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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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