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Federal

Dec 21, 2009

Don't write off the fundamentalists just yet

We have got ourselves politicians who seem determined to pander to fundamentalism: either because they share its values, or because their party machines are captive to its lobbying power.

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Those who are concerned about the political influence of religious fundamentalism could take some comfort from yesterday’s Age, which informed readers that “An analysis of the 2007 election by academic Rodney Smith shows the power of the so-called ‘Christian right’ has been overstated”.

Unfortunately, The Age gave no assistance to anyone wanting to check the truth of this claim, giving the author’s name but not the title or location of the paper, and of course no hyperlink. A few minutes with Google unearthed the full version — it’s “How Would Jesus Vote? The Churches and the Election of the Rudd Government”, in the current issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science, apparently based on a conference paper from July last year — but few readers are likely to make the effort.

Which is a pity — not because the story misrepresents the paper (it actually summarises it quite well), but because the paper does little to touch the fears of most critics of fundamentalism (of whom I am one), and indeed some of the evidence it marshals might reinforce rather than assuage those fears.

Smith’s main argument is that religion in Australia is a diverse beast, and that the religious message in the 2007 election ranged over so many issues and points of view that it is impossible to distill a specific Christian influence.

But this argument sets up a straw person. No one thinks religion is monolithic, and no one much worries about the influence of mainstream, wishy-washy, welfare-friendly churches. The concern is about a particular sort of religious extremism; the fact that there are other voices peddling (ineffectually) a more moderate message is neither here nor there.

In fact, Smith’s own data shows that religious groups that engaged in direct political advocacy had consistent themes and a consistent anti-Labor and anti-Greens message — the only exceptions being the left-leaning Centre for an Ethical Society and Make Poverty History, whose electoral profile was negligible.

Smith’s efforts to deny that Labor moved to appease the religious right before the 2007 election also seem doomed to failure; he takes at face value Kevin Rudd’s denial that his personal religiosity should influence anyone to vote for him, and ignores or downplays evidence of policy shifts, such as Stephen Conroy’s internet censorship plan.

Most interesting is Smith’s analysis of the election result, which suggests that at least some fundamentalist targeting of particular seats was ineffective; it’s a small sample, but it corroborates the view that Labor was not hurt by religious hostility.

This too, however, misunderstands what the critics of fundamentalism are on about. The problem is not that religious fundamentalists have strong electoral support, but rather that they have political influence despite their lack of support.

From a variety of causes, we have got ourselves a set of politicians who seem determined to pander to fundamentalism: either because they share its values, or because their party machines are captive to its lobbying power, or because they fear its influence in the wider electorate. Proof of the religious right’s failure at the ballot box may make some headway against the last reason, but seems powerless against the others.

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3 comments

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3 thoughts on “Don’t write off the fundamentalists just yet

  1. Barry Welch

    Of interest will be those Christian fundamentalists ,the scions of the Covenantors, with a pathological hatred of popery weighing up Abbot’s opposition to abortion and gay rights with his being at the beck and call of Cardinal Pell, the Popes man in Oz.
    A conundrum that will require divine guidance, I’m sure.

  2. Mark Duffett

    …Make Poverty History, whose electoral profile was negligible.

    That wasn’t my impression. I’d have said MPH had a far higher profile than any other religious-based campaign.

  3. Phil

    Poor Charles, to admit to being a Christian fundamentalist these days is sheer madness, because it proves it. How any educated person with even just a basic knowledge of the wonders that science has uncovered and proven to be fact, which renders today’s religions totally irreconcilable with rational thinking is beyond belief.

    The fact that fundies vote on issues like where some people place their penis or that woman has no control over her reproduction is a sure sign they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a ballet box.

    There’s a very important reason democracy needs to have separation of church and state to be a healthy and workable. I think it’s high time we strengthened Australia’s constitution to ensure that this separation will never be in doubt for ever or at least to the second coming.

    Understanding that the only thing that has died to ensure our existence were ancient stars and not a bloke who’s made up birthday some are soon to celebrate is past debate. The time for reasoned logic is now. The human race faces some important issues that only science will solve. If we’re to exist for much longer our rock we cannot be sidetracked by superstition and belief in myths or fairy tales. I look forward to the day when religion is reviled as is nazism is today. The human race wil have then made some real progress.

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