God Under Howard - The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics
by Marion Maddox
The extraordinary interview between Marion
Maddox and Alexander Downer was to me the most disturbing thing in God Under Howard.
There is something scary about the
narrowness of the mentality expressed in these beliefs from a man at the very
centre of conservative politics in
I don’t agree with all Marion’s ideas, but
her unearthing of views such as these from Mr Downer
demonstrates that God Under Howard is
an important contribution to debate about the shape of belief in Australia,
raising crucial deep questions about the role of religion in politics and about
the nature of Christian faith. Having
The cultural and political role of faith in
Her first chapter, unearthing the radical
dimension of the
One theologian who followed Christ with
piercing integrity was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose
critique of the church under Nazism began with a forensic discussion of cheap
and costly grace. Cheap grace claims
salvation through doctrine and ritual while costly grace accepts the
transformative message of Christ for the world.
Marion Maddox’s independent and intelligent critique of the conservative
church and its political role reminds me of Bonhoeffer. By taking a courageous stand against the
unconscionable treatment of aborigines and refugees by the Howard government,
she calls on church and society to look hard at the direction
And yet, despite the validity of some of
her critique of Mr Howard and his fundamentalist
backers, I did not feel that
My work with AusAID has caused me to think hard about poverty, its causes and how to overcome it. Certainly, the level of aid from rich to poor should increase, but a strong consensus is emerging that sustainable development is only possible based on private sector capitalism. One of the big lessons from international experience is that economic growth is the only path out of poverty. Countries which have embraced capitalist values of individual responsibility, hard work and ethical conduct have prospered, while those which have blamed circumstances and tried to reduce poverty by taxing the rich have stagnated.
The capitalist approach is based squarely on the parable of the talents: “Those who have will receive more and will have abundance, but those with nothing will lose the little they have” (Matthew 25:29). This harsh and strange teaching from Christ appears to contradict his message of compassion, but ‘the Matthew Principle’, as Martin Wolf calls it in his book Why Globalisation Works, has been at the centre of the Calvinist milieu which has produced the enormous wealth of global capitalism. The argument is that taking from the rich and giving to the poor reduces the incentive for the rich to earn more money, reducing the overall quantity of wealth and the incomes of the poor. This finding is confirmed in World Bank research, such as David Dollar’s article ‘Growth is Good for the Poor’.
Critical thinkers should not scoff at the power of this interpretation. ‘Prosperity theology’ has arguably enabled the enormous increase in human wealth, freedom and happiness since the industrial revolution. Before capitalism, one in four children died in infancy, few people lived past fifty, literacy was for the elite and most people’s existence was chained to the drudgery of subsistence agriculture. Now most people, at least in the West, have immense freedom.
A critique of conservatism should recognise its massive economic achievements as the context
for criticism. The trouble I had with
The problem is akin to the debate between the Catholic Church and liberation theology. Pope John Paul and then-Cardinal Ratzinger agreed that Christ brought a message of human liberation, but they argued the church could not achieve Christ’s goals through political alliance with socialists. I disagree with many Catholic dogmas, but on this strategic analysis of the weakness of socialism I agree. God under Howard is a brilliant starting point for genuine dialogue about faith, conscience and politics. The challenge is to see whether its critique of conservatism can avoid being pigeon-holed as an effort to align theology with socialism.
Robert is Research Manager for the