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Christians flex their political muscle

By Rod Benson - posted Thursday, 24 March 2011

The bishops’ statement noted that “Not everything the Greens are promoting is bad public policy,” but went on to highlight six policy areas in which the Greens’ policy platform directly challenges Catholic social teaching and its application: religious freedom (e.g. the freedom for a Catholic institution to employ persons whose views, values and lifestyle conform to the religious traditions of the institution), school funding, drug use, same sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia.  There was no mention of economic or other issues.  This is an extraordinary intervention and will no doubt have electoral consequences.

For their part, non-Catholic churches have been relatively quiet.  Not so the fundamentalist parachurch agencies, which have been at least as concerned as the Catholic bishops at the prospect of a Greens-dominated Upper House and the apparent abrogation of Christian moral duty by politicians of faith on both sides of the political divide.  It is customary, prior to federal and state/territory elections, for certain Christian lobby groups to issue score-cards or other tools by which interested citizens may evaluate political parties and politicians on selected policy issues.  At federal elections variety often abounds (see my analysis of the Christian response to the 2007 federal election), but just three surveys of the 2011 NSW state election caught my eye.

The first, and most comprehensive, was from the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), which has a website dedicated to the NSW election.  There are links to the official websites of 16 political parties contesting the election; streaming video of a “meet the leaders” event hosted by the ACL on February 15; a feature allowing users to check their their local member of parliament’s voting record on conscience votes; and a record of party responses to an ACL questionnaire on 22 key policy issues in areas ranging from the place of the church in the community to justice, poverty, life issues (i.e. abortion and euthanasia), youth and education, health, and integrity in government.  It appears that only six parties participated in the survey (the ALP, the Liberal Party, the Greens, the CDP, Family First, and the Outdoor Recreation Party), but the detailed policy is valuable, especially for swinging voters and for those who simply want to send a message of rejection to the major parties at this election but who have little idea of the full policy platform of the minor parties.


The second survey was conducted by Family Voice Australia, formerly the Festival of Light Australia, with ten key questions on “family-related issues.”  For this election, the issues were the place of prayers in parliament, the restoration of the NSW Governor to Government House, same sex adoption, the Kings Cross injecting centre, euthanasia, special religious education in NSW state schools, abortion, poker machine reform, child abuse (measures to require the collection of data on marital status in relation to confirmed cases of child abuse), and prostitution.  The responses of five political parties (the ALP, the Liberal Party, the Greens, the CDP, and Family First) were recorded, and each party and politician was given a score out of 100 based on responses to the ten questions.  Unsurprisingly, the Christian Democratic Party and Family First NSW scored 100 per cent, but both Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition scored 44, and The Greens came in last at 25.

The third survey was conducted by the Australian Christian Values Institute and promoted by Salt Shakers, a Melbourne-based lobby group known for its advocacy of a narrow range of moral issues.  The checklist for the March 26 NSW election covers 21 policy issues very briefly, and indicates with a tick or a cross whether the seven parties comply with the prescribed policy on the basis of “an exhaustive search of party websites, voting history, statements, … in some cases the voting record of their Federal counterparts.”  The purpose of this survey seems to be to demonstrate that the CDP, Family First and the DLP (Ind) fully comply with “Australian Christian values,” and that the Nationals, the Liberal Party, the Labor Party and the Greens do not.  The survey results appear to have been compiled by Warwick Marsh in association with a coalition of minor Christian parachurch agencies.


All of this raises questions as to who speaks for the church, what distinctive rights and responsibilities people of faith possess in the political process, and how they should act.  There are many who assume, wrongly, that the Catholic bishops, or the Australian Christian Lobby, have taken it on themselves to speak for the church (or the churches).  The Catholic bishops, when they choose to do so, exercise a legitimate role of speaking to and for their church.  The ACL has long insisted that it does not speak for the churches, nor does it wish to do so.  In fact, in most cases the ACL fills a vacuum and speaks for a large coalition of conservative Christians who share common values and goals, and at times for a much wider constituency. 

There are, of course, many other Christian voices, as well as the voices of people and groups of other faiths, speaking into the public space of Australian politics and public policy.  Those who reject such voices do so at the risk of one day losing their own right to speak on issues.  The report of the Australian Multicultural Foundation on freedom of religion and belief in Australia, released on March 21, provides an important contribution to debates on the place of public religion and cultural diversity within the context of Australian liberal democracy.

Where to for NSW?  The next Premier of the state will be Barry O’Farrell, with a large majority in the Lower House and with the Upper House probably controlled by the Christian Democratic Party and the NSW Shooters and Fishers Party.  I do not expect Family First to win a seat, nor do I expect to see the Greens make gains at this election.  Generally when there is a massive swing to the Opposition, as is expected on Saturday, voters strongly support one major party while the minor parties hemorrhage votes.  At this election, it does not help to have the so-called Christian vote acrimoniously split between Fred Nile (CDP) and Gordon Moyes (Family First).


As for me, I share the view of Christian apologist Norman Geisler who once said he would rather vote for an outright pagan with the right policies than a born-again Christian with the wrong policies.

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About the Author

Rev Rod Benson serves as ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.

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