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Tilting at the Windmills of Power: Mainstream Religions in the Trump Era

By Denis Bright

From Cervantes’ novel we get the English idiom “Tilting at Windmills”. Tilting or jousting, like our hero Quixote, in futile battles against imaginary enemies. “Tilting at Windmills” sometimes describes confrontations against enemies incorrectly perceived, or action based on misinterpreted idealistic or heroic justification (http://www.craigdunstan.net/).

As US Presidential Inauguration Day approaches, mainstream US religious communities might consider returning to that spirit of protest which brought liberation theology to the forefront in the 1960s. This change from a largely guided neutrality on social justice issues and commitment to peaceful development would change politics forever. The change might also assist in revitalising ageing democracies which no longer inspire enthusiastic participation.

Recent voting patterns in both the US and Australia do suggest that political conservatives have a strong following amongst regular churchgoers. President-elect Trump received only 33 percent support from US voters who did not attend church according to the introductory Pew Institute survey.

Regular church-goers rewarded Trump with 53 percent support and 50 percent from occasional church goers.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir will be back on the beat at outside Congress for the presidential inaugurations on 20 January 2017 unless the event produces a snow blizzard or a flood of protesters or both:

“The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a great tradition of performing at the inaugurals of U.S. presidents,“ said Ron Jarrett, president of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. ”Singing the music of America is one of the things we do best. We are honored to be able to serve our country by providing music for the inauguration of our next president.“

Members of the 360-member volunteer choir will travel to the nation’s capital for the historic event.

The choir has previously sung at the inaugurals of five other U.S. presidents, including the official swearing-in ceremonies for George H. W. Bush (1989), Richard M. Nixon (1969), and Lyndon B. Johnson (1965). They performed in inaugural parades for George W. Bush (2001), George H. W. Bush (1989), and Ronald W. Reagan (1981).

When the choir sang its signature song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the inaugural parade for President Reagan in 1981, he dubbed the choir “America’s Choir.” President George H. W. Bush called the choir “a national treasure” during his swearing-in ceremony in front of the Capitol in 1989. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Online 22 December 2016).

More research is needed to complete the picture in a US electorate where voting is not compulsory in a country with a myriad of faith congregations including significant non-Christian communities.

The voting patterns amongst Jewish Americans for example are quite complex with a majority of liberal US Jews supporting Hillary Clinton.

Acclaimed conservative leaders like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan have always harnessed the religious right to their service.

It was Richard Nixon who triumphed in the unwinnable election of 1968 with the support of a silent middle class majority. His campaign targeted middle class voters who were affronted by the ongoing protests over civil rights issues and anti-war sentiment.

After a somewhat close result in 1968, Richard Nixon was able to carry all states but Massachusetts in 1972.

The Nixon magic soon ended in disgrace and impeachment over the break-in to the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

However, the shrill appeal of right wing populism was successfully exported from the US to Israel and the four anglo-democracies. Electoral success followed for Malcolm Fraser, Margaret Thatcher, Joe Clark (Canada) and Robert Muldoon (New Zealand).

In Israel, Menachem Begin achieved government for Likud in 1977 with the support of the religious right. The 1977 election ended a succession of right wing Israeli Labour Coalitions Governments right back to 1949.

It was this Likud Government which was responsible for the Vela Incident of 22 September 1979. This was a joint Israeli-South African nuclear test in the roaring forties zone between the French Crozet Islands and the South African Territory of Prince Edward Islands.

Years later Israeli Labor made subtle political mistake of introducing a separate ballot for an executive style of Prime Minister. This new electoral arrangement operated for the first time in 1996.

This change gave oxygen to a successful populist campaign by Benjamin Netanyahu. His right-wing Likud Party has lost only one election since 1996.

The current Likud Government of Israel holds office with a primary vote of only 23.4 percent. Wheeling and dealing with religious and secular right parties is always necessary for Likud to form government.

The preferred republican electoral model favoured Malcolm Turnbull for Australia could take our country in such unstable directions. It always gives a popular LNP leader the chance to cling onto minority government with the support of far right parties.

Conservative leaders like Robert Menzies to John Howard have always implied that LNP policies are the most appropriate policies for mainstream faith communities.

In most electorates, the LNP has an exchange of preferences with the religious right which includes s Family First, Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats or Australian Christians in WA.

The Labor Movement has moved to address this problem through the formation of the Queensland Community Alliance.

“We are an alliance of churches, mosques and other faith groups coming together with charities, unions, community organisations and ethnic associations to work together for the common good.” ( Queensland Community Alliance Online 2017).

Far from providing support of the far right of politics, many mainstream theologians might point out that tilting at windmills for social justice is an ancient religious imperative in the Christian tradition.

Theological Progressivism in Action

In the conservative electorate of Ryan in Brisbane, the Uniting Church in Indooroopilly has been active in supporting the Refugee Collective. This faith community has talked up the value of social justice, indigenous and environmental campaigns.

Visitors to the Indooroopilly Shopping Centre could hardly miss the electronic and hand printed signs on such issues.

Representatives of the Indooroopilly Uniting Church Parish have been prominent in their support of the Refugee Action Collective in Brisbane City Square and outside Peter Dutton’s electorate Office in Brisbane North. The events are cross-denominational.

Agnostic writers like Gore Vidal (1925-2012) can and do receive moral support from mainstream religious activists at least in their commitment to peace and social justice.

Community activist Ms Freddie Steen of the Uniting Church will tilt at any inappropriate windmills of power like the LNP’s current Border Protection regime.

Why indeed should bipartisan political regression be so tolerated when thousands of refugees were accommodated under the government of Malcolm Fraser?

Historical Precedents: Involvement of Faith Communities

Writing for The Australian Left Review, Father Charlie Bowers explained how Catholic activists in Sydney had used opposition to the Vietnam War to re-orient that Church away from reflexive support for authoritarian pro-western governments during the Cold War Era.

In Sydney and beyond, progressive Catholic activists achieved considerable political traction through the formation of Catholics for Peace in 1967.

Catholics for Peace offered support to conscientious objectors to conscription and supported public rallies in Sydney against the war in Vietnam. Catholics for Peace also become involved in the Moratorium Campaign.

Even Gough Whitlam’s victory in 1972 was fiercely contested. Thirty-three seats recorded small to moderate swings against Labor. Labor’s 67 to 58 margin of victory was convincing but not an overwhelming mandate. It had been trimmed to 66-61 in the Double Dissolution election of 1974.

With the popularity of the federal LNP waning after the death of Harold Holt, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) still played a significant role in resistance to the election of Gough Whitlam. DLP support was on the rise at the 1970 senate election with 11.1 percent of the national vote and an increase from four to five DLP senators.

Even when the DLP ceased to exist as a mainstream right wing religious party, its membership and voting bloc was partly transferred to support the far-right of the Liberal Party or the National Party.

At the 1972 election for the House of Representatives, the DLP still retained 5.25 percent of the primary vote and these votes were well exercised in preference distributions in marginal seats to protect LNP members. The movement of seats in 1972 went in both directions. Labor lost Bendigo, Forrest (WA), Stirling (WA) and Sturt (SA) on DLP preferences. Potentially winnable seats like Herbert and Griffith in Queensland were retained by the LNP after the distribution of DLP preferences.

In the Townsville based seat of Herbert, the primary vote for the DLP had halved from 18.5 per cent in 1963 but its disciplined preference distribution was still a powerful political weapon in 1972.

Leading academics explained the crucial political role of far right religious parties at a symposium in 2004.

Speaking to the Australasian Study of Parliament Group at Parliament House in Brisbane on 22 November 2004, Dr Paul Reynolds as Reader in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Queensland, elaborated upon the strongly religious foundations of the DLP.

Religion was, of course, the distinguishing feature. Seventy-eight per cent were Roman Catholic and 24 per cent claimed various Protestant affiliations. Non-Christian and agnostic or atheist respondents virtually did not exist. A very high 69 per cent had attended mass in the last month – nearly two-thirds in the previous fortnight. (Australasian Study of Parliament Group Online 2004).

At this symposium, Dr. Paul Williams, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities at Griffith University updated the audience on the role of Family First as a doctrinaire right wing minor Christian Party in the post-DLP era.

The DLP has since revived to play a minor political but significant role at more recent federal elections. It provides much needed preference votes to the LNP in some highly marginal seats. Both Family First and the DLP have indeed secured stops in the senate on different occasions in recent elections. Pushing Nixon’s style of moral majority politics is the forte of such ultra right wing parties and this approach is now confidently supported by secular far right parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Australian Liberty Alliance.

On the religious front, it could be concluded that right wing political tradition in Australian faith communities may be far stronger and persistent than the more left-leaning Catholic Worker Traditions.

This matter is being taken on professionally by the Queensland Community Alliance at a time when new age evangelical Christian faith communities have a much larger support base in some outer suburbs and regional centres that mainstream religious congregations.

There is no readily available research material on other multi-cultural faith communities. Because of this absence of accessible research, my conclusions on theological resistance to right wing political influence will of course apply to Christian faith traditions.

Theological Foundations of Resistance

In the prophetic traditions of Old and New testaments alike, critical perspectives on the excesses of civil authority and militarism should be an important moral consideration.

There is some naive belief from the religious right in Australia that the minority Likud Government of Benjamin Netanyahu has divine or at least moral authority. It is this same Likud government which refuses to participate in global agreements to contain weapons of mass destruction and to uphold human rights conventions.

If biblical traditions are being discussed, there is always the precedent of the Prophet Daniel who could work well in captivity with the Assyrian leader, Nebuchadnezzar. Under divine guidance, Daniel could impress his captives with sound administrative advice and the ethical interpretation of the dreams of his captives.

The Prophet Joseph of Genesis fame performed similar wonders to the amazement of the King of Egypt and his advisers.

The New Testament culminates in John’s assurance of the coming of a New Jerusalem after periods of turmoil and struggle.

Like the Conservatives, the Australian Labor Movement is not too afraid to cling onto this symbolism.

Infusion of Progressive Religious Values

To Paul Keating, the winning of the impossible election on 13 March 1993 had quasi-biblical proportions:

“This is the sweetest victory of all,” Prime Minister Paul Keating told ALP supporters on election night, March 13, 1993. “This is a victory for the true believers.”

Keating’s come from behind victory was a triumph for the ALP. Labor increased its majority in the House of Representatives with a net gain of 2 seats, defeating the Coalition by 80 seats to 67, with 2 independents.

The ALP’s primary vote increased 5.49% to 44.92%. Its two-party-preferred vote increased 1.54% to 51.44%.

Keating delivered his victory speech at the Bankstown Sports Club. (Australianpolitics.com.au 1993).

Likewise, Kevin Rudd justified his restored leadership ambitions by referring to this theme of true discipleship:

Speaking in Brisbane at the launch of Troy Bramston’s new book, The True Believers, Rudd compared what he said were the two traditions of Australian politics.

“We seek to build the nation, they seek to tear it down. We seek to unite the people. They seek often to divide the people. We seek to envisage a positive plan for our future. They seek to pour scorn on the very possibility of any such vision or any such plans. We seek to define our independent place in the world. They seek to ridicule our independent voice in the world. In fact the history of Australian politics is one of us building the house up while they seek to tear the house down. Sometimes by stealth. Sometimes brick by brick. Sometimes with a very giant wrecking ball.” (Australianpolitics.com.au 2013).

To the applause of the gallery and parliamentary staffers, Bill Shorten repeated this style of oration on several occasions particularly in his budget reply speeches on 2014-16. Scott Morrison’s budget in 2016 was so flat that no biblical symbolism was required.

Strengthening Ethics in National Politics

Many readers will still find Labor’s evangelical rhetoric a little pretentious. This cynicism is understandable and well justified by historical precedent.

After the longest period of federal Labor administration in Australian history, John Kerrin was left to deliver the 1991 Budget with Australian unemployment at a record post-war level. Paul Keating had resigned his portfolio after an unsuccessful leadership coup.

Without repeated biblical symbolism, Bill Shorten has certainly taken up the challenges posed by a fragmented electorate that he inherited in 2013.

More evangelical commitments are required to get Australian churchgoers back onside to the extent achieved by federal Labor in the federation era. By 5 September 1914, Australian Labor had achieved control of both houses of parliament on two separate occasions. This has not been repeated since. Even Gough Whitlam was brought down by his failure to win absolute control of the Senate.

There are institutional problems to be resolved if election day in 1914 is still the high water mark for the Labour Movement after almost 103 years of continued political activism.

In the new traditions of the Queensland Community Alliance, a new generation of leaders are certainly trying to give the widespread right wing influences in faith communities a timely challenge.

Not representing key sections of the community like the myriad of Australian faith communities is hardly a pragmatic option for an ALP that needs a primary vote of 40 percent or more to achieve government with a comfortable majority instead of the narrow victory anticipated in the latest Newspoll from December 2016.

Denis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in promoting discussion about progressive pragmatic public policies compatible with currently fluid directions in contemporary globalization.



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  1. win jeavons

    This ‘church goer’ has not voted conservative since the 60’s ,and I have moved further left as I grew older;alternatively the state of Aus, politics has moved steadily to the right? Roll on post-capitalism. The ‘city of God ‘ is disappearing as a dream , while our govt, presides over a nightmare.

  2. Pat

    It’s important that political parties address issues from all sectors of the Australian community including the minorities in an effort to unite the people and be a true representative for all Australians. A very interesting topic – thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  3. Phil

    A very interesting article. Although I have no opinion on religion or religious beliefs per se, I can see that their respective adherents do have a marked influence on public policy at every level – some good, some bad, some indifferent.

    Thanks Denis for the intellectual stimulation your many articles generate – more please.

  4. Participatory

    I am also with the City of God and the Catholic Worker tradition which the National Civic Council sought to destroy by knocking off good candidates in seats like Herbert. Cathy O’Toole is now back to represent the Townsville Region but by just 37 votes after preferences on 2 July 2016. What a battle with no help from far right candidates over the years. Townsville was so solidly Labor that in 1943 the election was decided between the Labor Party and the Communist Party on 34 percent of the vote!

  5. Jasper

    Thanks Denis, your article justifies the justifies of the faith communities.

  6. Donna

    Let’s have more of the religion of Social Justice

  7. Leila Smith

    Interesting article Denis , certainly expanding out horizons on the impact of religion and politics.
    Thanks for keeping us informed and informing us of the broader concepts at play

  8. wam

    Tilting at windmills is the 17th century equivalent of bashing your head against the brick walls of apathy and ignorance.
    The apathy of belief and the ignorance of indoctrination was heard on ch9 (frank packer supported santamaria like gina supports bolt), Dad and I cringed,at the sanctimoniuos bull delivered in dulcet hypnotising tones that kept the lying wastrel prime minister in power for 16 years.
    After years of watching insiders with a ‘santamarian’ anti-labor or two and never a ‘left; equivalent I concluded that there was only a christian right and far right like Andrews and the fabbott.
    A quick search
    “Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it. But I’m afraid He would ask me the same question.”
    – Anonymous

  9. quiltingforkids

    Oddly, from this point in America, my observation is that the only religious organizations that seem to weigh in publically at voting time are the ones that seem to have only a couple of agenda: 1) we favor anyone who will outlaw abortions of all kinds and under all circumstances; and, 2) Homosexuals of all kinds must be outlawed and circumscribed with the full might of the republic. I am still uncertain what percentage of the religious adherents in the US that group comprises. Trump was elected with their full support (plus, of course, the US Nazi’s, the KKK, and the financial wizards of our poor benighted nation), His election tells you perhaps more about America in general than about religious believers, however. Would that the churches of our nation had indeed weighed in on the serious issues this clown’s election brought to the surface. But I wait in vain, much as I waited in vain for the denunciations of Islamic killers by the Mullahs of the world.

  10. Steven Forsyth

    The fact that religion plays any part in our political and social development in this day and age, is truly horrifying.

  11. Patricipatory

    Good comment Steven. Worse still, it is largely the far right religious parties which deliver government to the LNP as in the old DLP Days of the Cold War Era. The DLP is still hovering around the scene. As recent articles have shown, the main role of the minor religious parties are seldom reported. Ironically, the religious right has a strong strategic alliance with the far right secular parties like Hunters and Shooters, Liberal Democrats and Australian Liberty Alliance.

  12. Zathras

    The rabid evangelical Trump supporters believe their time has come at last and Trump will reverse all those atheist horrors that have offended them and herald the beginning of “The End Times” they have been looking forward to.

    These aren’t crazies shouting from the sidelines, they are gaining power from the inside and are the equivalent of a Christian Taliban.

    According to them, Hillary Clinton was “possessed by demons” and for every mad Muslim ranter that appears on YouTube, there are several more Christian equivalents that seem deliberately overlooked.

    For example, who saw any local media reports of the deportation of a Baptist Minister from Botswana for “hate speech” or the other one who married a ten-year-old member of his congregation, or the other who insisted Starbucks were lacing their lattes with semen to turn people gay?

    Trump appeals to people with this mindset and he will have to deliver something significant to them to maintain that power base.

    It would be funny if it wasn’t so potentially dangerous.

  13. Kronomex

    Trump doesn’t believe in the bible (a giant potboiler piece of fiction if ever there was one) or god, it’s a just a convenient way to get what he wants from the looney fringe. If there was a all-powerful spirit around it would be bombarded by tweets from The Donald telling it how to run the universe. Trump is, and always will be, about Trump.

  14. Kim Southwood

    Religion is beguiling and, something like beauty, rests largely in the eye of the beholder. It is a spectrum which stretches from deepest austerity to the most extreme euphoria. For each to his need, perhaps. Everyone is right in their own way, but not in everyone else’s way.

    Politicians, being pragmatic people in their quest for social favour (particularly in ‘democracies’), must exploit the human condition for support. For them, religions are a godsend for identifying social need. It would be self-defeating for them not to indulge.

    The godless among us have cause to wonder, (and perhaps feel rather inadequate to do much about it, when we feel inclined to). I guess just being aware is half the battle.

    Don’t consider myself a Marxist, but he was pretty perceptive regarding the human condition. A quick look at the immediate context of his ‘opiate of the people’ quote is definitely food for thought.


    In briefer form still, I quote from Wikipedia here:

    “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

    Aaah… humans make this world a very complex and complicated place. Politicians have to reduce its complexity to a manageable mess.

    I think Marx did it better.

  15. Boris

    Perhaps faith without good political works is dead?

  16. Paul

    Thanks for another interesting read Denis!

    I certainly agree that mainstream religion has a big influence on politics. Perhaps too much!

    Regardless of our specific religion (if any) we are all human.

    It’s the considered and present day to day actions of people that can make such a difference to the world!

    Happiness, empathy and compassion are innate qualities of everyone. Whilst they can be hard to see at times – they are always there.

    For sure positive action can align to prescribed religious values but by no means does it need to! Sometimes if there is too much focus on the “Relgion” the value of the action (if there is any energy left to act) is greatly diminished.

    Given that we all have a few years of Trump ahead of us, whilst it’s important to hold our politicians to account – let’s focus on what we as individuals are doing to improve the situation and lives of those around us – are we contributing on a positive level.

    Are we living out our religious or personal values in practice? It’s a confronting but important question to ask oneself.

    Certainly, I think I can do better and I thank the writer for providing this article as catalyst.

    If we are not living out our values for the benefit of those around us and even to ourselves, we are just like a politician who says they are a practising (insert religion here) when we all know better.

  17. Sarah

    Denis thanks for your article on the inter-relationship between religion and politics and how it can influence voting patterns.

  18. Rubio@Coast

    Our Catholic high school in Sydney promoted a progressive approach to both theology and politics. Teachers and clergy told us that being Left was essential for the salvation of this world and survival in the next. I loved the manner in which our teachers interpretated the Old Testament Prophets as the bearers of warnings of dangerous times ahead. These rough waves of darkness abound in the Trump Era.

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