Australian Prime Ministers and Their Faith

Head and shoulders of Alfred Deakin

Australia’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, had deeply held, unorthodox religious beliefs. (Photo by Contributor(s): Swiss Studios, Melbourne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Each of us has a mental and/or spiritual framework which influences everything we do. Our culture and beliefs, whether absorbed in our childhood or carefully thought through and adopted as an adult, act in a complex way to affect our decisions throughout our lives.

In this respect our politicians are no different to every other member of society. We should expect that the beliefs of politicians, atheist, agnostic or religious will affect the decisions they make. This effect may be unconscious and subtle or it may be obvious to everyone.

The ABC television program Compass is running a two-part series about the religious beliefs of Australia’s Prime Ministers from the inception of this nation in 1901 to today’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. ‘God in the Lodge’ is a chronological overview that introduces the question of how religious our Prime Ministers have been and how this has affected their decisions.

‘God in the Lodge’ is the briefest of introductions to this area. It covers all twenty-eight Australian Prime Ministers over two episodes of only thirty minutes each. This is not a program about nuance. There is no room for coverage of the subtle influence of religion in Australian politics. It is not a criticism to say that ‘God in the Lodge’ does not dig deep. It is unusual for this kind of question to be raised on television in a country which rarely considers the role of belief in its public history. Committing the resources to raising this topic is welcome.

Regular Compass presenter, Geraldine Doogue, introduces each Prime Minister with photos and small video clips while summarising their religious upbringing and adult religious practice. Then in brief commentary an historian, biographer or commentator shares their views about the religiosity of the Prime Minister and how their religious beliefs affected their political work.

Part I of the series, which covers 1901-1972, is available until 7:30pm 18th May on ABC iview. Part II was broadcast a week later and is available on ABC iview until 7:30pm 25th May. This review covers Part I only

“I don’t think any prime minister in our history who is genuinely religious has left his religion at the door”, remarks author, Roy Williams. But which Prime Ministers were “genuinely religious”? It is clear from Part I that while most of the Prime Ministers were happy to be affiliated to a church, many let their faith disappear into the background except on the occasions when they were in church.

Yet it is also evident from Part I of ‘God in the Lodge’ that Christian religious views were a significant influence in Australian politics to 1972. The program opens the viewers’ eyes to Christian socialism which was important in the formation of the Australian Labor Party. Not many people would be aware that in the early twentieth century the socialists in Melbourne organised themselves like a church, providing services and classes for children on Sundays.

The Labor Party during the first half of the twentieth century was a fascinating coalition of Protestants, Catholics, Atheists and people from many other belief backgrounds. Part I of the program covers the disastrous split in the Labor Party during the 1950s when conservative Catholics left the party because of disagreement about communism. The Democratic Labor Party which they formed was instrumental in the electoral successes of Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, the Liberal Party leader Sir Robert Menzies.

This program is a good, brief introduction to Australia’s political history. The bane of sectarianism emerges at various points in the program. The nastiness of the rift between Catholics and Protestants during the Prime Ministership of Billy Hughes is raised by discussing the divisive debates that consumed the Australian public during the two conscription referendums at the time of World War I.

Sectarianism also affected the personal life of Australia’s highly-regarded wartime leader, Ben Chifley. He was a Catholic who had the temerity to marry a Presbyterian woman. As explained in the program, while his marriage was not approved by the Church they allowed his funeral to take place in the Catholic Cathedral of Bathurst, New South Wales. Sadly, his grave is in the Catholic section of the cemetery while his wife is buried in the Presbyterian section. As I found out recently from the book Captains of the Soul, the burial practices of the Australian Army have been more progressive than those of Australian civil cemeteries. There are no religious demarcations where Australian soldiers are buried.

The brevity of ‘Gods in the Lodge’ results in a documentary which runs at a good pace. However, the effort to cover every Prime Minister and the lack of time leads to some potentially interesting material remaining uncovered. The deeply held beliefs of Australia’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, are fascinating but the program could only cover them superficially. Deakin was brought up in the Church of England but as a young adult moved from orthodox beliefs to explore Theosophy and Spiritualism. The abbreviated explanation of spiritualism given by historian, Stuart Mcintyre, was inadequate. This demonstrates the difficulty that historians encounter when working with time limits dictated by producers and broadcasters.

A thematic approach to this material, rather than the chronological approach taken may have allowed a more thorough exploration of the role of belief in Australian politics. In terms of the theme of the program, some Prime Ministers were not very interesting at all, while others could have done with more time.

I must say, the teaser for tonight’s program is very good yet I fear there will not be enough time allocated to portray the Prime Minister who was “the most religiously informed nonbeliever”. Gough Whitlam was the Prime Minister during the most tempestuous time of Australian federal politics. This will be a great way to start Part II.

3 thoughts on “Australian Prime Ministers and Their Faith

  1. Hi Yvonne, I am glad that you are following this Compass series, since I just don’t have the patience with these slim overviews. The documentary has just enough focus to park everybody somewhere. No doubt, it is a good introduction for “first year” college or university students.

    I have long been peeved that, since Ninian Smart, nobody believe it is worth debating a working definition of religion, for fear of offending. Smart’s dimensional approach has merit but I think it is inadequate, simply because there are activities which will have certain dimensions which we don’t think ought to be designated as ‘religious’. There are those who wish to make everything religion, or about religion, but a moments thought about plurality in life makes the absolutist notion nonsense. Everything is not religion or about religion. Most in our Australian society are very comfortable about that secular space. Hence, Gough Whitlam as the “the most religiously informed nonbeliever” seems to me about wanting it all in the one direction.

    I am sure Kevin Rudd will feature in the next Part, and that Monthly article which was the spur for my 2007 response in Quadrant. My contention is that it is impossible to have a policy which is truly religious in a modern democracy, even though certain ideas may be shown to have a history in particular religious traditions.


    • The reason I wanted to cover this program on this blog is because Stumbling Through the Past is written for people without tertiary qualifications in historical or religious studies as well as for any historians who are interested in this discussion with the public. Last week I was asked again by some people who had newly migrated to Australia for recommendations about what histories they should read to learn more about the country they are now calling home. It struck me that television programs such as this would be good introduction.

      I agree that this program is superficial but there are a lot of people who want to make a start to becoming more informed. Television is a good medium to introduce people to Australian history. Hopefully it will whet people’s appetite and encourage them to seek out deeper discussions.

      I do think this program was falling into the mistake that you have identified – at times it was seeking to find religious influence when there was little to find. This is why I think it would have been better if they had grouped all those Prime Ministers who did not have a strong personal faith. The program could have then made a stronger point that in Australia we have had a history of many people being indifferent to religion while clearly some Prime Ministers were moved by their faith to act in certain ways while in office.


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