BOOK REVIEW: God under Howard: The rise of the religious right in Australia
Reviewer: Muriel Porter
February 26, 2005
God under Howard: The rise of the religious right in Australia
By Marion Maddox, Allen & Unwin, $29.95
Australia journalists are, in general, notoriously ignorant about religion. Academic surveys regularly reveal that they are far less likely to attend church, for instance, than their neighbours. So it is not surprising that they tend to dismiss religion as at best peripheral and at worst, trivial.
Marion Maddox’s powerful analysis of the insidious growth of the religious Right in Australian politics demonstrates the danger of this ignorance. For all the acres of newsprint devoted to political commentary in this country, the influence of fundamentalist varieties of Christianity within the Howard Government over a period of years now has gone virtually unreported.
The election of a Family First Party senator last year seemed to many commentators to herald the birth of a new phenomenon, given the party’s links to the conservative Pentecostal Assemblies of God. But as Maddox shows in this carefully researched and cogently argued study, the religious Right did not need a minor party to give it a (small) voice in Parliament. It has been steadily gaining influence at the heart of the Howard Government for years. And its influence is certainly neither peripheral nor trivial. Rather, it comes perilously close to endangering many of the personal freedoms most Australians take for granted. Ironically, under its influence, the Government has routinely ignored the mainstream churches’ concerns, especially in relation to refugees, asylum seekers and the war in Iraq.
God Under Howard is a troubling expose of the unheralded, unholy marriage between religious fundamentalism and political expediency that has taken place in Canberra, a marriage that has justified and accelerated increased government intrusion in the lives of individuals while accelerating the pace of economic deregulation.
Maddox identifies the Government’s reinforcement of 1950s-style “family values” as a policy clearly acceptable to some conventional church leaders and congregations, as well as to the Pentecostal megachurches. At the same time, however, and less overtly, “Howardism” has adopted the “prosperity gospel” preached by American religious Right protagonists, who ally wealth creation with God’s favour, she claims. This is in direct opposition to mainstream church teaching, but legitimises the capitalist “Market God”, whose acolytes worship competition as the supreme virtue at every level in the economic arena.
These developments are not all sheeted home solely to John Howard, though the title of the book and its clever cover graphic portraying John and Janette Howard as dour Amish-style Americans could easily give that impression. Maddox’s detailed introductory exploration of Howard’s Methodist church-going childhood could also be rather misleading in this respect.
As the book unfolds, however, it becomes clear that Howard’s Sunday school days seem to have had as little long-term influence on his life as they did on most of his contemporaries. As Maddox demonstrates, the Methodism of his youth hardly conformed to the conservative stereotype and had little in common with the religious Right.
The Methodist Church was consistently radical at the time, promoting Aboriginal rights, an end to the White Australia policy and a generous gospel of social inclusion and care for the marginalised. Significantly, Howard’s family is portrayed as resistant to these views, despite their regular church attendance.
The American “apple pie and motherhood” publication, the Saturday Evening Post, with its wholesome depictions of impossibly perfect family life, seems to have been more significant than any Methodist publication, and even perhaps the Bible, in the Howard home.
By contrast with American political leaders, as Maddox points out, Howard’s personal religious identification is low key. He admits to little more than occasional church-going, these days as an Anglican. That, she suggests, fits well with a sophisticated political strategy in tune with secular Australia’s distrust of overt religiosity. The political message, even with its appeal to “family values” and clever manipulation of wedge issues such as gay marriage, is carefully couched in terms acceptable to secular Australia. The religious motif is there, however, for those attuned to its markers.
Behind Howard, Maddox identifies phalanxes of more overt right-wing Christian politicians, using a range of think-tanks, forums and parliamentary prayer breakfasts – sometimes closely linked to American prototypes – to push their agendas on abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, homosexuality, single mothers and wealth creation.
The undeniable resurgence of right-wing thought internationally has produced an environment that not only suits Howard’s personality, but also his political ambitions, she argues.
If Maddox’s case is accepted – and the detail of her research suggests it is a compelling case – the overall impression is that religious values are not at the heart of current political strategies at all. Rather, a deep and dark cynicism is the central force, manipulating the religious Right as a powerful and convenient tool to persuade an insecure electorate.
It is a dangerous game, and one Australians need to be alerted to. Maddox’s book deserves the widest readership – particularly among political commentators.
Dr Muriel Porter is an Anglican laywoman and commentator on religion.Leave a reply →