Thursday, June 6, 2013

Debate over Christian constituency and who represents it

Christian, ABC Religio & Ethics, Christian voters, politics, constituency, ACL, Lyle Shelton, Rodney Smith
The existence, strength and representation of Australia's Christian constituency has been under scrutiny since Kevin Rudd announced on his blog that he had changed his views on gay marriage.

In the predictable frenzy of opinion that followed, the Australian Christian Lobby's new Managing Director Lyle Shelton said:
'No government has the right to create these vulnerabilities for the church-going twenty per cent of the population in order to allow the point two per cent who will take advantage of this to redefine marriage. Mr Rudd seems intent on burning bridges not only with colleagues, but with a constituency which had long given him the benefit of the doubt.'
ABC Radio's PM program immediately ran a story, asking who is the ACL and what claim do they have to represent a Christian 'constituency'. The story relied heavily on the comments of Prof Rodney Smith of University of Sydney and a 'research study'. Our report here.

That story was followed the next day by a lengthy piece by one of Prof Smith's former Honours students, Steph Judd, which contained a detailed discussion of whether there was a distinct Christian voting constituency and if the ACL could claim to represent it.

Judd acknowledges that the ACL is careful not to claim to represent any particular denomination or Christian group other than its own members and supporters. And she provides a reasonably nuanced discussion, although relying on a 2012 petition as a key source of research information seemed indistinct at best.

Her conclusion about a Christian constituency perhaps best summed up by this:
'...the notion of a Christian constituency is ambiguous. Furthermore, there is diversity of opinions within the church - and within evangelical, "Bible-believing" churches, at that... it is perhaps either clumsy or disingenuous to clump all Christians together and claim that they respond uniformly to political phenomena.'
And where does she think ACL looks to have its main influence - the Coalition:
'I think Shelton's statement is actually a shot across the Coalition's bow. The ACL has far greater influence with the Coalition (although, this influence is still not as dominant as some claim), and so it may well be that the ACL is giving an indirect reminder to Abbott and company that they should not abandon their policy on marriage lightly...'
 Lyle Shelton received a right of reply from ABC Religion and Ethics and explained:
'While we assert that a Christian constituency exists, we have never tried to definitively quantify it. Yes, 19% of Christians attend church once per month. It is these committed Christians who populate the pews and tend to hold to orthodox Christian teachings on justice, marriage, human life, family and the importance of helping the poor - a broad range of policy areas that ACL has always sought to influence.'
He denies Smith's claims that the ACL targets electorates, disputes Judd's claim that the ACL is more focused on the Coalition than Labor and highlights the strength of numbers that many would be happy to describe as constituency in other circumstances:
'We have had over 100,000 Christians watching a single webcast with the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, and have raised petitions of more than 100,000 supporting marriage. Not a bad effort when we are fastidious in ensuring the integrity of our petitions, even deleting double ups of email addresses, though we know there will be many occasions of people using a shared address.'
Of course, discussion of Christian voting patterns and influence has been a hot topic for some time, especially since 2007 when Kevin Rudd seemed to benefit from his open courting of this part of the electorate.

Of this, former Labor Senator John Black wrote after the election:
'The strongest correlate of the swing to Kevin Rudd's new Labor Party was Pentecostal churchgoers, alongside Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Lutherans, Salvos, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Uniting Church.'
He had more to say on the topic after the 2010 election - our report here.

Meanwhile another researcher has their own view of what influences the vote of Christians. Grant Powers said the top three influences are policies, political parties (party allegiance) and the leader. But it is here where the influence of Christian belief kicks in, Power says:
'And the survey showed that Christians are indeed religiocentric  — they possess in-group favouritism for Christian political leaders as well as a comparative bias against non-religious and non-Christian political party leaders. The agnostics and atheists fare worst — Christians would be least inclined to support atheist and agnostic political party leaders.'
Read our report of his findings here.

And our view: many committed Christians will allow their faith to influence their vote because the nature of their faith requires this - to act in a Biblical way in all of life.

However certain aspects of Christian value and belief will be of more importance to some Christians than for others. Some will consider the needs of refugees, the poor and the environment as priorities and they may find Labor or even the Greens a natural, but nor perfect, fit.

Others will be more concerned with moral issues due to their belief that Biblical morality promotes healthy people, healthy families and a healthy society, and the overtly Christian parties may attract their vote. Still others may have single dominating issues from among those listed or abortion, marriage, overseas aid, or individual freedoms.

There will be large convergences on some occasions, and groups such as ACL do have an influence mainly among ministers who will receive most of their direct communication, with a flow on to congregations in many cases.

But family party loyalties die hard and remain a factor, as does the perennial electoral concerns of good economic policy and a leader who seems trustworthy and competent.

In the end, perhaps the greatest single influence Christian voters can have is summed up in one word: prayer.

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