Growth in the religiously unaffiliated is a demographic catastrophe for a Christian party that only speaks to the faithful. However, the recent federal election has clearly shown that Christians, on the right or left, are a growing voting bloc.
“I have always believed in miracles,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared as he pulled off one of the biggest electoral turnarounds in recent political history. Contrary to secular media and public opinion, there seems to be a political shift taking place: the growth in faith-based voters.
The most recent ABS Census (2016) shows that 12.2 million Australians (52%) identified themselves as Christians. According McCrindle research, 33% of Australians consider themselves Christian in a more considered sense (8 million people) while 9% actively participate in a church or community of faith (1.6 million people).
According to a recent ABC News report the “religious left” is growing, and while they may not wield the same political power as the Christian right, they are nonetheless emerging as a diverse, passionate and active voting bloc in Australia. While the conservative Christians on the right identify with a distinct set of issues such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia, religious freedom, and abortion the religious left complicate the voting patterns given that there’s a “clear commitment to social justice among the progressive and pious on the religious left, they’re not wholly subscribed to the left’s full agenda”.
In light of these trends, what is the future for Christian-based political parties such as the Christian Democratic Party of Australia (CDP)?
Sense and secularity
As the former federal and NSW state director of the CDP and campaign director for the 2016 federal elections, I was always taunted by secular colleagues with such slogans “so you work for the Christian Declining Party” or Christian Decimated Party or Devastated, Demolished, Destroyed, Diminishing, Dwindling, Disappearing. In this changed political climate, the CDP can only hope to succeed by greatly expanding its appeal to non-Christians.
The process of secularisation has been moving rapidly in Australia compared to the US where a study by Pew Research found that 23% of Americans say they’re “unaffiliated” with any religious tradition, up from 20% just three years earlier. In Australia, 2017 McCrindle research found 44% of respondents did not identify with any religion whatsoever.
In that same study, the biggest blocker to Australians engaging with Christianity was the church’s stance and teaching on homosexuality (31% said this completely blocks their interest). This was followed by “How could a loving God allow people to go to hell?” (28%) which explains the public reaction to Israel Folau’s “hell” post on social media.
I am neither a brain surgeon nor a rocket scientist but my sense tells me that this trend away from faith is only bound to increase with time. The trends are that more adults under the age of 50 are “opting out” of religion; “no faith’ is now the fastest growing “religion” in Australia.
If the growth in non-believers continues, the argument goes, these people will return to the sanctuary and back into the conservative parties such as One Nation, Australian Conservatives, and of course the Coalition. The argument might be a comfortable one to conservatives of faith, but it is not supported by the facts.
So, do fewer Christians mean fewer CDP voters? The implications of Australians’ exodus from cultural Christianity are significant for the political right because the religiously unaffiliated appear to have a real preference for Greens, One Nation and perhaps even one-issue parties.
This demographic trend is creating what we could call the “undecided unbelievers” — a voting disparity that is particularly harmful to Christian-based parties.
While secular people have always favoured Liberal or Labor for as long as the data goes back, the situation has actually become even worse in recent years for the CDP. Data on past elections indicates a marked decline for CDP support since 1981.
The likely reason why CDP support has declined in popularity, especially among the non-religious, is CDP’s long tradition of identifying itself as a Christian party and pushing the “Judeo-Christian values” at any cost and at the expense of economic and social policies.
The choice ahead
I have always held the view as a Christian that we should be intolerant of whatever God does not tolerate, regardless of popular secular opinion. As a former and active political adviser in the first term of the Howard government, I was often guilty of “bowing down” at the altar of public opinion just to win votes. I, along with many other Christians in politics, have had to choose between our Christian ethics and the realities of politics. This is now the choice CDP must face.
Interestingly, I have often noticed at various CDP political rallies and meetings that we began with an appeal to Jesus Christ, and rightly so, but without any regard to making an outsider feel at home. At the very least such public displays of Christian belief at ostensibly secular events certainly do not encourage them to participate or to become enthusiastic.
In loving sincerity, here are the hardcore options for Christian political parties and the CDP in particular. First, they need to reinvent themselves. The word “Christian” in a political party name no longer resonates with the electorate. Secondly, the Christian political movement needs a new “champion” to wave the Christian flag.
When Fred Nile came to the NSW electorate in 1981 under the “Call to Australia” banner he was waving the Christian flag and saw a successful +7.8 swing. The Christian political movement desperately needs a “new Fred Nile” who is articulate, engaging, honest, compassionate, flexible (but uncompromising) with integrity and optimism. Many thought that the Australian Conservatives (AC) leader Cory Bernardi was the likely new pseudo-Christian champion, but alas the AC polled pathetically in all the states (0.5 in NSW) with little or any apparent impact on the electorates.
Thirdly, while not ignoring or abandoning traditional biblical-based principles, Christian-based policies need to be more encompassing and certainly more “hip-pocket” oriented. Policies need to correlate Christian beliefs with economic and social issues of homelessness, unemployment, heath, aging population, housing affordability, and so on.
Lastly, any Christian-based party needs to engage with its constituent base: the churches. For far too long, churches have been reluctant to enter the public arena space claiming that “church and state” cannot be sitting in the same pew. If we are to make disciples, then more than ever we need committed Christians in politics. Any Christian-based political party will need to ensure that it embraces the resources and the spiritual wealth within the houses of God (1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 3:6; and 1 Peter 4:17).
As we approach 2022 and beyond, Christian conservative parties such as CDP face a choice. And there is a choice. They can either continue to pigeonhole their politics and become a small group of frustrated Christian traditionalists who grow ever more resentful toward their fellow Australians, or they can embrace reality—following a faith which wants Christians to first put their own affairs in order and then render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s whilst at the same time carrying out the Great Commission.
Greg Bondar is the NSW state director of FamilyVoice Australia, and was formerly the federal and NSW state director of the Christian Democratic Party.