The myth of Rudd’s religious right swinging voters

Welcome to A Freethinker from Oz.

My first post isn’t about atheism per se but a look a column by ex-Liberal big wig Micheal Baume in today’s AFR. It is worth examining for the claim that the Australian Prime Minster, Kevin Rudd, carried the 2007 election due to votes from religious conservatives. As an atheist I am interested in religious trends in society and consider such trends very important to understand and engage with.

Alas Baume’s article is not online but he takes a cue from Christoper Pearson in the Australian a few months ago. Pearson’s thesis is that the Rudd government is now beholden to the interests of the religious conservatives that carried him to power.

While Rudd makes no secret of his religious beliefs and there is a conservative streak, Rudd’s religiosity is also marked by a strong concern for social justice after one of his heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Christian Rudd is a far cry from the Exclusive Bretheren types favoured by the Howard government.

The mistake of Pearson, and compounded by Baume, is to assume that the theological leanings of the evangelicals and Pentecostals that Rudd captured were the usual traditional conservative leanings with an over emphasis on sexual mores.

John Black (whose work Pearson and Baume both quote) and John Cleary in this interview point out that yes, Rudd did capture a good proportion of evangelical vote. However, Cleary argues that this theology of this voting block was not the traditional conservative concerns:

If you move around evangelical churches, particularly even to say places like Hillsong, the Pentecostal churches, they are deliberately widening their social agenda to say Yes, we care about the environment. Yes, we care about helping people in Third World poverty. You’ve seen the whole Wilberforce campaign last year with the anti-slavery movement driving itself out of evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

It is an interesting thesis and not without merit. One problem in regards to the influence of religion on politics in Australia is that we take our cues from what we see happen in the US. There is a tendency to forget that Australian needs to frame the arguments in our own terms, not through the prism of the US battles.

Also, it destroys Pearson and Baume’s contention that Rudd is under the thrall of the religious right. Rudd, by correctly capturing the movement towards a left leaning theology had no such concerns.

Note that I not condoning Rudd’s religiosity. There are aspects of Rudd that concern me as an atheist. However discussion is best served by placing the politics of religion in Australia in their proper context.