Allen & Unwin, 2005.
One would not be too cynical in suggesting that God Under Howard by Marion Maddox is quite similar to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: both can be viewed as works of fiction masquerading as non-fiction. As with Brown, Maddox finds plenty of sinister conspiracies, shadowy networks of evil, and religious bogeymen.
Her volume, a look at the rule of John Howard and the supposed sway of the religious right on his tenure, is in fact a combination of partisan politics, investigative journalism, contemporary historiography, conspiracy theory and left-wing tirades.
Of course the warning lights should be sounding by a quick look at the blurbs of approval on the book’s back cover. One disgruntled and failed Liberal leader, one homosexual and one lesbian make up the cheer squad. John Hewson likes the book, partly because he gets a good run between its covers. He is what the Liberal Party should be, according to the Maddox worldview: devoid of any religious leanings, at least of the conservative variety.
David Marr, the atheist and polemicist for the left, is also delighted with the book. And radical Uniting Church minister Dorothy McRae-McMahon likewise thinks it is a great book. That pretty much sets the stage for where this volume is coming from.
Maddox is an Australian ex-pat living in Wellington where she teaches religious studies at Victoria University. Her religion and politics are both clearly left of centre. Thus this demonisation of John Howard and the religious right.
Her bias becomes apparent rather quickly. Early on she speaks of Howard as “an increasingly notorious liar” (p. 5). The book’s purpose is described in these terms: “This book explores Howard’s spiritual assault on Australian values” (24). Elsewhere she speaks of “his corrosion of Australia’s soul” (5). Howard’s God, we are told, “undermines democratic traditions while justifying hatreds: vilification of homosexuals, punishing the unemployed, cruel border protection and illegal war” (25-26).
Moreover, Howard champions an ‘Us’ against ‘Them’ mentality. “Howard’s ‘Us’ has excluded same-sex couples, mothers in the paid workforce, single parents, step parents, stay-at-home fathers, feminists, migrants, Aborigines, churches, Muslims, other non-Christians, unions, ABC listeners, the tertiary-educated and more” (78).
And again, “In God’s name, old-fashioned religion has become a cloak for new-fashioned repression and inequality” (294). Such quotes could be cited at length. What purports to be a work of serious contemporary history and social analysis turns out to be the bitter screed of a Howard-hater.
In addition to doing her best to paint Howard as a demon, Maddox spends a lot of time discussing the American scene. Indeed, a quick scan of the index will reveal nearly as many American entries as Australian. That is because Maddox believes all the worst of American conservative religion is being imported here, directly or indirectly.
Although she tries very occasionally to minimize this implication (e.g., 38-39), the theme runs very heavily throughout the volume. If American baddies (cultural and religious conservatives) are not quite on the verge of taking over Australia, turning it into a theocracy, then their Australian counterparts are coming pretty close to achieving just that. Time and again she draws parallels between the religious right here and in the US.
She notes, with evident concern, that we recently celebrated a National Day of Thanksgiving here, “modelled on the American Thanksgiving” (222). And she records another frightening development when Michael Ferguson, newly elected to Parliament, told a national TV audience, “I love the Lord” (164).
She of course is treading on slippery ground here. Not only are there many differences between the American scene and the Australian scene, but there are many social, political and religious cross-currents at work here.
Maddox tends to confuse these, perhaps deliberately. A major howler in this regard is when she in effect lumps Christian Reconstructionism together with the Prosperity Gospel. The former of course arises out of the Calvinistic worldview that seeks to put Christ’s lordship over all. The latter is part of the Health and Wealth gospel, something born in Pentecostal circles in America, and arising out of arcane New Thought teachings of a century earlier.
But this confusion serves her purposes. She notes, for example, that Prayer Breakfasts originated in America, and were then imported here. This is yet another proof of the horrible influence of American religion on Australian life.
She finds threats everywhere. She can speak ominously of the Peter Costello visit to the Hillsong congregation in Sydney, and draw all kinds of sinister warnings from that. Yes, the pastor there did once write a book on prosperity teaching, but has since backed away from it to some extent. Even Peter’s brother Rev. Tim Costello, an early critic of the Hillsong pastor, has noted this change. But for Maddox this is another example of ambitious politicians jumping in bed with the enemy.
Not only is the thesis of this book far-fetched, but its material is quite selective. If she is concerned about mischievous religious bodies and conspiracy theories so much, she might have included what could well be called the original and most influential religious body in Australian history, the Movement led by Bob Santamaria. Yet this gets no mention at all. Instead, much of the discussion centres on the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, the National Prayer Breakfasts, and the former Lyons Forum.
The fact that Christians wish to take their faith seriously, even in the political arena, is not necessarily bad, according to Maddox. It just must conform to her leftwing version of things, complete with the radical homosexual agenda. Pushing leftist and trendy political and religious views is quite alright, and of course there is nothing conspiratorial about that.
But according to Maddox the religious right is a nefarious, organized and monolithic threat that must be guarded against. But is it? Hardly, from where I am sitting. And do Christians of the right have some influence in the public arena and in public affairs? Of course. But so do religious lefties, secularists and atheists. If Maddox wished to chronicle the machinations of the secular humanists, and their political and social agenda, one might be more sympathetic to this volume. Indeed, there would be much more material available for an expose of that order.
But in the end Maddox has an anti-family, and anti-conservative, agenda to push. Thus we still await a balanced and objective assessment of the so-called religious right in Australia.
The inflamed allegations of the Ms Maddox are not confined just to this book. When a columnist in the Melbourne Age took her to task over the many exaggerations found in her book, she wrote back a letter, defending herself and the book. Her last paragraph was especially interesting:
“More salient is the fact that over half of the present cabinet have been members of either the Lyons Forum or its recently re-formed successor organisation, putting the proportion of religious conservatives in cabinet at (in rough figures) about 10 times their representation in the general population.” (10 February 2005)
Such an obvious example of exaggeration and overkill prompted me to pen this letter (which did not get printed): “Given that the overwhelming majority of Australians are religious, not secular, and given that the majority of Australians could be called conservative (as indicated by recent Federal election results), how can Marion Maddox claim that religious conservatives are over represented (by “10 times”) in Parliament?”
It seems her penchant for wild overstatement simply gets worse as time goes on. And her ill-logic seems to run apace as well.