In commenting on the significance of the defeat of John Howard and the Coalition Liberal/National Party government less than twenty-four hours after the election, and assessing the victory of the Australian Labor Party and Kevin Rudd, one needs to bear in mind that the full scale of the Coalition’s defeat in the House of Representatives is not yet fully clear.
The final composition of the Senate, with its complex proportional calculations, is still a couple of weeks away. With respect to the ways Christian churches and faith-based organizations engaged in the campaign and the electoral process, however, a few things can be said with some confidence.
While a church-state alliance is dead, some churches still retain a ‘Christendom mentality’ in their approach to the political process. The engagement of a number of Pentecostal pastors in their support for the leadership of the Coalition and their quest for its return to government, on the basis of a personal revelation, and as unequivocally a matter of ‘God’s will’, was probably the most notorious example of this kind of thinking.
On 7 November ABC Religion Report noted that The Australian Christian Lobby was asking election candidates to justify why they are worthy of the 'so-called' Christian vote. Its managing director, Jim Wallace sent out a questionnaire to all major parties quizzing them about the relevance of their policies to Christians. Most responded, but the Greens emphatically declined the offer. Senator Christine Milne said the Greens would not play by rules dictated by the 'religious right'.
By contrast, a few days earlier, the Centre for an Ethical Society released its ratings of the main political parties going into the federal election. The Democrats and the Greens scored high on the CES 'Good Samaritan Index', but the Coalition scored a big F for fail. CES’s agenda, of course was antithetical to the narrow vision of the kind of religious right associated with the USA.
Nevertheless, some Christian organizations that remain aligned with conservative social views in the public mind are moving towards a more explicit engagement in the arena of public debate, while continuing to hanker for priority to be given to the church by the state once more. But the picture remains mixed.
The Australian Christian Lobby sponsored an event in which both Mr Howard and Mr Rudd engaged in open discussion about their faith and public issues. The meeting was networked to a large number of church-sponsored gatherings across Australia. Overall, it represented a more bi-partisan approach to political debate by this segment of the Christian community than has been usual in the recent past.
The agenda was not confined to matters of personal morality but also displayed a concern for issues of poverty and climate change. The impact of the work of Micah Challenge in engaging conservative Christian groups across Australia had proved to be very significant, for example.
The election results also showed no strong trend in support for the Family First Party, a political group with strong connections to the Pentecostal churches. They only recorded 1.9% of the national vote and are highly unlikely to elect a Senator.
On the evidence of a first glance at the electoral statistics, Kevin Rudd’s stance of being clear about his faith commitment and the responsibility of the church to be engaged in public debate (while denying any automatic right for churches to have a privileged place in the political sphere) seems to have neutralized any significant tendency for conservative Christian voters to align themselves tightly with any single political party.
The potential global significance of the election of Kevin Rudd as a factor in accelerating movement for international action on combating both climate change and global poverty should not be underestimated, either.
Australia will now ratify the Kyoto Protocol and actively engage in the debate about shaping a crucial post-Kyoto settlement. The country is now effectively decoupled from alignment with the United States reticence on this issue, and that change of stance will leave the United States further isolated internationally.
Prime minister-elect Kevin Rudd had previously attended his local church with his family. He was cheered by well-wishers as he arrived at St John's Anglican Church in the Brisbane suburb of Bulimba, in his Griffith electorate.
In his first news conference today (Sunday 25 September) incoming Rudd announced that he would be going to Bali for a critical meeting on climate change. He also announced that he had received a call of congratulations from UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and had discussed with him how he was looking forward to working with him on climate change and on the implementation of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.
The process of resculpting the political and religious landscape of Australia continues.
(c) Douglas Hynd is a civil servant and also lectures at St Mark's National Theological Centre in Canberra, Australia. He is Vice President of the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ), and signatory to a biblical statement on radical Christian confession in today's world. He is an Ekklesia associate.