what that Bob Carr, Peter Costello, four other federal cabinet
ministers, eight Liberal backbenchers and Nationals Senate leadership
team joined Pastor Brian Houston and 30,000 members of his Hillsong
congregation last night at the start of their annual leadership
convention – as the Sydney Morning Herald reports here?

The media is making a bigger noise than the faithful. Why can’t we cope with evangelical Christianity?

Tony Jones is one of our best interviewers, but he kicked off an interview
with Costello from outside the rally last night with: “Do you feel a
bit like Billy Graham when you’re out in front of a crowd like that?”
It’s a glib line.

Jones made Costello do a bit of fancy footwork
with questions like: “A bit of creationism can’t hurt; is that what
you’re saying?” Perhaps the treasurer was unhappy at having to stand
for the interview, or perhaps the night was a bit nippy and he had to
shuffle around a bit. Whatever. It’s still a superficial approach.

There’s a new dynamic in Australian politics now, with the new Senate
and a new assertiveness on the government backbench. That means we have
to consider the impact of religion – or values – on political behaviour
in a new light. Taking clichéd impressions of American fundamentalism
won’t do.

of Australians call themselves Christians, according to the last
census. 68% of 20 million people is a lot, but so far it hasn’t
translated into votes. Members of just two of the old, mainstream
Christian denominations, Anglicans and Catholics, make up 46.5% of the
population – but they’re largely detached from their churches. Most
stay home on Sunday.

Evangelical Christians don’t. Around
200,000 Australians attend Pentecostal services each weekend – 12,000
at Hillsong alone. They listen to what their pastors tell them to do.
And guess how many House of Representatives votes Family First received
at the election? 235,000.

Andrew Evans, one of Family First’s
founders, a member of the South Australian Legislative Council since
2002 and a pastor at the church that produced pop star Guy Sebastian
has said that Family First has political ambitions beyond its Christian
base. “We have seen the failure of Christian parties in the past. They
cut off a whole heap of people who might like some of their values but
who are not Christian.”

US political commentators claim “values
voters” were behind the re-election of George W Bush. Dismissing all
these people as fundamentalists or evangelicals is wrong. Their
Australian counterparts mightn’t even believe in God – but instead send
their kids to church schools because they believe the teaching and
discipline are better.

Grahame Morris has said people “who
believed in standards and discipline” played an important role getting
the Liberals into government in 1996. Morris talks about “blokes who’d
speak their mind in the front bar.”

These sort of people don’t
care much for gay rights. They don’t hate gays. What they do hate,
however, are politicians who tell them that they’re rednecks. The
politicians are noticing. It’s time the media did.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey