Friday, May 06, 2005

God Under Howard Review

(Sub Heading: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics.)

This is the latest work from Marion Maddox, former Adelaide Uni lecturer (although unfortunately I never had her) now based in Wellington NZ. The book and its reviews are already stimulating debate from the masses (not to be confused with mass debate) and - big surprise - Bash 'em-Bill Muelhenberg isn't one of the book's big fans. He seems particularly concerned about Maddox's "obvious bias" - and you just know Bill is a model of impartiality and objectiveness in his review.

I guess a book like this will always be hard, if not impossible, to review with total objectivity. I certainly bought it with no expectation it would be particularly unbiased, but this is not to say it's not a balanced, reasoned exploration of an undeniable rising force in politics. Muehlenberg and Co can clutch their hand to the breast and gasp: "Us, a threat? L'il old us?" which he effectively does in his review:

According to Maddox, the religious right is a nefarious, organised and monolithic threat that must be guarded against. But is it? Hardly, from where I sit.

Bollocks. The RRR is indeed at times nefarious, definitely well-organised (not to mention well-funded) and single-minded in its holy quest to impose its antiquated dogma into our legislature.

Maddox's chapters range from analyses of American evangelical Pentacostalism and its growing significance in Australia, through to right-wing think tanks and to what she labels the "Market God", the one who wants you to make more money, at least according to the novel of Hillsong's Senior Pastor Brian Houston. She covers defining moments since 1996 that have exemplified Howard's undeniably effective ability to facilitate religious right-wing extremism from under his own facade of "commonsense" and reason. She cites frequent cases of the "dog whistle", whereby Howard brings out the ever-ready talk-back radio weapon: "Look, I understand why (fill in the gap - extremist religious lobby group/organisation/red neck voters) would feel this way about (victimised, stigmatised minority group), and even though I personally would not subscribe to that, we need to appreciate their point of view". He truly is the dog owner who randomly unties the dog leashes and lets his pit bulls run free in the park terrorising the children, grinning, then when assault charges are levelled at him he'll assume the pretence of shock and horror: "It wasn't me, it was the pit bulls!"

Maddox's frequent bones to pick are with the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, the National Prayer Breakfasts, and the Lyons Forum (to which Bill refers as "former" but I'm sure still caucuses in some capacity, somewhere). If nothing else, it's an unsettling reminder of just how many "Christians" have crawled into our parliament. As with the cockroaches in Sydney, you can bring out the Mortein bombs or even the fumigators, but just when you think you've got rid of the last one, one grins and scuttles away when you turn on the lamp at night.

OK, a cockroach analogy may be going a little too far. There are, after all, some dedicated Christians who are still intelligent enough and reverent of Australia's constitution to separate their personal religious beliefs with their duties as elected representatives (Kevin Rudd, for example). And contrary to what Bill thinks, Maddox is fair-minded. She in fact devotes an entire chapter, "Crossing the Floor", to Liberals who have publicly objected to some of the more extreme Coalition policies (Danna Vale, a strongly-identifying Christian, opposing mandatory sentencing in the NT, for instance).

On the whole, however, I found chapters on the early years of the Howard regime, even preceding years when he and colleagues were plotting to bring down John Hewson internally, the most interesting. Maddox analyses the 1996 motto of the Liberal campaign, "For all of Us", arguing that the lower-case a on "all" is not an editorial error; rather, the Liberal Party under Howard has never been for "All of Us", but for "all of Us", "Us" being the opposite to "Them", the various wicked and heathen interest groups - homosexuals, feminists, republicans, single mothers, welfare recipients, indigenous people, academics, students, civil libertarians, multiculturalism advocates, migrants, non-farmers, non-future One Nation voters and the like - that apparently had the Keating government in a strangehold. I believe this "Us" was that poor oppressed "silent majority" who were suffering so greatly for their white male heterosexuality. The poor dears. It was Hewson's support of the first on this list of heretics that signalled his downfall, with a bunch of Lib senators and reps trying to pressure the ABC into not showing Mardi Gras in 1994 the day after Hewson offered his message of support for the parade. It's a scary, scary state of affairs when Hewson comes across as quite the soft-hearted communist in comparison to his eventual successor (let's just ignore the whole interim Downer debacle. In fact let's just ignore Downer all together! Yes).

One quibble: The book was published after Howard's 2004 election win, yet no chapter - not even a paragraph - explores the gay marriage ban last year and in particular the National Marriage Forum at the Great Hall of Parliament House last year, where the sheer numbers of rabid extremists all cobbled together forced Nicola Roxon into her back-flip. If this isn't a perfect example of the politicial power and clout of the RRR in operation I don't know what is.

GOH is a good read (and yes, if I weren't a soft leftie I probably wouldn't be saying this). The admissions Maddox extracts from MPs in direct interviews are perhaps the most educational apsect of the book, and though at times she doesn't necessarily always offer fresh insights into her topics (for example, Howard's defence of Bill Heffernan), it is a clear and quite alarming illustration of what we have to look forward to - read: fear and cower from - in post July-2005 Australia.


At 7/5/05 9:07 pm, Blogger Nic White said...

Will I get offended by it?

At 7/5/05 9:22 pm, Blogger Sam said...

Lol I dunno Nic - are you the easily offendable type? :-)

If you're one of those people who thinks Howard is our greatest PM (which I don't think you are) then yes; if you're one of those people concerned by his facilitation of extreme fundamentalism in our political system, then no, I don't think so.

At 8/5/05 9:37 pm, Blogger Nic White said...

Does it contemptuously discuss my entire religion and/or its fundamental beliefs? Theres a difference between discussion and slagging off, especially with generalisations.

At 9/5/05 7:38 am, Anonymous Stephen said...

I think the critique that Maddox offers is well overdue. Those of us who, are happily Anglican...perhaps "happily" is not the right word...shudder when we see Howard described as Anglican. He is more what we would call in the church "nominal" or C&E (Christmas and Easter).
More frightening is Ruddock who is described as "practising" and is indeed so.
Let me assure you QP that there are many of us in the Anglican Church who are left leaning rather than rightist.
Interesting to note that Kevin Rudd was on the ABC's ( well known free to air left leaning broadcaster)"Compass" last night saying I will not allow the right to act as though God has become their personal property. Many of us would shout...Hurray...(Maddox appeared briefly on the show)
Continue to love your blog

At 9/5/05 10:45 am, Blogger Sam said...

Probably a hard one for me to call with total objectivity Nic as I'm an agnostic humanist. The "church" to come out worst from the book is the Assemblies of God which personally I have no problem with. There's a lot of discussion on how the Libs church-bash whenever a church is critical of their welfare programs, ie how churches should "butt out" of politics (unless of course it's to justify the gay marriage ban, then it's a Bible free-for-all).
I think you could read it without being grossly offended, yes.

At 9/5/05 4:35 pm, Blogger Nic White said...

Maddox herself has sent me an email regarding my comments. Im no longer worried and Ill probably read it once its in the library (me? have money to buy books? nah)

At 22/5/05 7:07 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished reading GOH. As a not-so-left leaning homosexual (more one of Howard's despised Chardonnay Socialists) I consider the book is a must-read for anyone with any concern for the future of our country. Unfortunately, that excludes a lot of Australians who are more pre-occupied with 'My Restaurant Rules'.
They say there are three broad types of people: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen and those who wonder what happened. I fear any people will wake up one day wondering what happened to our great free country.
David, Taree N.S.W.


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