Are moral values the new politics?

Author: David Marr is an Australian journalist, author, and political and social commentator

Brian Houston and I have so much in common. Forty years ago I, too, threw myself at the feet of Jesus. And my state of mind then remains my rough guide even today to the deep attraction Christianity has always had for troubled people and troubled societies. I was confused and fearful. I needed rules to follow. I was ashamed and desperate to feel better about myself. I was looking for some magic in my life.

Being down there at the feet of Jesus meant handing over authority in my life to someone else. Obedience was the immediate goal. Obedience to Him. But as Christ declined to speak to me directly and the Bible proved not very helpful on a day to day basis, I was left to obey preachers. They told me what not to do - they were always far better at forbidding than bidding - and told what to think. I was happy with this for years.

That in the end I found it didn't work is a story for another time. The point of this snippet of biography is that when people ask me why on earth Australian politics has, at the beginning of the 21st century, become once again entangled with religion I can turn to my own - very common - experience for answers. It's about being human. It's about the way humans faced with change, cling to authority and rules. It's about the way shame never really leaves us - and about how, when we're feeling most powerless, we start to put our faith in faith. In dreams. In magic.

So in these prosperous but challenging times, thousands turn out each week to Brian's emporia in Castle Hill and Waterloo - and in hundreds of other Pentecostal meeting places across Australia. They lap up the preaching, they sing, they dance, they speak in tongues, they revel in an atmosphere that promises miracles. They don't stay long, only two or three years for the most part, but in that time they hand over very large sums of money. They drift away and new recruits appear to take their place. And the cycle begins all over again.

Lets face it: God does not exist, but Hillsong does. And you'd be a fool - particularly if you're a politician - not to recognise there's something important going on here, a new kind of congregation with deep pockets, ugly ideas and elusive political ambitions.

Now let's be clear about this. Brian Houston and Hillsong church have as much right to be mixed up in politics as Frank Lowy and Westfield. And journalists like me have as much right to analyse - perhaps even denounce - what Hillsong is up to as we have to analyse the impact the big end of town property developers are having on Labor politics. One difference here, of course, is that Lowy has to pay tax, pay dividends and publish his accounts. Brian's faith-based enterprises don't pay tax, don't have shareholders and never need to tell the world what happens to their mountains of cash. The greatest privilege Australia extends to its churches is the right to keep all their money to themselves and to keep it hidden.

Now brothers and sisters there are hard heads in the ranks tonight, number crunchers out there wondering why on earth any of this matters in the most secular country on earth. Certainly the most recent National Church Life Survey confirmed that fewer of us than ever are going to church each week. In the five years before 2001, there was a worship slump across the board. Catholic numbers dropped a staggering 13% - a verdict on the pontificate of John Paul II not reflected in the outpourings of the popular press when he died. Protestants managed a very slight growth of 1% in those years thanks only to the extraordinary vitality of Pentecostal churches like Hillsong. The bottom line is that these days only about 9% of us actually darken the doors of a church each week.

But in this subtle country of ours, that 9% is not the figure that counts. What matters here is the far larger percentage of Australians - not worshipers, perhaps even agnostics and on the whole extremely conservative - who admire committed Christians for their faith. As that wonderful analyst Marion Maddox has observed, we're a very secular nation that trusts and admires Christians. We think they're moral people. We see them having an especially direct connection to the bedrock of our society: what John Howard calls this country's Judeo-Christian ethic.

Listening to the eulogies at Joh's funeral in Kingaroy - a scene nearly beyond the powers of the English language to describe - it struck me that it wasn't just hypocrisy that had every speaker making so much of Joh's very public Christianity. I take the view - perhaps harsh - that a man as corrupt, inept, greedy and brutal as Joh Bjelke Petersen, had no right to call himself a Christian. But the crowd reciting the creed in the Kingaroy Town Hall was of a different and I suspect more Australian mind. For them Joh's Christianity wasn't unconvincing or incongruous. It was his saving grace. Even in death, it still got their vote.

We trust Christians, we trust Christian leaders and we trust that Christianity is good for the country. Of course, there are Christians and Christians. The Howard government hasn't much time for the sort of Christians who want to make life better for everyone in this world and bang on about war, refugees, reconciliation, welfare, Mabo, poverty etc. Bill Deane was one of these - a great Catholic conscience but for John Howard a most irritating Governor General. No, the sort of Christians preferred by the Howard government - and most of the Labor party for that matter - are those obsessed by the hopes they have for the next life and their own salvation. These are the tough boys of modern Catholicism plus the new evangelicals and Pentecostals.

These people are so much easier to do deals with. Banning gay marriage is a snack compared to, say, dealing decently with a flood of Afghan refugees. Beating up on drug addicts is so much easier than, say, truly confronting black urban poverty. Outlawing euthanasia wasn't easy and wasn't popular but it was very much appreciated by a coalition of hardline Christians. And while it's beyond secular politics in this country to satisfy passionate Catholic demands on abortion, it's easy and worthwhile making life difficult for scientists conducting stem cell research, if that keeps George Pell and the Jensen brothers happy.

One of the unpleasant things about Christians, Moslems and Jews is their way of finding people to hate in order to feel better about themselves. Hating each other is still potent of course - though Christians hating Jews looks a bit shabby in the 21st century. Hating blacks was still very popular with some Christians in South Africa as recently as a decade ago but is now quite out of fashion. The dwindling of groups the religious can decently hate explains, in large part, the resurgence of hatred for homosexuals in the last couple of decades. It's the greatest ecumenical force in Christianity today and it's alive, of course, at fuzzy friendly Hillsong where the rhetoric of inclusion doesn't extend to poofs - unless, of course, they're willing to take the cure.

And the major political parties - Labor and the Coalition - are at times still willing to deal in this particular bigotry for political advantage. So Howard privileges the Catholic bishops to go to the High Court to try to stop Lesbians having IVF. And the other day the Sydney Morning Herald reported the Immigration Department's refusal to treat same sex couples - in this case a British doctor and his partner of eight years - on the same basis as heterosexual couples coming to this country to work. It's bigotry, sheer bigotry and the audience is Christian.

Important as these moral issues are to Christians, they're only the sippets in the soup. To understand what's really going on between the churches and secular politicians in Australia you have to focus on the money. The financial privileges of the churches are politically untouchable. That's a given in Australia. The $40 million or so Hillsong reaps each year from tythes, tapes and books like Brian's You Need More Money won't be taxed. But now there's a fresh development: a flood of public cash sluicing through the churches and church organisations to provide faith-based delivery of public services. The money is simultaneously enriching and silencing the churches. And all political parties except the Greens are committed to pouring fresh fortunes into Christian education. Catholic schools alone get over $12 billion a year.

I say let it gush. Having been to a church school myself, I know the wonderful truth about these places: they produce hardly any Christians. Churches tie themselves in knots trying to make the machine more efficient - hiring only Christians as teachers, giving more Bible classes and less sex education - but nothing works to make these schools churn out battalions of faithful. Why? Because all those years of talking about Jesus have, in the end, an inoculating effect. A typical Christian education teaches you hymns and bible stories and lets you get your heady Christian years out of the way by late adolescence. Like acne.

The textbooks tell us, that by supporting church morals, politicians offer a troubled electorate the sort of reassurance that persuades people to vote conservative even if it's against their best - particularly their best economic - interests. Now that is so, and has been argued at length by me and others. Support for the Christian idea of family - no poofs, no drugs, no divorce, no grown up video games, no Lesbian mothers - is the great consolation prize offered to real families whose futures have been made if not marginal then uncertain by the free market revolution of the last 15 years.

But let's not forget in this the good old fashioned quids pro quo that flow from political backing of the churches. The service can be remarkable. George Pell declared there was no Catholic position on GST in the 1998 campaign. That was a circuit breaker. In the 2001 campaign he said he never comments during election campaigns so couldn't protest the government's treatment of refugees. And for the 2004 campaign, Pell - by this time Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney - joined forces with the Anglican archbishop Peter Jensen to damn Labor's plans to divert public money from the richest church schools. Now that's service. That's getting your money's worth.

Not that the churches are willing to leave it entirely up to the big party politicians. The Democrats were, especially in their early years, the Uniting Church in the Senate. And the prospect of the party's demise - worse the prospect of the atheist Greens holding the balance of power in the upper house - provoked the Assemblies of God - of which Hillsong is a leading congregation - to form Family First and spend over a million dollars on television advertising to win one Senate seat: a television campaign that focused on the horrors of gay marriage and drugs.

One of the iron rules of Christians in politics - I think it goes back to late Imperial Rome - is to work by stealth. So some remarkable things have been said over the last eight months to try to deny the links between Family First and the Assemblies of God. A few weeks ago Brian was in the papers saying: "The Assemblies of God in Australia does not have a political vision and we don't have a political agenda."

According to Brian it's a kind of co-incidence that so many members of the Assemblies of God are mixed up in the party - like its founder, its chairman and several of its senate candidates - though not, ironically Steve Fielding the only one who got up. In any case, Brian's denials are quite futile. During the elections last year the new party's PR, Darren Keneally admitted the network of the Assemblies of God gave Family First it's "organic base".

When the Senate resumes after the winter break, Fielding will be there on the red benches doing what that old Catholic stager Brian Harradine did for all those years: advancing the faith by tactical stealth and political leverage.

Down in Canberra, my colleagues in the press gallery are scratching their heads. They haven't a clue what Fielding stands for. What if any are the moral issues that will form the centre of this new party's politics? Here's my prediction. Fielding will of course guard the cash like a Rotweiler. But the individual items on the conservative Christian checklist - abortion, poofs etc - aren't going to count for nearly as much as the propagation of the Hillsong brand of "prosperity gospel": the idea that God will see that all true Christians live in abundance.

The doctrine fits perfectly with the moral mood of Australia under John Howard and the way the extraordinary prosperity of the country has anesthetised deeper moral debate. We're prosperous and that's all that matters is the secular version of this heresy. We're prosperous and that's proof of God's approval is the religious version. Either way it's a doctrine whose time has come in Canberra as much as Castle Hill. Good times are Good times. Let them roll.