It emerged recently that John Howard has urged the Coalition to avoid getting too cosy with the Exclusive Brethren – MPs are not to accept their help or donations. No wonder he’s nervous: revelations of the sect’s $1 million-plus backing, recently exposed in journalist Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men, brought down New Zealand’s ultra-dry National Party leader Don Brash.

The public attention will make it harder for the Brethren to “fly beneath the radar”, as they described their “We Are Happy John”, “Green Delusion” and other ads in the 2004 federal and subsequent state elections. As with similar campaigns in New Zealand, Florida, Canada and Sweden, those ads carried names and addresses (sometimes inaccurate or misleading), which were only with difficulty traced to the sect. Now we know where to look.

If New Zealand is any precedent, their next step may be even weirder. With their cover blown as political advertisers, the Exclusive Brethren across the Tasman hired private detectives to trail Labour members, including the Prime Minister’s husband – apparently fishing to back up a rumour (originally insinuated by a conservative Christian magazine, Investigate) that he is gay.

Yet, though the Exclusive Brethren’s rubbish-sifting tactics might finally marginalise them from serious political influence, their brand of hardline capitalist, socially conservative religious politics won’t disappear.

The Exclusive Brethren, with their headscarfed women, segregated schools and refusal to eat with sinners, are the easily derided fringe of a movement that sees untrammeled commerce and heavily-trammeled private lives as essential to salvation.

In 2004, it bubbled below Peter Costello’s warm address to Hillsong megachurch, home of that year’s “Prosperity and Purpose” conference (‘practical keys to doing life well financially’). It popped up in newly elected Member for Bass Michael Ferguson’s enthusing to the ABC’s election-night audience that “I am a Christian, I love the Lord”. It rang through new Greenway MP Louise Markus’s first speech, acknowledging the mentorship of Hillsong’s prosperity preachers, Brian and Bobbie Houston.

But, like the Exclusive Brethren’s stealth campaigns, the “Jesus-loves-the-rich” push is no longer “beneath the radar”. Malcolm Fraser warned of 2007 becoming the “Muslim election”; but Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd seem determined to make it the “Christian election”.

Rudd, cultivating a business-friendly face, might now regret describing himself on the ABC’s Compass as a “Christian socialist”. But many mainline Christians, who always thought their tradition was about justice for the poor and welcome to the outcast, must have applauded when he added, “given what’s happening on the political right in this country … it’s important that people on the centre-left of politics begin to argue a different perspective from within the Christian tradition”.

If a religion election turns out to be about “above the radar” values and principles rather than labels and dog-whistles, it mightn’t be such a bad idea.

Marion Maddox is Reader in Religious Studies at Victoria University Wellington. Her most recent book was God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics (Allen & Unwin 2005).