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Book review: God under Howard

By Bill Muehlenberg - posted Wednesday, 23 March 2005


It would not be too cynical to suggest that Marion Maddox’s God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics is similar to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Both can be viewed as works of fiction masquerading as non-fiction and, as with Brown, Maddox finds plenty of sinister conspiracies, shadowy networks of evil, and religious bogeymen.

Her work, a look at the rule of John Howard and the supposed sway of the religious right during his tenure, is a combination of partisan politics, investigative journalism, contemporary historiography, conspiracy theory and left-wing tirades.

Ms Maddox is an Australian ex-pat living in Wellington, where she teaches religious studies at Victoria University. Her religion and politics are both clearly left of centre, hence her demonisation of John Howard and the religious right.

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Her bias becomes apparent early on when she states, “This book explores Howard’s spiritual assault on Australian values”. She goes on to refer to Mr Howard as “an increasingly notorious liar”. Elsewhere, she speaks of “his corrosion of Australia’s soul”. John Howard’s God, we are told, “undermines democratic traditions while justifying hatreds: vilification of homosexuals; punishing the unemployed; cruel border protection; and illegal war”.

Moreover, the Prime Minister champions an “us-against-them” mentality. She says, “Howard’s ‘Us’ has excluded same-sex couples, mothers in the paid workforce, single parents, step parents, stay-at-home fathers, feminists, migrants, Aborigines, churches, Muslims, other non-Christians, unions, ABC listeners, the tertiary-educated and more”. And again: “In God’s name, old-fashioned religion has become a cloak for new-fashioned repression and inequality”. Similar quotes from Maddox’s book could be cited at length. What purports to be a work of serious, contemporary history and social analysis turns out to be the bitter screed of a Howard-hater.

In addition to doing her best to paint Howard as a demon, Maddox spends pages discussing the American scene. Indeed, a quick scan of the index will reveal nearly as many American entries as there are Australian entries. That is because Maddox believes all the worst of American conservative religious practices are being imported here, directly or indirectly. Although she occasionally tries to minimise this implication, this theme runs heavily throughout her book. If American “baddies” (cultural and religious conservatives) are not on the verge of taking over Australia, turning it into a theocracy, then their Australian counterparts are coming pretty close to achieving that aim.

Time and again, Maddox draws parallels between the religious right in Australia and the US. She notes, with evident concern, that Australians recently celebrated a National Day of Thanksgiving, “modelled on the American Thanksgiving”. Another “frightening development” she records is when Michael Ferguson, newly elected to Parliament, told a national TV audience, “I love the Lord”.

She is of course treading on slippery ground here. Not only are there many differences between the American scene and the Australian scene, there are also many unique social, political and religious crosscurrents at work in Australia. Maddox tends to confuse these, but this confusion, perhaps, serves her purpose. For example, she commits a major howler when she, in effect, lumps Christian Reconstructionism together with the Prosperity Gospel. The former arises out of the Calvinistic worldview which seeks to impact all areas of life. The latter is part of the Health and Wealth Gospel, something born in Pentecostal circles in America and arising out of arcane New Thought teachings of a century earlier. She also states that Prayer Breakfasts originated in America, and were then imported here. This is yet more proof of the “horrible” influence of American religion on Australian life.

Maddox finds threats everywhere. She can speak ominously of Peter Costello’s visit to the Hillsong congregation in Sydney and draw all kinds of sinister warnings from it. Yes, the pastor there did once write a book on Prosperity teaching, but he has since backed away from it, to some extent. Even Peter’s brother, the Reverend Tim Costello, an early critic of the Hillsong pastor noted this change. But for Maddox this is another example of ambitious politicians jumping into bed with the enemy.

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Not only is the thesis of this book far-fetched, its material is selective. If she is concerned about mischievous religious bodies and conspiracy theories so much, she might have included what could well be called the original and most influential religious body in Australian history: the Movement, led by Bob Santamaria. Yet this gets no mention at all. Instead, much of the discussion centres on the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, the National Prayer Breakfasts, and the former Lyons Forum.

The fact Christians wish to take their faith seriously, even in the political arena, is not necessarily bad, according to Maddox. It just must conform to her left-wing version of things, complete with the radical homosexual agenda. Pushing leftist and trendy political and religious views is quite all right, and of course, there is nothing conspiratorial about that.

According to Maddox, the religious right is a nefarious, organised and monolithic threat that must be guarded against. But is it? Hardly, from where I sit. And do Christians of the right have some influence in the public arena and in public affairs? Of course. But so do religious lefties, secularists and atheists. If Maddox wished to chronicle the machinations of the secular humanists, and their political and social agendas, it might be easier to be sympathetic towards this book. Indeed, there would be much more material available for an exposé of that order.

But in the end, Maddox has an anti-family and anti-conservative agenda to push. We still await a balanced and objective assessment of the so-called religious right in Australia.

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About the Author

Bill Muehlenberg is Secretary of the Family Council of Victoria, and lectures in ethics and philosophy at various Melbourne theological colleges.

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