When I was a child and dinosaurs still roamed the earth, Australias churches launched a campaign against paganism, consumerism and materialism under the catchy title: Put the Christ Back in Christmas.
As the last fortnight has clearly demonstrated, it flopped; 2006 was apparently the most commercially successful festive season ever, with records set in spending, kitsch and general vulgarity.
But not one wit abashed, the godbotherers have returned to the fray with a project which is at once more ambitious and more devious: Put Christianity Back in Politics. And one must report with a sense of apprehensive dread that the leaders from both sides appear to be responding with enthusiasm.
Interestingly, they now both profess a similar take on the dogma, although they have come to it from opposite directions. John Howard approached Anglicanism from the depths of low church Methodism, while Kevin Rudd descended from the heights of Roman Catholicism.
Thus they now both espouse middle-of-the-road religion, in keeping with their middle-of-the-road politics. But thats as far as the convergence goes.
For Howard and his supporters, God is a rock-solid conservative, sternly upholding the rights of the individual and willing only to help those that help themselves. His compassion is limited to the righteous and he is a strict moral policeman, particularly tough on those who advocate any form of abortion. Needless to say, he is invariably on the side of the Coalition.
Rudd, however, indignantly rejects the notion that God is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party. His God is more of a social democrat caring and inclusive for all and especially concerned about the poor and underprivileged. He is certainly not obsessive about narrowly-defined moral issues, although he would wag a disapproving finger at therapeutic cell cloning. And although he sympathises with the ideals of the left, he is not totally committed, seeing good on all sides something of a swinging voter.
While the leaders themselves seem to have spent most of the holiday season at the cricket, their supporters have been diligently thumbing through the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) in a search for evidence to back up their position, and, with the Bible being the multi-authored mish-mash that it is, both parties have already announced victory. God must be feeling very confused.
But it would be a most interesting exercise to sit down with each of Howard and Rudd and interrogate them (catechise, I believe, is the technical term) on exactly what it is that they believe. Do they seriously accept the virgin birth, the only scientifically confirmed instance of which involves not a Jewish woman, but a komodo dragon? Do they genuinely maintain that a man called Jesus turned water into wine, fed five thousand, cured the lame and raised the dead?
Have they not even a smidgin of the doubt that the same man himself rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and is now sitting at Gods right hand until it is time to return and judge the living and dead? And do they live every moment of their lives on the basis of these preposterous assumptions?
At least we know the answer to the last one: it is an emphatic negative. No working politician could ever come close to the literal Christian ideal, let alone one who aspired to the top. At best, Howard, Rudd and their fellow travellers in parliament are engaged in a kind of double-think by which they try, for most of the time anyway, to follow broadly Christian principles (or what they consider for their own purposes to be broadly Christian principles) and hope that this will be enough to keep a place for them in both heaven and the House of Representatives.
I suspect their real creed is not that laid down at Nicea in the 4th century, but that of a 20th century British MP, who confessed his faith with the immortal words: Mr Speaker, we all believe in a sort of a something.
Well, actually we dont: many of us have outgrown the need for a comfort blanket. The existence of a just and merciful interventionist god was conclusively disproved the first time a child died in pain, and no amount of sophistry can change that. It follows that if there is any kind of superhuman power it must be either wilfully capricious or sublimely disinterested and in either case is better ignored.
But the vast majority of the voters prefer to hang on to some form of nominal Christianity, so the wiser politicians do the same. Paris, as the Protestant Henri IV observed, is well worth a Mass; and, as the agnostic Gough Whitlam confirmed, The Lodge is well worth the occasional appearance at church.
But there is a danger in all this, which is that although we like our politicians to be believers, we do not like them too pious; we are certainly not ready for the American idea of so-called born-again Christians taking over the government. Arguably Tony Abbott, the Mad Monk, has already cruelled his chances at the top job by being too confronting (albeit in a tricky and often hypocritical manner) with his own religiosity.
Both Howard and Rudd have so far been sensibly low-key about their Christianity, but some of their more excitable barrackers, especially in the Murdoch press, have been urging them to start a crusade. As both Howard and Rudd have advised in another context, the zealots need to take a cold shower. Howard has already forecast that the next election may develop into the battle of the nerds, which is depressing enough. But it would be a lot better than a holy war.
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