Book Review

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.  Australia’s Foreign Minister states (p133) that he is not sure that Aboriginal sacred sites are religious sites, that he doesn’t accept that Aboriginal traditional societies have a religion, and that he has never contemplated that sacred sites were a matter of religion. 


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 Australia.  I have always believed that Aboriginal reverence for land is among the most important parts of the human spiritual heritage, so to read the Foreign Minister’s dismissive views is a salutary insight into the nature of right wing thinking, and to the cultural wars behind episodes such as the Hindmarsh Island bridge affair.


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 first met Marion through ASCM in 1984 when we were both on the NSW Area Council, I have immense regard for her intellect and passion, for her critical approach to theology, and for the model she presents of how to engage in debate on matters of high importance.  It is good that her book has been widely read and discussed as it raises central questions about the sort of nation Australia is becoming.


The cultural and political role of faith in Australia deserves a lot more discussion, but unfortunately there seems to be a pathological aversion within conservative circles to the type of forensic analysis Marion seeks.  God Under Howard notes (p294) that those accused of blasphemy used to be stoned to death, and Marion implies the so-called blasphemers were often closer to God than were their accusers.  The aim of stoning was to repress discussion and maintain social order, demonstrating to other potential rebels that hierarchical structures should not be challenged.  We today have great freedom of speech, and Marion makes excellent use of this precious right.


Her first chapter, unearthing the radical dimension of the Methodist Church in Australia, debunking the Howard myth of conservative religion, is a good basis for discussion of theology and politics.  John Wesley followed Jesus Christ in standing against repression by proclaiming a highly discomforting message, and both exploded the hypocrisy of conservative religious ritualists of their day.  Marion’s comments on Methodism remind me that the exaltation by the early church of the cross and resurrection arose from the deeply democratic Christian critique of the Roman Empire.  The church threw the Empire’s use of the cross as the preferred instrument of repression back in its face. The social message of the resurrection was that Jesus had told a truth too strong for the grave to hold or for imperial oppression to silence.  By holding high Christ’s victory of love over the cross, the church proclaimed that Rome’s wilful blindness in murdering the Son of God should never be forgotten and that governments should listen to dissent rather than repressing free speech. 

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 Australia is heading and to recognise that Mr Howard’s goal of a comfortable and relaxed nation relies on wilful blindness to the moral implications of government policy. 


And yet, despite the validity of some of her critique of Mr Howard and his fundamentalist backers, I did not feel that Marion presented a clear alternative direction.  There is an absence of economics in the book, with left wing perspectives just assumed as true.  I found this worrying, as a cogent statement of the path of the gospel needs a rigorous engagement with the big debate within Christianity on the relation between wealth creation and wealth redistribution. 


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 Marion’s views, including her description of Mr Howard as “an increasingly notorious liar”, is that her book reads as an effort to align Christianity with left wing politics and the election of a Labor government. This presents a complex problem in that many people of conscience prefer the Coalition over the Labor Party because of a basic sense that the conservative parties, despite their faults, hypocrisy and prejudices, represent the most productive sectors of society and are more competent and sound in economic and social policy. As Terry Lane commented in his ABC radio interview with Marion, regular churchgoers might vote conservative but their views are not conservative.  From this perspective, the challenge is not to defeat the Liberals and install a Labor government, but to enter into real dialogue with conservatism to seek to change it. 


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 Tulip


Robert is Research Manager for the Papua New Guinea program with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).