Religious freedom in Australia - Part III of III

What does the data tell us about those arguing for greater religious freedoms?

In Part I and Part II of this series profiling the campaign for religious freedom in Australia, we explored the predominance of self-referential control amongst religious conservatives, who comprise a small minority (8%) of adult Australians. We also noted the recent collapse of religious faith, with a majority of Australians (54%) now reporting “no religion”.

In this third part, we explore three broad reasons why there’s relatively high support for “religious freedom” amongst federal politicians, even as citizen secularism surges.

The first reason is that our federal politicians are indeed on average more religious than the general population.

There’s a strong Christian fellowship among federal politicians and they meet regularly. The federal parliament is also likely to be the only secular place of employment in the nation whose daily order of business dictates that it is preceded by religious prayers: and exclusively Christian ones at that.

How does such an anachronism thrive in contemporary society? The Australian Christian Lobby furnishes a case study. It operates the Lachlan Macquarie Institute, whose purpose is to coach and steward “redemptive” Christians into public office and other positions of influence. On the secular side of the ledger, the Rationalist Society, Australian Humanists and Atheist Foundation have no such program.

That may help explain why granting rights to one section of society — those who might contemplate a non-male/female marriage — was met by the requirement of a national postal vote, while granting rights to another section — the religious who want to reject them — was met only with a government-selected panel’s inquiry.

There’s also the grass-roots matter of loading political party branches with religious conservatives, favouring the preselection of supportive election candidates.

The second reason is that at the same time a disproportionate number of federal politicians are receptive to religious argument, religious conservatives are far more active in approaching them. Religious conservatives meet frequently through religious service attendance, placing them on fertile common ground to coordinate their efforts.

The ANU data reveals that religious conservatives are very significantly more likely than religious moderates to contact politicians and government officials by email. Given that marriage equality is more of a non-issue for (or is supported by) religious moderates, politicians might wrongly form the view that the faith-based correspondence they receive is representative of all religious Australians.

But it is perhaps the third major reason that’s most informative, helping to explain why many politicians substantially overestimate the real ballot box influence of religious conservatives. It’s that most surveys fail to reveal the strong link between religious social conservatism, and economic conservatism.

Two thirds (67%) of religious conservatives are also economic conservatives, the same rate as amongst secular conservatives, compared to just 32% of secular progressives.

Religious conservatives are on average by far the most concerned about government debt and economic management: even more so than secular conservatives. Along with secular conservatives, they show the least support for distribution of wealth and income to ordinary working people.

After secular conservatives, they’re the most likely to be very dissatisfied with the state of the economy (in 2016), to support reducing taxes rather than spending more on social services, and to endorse Coalition economic policy.

Religious conservatives also show standout support for Coalition immigration policy. They’re even the most likely to say the Coalition has the best policies on Labor’s traditional strengths, health and education; and the best policies on the Greens’ traditional strengths, environment and global warming.

If you’re beginning to detect a reinvigorated religious conservative heart beating in openly Pentecostal Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Coalition, you’d be right. But the cardiac affair doesn’t end there.

There’s a real clincher that our federal politicians haven’t yet considered: religious conservatives are by a whopping margin (81% of them) the most likely to believe that getting another job, if they lose the one they’ve got, is going to be hard. Very hard.

That’s not an accidental one-off correlation. Job-fear amongst the religious has been reported in peer-reviewed research.


Religious conservatives fear getting another job will be hard... very hard
Religious conservatives are by far the most likely to think getting another job will be hard... very hard


So when federal politicians opine that the swing to the Coalition in the western suburbs of Sydney at the 2019 election was due to its denizens’ anticipation of horror at encountering a married gay couple, they’re ignoring the fact that the region’s recent migrants (who are indeed on average much more religious) would be the most fearful for their jobs.

It’s no accident that the Coalition’s 2016 election slogan was “jobs and growth” and its 2019 slogan “building our economy, securing your future”.

The real effect of religion on the 2016 election conservative vote was in fact minuscule, particularly considering that a massive 87% of minor party preferences of religious conservatives that could be traced forward to a major party went to the Coalition, compared with an equivalent tiny 9% amongst secular progressives.

The upshot is that as closely as can be calculated, the nett effect of religious — excluding economic — conservatism at the 2016 election was a mere 0.2% of all votes.

In summary, those to whom “religious freedom” is deeply and personally most important, religious conservatives, comprise just 8% of adult Australians. They’re not only socially conservative with high levels of self-referential control, but substantially economically conservative, accounting for their largely “rusted on” disposition towards the Coalition and little nett effect in a general election.

More recently, the surge of secularism to now comprise a majority of Australian voters, along with the demise of Cory Bernardi’s short-lived Australian Conservatives party, signals a change of religio-political winds across the nation. Those winds will continue to strengthen as the older, more religious generation is replaced by a new, less-religious one.

That would suggest the federal legislature tread very carefully indeed in entertaining special religious privileges to discriminate against others. While it’s unlikely Australia would be throwing Christians to the lions any time soon, sanctioned intolerance has a habit of breeding significant pushback… and sometimes overcorrection.

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