Christianity does not play a significant role in Australian politics, but cultural conservatism does

Federal political leaders attend an ecumenical church service to mark the start of the parliamentary year in February. AAP/Lukas Coch

Debates about same-sex marriage and Catholic school funding suggest that religion plays an important role in Australian politics. But Australian political religion functions largely as an expression of a general cultural conservatism and institutional self-interest, rather than as an expression of personal religious faith.

For many Australians religion is about truth: Jesus was the son of God who died for our sins. For many believers, this faith implies specific moral propositions: the indissolubility of marriage, the sinfulness of homosexual conduct and the wrongness of abortion. These are the voters that Americans call “born again”, or evangelicals.

In America from the 1970s, evangelicals built a mighty social movement that transformed politics. But they are only a minority of Australian Christians.

At the 2011 Australian Census, 61% of respondents identified as Christians. Despite this, the 2011 National Church Life Survey found that only one in four of these claimed to attend church at least once a month.

The most popular form of “Christian” politics in Australia is instead a general cultural conservatism that is defined very much in negative terms: opposition to Islam and political correctness, and the view that being Christian is important to being Australian.

In a 2001 survey, 38% of Liberal supporters claimed Christianity was important to being Australian, as did 29% of Labor supporters. This is “Christianity” as identity politics.

This division was apparent in the 2016 American presidential election. Committed evangelical voters were unenthused about Donald Trump in the Republican primaries. However, he attracted strong support from voters who identified as Christian but whose personal lives often did not reflect Christian values. The group is what Ross Douthat calls the Christian penumbra.

Despite Trump’s victory, evangelicals remain a key component of the Republican coalition and have secured significant policy goals under Trump.

In Australia, evangelical Christians have much less political clout. Family First, established by Pentecostal Christians, has merged with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives. Their platform does not mention abortion or homosexuality, but celebrates small government. They are selling themselves more as conservatives than Christians.

Few conservative elites are actively practising Christians; most are secular and libertarian in their personal lives. Malcolm Turnbull and Trump, like Ronald Reagan, have a vague relationship with Christianity. There is no Australian equivalent of Vice President Mike Pence as a voice for Christian moral principles in government.

Bernardi’s party and other conservatives such as Eric Abetz and Andrew Hastie evoke the theologically meaningless concept of a “Judeo-Christian” identity. Nick Cater draws on Emile Durkheim to argue that the truth or otherwise of Christianity is irrelevant – what counts is its symbolic role as an expression of social cohesion.

Christianity is for these authors like Anzac: a mythic symbol far removed from the reality of sin, death and sacrifice. Cultural Christianity is free of the burdens of religion such as humility and a consciousness of sin. Instead it promises self-congratulation and pride in the greatness of “Western civilisation”, and is congruent with Trump’s populist nationalism.

The left has celebrated the demise of the religious right, but may come to regret its replacement by a narrowly tribal “Christian” nationalism.

Here lies the paradox of marriage equality. At the core of the religious objection to marriage equality it that it extends the sanction of the state to inherently sinful homosexual conduct. But this view has almost no traction among conservative elites. Even the Australian Christian Lobby evokes the secular claims of religious freedom and child welfare as reasons to oppose marriage equality. It is only the fringe organisation “True Marriage Equality” that criticises homosexual conduct.

Conservative elites, both “Christian” and secular, have largely retreated to the argument that marriage equality should be approved by a plebiscite rather than a parliamentary vote.

Elite conservative opposition to a parliamentary vote is partially an effort to postpone their declaration of support for marriage equality. But it also reflects the shift of many on the right to a politics of provocation and entertainment rather than conservative principle.

Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos replace Reagan. The result is a strange coalition against marriage equality: it unites principled opponents with political entertainers.

In 2011, 73% of church-going Australian Christians opposed same-sex marriage, but that is only a small portion of the population. The political majority against same-sex marriage is not predominantly a religious one.

The debate about school funding displays a similar pattern. The 1962 decision by the Commonwealth government to fund private, initially Catholic, schools was a great victory for Australian Catholics.

For generations, the church hierarchy had argued that Catholic values must infuse all aspects of education. Priests called on Catholics to isolate themselves from a sinful world. The victory of 1962 was secured just as Vatican II and the social changes of the 1960s knocked away the foundations of the old Catholicism.

Contemporary public support for religious education owes little to specifically religious belief. Rather, it is about broader culturally conservative concerns about standards, discipline and “values”. The Catholic school lobby is not a social movement of true believers but a mid-status educational service provider.

Public policy, once set, is difficult to change: “path dependence” in the terminology of political science. The Catholic school sector is a powerful lobby with deeply entrenched patterns of cooperation with government. Co-operation with the sector is easy for governments, but the power of the sector to mobilise voters is easily overstated.

The government has sought to drive a wedge between individual Catholic schools and the Catholic schools lobby. The Commonwealth Education Department has released data suggesting that Catholic education authorities short-change needy schools.

Private school parents live the everyday conservatism of aspiration and order that underpins electoral success for the Coalition. They are as likely to listen to a conservative as they are to the Catholic educational establishment. Ironically, it may be a Liberal government that shatters the myth of the power of the private education lobby.