Pentecostal churches still have very little influence

11 Jul 2005

TWO SOMEWHAT dissonant aspects of religion and politics struck me this week. The first, hardly noticed, was about old-style politics and religion.

Barnaby Joyce, the new National Party senator from Queensland, was on ABC radio discussing his misgivings about the government’s proposed industrial-relations legislation. He was explaining his objections, born of his commitment to the Queensland Nationals, to increased centralisation of industrial relations power in Canberra.

When the interviewer suggested that as a Catholic perhaps his negative attitude to the legislation was also related to the strong opposition of the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell (as well as all of the other Catholic bishops around the country), Joyce went into reverse gear. Oh no, he said, despite his respect for Pell, he thought this was a matter of giving to God what is God’s on spiritual matters and giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s on earthly matters.

The second, one of the stories of the week, was about new-style politics and religion. Bob Carr, the NSW premier, chose to accept an invitation to address the Hillsong annual conference in Sydney. This, according to the report, was recognition in Labor of ‘the potentially huge political influence of Australia’s burgeoning Pentecostal churches’.

At least six Liberals, led by Peter Costello, also accepted, including Kevin Andrews, the workplace relations Minister. Andrews is a Catholic like Joyce, and he has himself crossed swords with Pell over industrial relations legislation. Andrews has quite remarkably quoted his own interpretation of Pope John Paul II on industrial relations against Pell’s.

The evidence presented for the ‘potentially huge political influence’ of Pentecostal churches like Hillsong is that they are growing while the mainstream churches represented by Pell are declining. As the report stated, ‘Attendances at mainstream churches have declined over the past decade, Pentecostal congregations are up 30 per cent, albeit from a traditionally low base.’ Another report spoke breathlessly of ‘the country’s fastest-growing Christian denomination’.

This analysis is misleading. The mainstream churches, including Catholics, Anglicans and the Uniting Church, are being talked down constantly while the Pentecostal churches are being talked up unceasingly. With all due respect, to talk about Pentecostal churches rising from a traditionally low base is putting it mildly. It’s a bit like saying that the number of Muslims in Australia is rising (true) while the number of Anglo-Celts is falling relatively (also true). But the disparity in numerical power between the two is still enormous, and this should not be brushed over.

The rise of Family First as a party in 2004 and of Pentecostal churches as a church is an interesting political phenomenon. But in terms of political influence it is still much more a matter of long-term potential than achievement for both of them. Furthermore, social-science research on the topic remains scanty because there are too few Pentecostal and/or Family First voters (2 per cent) to register in the surveys.

The old politics represented by Archbishop Pell is still vastly more important in terms of education, welfare and health politics than the new politics. This was shown at the last election, when Pell and some Catholic and Anglican colleagues criticised Labor’s education policy because it took money from elite church schools as part of a redistribution of the education budget.

But the old religion, represented by the three biggest Christian denominations, does suffer from a number of limitations. One is that on many issues they are saying things that the Coalition government, and even the Labor Party, don’t want to hear. This applies to many economic policy issues, such as industrial relations. The contretemps involving the St Vincent de Paul Society and the government’s allies over measuring poverty in Australia is a skirmish in a larger war.

Second, there is a growing disconnection between church leaders and their own flock, including Andrews and Joyce. They are deaf to what the church is saying unless it accords with party policy.

Third, there is a lack of energy within the traditional churches. Cardinal Pell realises this. His strategy to bring the Pope and the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day to Sydney is connected to this realisation. Not only would such a day energise the church itself but it would serve as a display to the general community and to the government that there is life in the old church yet. World Youth Day would attract 250,000 people, including 80,000 international visitors. That would overshadow even Hillsong’s annual conference.

Nevertheless the Pentecostal churches do seem to be fighting above their weight at the moment. One reason is that they represent what the government, and to some extent Labor, want to hear. They represent individualism and the market and the prosperity gospel that Carr was so enthusiastic to embrace.

Another is that they do make a lot of public noise. Political power is not just about numbers. The Pentecostal churches remind me of the Right to Life Association at the height of its powers. This association also represented political intensity from a small minority.

A third is that the Pentecostal supporters are disproportionately young. This is the demographic that the political parties would love to be able to connect better with. Don’t stand between a politician and a crowd of young people or you will be run over by the politician. Having said all that, the old Christian churches, whatever their trajectory, are coming from a very high base and the new churches are starting from a very low one. The former deserve far more attention than they are getting compared with the unqualified excitement about Hillsong and Family First.

John Warhurst is a professor of political science at the Australian National University. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times.

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