Religion’s political influence (or lack thereof)

Most Australians believe in God, but is that a politically significant fact?

Earlier in the year, I argued that while churchgoers have a consistent bias towards Coalition voting, a dwindling number of Australians were attending church. I was sceptical of the electoral impact of churches like Hillsong.

The Age this morning draws attention to an Australian Journal of Political Science article by University of Sydney academic Rodney Smith which argues more generally against the electoral influence of the churches, at least for the 2007 election.

Smith examined electoral statements from religious groups and found considerable variety in issues covered and perspectives taken. They tend to not specifically recommend a vote, though sometimes a preferred choice is implied. He notes that many church leaders would want to avoid alienating their supporters who do not share their political views. This is an important point I think. Religions are in a spiritual buyer’s market for both believers and attenders, which will tend to put a constraint on their politicking.

Smith also looks at electoral results, showing neither religiously-aligned parties nor campaigns did particularly well in 2007. Labor was able to win without offering them anything.

While Smith’s article is well-researched on its key contentions and offers a sensible analysis, it is a pity that it repeats previous errors by academics concerning think-tanks and religion. For example:

…a range of inter-connected para-church groups such as the National Assembly of Christian Leaders promote aspects of the Christian Right agenda, as do religiously-oriented units within secular rightwing think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies (Maddox 2005,Chapters 8 and 10; Smith and Marden 2008, 709–13).


The Government’s Workchoices legislation represented precisely the sort of market deregulation promoted by key Religious Right think tanks.

Let’s be clear about what happened here. For a couple of years around the turn of the century, the CIS employed Sam Gregg to run a Religion and the Free Society program. The Acton Lecture is the only continuing element of that program. The intention of the program was never to promote a ‘Christian Right’ agenda. Rather, it was intended to promote classical liberal ideas among religious people in general and clergy in particular, who we thought were rather too disposed to statist political views. There are no ‘Religious Right’ think-tanks.

13 thoughts on “Religion’s political influence (or lack thereof)

  1. The Pentecostal churches are now addressing a wider agenda of social issues and have an increasing involvement in issues such as addressing global poverty, Micah Challenge’s Voices for Justice initiative.

    The think tanks are much less significant in addressing opinion in such religious groups than the church based engagement by faith based welfare agencies such as World Vision.

    The ALP certainly think that there was a useful shift in votes among this group to them from the Coalition in 2007 arising from interest in a wider social agenda.


  2. The Smith article reports that the AES identified similar swings to Labor among church attenders and non-attenders. But that’s more consistent with the view that church politicking has little influence and church-goers are influenced most by broader political trends.

    As I noted in my post, the program to target religious groups was abandoned many years ago so any group still in that game is likely to have more influence.


  3. A great deal of “influence” in politics consists of smoke and mirrors and exaggeration. I have long suspected that the supposed influence of the Christian Right during the Howard years owed less to the facts than to the hyper-sensitivity of passionately anti-religious commentators, so it is nice to see The Age running some hard evidence.


  4. Labor was able to win without offering them anything.

    I am not so sure about that. Why else did the ALP promise to lump us with a cumbersome, yet secret list of filtered websites, if not pandering to the religious nutters and Clive Hamilton (Oh, Ok there is no difference there)


  5. I do remember Peter Saunders at L & S some years ago presenting conclusions about family and social policy that were very in line with Christian social teachings – but he arrived at them using an economic approach, from memory.


  6. As Alan says, ‘influence’ is a murky business. I think we can rule out Peter Saunders being influenced by the Christian Right. I’d say he came at his views on family structure kicking and screaming, but compelled by the sociological evidence. Despite rather than because of some Christian conservatives saying the same thing.

    As I noted in my post on the Conroy censorship plan, he’s not actually planning to make illegal any material than is legal now. He’s aiming to enforce a censorship regime that has been in place for many years. There isn’t much polling on censorship, but the AES series of questions suggest that only about 10% think it should be relaxed re sex and nudity, with the rest fairly evenly divided between the status quo and tightening. Simply because the Christian Right is in the group that wants it tightened does not mean that they are a causal influence – though it puts them on the list of possible causes.

    But I think the ALP made a sensible calculation that the capacity of this group to swing votes is pretty low, and they would not on electoral grounds only put much effort into them.


  7. Everyone assumes religious groups here are similar to the US. Its simply not true. The religious right is big in the US in the socially conservative southern states. We have no equivalent regions other than maybe rural electorates, but there aren’t many of them and the nationals hold most comfortably.

    There is also a lot of christian progressives who think that the big issues are poverty and social justice. If you take away a few “family values” issues like abortion, gay marriage and porn (none of which are live issues in australia since Labor knows where the votes are) then most “christian values” can easily be left wing.

    Labor won’t stir up any of the hot button issues since they will just cost votes and don’t gain them any voters and there are at likely as many socially conservative voters in australia as religiously motivated socially conservatives.


  8. Andrew Norton said:

    Smith also looks at electoral results, showing neither religiously-aligned parties nor campaigns did particularly well in 2007. Labor was able to win without offering them anything.

    Obviously Smith and Norton are observing a parallel universe where the ALP did not “offer” the Churches “anything” before the last election. In my universe Kevin Rudd fell over himself to give the Christian church’s as much as possible. As Bolt remarked, Rudd:

    talked of his Christian inspiration, ruled out gay marriage, cited a Christian pastor as his hero, lobbied for the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, appointed our first resident Ambassador to the Holy See, defended the role of Christianity in politics, and held regular press conferences on the doorstep of his church.

    Rudd also loudly proclaimed his religiously-based social conservatism on issues like pedophilia in art and drug prohibition.

    Pretty much everyone knows this, you only have to look at Rudd’s vicari-sh appearance to guess it. And the fact that he has three teenage daughters more or less seals the case.

    Yet secular liberals, both Right and Left, miss this fact even though its staring them right in the face. They are tone deaf to the appeal of religious intellectual words and institutional deeds.


  9. Rudd has two sons and one daughter, but otherwise good points. From the point of view of Smith’s article, however, it shows that Rudd *is* on some issues a Christian conservative, rather than someone *influenced* by a distinct Christian lobby.


  10. Jack I don’t think that meant he gave the church anything. Rudd talks about being a Christian because he is one.

    Ruling out gay marriage is what both sides of politics have done and will do for a few years yet. Rudd is a social conservative and an economic conservative, his only claim to Labor values is a working class background.

    Lobbying for the canonisation of Mary MacKillop is just standard nationalism like lobbying for a seat on the security council. Rudd isn’t catholic. Therefore has little to no personal interest in whether she is canonised.

    If you want to start talking about the church you have to understand the details and denominational differences.

    There is a massive difference between places like Hillsong and the Catholic church.


  11. No, Jack’s right. It’s true Rudd is, insofar he is anything but a pragmatic politician, a religious conservative of the worst type. But his government most certainly isn’t and he is not such a colossus that they’ll go in whatever direction he says.

    They’ve gone out of their way to buy the xtian vote; you can’t explain things like Conroy’s internet censorship scheme just on Rudd’s self-assumed closeness to the almighty. Some of it is a response to the freakish composition of the current senate (thank you, Senator Conroy, for that too) but mostly it’s because christian conservatives form a disciplined voting bloc.

    They have political influence out of proportion to their numbers because of their willingness to change votes as a bloc on touchstone issues. It’s the same effect that drives US Cuba and Israel policies. Positing that this is because of some sinister influence of the bloc’s leaders is missing the point; the apparent influence of those leaders is purely a reflection, rather than a cause, of the bloc’s influence.


  12. DD – Many Australians are Christians and reasonably conservative. But there is no good social science evidence that shows they are a disciplined voting block that will swing where their leadership tells them. And this policy did Labor no good in 2007 – the ACL actively campaigned against Labor, though to no obvious effect, as the Smith article shows.

    As I noted in my censorship post, there is a mundane explanation for the Conroy position: he supports the current censorship regime that has been in place for many years, and like previous relevant ministers he is trying to adapt as new media (videos, DVDs, computer games, internet) get around the rules. Because of the likely collateral damage to internet usage of legal material this is stirring up more opposition that these changes usually do. On balance, it is more likely to be a political negative than a positive for them.


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