Testing times for the true believers

The increasing use of personal profiling for politicians has led to something of a spiritual split down ACT candidate lines for the Federal election.

Of the three Labor candidates for the ACT, none are religious and two identify as atheists.

In contrast, two of the Liberal candidates publicly identify as Catholic and one “firmly believes in God”, in line with the stance of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Greens senate candidate, Lin Hatfield Dodds, is a lifelong member of the Uniting Church.

Who cares? Well, apparently voters do.

ANU School of Management, Marketing and International Business lecturer Andrew Hughes argues that the recent habits of Abbott and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd referencing aspects of Christian faith, placing political decisions in moralistic contexts and regularly re-enforcing religious association through weekend doorstops at church is a form of political branding.

“They’re positioning themselves in the market,” Hughes said.

“Emphasising their Christian values to the market. They don’t say that, they say they stand for ‘family values’, which is bit more PC, but that’s essentially what they’re doing and whether it’s going to have any sort of broad base appeal is really interesting.

“In Australia 80 per cent of people believe in God, but whether it’s going to sway their vote is another story.”

“It is important because you need to have your leader stand for something and have a basic connection, something that people can relate to.

“But you need to be careful about saying that religious connection is so important, you’re not a religious leader you’re a political leader.”

Hughes says while historically adherence to Christian faith hasn’t been hidden, Labor is traditionally Catholic and Liberal Anglican, faith identification is more out in the media than ever before.

Julia Gillard’s status as an unmarried, childless atheist has been routinely highlighted in the mainstream since her rise to PM.

Professor of Public Ethics at Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics and former Greens candidate Clive Hamilton says the display of religious belief in political public image is an American influence that does not relate to Australian voters.

“There’s always been a strong strand of secular morality in Australia and I haven’t noticed any shift in the broader populace,” he said.

“I’m inclined to believe that the more politicians spruik about their religious beliefs the shallower their beliefs are.

“Those who are strong in their faith feel less need to convince others of it. It’s designed to communicate to voters that ‘I am an ethical, trustworthy person’, but an atheist can be just as ethical and trustworthy.

“I’ve got no objection to religious people going into politics, people base their moral views on all kinds of things and I respect that, but I think we have to be a little bit cynical about people who loudly and repeatedly announce their religious affiliations.”

ACT Liberal Senator Gary Humphries is a member of the Catholic church. He says faith is important to him, but it isn’t the determinant through which he makes political decisions or judgements.

Liberal candidate for the seat of Fraser James Milligan does not go to church, but he believes in God and says religion has a role to play in Australia’s political sphere.

“I do believe that both have their part in society and we should reflect both values and do what we can to represent them. Government also has to respect religion as well and represent that.”

Liberal candidate for the seat of Canberra, Giulia Jones, emphasises the importance of her Catholic faith in the way she approaches social issues within her community.

“We all get influenced by different things and I think ultimately it’s enriched my life. It makes you stop and question what you do sometimes. It makes you stop and look inside yourself a little bit more, instead of just ploughing on to do whatever you like.”

ACT Labor Senator Kate Lundy said she is not religious and that faith is a personal choice and that the Catholic ranks within the Liberal Party are exercising that choice.

“That’s their business. It’s a politician’s choice how we present ourselves.”

Labor candidate for the seat of Canberra Gai Brodtmann agrees, but says you don’t need religion to have a solid framework of strong moral values.

“I believe religion is a personal matter and I respect every person’s right to religious freedom. Everyone is informed and guided in different ways. I have my own set of values that guide me that have been informed by my life experience,” she said.

While Labor candidate for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, is an atheist, he admits that organised religion has played an important role in the things he values and thoughts on notions of community in Australia.

“Personally I’m an atheist. I haven’t been able to maintain a faith in an external being. But I love the rituals of church,” he said.

“I love the social service ethos.

“There’s been a huge decline over the last 40 years in people’s involvement in a whole lot of community organisations: guides, scouts, the RSL, Rotary, Lyons, political parties themselves, church attendance, union membership; all that’s just been steadily declining and I think it’s important to try and think about creative ways of revitalising those organisations.

“It’s not necessarily government, I think that partly it’s about encouraging people to take part in community activities and get involved again.”

It is this sense of community that fuels the Greens’ Lin Hatfield Dodds.

“Is faith important to me? Yes. I grew up in the Uniting Church, a very progressive and inclusive church.

“If I had to say a group of people that were my tribe, the Uniting Church would be my tribe. It’s where I grew up and it’s where I formed. And that probably explains a lot of my passion about social justice, it comes out of that framework.”

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