There is a new ingredient in the perennial debate about religion and politics in Australia and that is Mike Baird, the new Premier of NSW. He once studied theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, with a view to becoming an Anglican minister. Move over Tony Abbott. The new NSW Coalition government, led by Baird and the Nationals’ Andrew Stoner, has even been described as “shaping as the most devout in living memory”. Baird has drawn headlines such as “Onward Christian soldier”.
The allure of talking about religion and politics never goes away. Controversy about the constitutional separation of church and state is just one part of the agenda. The ABC has just run the two-part Compass program entitled “God in The Lodge” about the religious beliefs of Australia’s 28 prime ministers. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse keeps the Catholic Church, the Salvation Army and other church organisations front and centre in public consciousness. As a recognised contributor to church-state debates I am often asked to comment on the role of Catholics in the Abbott government. There is plenty that a political scientist who also happens to be a Catholic can say.
There are critical differences between Baird and Abbott when it comes to their faith but there are similarities, too. Their own religious faith is not in dispute; both trained and aspired to be clergymen, Baird Anglican and Abbott Catholic. They are each opposed to same-sex marriage and hold conservative positions on other moral issues. They are also surrounded by others of religious faith. In Baird’s case his chief of staff, Bay Warburton, and Stoner, who participates in the evangelical C3 Church. In Abbott’s case there are the many other devout Catholic ministers, including Kevin Andrews, as well as several ministers who are Protestant, including Scott Morrison.
The differences between the two men are that Baird’s faith is much more likely to be considered at the personal, individual level, while Abbott’s position is usually discussed in relation to his connections with the Catholic Church, with all its international historical baggage, contemporary political strength and its large organisational presence in education, health and welfare services. Put bluntly, Catholics have traditionally been seen as a greater threat to the separation of church and state than Anglicans. The Vatican connection is part of this presumption but so is the supposed intensity of Catholic beliefs.
The religious beliefs of Baird and Abbott are newsworthy because they hold the two most important political jobs in Australia. They have emerged at a time when religious belief is thought to be in steep decline (though evangelical Christianity is on the rise). Many observers think this is distinctly odd and secular critics fear the influence of religious belief on public policy.
We assume in parliamentary democracies that the parliament is representative not just in the formal sense but in the wider sense that there is at least a rough match between the social characteristics of parliament and those of the wider community.
This is not always so. We know that women are under-represented, for instance, as are younger Australians. We debate the reasons for this democratic deficit and in the case of women many work towards the ultimate goal of 50:50 representation.
Statistics are just a starting point in trying to calculate the representation of religious believers in the wider community. It is more difficult than for gender or age. The census is not much help because it doesn’t tell us enough.
My calculation is that the community is divided roughly into thirds between churchgoing believers, cultural or census Christians, Muslims and Jews, and secular non-believers in equal measure. That may be generous towards religious believers but at least it is a rough benchmark. Baird and Abbott can be placed in a smaller group, perhaps 5 or 10 per cent at most, who take their religious beliefs particularly seriously.
On these latter figures you would expect one in 10 or one in 20 prime ministers or premiers to be really serious religious believers and one in three to be a regular churchgoer. Over time that may be how it has panned out in Australia. I calculate that for all Australian prime ministers about a third have been regular churchgoers, including the first four Catholic prime ministers before 1950.
In other words the numbers overall are roughly what might be expected from census figures. But in very recent times serious religious believers have clearly been doing very well in achieving senior political leadership. Look at the last three premiers of NSW and last three prime ministers.
In NSW Barry O’Farrell was described as relatively secular, but his Labor predecessor Kristina Keneally was a religiously literate, churchgoing Catholic with post-graduate credentials in theology.
At the federal level, though Julia Gillard was secular, Kevin Rudd was a seriously churchgoing Anglican who introduced religion into party and public debate and called himself a Christian Socialist.
In both jurisdictions, then, serious Christians have been well over-represented compared to others in recent times.
So is this conjunction just a statistical fluke or is something else going on? There is a chance that it is the latter. The pool of talent from which political leaders are drawn is the Parliament. There appear to be more religious believers in Australian Parliaments than in the general community.
The reasons for this are unclear. It may reflect a greater propensity for altruism and/or public service. On the other hand it may just reflect a propensity for better organisation and/or collective self-interest. The difference is important. But we just don’t know.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.