This review was originally published on my Facebook page in August 2013.
The next Prime Minister of Australia, come September, will be a “believer” – even a “Christian” – depending on how you use either term. But how can we really know what political leaders believe and what difference does it make to Australia anyway? These are exactly the issues the reader confronts in Roy Williams’ recent offering In God they Trust? The Religious Beliefs of Australia’s Prime Ministers 1901-2013. I’m reviewing this book because it is a noteworthy offering to Australian non-fiction, political history and – to some degree – public theology.
However, while it provides excellent insights and information, I feel that Williams’ work should also be held up to criticism from inside the Christian community on several points. It appears that Williams is setting out to demonstrate that Christianity has had a profound impact on Australia’s political leaders and that in fact almost every prime minister has been to some degree affected by Christian teaching. In my mind, he demonstrates this clearly through credible research and documentation – situating each leader well in their socio-historical context and showing the reader how each leader interacted with the church and Christian language and ideas in their personal and political lives. This is useful for Christians as an answer to any ignorantly secularistic assertions that Christianity hasn’t significantly impacted this nation and/or her leaders.
My concern is with the seeming determination to “prove faith” in the case of every leader, apart from those who it would be laughable to suggest any kind of belief. At the beginning of the book, Williams constructs different categories to group our PMs such as “Ardent Seekers” (for dedicated believers of some description) and “Fellow Travellers” (sympathetic to Christian teaching, but questionable as to their personal relationship to faith), which appear to be efforts to tie most of the leaders to Christianity somehow. But by the final chapter, Williams gives a breakdown of 16:7 “believers” to “unbelievers” (20:7 if one includes the shortest serving leaders not covered in the book). I can appreciate this final conclusion more, yet think there are certain points to be critiqued.
George Reid Stanley Bruce John Curtin John Gorton
Firstly, there are still the four men Williams is not-so-conclusive about, as to their belief (Reid, Bruce, Curtin & Gorton). The fact that Williams’ evidence for “belief” in the lives of these four is inconclusive means, in my opinion, that they ought not to be used to bolster the ranks of the “believers” over and against the “unbelievers.” This make for a different ratio. We could even go so far as to put it: 12 PMs who Williams finds evidence for Christian “faith” or some kind of “belief” in Deity, vs 11 for whom he is unable to produce sufficient evidence to seriously make a case for belief. It seems more realistic that we’re left with a half-half equation when it comes to our national leaders’ belief in the Divine.
But unfortunately, I’m unwilling to leave it there.
Another reason I feel the need to review this book, is because I know for some Christians it will be potentially interpreted and misused as “evidence” for their dearly held position that Australia is a “Christian nation” and that our “all but two God-believing Prime Ministers” (not an actual Williams’ quote – but I fear one that’s potentially coming soon to a Christian gathering near you) are a sign that this is God’s country and that He is ensuring that people who fear Him lead the Australian people. Roy Williams is not advocating such a view in his book, but unfortunately the thrust of the work leaves the door somewhat open for those who hold the above views to hijack it in order to bolster their argument.
The idea that Australia is a “Christian nation” is unhelpful, unbiblical and not actually supported by the findings of this book. Williams destroys any claims that Australia has Christian “Founding Fathers” (something some patriotic Australian Christians have pinched from the Americans) – Edmund Barton was an agnostic; Alfred Deakin had some truly bizarre and eclectic spiritual beliefs that in no way represent biblical Christianity & Chris Watson is one of Williams’ “unbelievers.” That’s our first three prime ministers.
Edmund Barton Alfred Deakin Chris Watson
As for the other Prime Ministers who would be considered “believers” by Williams and would number in the 12 mentioned above, evangelical Christians would be prudent to be somewhat more precise or “narrow” in this inquiry and attempt to discern whether we’ve ever had an evangelical Christian as Prime Minister? Williams’ survey is unapologetically broad and so his “believers” naturally include everything from confused spiritualists like Deakin to Roman Catholics, to those of Protestant stock. For some of us, there is a need to move beyond these categories and see whether there were Prime Ministers that actually believe(d) the Christian gospel and subscribe to and confess biblical Christianity. I’d like to consider some of Williams’ findings below…
Andrew Fisher Kevin Rudd
On the Labor side of politics, I think the evidence for the faith of the first Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher and the current Labor PM Kevin Rudd, is the strongest. Williams presents a historical picture of Fisher that powerfully suggests he was a devout Presbyterian in faith, church attendance and personal conduct. It may irk some right-wing leaning Australian Christians to know that our first great Christian Prime Minister and our first great ALP PM were one in the same. With respect to Rudd, I think the evidence for our current prime minister’s personal faith is conclusive. The PM professes belief in things such as the Resurrection of Christ and is well acquainted with the Scriptures and theology. However, I’m not confident he is necessarily an “evangelical.” While some Christians would attack his character – perhaps unfairly – my concerns lie with his recent “change of mind” regarding marriage (which is clearly out of step with biblical thinking) and his legislative support for the RU486 abortion pill (pp. 246-7). I’m still also puzzled by his reference to God as “him or her” upon being ousted in 2010 and would also have concerns if it were the case that Dietrich Bonhoffer was his “theological hero” rather than just his hero by virtue of living out his convictions.
James Scullin Paul Keating
I hesitate to arrive at Williams’ glowing conclusions regarding the Christianity of Jim Scullin and Paul Keating. This is because for evangelicals, adherence to Roman Catholicism is a severe impediment to biblically genuine faith and “born-again” believers within the Catholic church are generally the exception. Williams, as a somewhat progressive (Anglican?) Christian ecumenicist who clearly hates sectarianism, naturally gives both of them positive ratings. Scullin would probably be his top Christian PM if not for his political failures (p. 266). When it comes to Keating, Williams performed something of a miracle in In God they Trust?by actually managing to significantly improve my regard for a PM I have never particularly liked. His moral conservatism on certain issues – particularly abortion – deserves recognition for what it is. I feel however that Williams overplays the evidence for Keating’s faith a bit too much and I find it hard to see him as one of the top contenders for the mantle of greatest Christian Prime Ministers. The Catholic reservations for evangelicals would also apply to the iconic Labor PM Ben Chifley.
These three men could each be held up as political leaders whose Catholic faith and values seem to have impacted their personal and political lives. But we need to be wary of lauding them as great Christian leaders, seeing as how we have no information to suggest their dissent from the more fatal aspects of Roman dogma.
On the non-Labor side, the best hope for evangelical faith appears to lie with Joseph Cook. Williams notes Cook’s lifelong connection with Methodism and while he criticises him in several areas, he does seem to suggest that Cook did not go along with his church’s slide into the “social gospel” around the turn of the century (p. 68). Joseph Lyons – Williams’ other candidate for best Christian PM – must face the aforementioned reservations evangelicals must have when it comes to adherents to Roman Catholicism. I am certain that Billy Hughes’ personal conduct and character – especially his reputation for frequent blasphemy – establishes him as a theist but one lacking the fruits of a true Christian (though we may allow for a possible mellowing out and/or conversion in later life).
Robert Menzies Billy McMahon John Howard
The remaining three Liberal Prime Ministers listed by Williams as believers are: Robert Menzies, Billy McMahon and John Howard. Each of these men are without doubt people who professed faith in the Christian God in some way. McMahon could speak of a personal faith journey, which is promising. However Williams offers no real mention of church attendance and the theological influences on McMahon he cites only leave us wondering exactly where he would have stood on key matters. There is next to no substantial evidence for us to see him as an evangelical Christian. With respect to Menzies and Howard – the two conservative political giants of the post-war period, I’m inclined to see them both as respectable churchmen and adherents to the Christian faith, but I’d be uncertain from what I’ve seen whether we should regard them as “evangelicals.” Both strike me as champions of their particular economic and social positions, rather than men who would strongly advocate their faith to others. Though it seems promising that Howard attended an Anglican church of the more evangelical persuasion (p. 212), his once monthly church attendance and reluctance to talk about his faith make it difficult to see Christianity as a priority or predominant guiding force in his life.
I don’t say any of this as a pronouncement on who will be in heaven or hell come judgement day. Rather, in considering the findings of In God they Trust? I wish to encourage a measured response by evangelicals when it comes to who they hold up as examples of great Christian men who’ve occupied the Lodge. A Catholic or nominal Protestant can make an excellent Prime Minister and promote a biblical stance on certain key issues of the day in an admirable manner. We should just be more careful how we use “Christian” when it comes to politicians. When the evidence is there, as it is with perhaps 3 or 4 of the PMs, we can rejoice that at least a few times in our history, men with deep Christian convictions have made into the top political office. In other cases we should, with Williams, observe the impact Christian teaching, thought, values and even at times theology, has influenced or impacted the governance of the nation – without over-zealously drawing conclusions about individual prime ministers or indeed the identity of Australia itself.
 This file was derived from Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd with Foreign Minister Utoni Nujoma of Namibia.jpg: CC BY 3.0 au–
 Idpercy “Paul Keating in 2007” CC BY 2.0