Australia’s Christian Right may be few in number but their political cause has become a spiritual war, a “battle for the nation”. Their opponents insist that these small but determined groups are infiltrating political parties, in particular the Liberals, achieving disproportionate influence at the highest levels. As the Federal Election 2013 draws nearer, will this vocal minority be a significant player, signalling a drift towards an American-style battleground where religion and politics are inextricably entwined? mojo investigates.
By NICOLETTE SOLOMON
“It’s a spiritual war, there’s nothing physical. We’re not encouraging people to take up arms. But of course Christianity is about a spiritual war. It is light and darkness, good and evil.”
Pastor Peter Stevens, of FamilyVoice Australia, calmly but firmly explains the principles that define his ‘politics’ in the quiet neat living room of his rented home in outer Melbourne.
“We’re having to be a little bit more outspoken these days because of course the war has lifted to another level,” he says, referring to his crusade as a “battle for the nation”. “It’s a battle for Australia.”
The “battle” he refers to is being waged by small but fervent groups who make up Australia’s Christian Right. While none of them affiliate to any Australian political party, claiming to be non-partisan, they seek to influence federal and state politics along biblical Christian principles.
In doing so, they are blurring Australia’s formal separation of State and Church, in an echo of the politics of the United States of America.
“Australia has always had small groups as radical as you’d find in America. They tend to flare up and collapse… They seldom get big enough to achieve a lot of prominence,” says Marion Maddox, author of the 2005 book God Under Howard: The Rise of The Religious Right in Australian Politics.
Groups like FamilyVoice Australia or the Australian Christian Lobby have been successful in convincing governments that they have a wider support base than they actually do, says Maddox.
“The ACL has been exceptionally successful in creating the impression of widespread support… This has not been proven through polls.”
Pastor Stevens is under no illusion as to how small the Christian Right electorate currently is. “Over 60 per cent of people call themselves Christian in the census, but real Christians, they might be 10 per cent.”
He groups Catholics separately and says that they claim to number about 25 per cent of the population. “That’s 35 per cent of the population and when we get all of our groups together we are actually quite a big influence on government. We have various methods of putting that influence into play. And we use it a lot.”
The 2012 Queensland election is being hailed by these conservative Christian groups as a case where this influence paid off. In particular, they see it as a victory against one of their greatest foes – Emily’s List.
Emily’s List is a program that financially supports “progressive Labor female candidates”, according to its website. This has included Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Finance Minister Penny Wong.
The candidates must be prochoice.
Conservative groups, including Right to Life, actively campaigned in the Queensland election to unseat, what Stevens terms, “ungodly members of parliament”. “Groups like ourselves very much lobbied to convince the electorates to not vote for Emily’s List MPs, and they were very successful,” says Stevens.
Labor won only seven seats in a chamber of 89. Nine of the 11 Emily’s List candidates were unsuccessful in their campaigns for seats. Only two Emily’s List MPs retained their seats – former Premier Anna Bligh and Desley Scott.
Meghan Hopper of Emily’s List angrily refutes the claims. “It’s easy for minority groups to make big claims, but we’re realistic about the results of the Queensland State election – the overall swing against Labor was 15.6 per cent, and all of our candidates but the two who were successful were in seats that were either Liberal National-held, or had a margin of less than 10 per cent.
“Therefore the results for our candidates were consistent with the results across the board.”
When questioned on Emily’s List’s response, Stevens holds firm. “I know that these groups have very much been involved and successful in unseating MPs that we don’t want. Queensland was an historic election. There’s never been, I don’t think, a bigger swing in Queensland against a particular party as there was against Labor.”
He insists that “huge changes” can be seen in the conservative swing of four states and two territories.
Australia is currently seeing a “Conservative Reformation”, according to Stevens.
Damien Williams of the National Centre for Australian Studies, however, says that this is probably these groups “over-inflating their influence… to the power of 50”. “I wouldn’t put down the conservative victories in those states to [them]. I would think that the influence [of] groups like FamilyVoice is fairly small actually.
“In a federal system, it’s often been the case in Australia where voters like the fact that there’ll be a government of one persuasion in Canberra and governments of another persuasion in the states. It happened under Howard, when he was Prime Minister. At one stage all the states and territories were like that. There was no talk of this being a Labor-led reformation.”
Williams does say that these small groups should “be able to express themselves and organise freely” under the political secularism of Australia, allowing others to then question “individuals within those groups as to what [the biblical] sources of their political beliefs are”.
“Instead of saying to someone from a religious lobby group ‘why don’t you argue for this in secular terms’, the question should be ‘why don’t you tell us what the basis of your beliefs are? Rather than allowing them to get away with a family values [argument], actually get them to the part of scripture that they’re drawing their position from.”
Jenny Stokes of Salt Shakers, a Christian Ethics Action group based in Melbourne, says that the basis of Australian society has always been under a Christian framework.
“You know, the idea of stealing and murder and right and wrong and all of those things [are] really based on Biblical principles,” she says.
“We’re actually sticking to what the Bible says. It may not be popular. It’s wasn’t popular when Jesus was on earth, it wasn’t popular when Paul was persecuting him or his followers.”
These groups research, write about and distribute information to subscribers on a wide range of “moral” issues including abortion, homosexuality, pornography, prostitution, gambling, stem cell research, global warming and the why heterosexual marriage makes the most social and economic sense.
They see it as their role to steer Australia in the right direction and to ensure that western civilisation does not fall like previous cultures who have embraced ‘sexually depravity and immorality’.
“Yes, we are radical, because we want to get back to the truth of scripture, and we want to steer the country to follow the biblical pattern,” explains Stevens.
Radical, for FamilyVoice in particular, means returning to the roots. “People see us as bigots, not all the times but we have been called things like that,” says Stevens.
“We’re just concerned for people and for the culture, and we can see where things are going. We’re farseeing where other people are more worried about what’s in [their] pay packet. Groups like FamilyVoice are so far ahead of so many people in the community, even educated people like Members of Parliament, because we concentrate on certain issues and research them.
“We quite often know a lot more facts about those issues than our government.”
The groups use their research to inform government through meeting directly with MPs, sending in government submissions, educating subscribers on the biblical perspectives of current issues, and encouraging subscribers to individually write to or phone MPs.
At times, submissions can be of a contentious nature, including on the health risks of homosexuality and that a married person should be forgiven for reacting with extreme violence when discovering an unfaithful partner.
Anne O’Rourke, of Liberty Victoria, says that although these groups are small, they are “extremely zealous”.
“They can give politicians the impression they are bigger and far more representative than what they are. The public does need to be aware of the disproportionate influence that these groups [have] and their strategies to influence the political agenda.”
O’Rourke believes that not only does the Christian Right have a disproportionate influence on federal politicians, but they also are infiltrating political parties at federal and state level.
“The amount of people in Parliament, particularly on the Liberal side, who are bordering on fundamental Christians is disproportionate to that in the general society,” she says.
She says some members of the Victorian Liberal Party are concerned that fundamentalist groups have a strategy of infiltrating them.
“[The strategy is] to become member of branches where a lot of them live, so they then have the voting power to preselect the local candidate. The regions they’re likely to do that would be Mount Waverly, Heathmont… this is, in a sense, the religious belt of Victoria.”
Maddox agrees that the Liberal Party is already being influenced from within. “You don’t need to infiltrate something you’ve already done.”
Salt Shakers, who are based within this “religious belt” – in Bayswater, say that “we see ourselves as outside that political process” and that they do not belong to any political party. “We have written articles encouraging people to be members of political parties and we haven’t said you can only be a member of the Liberal or National party.”
FamilyVoice does not show preference for one political party over the other but will judge based on policies. And the ACL clearly states on its website that it is non-partisan.
In partnership with others, these three groups have started employing election checklists to scrutinise Australian political parties and parliamentarians.
FamilyVoice focuses on questioning every candidate individually on a set of questions and publishing the answers on its website. The ACL questions parties as a whole. Salt Shakers works with other groups to go through voting records, check conscience votes, scrutinise party policies and positions, and analyse how parties have really acted in Parliament.
“We try and assess what the party is actually doing rather than they say they do,” says Stokes. Subscribers are linked to all three surveys and can judge parties and candidates for themselves. “If life issues are important to you then you should know what the individual thinks as well as the party.”
From here, the battle gets more targeted.
“We’ll look at which [MPs] might be able to be unseated, which ones are on our side and which ones we don’t want, and then we’ll begin a campaign either to support the ones we want or to unseat the ones we don’t want,” says Stevens. “We can create an atmosphere of approval or disapproval for those people. And we’ve been very successful at removing people that we don’t want. Obviously not all the ones that we don’t want, but we are working on it.”
Liberty Victoria’s O’Rourke warns that the rise of the Christian Right is of real concern in the next federal election, and argues that “many of the public aren’t aware of how radical Tony Abbott actually is”.
“They are not aware of the statements he’s made over the years on issues like abortion, virginity, contraception. They’re not aware of his past behaviour on women’s issues”.
“Looking at [Abbott’s] moral standing, we’d probably support him in preference to Julia Gillard,” says Stevens who is still hestitant to commit to a single party.
Meanwhile, Gillard is proclaimed to be an adulterer, a feminist, and a successful woman who has failed herself and other women, according to FamilyVoice.
“She’s decided to be a feminist. She’s decided to not marry. She’s decided to be a successful woman, to lead other women into success,” says Stevens. But in many ways she’s failed because she doesn’t have any children and the biggest blessing for any woman in her life is to be able to produce life herself”, Stevens says.
Many believe that Australia will never have as fierce or polarised religious politics as America is currently experiencing. But Maddox concedes it is becoming “a bit more similar”. “The reason why it is not entirely is that we have compulsory voting and they don’t.”
Williams explains that while America and Australia share a formal separation of Church and State, a large section of the American population participate regularly in religious life and Australia does not. “You get a large number [of Australian citizens] who will put down a religious affiliation basically out of habit or it might have been the church they were baptised in or …because they went through the schooling system.”
He does not believe that the majority of Australians are voting on religious issues but believe they will vote on financial issues and which party will promise the bigger tax cut.
Several weeks after the first meeting with Pastor Stevens, the same-sex marriage bills have been defeated in Federal Parliament, and shortly after the Christian Right toasted its success, FamilyVoice and others from a life coalition group took to the streets of Melbourne to protest about another issue close to their hearts – abortion.
New battle-lines have quickly been drawn, and will be again now that a Federal Election date has been set.
In his quiet manner, Stevens becomes serious and questions what any person would do if they believed 20,000 babies were being murdered each year. “I know if my daughter or my son were going to be killed and I had the opportunity to stop that happening, I would do anything. I’d lose my integrity. I’d lose my money. I’d lose my life to save theirs. And that’s where the abortion issue goes.
“Some people can’t control that anger and others like ourselves try and work within the law and do our best to stop it in whatever way we can.”
This time when Stevens ends the conversation he sounds weighed down by the many issues discussed and the many battles he still has to fight.
The war for the nation continues.