A week before the federal election, one of most senior figures in the conservative leadership of the Sydney Anglican church made a revealing ― some might even say prophetic ― comment. Canon Bruce Morrison of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in Parramatta told the Sydney Morning Herald that he supported Labor’s economic policies, but he could not vote Labor because of its apparent lack of commitment to religious freedom.
His comments highlight the extraordinary opportunity Labor had, but missed, to build relationships with religious communities ― relationships that have been neglected ever since Kevin Rudd won the 2007 federal election.
Here was an out and proud Christian conservative willing to support what was arguably the most redistributionist policy in the ALP’s recent history. But because the party was vague, even slippery, on the rights of faith-based schools to teach their doctrine and ask their staff to embody the school’s values, Labor lost the vote of Bruce Morrison and, quite possibly, tens of thousands like him.
In the same article Lyndal and Chris Parfoot said their local member, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, was “not generous enough towards refugees.” But the couple still voted for Dutton because the Liberals were closer to them on “family values.”
Only a mug would claim religious freedom was the defining or decisive factor in the surprise re-election of the Coalition government. Only the naïve would say it had nothing to do with the swing to the Coalition in key marginal seats.
Sociologist Andrew Singleton of Deakin University has crunched some data about one specific faith group, Pentecostal Christians. In Forde, Leichhardt and Bonner ― three marginal Queensland seats retained by the government, in some cases on swings of more than seven percent ― the number of Pentecostal Christians is 50 to 80 percent higher than the state average, which is about 2,400 per electorate. These were not “Adani” seats, where the proposed coal mine was the decisive issue. In the NSW seat of Lindsay, the number of Pentecostals is more than 50 percent higher than the state average. Labor lost on a swing of almost seven percent.
True, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a Pentecostal, giving him a running start with voters from this fast-growing Christian community of about 270,000 around the country. But the Prime Minister’s faith, and the traditional social values its embodies, resonates with the broader community of evangelicals and Catholics who attend church regularly.
Western Sydney is Labor’s ethnic heartland, where the “No” vote in the same-sex marriage ballot was between 55 percent and 70 percent. Last Saturday, there was an average five percent swing against the ALP. Some of these voters were Eastern Rite Christians, others Muslims, others Hindus and Buddhists.
God or Labor?
So how does the ALP deal with this fractured relationship with religious voters, not just Christians?
No one expects Labor politicians to fake a religious identity they don’t hold or wear only lightly. They do expect Labor will respect their rights ― enshrined in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which Labor legend “Doc” Evatt helped draw up ― to believe, to manifest these beliefs in private and public, and to educate their children according to these beliefs. In a pluralist democracy, that’s a pretty modest demand.
Labor, and the broader left, need to understand that you cannot celebrate multiculturalism without supporting religious freedom. Internal ALP research shows that the best indicator of a person’s willingness to vote Labor is how recently they migrated to Australia. The census tells us that the best indicator of how religiously observant a person is, is how recently they migrated to Australia.
In recent years, several Labor MPs have shared with me their expectation that second-generation migrants will grow out of their religion. Apart from the condescension, it’s probably a forlorn hope. Young Muslim Australians, for example, are often more religious ― more proud of their faith and its capacity to guide their lives ― than their parents.
How, then, should Labor begin its dialogue with faith communities?
At very least, with sincerity, accepting the right of religious Australians to maintain their values, no matter how unfashionable they may seem to the cultural left that influences modern Labor. They must not present conservative Christians with false moral choices. They mustn’t confuse conservative Christians with political conservatives. Above all, they must not make faith communities choose between Labor and the God they worship.
Regardless of the merits of the issue, Labor’s political position on same-sex marriage ― all in favour, no open dissent from any MPs ― sent the wrong message to many Australians who voted “No.” It told the roughly 20 percent of people who lean left on economics, workers’ rights and public services, but hew to traditional values on the family and sexuality, that there was no longer a place for them in Labor’s fold.
I know of eight to ten Labor MPs and senators who wanted to vote against same-sex marriage in the parliament ― that is, to use Labor’s long-standing rule and vote according to their consciences on moral issues ― but were silenced and pressured by the leadership, warning they would be “on the wrong side of history.” That may be so, but they would have been on the side of many Labor voters.
Learning from Obama
Look at where this strategy has left the Democratic Party in the United States. In 1992, it banned Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey from addressing its convention. Casey was for unions, civil rights, progressive taxation, public education and universal health care. He was a classic “New Deal” Democrat. But he was also pro-life, based on his social justice Catholicism. Silenced by his own party, Casey grew estranged from the Democrats, along with millions of working class, union and ethnic Catholics. The Democrats thereby turbo-charged a culture war that over thirty years has weakened their grip on the congress, governorships and state legislatures, where so much consequential law is made. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama lost Democratic control of congress just two years into their eight-year terms, seriously weakening their presidencies.
Counterintuitively, Barack Obama offers a lesson to Labor. At the 2016 presidential election, just 19 percent of white evangelicals voted for Hillary Clinton. But eight years earlier, Obama won 26 percent of their vote. Evangelicals helped him carry Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina, and almost win Missouri. They helped deliver him the biggest victory for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
As his brilliant young adviser on faith issues, Michael Wear, explained in his memoir Reclaiming Hope, Obama did something revolutionary for a modern Democrat: he talked to evangelicals ― with candour and respect. He never promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn abortion rights, but he found enough common ground to agree that abortion, even when necessary, was sad, and that a good society does all it can to make abortion unnecessary. He pitched himself to young evangelicals concerned about “creation care.”
Even before Obama courted evangelicals, Labor frontbencher Kevin Rudd was reaching out to faith-based voters. Having told the ABC’s Geraldine Doogue in 2003 that he was “an old-fashioned Christian socialist” ― consolidating a Labor tradition with left-leaning Catholics and Protestants ― he went one critical step further. After the 2004 election saw the brief but consequential rise of the Family First party and Senator Steve Fielding, Rudd went to the evangelicals and Pentecostals with a simple question: what do you get from Family First, and the Coalition to which they direct preferences, that you don’t get from Labor? He established a faith and values working group in the ALP caucus.
Kevin Rudd himself is a Catholic who turned to high church Anglicanism by means of the Uniting Church, and he never claimed to “speak” evangelical or Pentecostal. But his serious outreach showed those communities that Labor did not hold them in contempt, but regarded them with respect.
Then, on the eve of his thumping defeat at the 2013 election, Rudd went on ABC’s Q&A program. In response to a question from a pastor ― asked more in sorrow than anger ― about why Rudd had changed his position on same-sex marriage, Rudd tried to humiliate the man, almost spitting the word “mate” at him. But he could have shown generosity towards a fellow Christian, explaining that he had read his Bible and examined his conscience and arrived at a different conclusion.
And so we come to Bill Shorten and his handling of faith issues during the 2019 election campaign. When religion came up in the second debate, he was respectful but non-committal. By the third debate, the issue had gone from abstract to concrete, after the sacking of footballer Israel Folau for comments deemed homophobic. Shorten was evasive. While Scott Morrison said unequivocally that he believed in religious freedom, Shorten was all “on the one hand this, on the other that” ― ultimately suggesting the issue was best handled by lawyers at the Law Reform Commission.
By the final week of the campaign, he made an ill-judged intervention, demanding the Prime Minister discuss his views on gay people and hell. Maybe Shorten’s advisers thought it would wedge Morrison, forcing him to renounce a core belief or unmasking him as a homophobe. Labor senator Penny Wong didn’t help when she demanded Morrison disendorse Liberal candidates who opposed same-sex marriage, especially given almost four in ten Australians shared that view. It looked desperate.
Almost as desperate were the Labor campaigners in the Victorian seat of Chisholm, who thought they had nailed the Liberal candidate Gladys Lui. She had described aspects of transgender and “intergender” theory as “rubbish.” Labor lost the seat, which on a margin of about two percent should have been a gimme.
Labor does not need to win a majority of the “Christian vote,” if such an undifferentiated block even exists. But it should not give faith-based voters a reason to vote against the ALP purely on the basis of religion.
Lessons for Labor
The National Church Life Survey (NCLS) is a valuable, if neglected, document. Taken every five years, it is the biggest survey outside of the census. And it tells a story of great potential for Labor.
Inside the churches, you will find a disproportionately high number of: women; people involved in the caring professions, such as nurses, doctors, teachers and social workers; volunteers for both religious and secular organisations; donors to both religious and secular charities; and university graduates. Most churches ― including evangelical and Pentecostal congregations ― are not bulging with wealthy, avaricious, tooth-and-claw capitalists. They are people whose faith affirms their work and whose work affirms their faith.
Congregations are places of “binding capital” ― bringing together people of common values ― and “bridging capital.” Worshippers are also likely to be involved in Parents and Citizens Associations, sports clubs, Rotary clubs, environmental groups and unions. (You would be surprised how many teachers’ and nurses’ union reps you might encounter at church.)
The NCLS shows 41 percent of people who are regular worshippers votes for the Coalition compared with 26 percent for Labor. But how many skew towards the Coalition because they believe Labor is hostile to their faith? How many would be like Canon Bruce Morrison, open to voting for the ALP and its egalitarian economic agenda if not for fears about religious freedom?
Speaking honestly and respectfully with communities of faith is not about notches on the belt, nor about vacuuming up the religious vote. It is about telling people of faith, so integral to a multicultural Australia, you don’t have to face false moral choices. You don’t have to choose between Labor and God.
Andrew West is the host of The Religion and Ethics Report on RN. He covered politics for more than a decade for major newspapers, wrote the biography of former Labor premier and foreign minister Bob Carr, and in the mid-1990s was an assistant adviser to a Labor minister.