s intentions to raise the matter. Later, under questioning, he changed his statement to reveal that he had indeed known while still indicating his continuing ‘affection and friendship’ for Heffernan, refusing to sack him. We see here the opportunity to draw attention from the Children Overboard inquiry, which threatened the ‘supposedly invincible Howard machine’, and also to challenge the judiciary, a bulwark for a more sinister agenda which acts as a reminder to social conservatives that he supports their views while taking care not to give his opponents room for accusations of extremism. Maddox states that ‘it is a political strategy well developed by the US religious right’ and that ‘sex’ and ‘family’ are the issues that do the trick when the going gets tough for Howard.
While George Bush is known to drop lines from hymns and the Bible into his speeches which convey sotto voce religious messages, in our more secular Australian society this would not necessarily bring a favourable response. Howard chooses to convey similar concerns that carry a religious inflection with his references to family values and marriage as the unalterable heterosexual basis for society, with a targeted appeal to the religious conservatives doing a comparable job to Bush’s biblical and hymn allusions.
With the formation of the Lyons Forum, a Howard-backed fundamentalist conservative Christian faction made up of a group of right wing MPs, the Forum’s statements are found to contain language directly identified with the American religious right, encoding specific policies and focus. However it differs in that its promotional leaflet, while referring to God and having members with well-known religious connections, denies any ‘religious’ identity for the group avoiding alienating a wider secular consituency. Forum members include Peter Costello, Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin and Kevin Andrews.
One aspect of the Lyons Forum’s success has been its ability to harness the language of the mainstream to muster support for its concerns, creating an impression of bipartisanship for socially conservative policy shifts and cunningly organising it’s political opponents to do the campaigning while remaining obscured aided by right wing columnists and talk show hosts.
Hillsong Church congregant and Lyons Forum strategist, Alan Cadman regularly invites Oxford Falls Christian City Church Pastor, Phil Pringle to Canberra to speak at Prayer Breakfasts. Pringle, the Founder and Senior Minister of this church, offers a $450 course promoting a ‘prosperity gospel theology’ of worldly success. Maddox refers to the growth of capitalism during recent times which has made greed good, ‘with its own God to bless it’ and juxtaposes this against the teachings of the Hebrew prophets who blasted those ‘who trample down the weak and helpless, and push the poor out of the way’. The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth warn us that one ‘cannot serve both God and money’ and we see this acted out as he throws the money-changers from the temple. John Howard officially opened these Oxford Falls premises in 1999.
Maddox uncovers the links between the Howard government and what she calls a bizarre and influential American theology of supremacy known as Christian Reconstructionism, Theonony and Dominionism. Those who viewed the ABC’s ‘Australian Story’ program recently on the Hillsong Church may have noted Pastor Huston’s remarks about the need for his congregants to claim their power and supremacy so as to bring change, supporting personal gratification and celebrating wealth as God's blessing.
Maddox claims that these connections extend right into the Howard government, and suggests that Howard and his senior ministers present themselves as ‘champions of the imaginary mainstream ‘Us’ developing the thought that ‘the sepia-toned traditional family’ is in threat of having its way of life jeopardised by ‘single mothers, lesbians, and untamed fatherless children’. US religious right’s American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray is campaigning to ‘re-stigmatise’ illegitimacy, stating he considers it to be the ‘single most important social problem of our time’. The push to end all economic support for single mothers was considered by a Lyons Forum’s submission on family tax, with the suggestion that benefits be refused to dysfunctional families. This resonates with the government’s current restrictions on indigenous families in relation to refusal of benefits based on personal hygiene and school attendance.
Outcomes which have supported the Howard government’s ‘invisible’ religious right influence have been achieved by introducing ideas which at first seem beyond the pale of serious attention, only to have them resurface with token bi-partisan support from an insufficiently vigilant left after a few year’s careful working of the soil. Quite recently Kevin Rudd expressed his concerns, ‘that somehow God has become the wholly-owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party’.
Maddox ends her book calling upon the spirit of Australia to rise up against the serious assaults it has sustained from a government which has ‘encouraged our worst’ and the ‘enduring small target silence from an opposition that refuses to bring out our best’. She believes that this spirit will not be destroyedand refers tothe thousands who participated in the ‘bridge walks’ of 2000; the action of those who joined Rural Australians for Refugees out of compassion in support of Asylum Seekers; the hundreds of thousands who turned out to voice their opposition to an unprovoked and illegal war; and more recently those who lamented the delivered tax cuts for the wealthy further dividing us into ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. Maddox sees decent Australians resisting this government’s agenda to divide, stating ‘Howard might keep winning elections but, in between, he has not entirely had his way with Australia’s soul’.
Maddox’s summary lifted my hopes a little and while I found her well-researched book held my interest throughout, I found it an exceedingly disturbing read which left me with a troubled heart. Perhaps this should be compulsory reading for all claiming the right to vote! The challenge for us is to consider what we can do to awaken our slumbering fellow Australians to what is happening to the country under Howard and the need to reject market idolatry, reclaiming a truly Australian inclusive and caring approach to life.
Of racism and reality
I was in a taxi recently, up front next to the driver, since a life-long sense of egalitarianism over-ruled my instinctive social reticence, when the desultory conversation stumbled towards Indigenous affairs (I don’t do small talk very well, quickly becoming discomforted by taxi-drivers, hair-dressers or fellow-travellers in general). Anyway, this taxi driver, a nice old guy, who I could easily imagine being someone’s favourite uncle, said, apropos of not very much: “There are three things you can’t give an Aborigine.” Apprehensively, I waited for the punch-line, which came with a self-satisfied smirk: “A broken nose, a fat lip and a job.” My stony silence seemed to puzzle him; apparently he was used to getting a laugh from what he obviously considered a witty observation, and tried a few other gossipy gambits; all of which I let pass through to the keeper. Reaching my destination, mercifully nearby, I paid him without comment (or tip) and turned away, regretting I hadn’t been quick-witted enough to reply: “And there’s one thing you can’t give a stupidly prejudiced taxi-driver – a brain.” Although, this would have been unfair, as well as untrue, since clearly he wasn’t stupid. In reality, the nature of racism has more to do with deeply ingrained and unjustified assumptions than stupidity, although, racists are generally unaware of their racism, in much the same way as stupid people are unaware of their stupidity.
The crux of racism is its iceberg effect: the essential dynamic of the beast lives below the surface, waiting for the right (or wrong) moment, or set of triggering circumstances, to inflict its damage. And let’s be clear about this: covert racism, of the routinely casual, everyday type - as displayed by my basically good bloke of a taxi driver - is more dangerous than the overt, straight-in-your-face, variety, which usually does imply a functionally impaired cerebral cortex. Covert racists are likely to be deeply offended – as I’m sure my taxi-driver would have been – if challenged. Their flawed assumptions can creep across a community, like a virus, or rust on the garden gate, until they have assumed, by a kind of osmosis, a culture of otherness; an accepted sense of superiority and inferiority. The process is easily tracked: pigmentation produces prejudice; difference implies danger and the unknown; what we cannot, or will not, understand, we learn to fear; what we fear we grow to hate, and what we hate we sooner or later seek to destroy. If the cause of racism is so apparent, why can’t we fix it? Sadly, that part is not so easy.
There's a tiny but vividly revealing passage in Ted Egan's excellent book, Justice all Their Own, when an Arnhem Land Aborigine is taken to Darwin in the 1930s and climbs a set of steps on his hands and knees. The action is either confirmation of his sub-human status, or a reasonable response to a confusing and totally unknown object others had learned to take for granted. The wrong assumption was made back then and is still being made to this day, in variously institutionalised forms of racist behaviour all over Australia. In an age of sophisticated reason and technology, we remain afraid of the dark, the bogey-man; the primordial superstitions of the stone-age. It's time we grew up and recognised racism for what it really is: an unjustified assumption of superiority based on ignorance and fear.
When the newly elected Federal Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, delivered a long-over due apology to Indigenous Australians, there was a palpable sense of relief; of something having taken place that might actually assist reconciliation and reduce the insidious undercurrent of racism; particularly in rural Australia. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to have happened. I live near Bermagui, a pleasant little fishing village on the far south coast of NSW. Despite being an unusually rich cultural and artistic community, the region is experiencing the ugly fall-out from a series of senseless and vicious racist attacks on a decent and well-known Indigenous family, the details of which appear to have been deliberately suppressed by public authorities, prepared to thumb their noses at human rights and democracy, and keen to ensure that local media played-down or ignored the story, presumably in deference to the commercial interests of tourism. However, this extremely unpleasant episode graphically illustrates how overt racism can be deflected (or hidden) by the covert racism of people in positions of power and authority, who, shamefully, possess the ability to know considerably better. In recent years, theory has suggested that racism in rural Australia has declined; recent events in the sea-change town of Bermagui suggest the reality is tragically different. Racism is a cancer of the human condition, and flourishes in the half-light and darkness of the urban myth. It must be constantly exposed to the full, hard light of day by an honest and independent media, so that everyone can see the insidious way it works to diminish us all.
Ian McFarlane is a writer, literary critic and sometime poet, who believes the colour of a person’s skin has as much social relevance as the colour of their eyes.