Does a 'religious left' threaten Abbott?

Politically significant religious leaders may find reason to put aside their differences with the progressive left and push a joint agenda for social change.

The term ‘religious right’ is frequently used by the left to identify its political enemies – figures such as Prime Minister Abbott, Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison are frequently lumped under that banner.

The term ‘religious left’, by contrast, is virtually unknown. A website search of The Age and The Australian newspapers reveals that the more left-leaning Age uses ‘religious right’ about eight times as frequently as its competitor. It really is a left thing.

But are ‘religious’ and ‘right’ really a natural fit?  A new report from the Brookings Institution in Washington DC points to a growing political role for  ‘progressive religious’ forces in the US – effectively a ‘political left’.

One reason is demographic change. In a survey conducted last July, Brookings found that “the mean age of religious progressives is 44, just under the mean age of the general population of 47. The mean age of religious conservatives is 53.”

It found even more interesting figures at either end of the age scale: “Among Americans aged 68 , 47 per cent are religious conservatives while only 12 per cent are religious progressives. But among Millennials (ages 18 to 33), 17 per cent are religious conservatives but 23 per cent are religious progressives.”

The report’s authors conclude: “Two things are striking here. The first is the obvious problem for the religious conservative cause: it lacks the strong foothold among the young that a movement needs to build for the future. The enormous gap between the oldest and youngest generations in their respective orientations toward the religious right points to a troubled future for religious conservatism.”

But does any of this translate to the Australian electorate? The answer depends on which religious grouping one is considering.

The Pentecostal churches such as Sydney’s Hillsong congregation have been very successful in recruiting younger adherents, and now make up around 10 per cent of those identifying themselves as Christian. By contrast, some of the more traditional denominations are withering on the vine.

The overall picture is one of fewer Christian Australians each year, with 53 per cent of Australians self-identifying as Christian at the end of 2013, according to Roy Morgan Research, and the proportion of those claiming to have no religion growing to 38 per cent.

Norman Morris, industry communications director at Roy Morgan said in April: "By Easter next year, it could well be the first time that the majority of Australians don’t affiliate with Christianity.”

While Christianity is still dominant, other religions are becoming more important. Buddhism is the largest non-Judeo-Christian religion, accounting for 2.5 per cent of the population, followed by Islam (2.2 per cent) and Hinduism (1.3 per cent). Of these, Hinduism has grown fastest since 2006, according to the last census.

In political terms, though, it’s still Christianity that dominates and generates the most significant political effects.

In particular, there were many Christian social welfare groups lining up in May to speak out against Treasurer Hockey’s first budget.

Sue King, Anglicare Sydney’s Director of Advocacy and Research, said in early June: “Our research indicates that people will go without food in order to pay their rent. This is particularly problematic in households with children. We are very concerned about what the latest budget may mean for people on the age pension, disability support, and Newstart who are privately renting.”

Likewise, Brotherhood of St Laurence head Tony Nicholson described the Coalition’s unemployment benefit reforms, which include routine six-month suspensions of benefits, as “draconian” and said they would be “a catastrophe for those people and also for the welfare agencies that will have to pick up the pieces”.

One might expect, therefore, to see church leaders picking up the same themes and looking for ways to assist the left of politics to back their social justice vision.

Such a union was seen as pretty natural in Australia right up until the 1955 Labor Party/Democratic Labor Party split precipitated by B. A. Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement.

Since that time, however, gettting ‘religion’ and ‘left’ together has proven much more difficult. Many of the political issues raised during the liberationist movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s – sexual liberation, contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage and the like – helped drive a wedge between church groups and the political left.

As the Brookings report notes, the same has been true in the US: “Religious leaders in social justice movements ... sometimes find themselves divided on issues such as abortion ... Religious progressives are sometimes viewed with mistrust or suspicion by their secular allies.”

Australia’s most significant left-leaning force, the Greens, have been treated with a lot more than ‘suspicion’. In 2010 then-Cardinal George Pell called them “stalinist”, “anti-Christian” and “sweet camouflaged poison".

That said, Pell’s views were widely criticised even from within his own church.

More telling, perhaps, was the large group of charity leaders that lined up in the Senate Courtyard in Parliament House – around 20 for a media conference called by the Australian Council of Social Service – the morning after the budget to tell journalists what it would mean for the people they worked with.

It was a group in which Christians and patently church-affiliated groups predominated. They were angry, determined, and less concerned with ‘left’ or ‘right’ than with social outcomes.

Church groups and the Greens have already worked closely together on environmental and asylum seeker issues – yesterday AAP reported that "nine religious leaders have been charged with trespassing after a sit-in at the office of federal Liberal MP Jamie Briggs in a protest against holding children in immigration detention centres.” 

If domestic social issues are added to that list, the almost non-existent term ‘religious left’ may start to make more of an appearance in papers.