Philobiblon: Australia's religious right

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Australia's religious right

I posted last week on my current reading on Australian politics, Marion Maddox's God Under Howard.

Overall I thought it a powerful, and scary, analysis, if suffering from some of the inevitable faults of an academic book completed very soon after the events that it describes.

She brings from other fields some interesting analytical tools, including the sociology of religion thesis that as a society becomes more secular, non-religious people are happy to think that religion is a useful implement for controlling others weaker than themselves (p.188).

Sometimes she seems to be arguing that "a religious fundamentalist tail is wagging a secular rightwing dog" (p. 73), and other times that a conservative social policy is an essential requirement for free market economics (when her analysis approaches that of Thomas Frank's of America), and I don't think that is ever resolved, but then there is probably an element of leadership on both sides.

She is also very clear on the right-wing view of "equality", "as reinvented by the neo-conservative think tanks of the closing decades of the 20th century ... wants everyone treated identically, regardless of where they start. Any extra help to some groups, however disadvantaged, amounts to 'special privileges', which breeds 'resentment' among those who do not qualify." (p. 111)

She is echoing American commentators on the way that the American Right (with Australia's close behind) uses extreme language to address its extremist constituency, then half-hearted apologies and back-downs later (as per Bush's "crusade" against Islam) to satisfy the mainstream.

Her final chapter -- understandably sketchy since these extremists are unlikely to fully reveal their apparent approach -- is truly frightening. She quotes an Australian Republican Movement delegate to the constitutional convention, Karin Sowada, as saying: "Keeping God in out Constitution is ultimately an expression of the fact that those who govern us are accountable for their actions to someone other than themselves." (p. 301) The delegate then noted there was "no particular support" for democracy in the Bible.

Overall, this book left me wondering if Australia (and America) are not fast approaching what might be described as "the Algeria problem" - having a significant (if not yet dominant) group of religious extremists who while using the instruments of democracy refuse to accept any obligation to maintain them.

More reviews: here and here, and a transcript of a Radio National programme on it.


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