What Christians do in the public square is still big news. Some Christian leaders lament their fall from grace. Others bewail that Christians are being pushed out of public debate, but that is not the case.
One can analyse whether Australian Christianity has the serious clout it once had, which given the changes in Australian society over the past 50 years would be remarkable. But there can be little dispute that Christians, their leaders and their organisations, are still widely reported in the mainstream media.
Just one issue of The Canberra Times last week featured two long articles with a religious, largely Christian, focus. The first story was about an initiative of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC), in which more than 150 religious leaders, including not just Christians but Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish leaders, called on the Prime Minister to show moral leadership and take action on climate change. The banner they stood behind at their launch read #No Faith in Coal.
The second big story was about Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, supporting rugby star Israel Folau in his legal battle with Rugby Australia on the day that the Australian Christian Lobby launched its fundraising drive for him.
Echoing the language of the Prime Minister and ACL, Davies painted a picture of ordinary Christians being "ignored, marginalised and silenced: loud, intolerant voices swamp the quiet faith of many". The denial of freedom of religion to Folau smacked of a "new and ugly Australia", claimed Davies.
The cross-over between the stories came in the form of Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black of the ARRCC. He expressed his disappointment in the ACL, declaring he knew "many loving, caring Christians who would be horrified that that was being done in the name of Christianity". That horror, which may be found at different times on the Christian left and the Christian right, sums up the dilemma faced by Christians who form as diverse and divided a community as Australia itself.
In the case of the religious right they have been quick to position themselves within Scott Morrison's tent of so-called quiet Australians.
When Christianity is reported in the media it does seem to lack a figurehead to give the unity that brings greater political strength. The best-known Christian in Australia is now probably the Pentecostal Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Folau may now be a close second. Other names that come to mind include Cardinal George Pell, Reverend Tim Costello and Father Frank Brennan. Other Christian leaders have a public profile more restricted to their state or their church.
This diversity and lack of a single figurehead may apply to the whole faith-based community. A good example of that problem was the reporting of the 150 religious leaders who wrote to the Prime Minister. The membership of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change is made up of many diverse organisations and individuals.
The organisations include dioceses and agencies of Christian denominations, plus peak bodies like the National Council of Churches and Catholic Religious Australia, and orders of Catholic nuns and brothers like the Loreto Sisters and the Marists. The Uniting Church leadership is prominent, and the Grand Mufti of Australia and the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils signed the letter too. But few of them have a personal following outside their immediate communities.
Following the recent election, certain faith-based communities were reported as having made a significant contribution to Morrison's self-proclaimed miracle victory, especially in Western Sydney electorates. This evaluation was accepted by some Labor leaders, including Chris Bowen, who alleged faith-based communities believed they could no longer rely on Labor to represent their views.
Certainly the religious right, which makes up the larger proportion of church-going Christians and other religious communities, probably feel they have the inside running with the government at the moment, despite its failure to act decisively on religious freedom when given the opportunity last year. The religious left, on the other hand, is vocal but feels on the outer with the government.
In the case of the religious right they have been quick to position themselves within Morrison's tent of so-called quiet Australians. The ACL claimed the 200,000 quiet Australians who roared their support of Folau through giving over $2 million to its campaign were "the same quiet Australians who spoke up for religious freedom through their vote at the federal election, and they now are speaking again with their wallets in a way that cannot be ignored".
The ACL, with 135,00 members and supporters, has had a bumpy ride since its formation in 1995. At times it has risen high, capturing the attention of all political leaders, as it did from about 2004-10 under the leadership of Jim Wallace.
Since then it has remained in the news under Lyall Shelton, but it was on the losing side of the same sex marriage issue and Shelton himself failed to gain election to the Senate at the last election as the leading Queensland candidate for the now defunct Australian Conservatives (Senator Cory Bernardi's party).
A 2016 election campaign study of lobby groups by Geoffrey Robinson, which was titled "ACL: the rise and fall of the religious right", captured that failing momentum. Now under Martyn Isles, ACL is back riding high on the Morrison-Folau-freedom-of-religion ticket.
The Christian left, at least as ecumenical, and part of a broader multi-faith network with a different take on religious freedom, is locked into a long struggle from outside the tent to make an impact on a range of causes less popular with the government like justice for refugees and asylum seekers and action on climate change.
Those inside and outside the faith-based communities must find the myriad of competing voices extremely confusing.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and president of Christians for an Ethical Society