God Under Howard: the rise of the religious right in Australian Politics by Marion Maddox

Eras Journal – Dyrenfurth, N: Review of “God Under Howard: the rise of the religious right in Australian Politics “, Marion Maddox

Marion Maddox, God Under Howard: the Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics,

Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005,
Isbn 1741145686

When the religiously affiliated Family First party burst upon the political scene at the 2004 Federal Election, commentators declared the surprise emergence of a right-wing Christian element in Australian politics. Apart from the ostensible mainstreaming of religious politicalism, nothing could be further from the truth, as Marion Maddox argues in her timely new book God Under Howard. While Maddox’s work is opportune in the Australian context, a worldwide climate exists in which religious symbolism and language shape much of what we understand as the so-called ‘War on Terror’. Of course Maddox is not the first to detail what she suggests is the “untold story in Australia’s negotiation between religion and politics” (p. ix). Judith Brett’s recent Australian Liberals and the moral middle classhighlighted the early links between secular liberalism and Protestant thought and imagery within the making of the Australian two-party system. In God Under Howard Maddox shows how the apparently secular liberalism of the current Howard Government actually employs two distinctly different Gods: the ‘Market God’ of neo-liberal economics, and the increasingly interconnected God associated with both the American Religious Right and the local ‘prosperity gospel’ espoused by Pentecostal churches such as Hillsong in Sydney. Against the public impression that Australia’s is a purely secular culture, Maddox successfully details how the morality of the religious Right has come to subtly underpin and even justify the socially conservative politics of the Howard Government, deflecting attention away from the social anxieties its continued neo-liberalism propagates. This, argues Maddox, has contributed to the ‘corrosion of Australia’s [democratic and egalitarian] soul’.

In Maddox’s own words, God Under Howard is an ‘opinionated’ book. Unlike much of the growing genre of anti-Howard polemics though, Maddox relies on a sustained base of research and critical analysis. Let us get something clear, there is nothing wrong with a good polemic, particularly in these times of conservative hegemony. For instance I and presumably others will enjoy the personal dimensions pursued in the chapter ‘Mothers and Fathers’. But successful polemicists do need to delve deeper, not only arguing that Howard did this or that wrong but also asking why, how, and where do we go from here? On all of these counts, except for the last and perhaps most crucial aspect of solutions, Maddox hits the mark. She does this through an excellent linguistic analysis of the links between Howard-style pragmatism and the effectiveness of religious speak in this age of economic uncertainty. However in this light I felt that the debility of Labor’s opposition was acknowledged but not really explored in detail. More strange is that Labor’s leader during most of the Howard ascendancy, Kim Beazley, a practicing Anglican and former active Moral Rearmament member, is mentioned only in passing. Yet in many respects this is not Maddox’s purpose, rather she is interested in the uses of religion. For in Maddox’s view it is not religion itself which is the problem. She generally avoids demonising church goers, though it is hard not to discern her contempt for the pro-market, evangelical style associated with the popular Assemblies of God. On the contrary it is the religiously cloaked values and social attitudes of social conservatism which are doing the real damage. A tried and tested formula, asserts Maddox, imported from the American Religious Right (though perhaps this rather amorphous term is not adequately defined). Yet for all their rhetorical parallels and eerily similar stratagem, the claimed links between America and Australia are sometimes tenuous, open to the vagaries of assumption and deduction.

Whilst not the only target, the specter of Howard’s alleged Machiavellianism looms large. According to Maddox, however, there is an untold story of Howard’s pragmatic politics, one that challenges the stereotype of Howard’s formative conservative Methodism. Howard’s oft retreat to his Methodist upbringing is usually both self justification and contradictory comfort to his critics: the title ‘John Howard, Methodist’ is an easy escape clause, a ‘pardon’ for what must be ‘a personal idiosyncrasy, an almost endearing reversion to childhood values’ (p. 4). Indeed more important might be Howard’s move to the more establishment friendly Sydney Anglicanism, but this and Janette Howard’s influence are not discussed. This is despite Janette’s Amish style image appearing on one of the more striking recent Australian book covers. Maddox charts a course through Howard’s Manildra St upbringing within Earlwood Methodist Church (and Sunday school). Yet according to Maddox, 1950s Methodism was far more socially progressive than commentators assume. Indigenous affairs are one clear example, in addition to White Australia, Asian engagement and refugee rights. Howard could not have been completely aloof to the big Methodist debates of the 1950s. Methodists held divergent views which Howard later pragmatically claimed were uncontested and homogenous, most famously in regards to the ‘Stolen Generation’. The Howard family were in many ways ‘deaf’ to the church they attended: “the icon of ‘John Howard, Methodist’ only works as a smokescreen … the Methodist church of Howard’s childhood exists now as an image from the past, available to stand rhetorically for a set of commitments which have little to do with its actual history” (p. 19). The Howard family, according to Maddox, had more in common with the bible of American consumerism espoused by the Saturday Evening Post. This is the strongest section of the book which conservative critics, from the relatively moderate Gerard Henderson to the maniacal Andrew Bolt (neither of whom appears to have read the book, grabbing a few quotables from the introduction and back page blurb), haven’t really touched. It would have been interesting however to have heard about his time in a Sydney solicitor’s office, particularly in the context of the late 1960s. For once again it would appear that Howard enjoyed a very narrow experience, a young man deaf to a world in flux: not for ‘Honest John’ the freedom of an overseas backpacking adventure or a critical exploration of one’s self and society.

Fast forward to the political turbulence of the past decade and Maddox rightly suggests that such a blinkered and distorted experience of the past has been transposed onto the Australian polity. Much of this rests upon a conservative and divisive enunciation of an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ wedge politics – seeped in religiously attuned language – successfully employed during the 1995 Hindmarsh Island controversy and more recent scare campaigns against refugees of Islamic extraction. Yet Howard was not always successful at such wedge politics, his politically costly 1988 call for a slowing of Asian immigration being a pertinent example. What Maddox does not note was that Howard was not in office, nevertheless he grasped a valuable lesson: letting others campaign on his behalf over controversial issues. Such ‘radical’ expressions seem to appear spontaneously. Not only do they make the conciliatory Howard seem moderate, but they put the political risks at a ‘remove’ (p. 30). The socially conservative, religiously informed ‘Lyons’ Forum’ is an excellent example. Similar but less religiously assertive than the American Religious Right (for “The Right’s God is most powerful just below the surface” (p. 39)) they destabilised John Hewson’s ‘liberal’ leadership with an anti-Mardi Gras petition which surreptitiously co-opted Labor parliamentarians. The key point is that “though Howard himself expresses only amorphous religious commitments, his position within the parliamentary is shored up by his willingness to front, and exploit, a religious right social agenda.” (p. 30) Likewise Howard, with his ‘imprimatur’ (p. 54), gets others to do his bidding on a range of socially conservative agendas, such as the Kevin Andrews’ 1996 anti-Euthanasia Bill. Similar ‘dog-whistle’ style tactics confronted Pauline Hanson’s xenophobia, Fred Nile’s ignorance of Islamic Dress, and his personal friend and parliamentary colleague Bill Heffernan’s bitterly personal homophobic tirade against High Court Judge Justice Michael Kirby. This, as Maddox alleges, is “a Howard strategy tried and tested by the American Christian Right: cultivating others to make extreme comments, making yourself look moderate by comparison … he does not necessarily echo, instead chiming in ‘I understand …’.” (p. 145). Yet as we see with the recent Schapelle Corby case such dog-whistle style politics does not always work, a carefully nurtured audience now expects action against the clearly wrong and threatening ‘other’. In the end, as Maddox points out, Howard’s attachment to that other God, the so-called ‘Market God’ underpins his wider ‘quasi-theological’ philosophy. Such policy aligns itself with the American Religious Right, here mirrored by the Assemblies of God’s preaching of prosperity as God’s blessing to the deserving. Yet such market-based individualism has raised several contradictions in the Howard government’s relations with the mainstream churches. On the one hand Howard needs their support in providing low-cost welfare services in this age of privatised care. Yet on the other he and his lieutenants are quick to denounce the same organisations for ‘meddling’ in politics: their response to the invasion of Iraq and the treatment of refugees coming to mind. For all this while there is clearly a religious influence at work it is harder to claim as Maddox does that there existed a “conservative Christian push to bring Howard to power” (p. 65). Despite his prodigious political smarts, Howard’s accession was undoubtedly aided by being virtually the last man standing.

The shift in conservative politics is bigger than him, and bigger than Australia. His stunning 2004 election clean sweep of both houses did not so much entrench his personal dominance as confirm his position’s congruence with the bigger cultural shifts that he rode to power in the first place. It is hard to see any Liberal Leader in the near future moving out of Manildra Street (p. 221).

Perhaps most frighteningly God Under Howard offers a reality check for those who think an allegedly more ‘liberal’ Peter Costello will depart from Howard-style social conservativism. Costello’s opposition to euthanasia invoked “beliefs which have guided our civilisation and our society from the days of the Ten Commandments” (p. 55-56). He openly advocates a return to ‘Judaeo-Christian values’ and has made a conspicuous point of attending the Hillside Church. So for progressives things are not looking up any time soon. Yet many on the Left cling to a sort of new Whig version of history, with Howard as the personalized obstacle, as Maddox alludes: “since his opposition to gay marriages, suspicion of lesbian couples who want IVF babies, refusal to apologise to wronged people and so on are merely childhood throwbacks rather than conscious policy, they carry with them some assurance, once the man [Howard] finally vacates the Lodge, the policies will fade with him” (pp. 4-5). Add the Republic and Howard’s avoidance of the ‘m’ word, multiculturalism, and you have the full smorgasbord of progressive desires. While all are deserving of remedy they play into Howard’s hands as he tactically works to obfuscate the realities of class-based exploitation and inequality. God Under Howard is a creative and passionate contribution to the existing scholarship, skillfully argued and deserving of a wide readership. But if we are to truly combat conservative hegemony we must acknowledge that God has undoubtedly been marshaled according to the ideological necessities of the Australian ruling class – and it is this religion of banal individualism which above all needs to be interrogated.

Nick Dyrenfurth

School of Historical Studies, Monash University