Australia: Review of Marion Maddox's "God Under Howard" Print E-mail
29 January 2005

Revenge of the righteous

By Emma-Kate Symons

REPRESSIVE, racist, homophobic, sexist, a free market economic ideologue and downright nasty - that's the cruel and jealous God that John Howard, Machiavellian wolf in relaxed and comfortable sheep's clothing, has inflicted on Australia's collective soul.

At least that's the startling finding of Marion Maddox's inquisition into the religious-political state of the nation under our second-longest serving prime minister. God Under Howard, with its pointed subtitle, How the Religious Right has Hijacked Australian Politics, is a crusader's document worthy of a Methodist-raised religious studies academic. And woe betide any who dare question its dogma - that Howard is a rampaging heretic, re-creating the Australian political landscape in the image of the American Christian Right, and in the process destroying the fabric of Australian democracy.

The title and cover illustration leave readers in little doubt about the author's intentions to expose what she declares is "Howard's spiritual assault on Australian values". She casts herself and the mass of Australian people in a role akin to John Proctor in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, fighting nobly against the puritanical, sexually repressive witch-burning forces led by Reverend Samuel Parris. It seems weirdly out of sync with reality, proferring a theocratic dystopia of an Australia more like the Taliban's Afghanistan than the nation we inhabit.

Perhaps it is a tribute to Howard's political longevity that he incites such rage among that vocal minority of Australians who see in his every move evidence of a vast right-wing conspiracy. The list of Howard-despising authors stretches from Bob Ellis to David Marr, Margo Kingston and Robert Manne; it is not a global genre like the profitable industry that is Bush-bashing, but the Not Happy John Crowd has found a willing reading public while failing to convince the mainstream of the Prime Minister's sins.

Unfortunately, despite some excellent analysis and thorough research on the rise of organised US-style radical Christian Right activism in Australia's political institutions, Maddox's book is yet another contribution to the genre of Howard-loathing diatribes. And that's a shame, because her subject - the interaction of religion and politics in contemporary Australia - is a little understood yet powerful phenomenon.

When Howard swept to his recent election victory, the mass of religiously indifferent secular Australians was possibly surprised at the apparent sudden rise of the Christian Right. The election heralded the entry in to federal politics of a new church-derived party, Family First, with Labor losing at least four marginal seats after the Assemblies of God-backed party preferenced the Coalition in 102 of 104 seats.

Soon after the election, the first big public debate was over what Tony Abbott has called the epidemic of abortion. This came in a year that saw Howard oversee changes to the marriage act, entrenching the heterosexual definition of the union in the face of moves to legitimise gay unions. Abortion and marriage were high on the agenda in Australia, just as they were in the US where George W. Bush cruised to a second presidential term on a platform of what former Clinton labour secretary Robert Reich calls the "God, guns, gays and true grit in opposing global terrorism".

There has been debate over values in schools and a campaign that saw MPs such as Liberal Don Randall praise Howard for believing in the right God: "Australians want to know they have a Christian as their head of government," he said. And, perhaps a first in Australian political history, an MP (admittedly one who had longtraded on his conservative Christianity), Ross Cameron, lost his seat after confessing toadultery.

So has Australia suddenly been transformed into a derivative, almost theocratic political culture remodelled on the US, where the so-called Moral Majority has muscled its way into the heart of government? And what role has Howard played in creating a fertile climate for Christian culture warriors?

God Under Howard goes some way towards elucidating how the boy from Sydney's Earlwood has transformed society, redefining family values according to his own political priorities along narrower lines of personal and sexual morality. Pitted against an agnostic Labor leader and an ALP drained of its reserve of staunchly Catholic conviction politicians, Howard has accumulated political capital by apparently convincing voters that, as Labor's Kevin Rudd says, "God is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party".

Maddox, the offspring of fervent Methodists, appears desperate to rescue the forerunner of the Uniting Church from the folklore of Howard's formative decade, the mythologised suburban nirvana of the Menzies-led 1950s. And she seems determined to separate her faith in a Left-leaning social justice and rights agenda from the creeping prosperity gospel that has gained popularity under Howard, intending to prove he is more Machiavellian than Methodist-turned-Anglican: "His achievements are much closer to the aspirations of the fundamentalist theocrats than they are to the socially liberal Methodism of his childhood."

It is fascinating to read about young John's church activities, and his family's reading interests - apparently The Saturday Evening Post, with its Norman Rockwell illustrations and American family values conservatism, was closely read in the Howard household, while The Methodist newspaper, with its emerging strains of social liberalism, never appeared.

Maddox opens with a telling quote from Machiavelli's The Prince about the need for having the appearance of possessing good qualities, such as being "a kind and religious man. And there is nothing so important as to be seen to have this last quality." But the pulpit is immediately ascended. Indeed, at the outset she describes her book as "an inquiry into his [Howard's] corrosion of Australia's soul ... [it] is about faith, power and the assault which Australia's collective soul sustained over successive terms of Howard government".

Before last year's federal election, there was generally widespread ignorance about "religion's function as a mostly invisible but often powerful undercurrent in Australian politics". Yet Maddox has swung the pendulum entirely in the opposite direction, seeing religious extremism and the hand of Howard's wrathful neo-conservative God everywhere - including the Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair, the children overboard affair and the political demise of former Liberal leader John Hewson (apparently the Lyons forum almost single-handedly pushed the hapless Hewson out of the leadership because he failed to sign a petition protesting against the ABC broadcasting the Mardi Gras in 1994). The problem with the polemical approach is that it wins the short-term argument while glossing over realities that don't fit the neat conspiracy. And there are plenty of holes in Maddox's often eloquently assembled argument. The reality is that the Christian Right's "hijack" has been foiled at key moments. Take the abortion debate. While it's true Howard allowed ministers such as Abbott and later John Anderson and others to raise concerns about late-term abortions, when party divisions threatened to derail his early fourth-term plans for industrial relations and other reforms, he closed down debate.

And while Maddox makes clear that Howard long resisted the push for paid maternity leave and adequate childcare assistance, she fails to note that in classic Machiavellian style he offered all mothers in the 2004 budget a non-means tested baby bonus, and a 30 per cent childcare rebate.

The radical Right in Australia just doesn't stack up as the sinister, US-style force Maddox depicts. The chapter titled The Politics of Death charts the success of the anti-euthanasia push, which she characterises as "the staged unfolding of the next act in the Right's carefully scripted culture wars". She seems furious that committed Christians within Australian politics are treading carefully and strategically, downplaying theirfervency with often-legitimate appeals to natural law. But are they not entitled to a sound political strategy? Regardless, the 1997 Euthanasia No campaign was not a Coalition conspiracy, being co-ordinated by, among others, Tony Burke, a NSW Labor Right MP. To be just, the culture wars are not being waged only by the social conservatives.

For all her unrelenting anti-Howard rhetoric, Maddox has filled an important gap in Australian understanding of the role of competing religious and spiritual forces in contemporary politics. She traces the rise of the Australian religious Right back to Barry Goldwater's failed US presidential campaign in 1964, through the lessons learned by the pro-Reagan Moral Majority in the 1980s and beyond. Her research on Australian right-wing think-tanks, lobby groups and parliamentary prayer groups connecting conservative MPs with American fellow travellers is among the best sections of the book.

What makes her perspective unusual is that she does not proceed from the standard secular distrust of all things religious: "Howard and the market God have served each other well. Understanding their relationship, and how Australia has fallen under their thrall, we can reject market idolatry and reclaim more inclusive, loving ways of life," she preaches. She is a different kind of evangelist, longing for a new synergy between religion and politics where "by legislating to bring out our best rather than our worst, governments can make us nicer".

No wonder Howard and his muscular Christian soldiers are winning the partisan battle for Australia's political soul.
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God Under Howard: How the Religious Right has Hijacked Australian Politics, by Marion Maddox (Allen & Unwin, 386pp, $29.95)1300 655 191, ABD, $26.95