Wednesday, April 27, 2005

God Under Howard, by Marion Maddox

First off, let me start with the most startling – to me, anyway – quote from Marion Maddox’s God Under Howard. During research for her book, the author interviewed Alexander Downer about Aboriginal sacred sights. The following questions and answers, with Downer’s staffer throwing in his two bobs worth, reminded me of something out of Dickens, like two pompous officials giving their worthless opinions. From page 133:

‘Downer: I’m not sure that sacred sites are religious sites. You could have an argument about that, I suppose. Not sure of the answer to that. I don’t really know. I think I’d have to hear a bit more of the evidence. What do you think?
Staffer: I think they’re cultural sites.
Downer: Why aren’t they religious sites?
Staffer: Why aren’t they religious sites? Because, what is the religion?
Downer: Yes, what is the religion?
Marion Maddox: Well, in traditional societies there’s not usually something parcelled off and called ‘religion’, but –
Downer: Okay, so they don’t have a religion.
Marion Maddox: No, no , you could just as well say everything’s religion.
Staffer: Dreamtime, spirits –
Downer: Is that religion? I mean, is it religion?
Staffer: It’s more racial.
Downer: Racial? No, I don’t think it’s racial. I suppose I’ve never really contemplated that this was a matter of……religion.’

You couldn’t write better dialogue yourself if you wanted to lampoon the coalition as imperialistic, out-of-touch old fuddy duddies. And to think there must be squillions of pompous young staffers like the above running about government offices, all on their inexorable rise to the top.

Opening up Marion Maddox’s God Under Howard I thought it would be a book with a pretty slim theme. When I picked it up from the library I was a tad shocked to see how thick the book was. It’s actually a very comprehensive and critical going over of the Howard years.

The basic premise of the book seems to be, Howard is using the ideological warfare of the US in Australia. Essentially that means, a more fundamentalist religious posturing (remember Howard has opened up such debates as the reintroduction of the death penalty and abortion, has moved quickly to ban gay marriage etc. etc) tied to a fervent belief in market values, and all that goes along with it.

This has all been done in very subtle ways, as Australia is a predominantly secular country, and overt religious proselytising would not go down a treat. Think of things like the appointment by Howard of Anglican Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, the role Ross Cameron played with his prayer groups, Peter Costello and his appearance at the Hillsong Church and his urging the Ten Commandments be followed. To top it all off, Howard tried to bring the nation under God in his proposed preamble to the Constitution.

Marion Maddox is not against religious politicians, but what her book tries to warn us against is allowing politicians who use various forms of religion as a basis for their work to come clean. None of this, she argues, should be done by stealth.

This is a very, very detailed book. Some – perhaps many – may find that Marion Maddox is working up something that just doesn’t exist, that is, an Australia moving more and more towards a US style presence of religion in government. But I think her book clearly shows that is it certainly creeping in at the edges and that we should all be paying much more attention to it.

Having recently read Thomas Franks’ What the Matter With America? it’s scary and strange to see how much this style of religion is really just dogma and a plain old fashion love of power. Maddox quotes Jesus telling a rich man that if he wants to be truly pious he must give all his money away to the poor and start living as a pauper. Whereas today the so called market values embraced and promoted with such fervour by the Christian right call for the very exact opposite. Jesus wants you to be rich they say, and if you aren’t, then God has made you poor because you deserve it.

Marion Maddox’s book is a great contribution to current political debate. For those wondering how Family First popped up out of nowhere, you need to read this book.

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