Understanding the Christian Vote: Evangelicals and the Influence of the Christian Right by Brian Edgar, Director of Public Theology of the Australian Evangelical Alliance
——————————————————————————– The coalition victory [in Australia] and the emergence of the Family First party have triggered a significant debate about the role of conservative Christians in politics. Dubbed indiscriminately as ‘evangelicals’, the Christians who worship at the charismatic and Pentecostal churches in suburbia have been largely credited with shifting the centre of gravity in Australian politics to the right.
While this apparent electoral success has produced a chorus of ‘hallelujahs’ in many churches, it has also raised fears about a new era of influence by an American style Religious Right, bent on imposing a fundamentalist moral agenda on the country. So who are these emerging Christian conservatives, and do these fears stack up?
Firstly, evangelicals are mainstream Christians found in charismatic and pentecostal congregations and also in Anglican, Baptist, Uniting and many other churches.
Secondly, being evangelical does not mean having a particular position on the left-right political spectrum. The origin of the trade union movement is intimately connected with evangelicalism, and the first meeting of the Labour party in the UK was in a Methodist chapel. Evangelicals actually vote right across the political spectrum. One Green candidate at the recent election was an evangelical bible college lecturer, who claimed that the Green agenda was in fact worthy of the Christian vote precisely because it addressed a range of environmental and social issues that the bible takes seriously.
All evangelicals agree that ‘family issues’ are critical. While some have seen this as the only definitive electoral issue – and their influence has been considerable – many want to also address other important issues of compassion and justice that were conspicuously neglected in the recent election campaign. One of the most glaring is the shamefully low level of Australia’s overseas aid, in which successive governments have been complicit. Australia’s overseas aid contribution is at a historically low level of 0.26% of Gross National Income – this while the government proudly stands on its record of wealth creation.
There is a whole range of missing issues. Where, for example, in the election campaign was the debate on the continuing crisis in indigenous health and education, fair trade (with countries other than the US), the morality of child detention or the status of the Millennium Development Goals? These took a back seat as economics and the hip-pocket eventually claimed almost exclusive attention.
What of the view that religion has no place in politics? It is a secularist belief that faith and politics have nothing in common and it operates on the false assumption that the non-religious are somehow objective, neutral or unbiased in a way that the religious are not. Christians have both the democratic right and the Christian responsibility to be involved in public matters.
But Christians do need to be clear that the point of political involvement is not to take over the government or impose Christian morality on all people in all areas of life. The evangelical conviction is that Christ is Lord, whoever is in power, and it is dangerous to blindly hitch one’s allegiance to any party, church, majority or government. Governments do not exist for the benefit of Christians, the church or even the majority. They are called by God for the common good and to do justice for all.
Can the emerging Christian movement meet the challenge of making a broad and positive contribution to national policy? Many commentators assume that Family First is too exclusive. But they do have a track record in the South Australian parliament and it is significant that Family First has an indigenous leader, and that it has demonstrated a willingness to work with other groups, including dialogue with other religions. They may well be able to extend their influence well beyond conservative Christians without losing any of their existing support.
If Family First can pursue its family interests by strongly presenting policies for some of Australia’s most disadvantaged families – indigenous families, families with children in detention; families regardless of every cultural and religious background; and if it can speak on behalf of families in developing countries that lack even the most basic means to support, it will deserve all the encouragement it can get from evangelicals of the left as well as the right and from many others as well.
If not then it could become just a Christian version of the political and social self-interest which seeks benefits for me and my family in my culture and my nationality. Australia has enough of that already.
Dr Brian Edgar Director of Public Theology Evangelical Alliance