Yesterday, the federal parliament of Australia opened for business for the first time in 2016. This was preceded by a customary ecumenical church service (held this year at Canberra’s Wesley Uniting Church), attended by members from both sides of the House. Parliament also recommenced with the Speaker reading the Lord’s Prayer, as is part of convention and procedure.
It is an interesting time to reflect on the role of God and Christianity in our nation’s political life and the life of our leaders. With an election campaign simultaneously taking place in our trans-Pacific “big brother” the USA – a place where God is more frequently invoked in political campaigning – some of that rhetoric (and the heated responses) is sure to also be reported in our media and receive a mixed response.
While infinite ink could be spilled (or pixels generated) on the issues relating to God and political life, I’m interested here in a question that often generates public interest and/or ire. That is, to what extent are our leaders in particular (and parties more generally) influenced and/or motivated by their conception of God and religious ideas, when it comes to their political principles and actions?
Assessing the genuineness of political figures when it comes to their faith is notoriously difficult. Some would suggest we abandon such attempts altogether. This indeed is tempting if we consider how often Machiavelli’s political advice to his prince might be heeded by political players today.
“Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite…For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are...”
Voters in nations with significant generically Christian populations are constantly serenaded with religious charlatanry and pious posers during electioneering. Sometimes it might be better to get a political leader honest enough not to play the game of pretended faith than one who takes a multitude of spiritually sincere but politically naive voters along for a ride.
Roy Williams has attempted to make the case for a serious, sustained influence of God and Christianity upon nearly all of our nation’s prime ministers from Barton to Gillard (his book came out just before Rudd’s return and Abbott’s election victory). I find some of his conclusions regarding the biographical evidence he cites rather forced, in order to support the thesis of his book (I reviewed the book here). But nevertheless, many of our leaders have at least made a show of religion or Christianity when it suits their purposes.
If Barnaby Joyce succeeds Warren Truss sometime in the next few months (as is widely predicted), the four main political parties in Australian parliament will be led by Catholics of the not-particularly-religious variety. While their politics are quite different on multiple fronts, their religious dispositions seem remarkably similar – and in a way that likely resonates with many “ordinary Australian” voters.
Turnbull, Shorten and (Greens leader) Richard Di Natale’s views on vexed moral and social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, demonstrate that while they may believe in God in some way, they do not consider the teachings of Scripture or their Church to speak authoritatively for Him when it comes to how they should live and govern. Joyce’s politics are far more consistent with the Bible and his Church, but he would balk at being portrayed as a religiously motivated politician and his views may also have a lot to do with the more socially conservative milieu of rural Australia.
While I wish for something better, I consider the current state of affairs is probably a sign that representative democracy is working in Australian parliament. Many Aussies believe it’s good to have a bit of religion, but not too much. Faith is better expressed in private devotion or religious gatherings – that are neatly confined to a particular building and time of week – than it is in public discourse. And while it seems that well over half of the population still believes in the existence of God, for many of them this is a god of their own conceptualisation – not one revealed authoritatively through Scripture or the Church.
Should Christians respond to the present situation with despair, frustration or passionate activism? I propose there are three things we can do in response to the way our present leaders interact with God and faith.
- Pray that our leaders will humbly acknowledge God’s authority as being over and above their own. And pray that God may even grant them genuine faith to know, love and serve Him with their lives.
- Get on with the church’s main business of evangelism and discipleship. Leaders who take God and his Word seriously should come as a by-product of seeing a revival of sincere, biblical Christianity in our nation.Lobbying, manoeuvring, advertising and even legislating has limited and secondary (or even tertiary) value compared to seeing people change the way they think and behave through the power of the gospel.
- In the meantime, look for substantial alignment with Christian principles in the policy of political leaders, rather than their religious appearance or affiliation. If a candidate or party pursues bad policy that harms the country and contravenes what God has revealed to us to be good – it doesn’t matter whether a member or leader identifies with Anglicanism, Pentecostalism, Wicca or Pastafarianism.The apostle’s instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 may apply primarily to messages we hear from people in the church, but it has some relevance with respect to political messages too (particularly if the candidates cultivate a religious profile to woo Christian voters): “but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (ESV).
 Gouldy99 “House of Representatives: New Parliament House – Canberra10” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
 Crashworks “Uffizi Statue: Niccolo Machiavelli” CC BY-ND 2.0
 DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Clydell Kinchen Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, visiting the Pentagon on 18 January 2016.CC BY 2.0
 Peter Campbell “Bill Shorten MP” CC BY-SA 3.0
 Victorian Greens from Melbourne “Richard Di Natale at his farm in the Otway Ranges, Victoria” CC BY 2.0
 Bidgee “Barnaby Joyce being interviewed by local media” CC BY-SA 3.0