Religious communities and politics

Marion Maddox and Rodney Smith

Key terms/names

Constitution, contracting, discrimination, religion, sectarianism, secularism, separation of church and state, sovereignty


Defining religion

Political scientists have not always paid much attention to religion – and, when they do, they often do so without definition.1 Yet religion is an elusive concept; many languages have no word that is a ready equivalent of what English speakers understand as ‘religion’.

As Brent Nongbri pointed out, religion’s intuitive meaning for modern Westerners is ‘anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity’.2 Traditions that do not fit that pattern tend to be either overlooked or reinterpreted to squeeze them into a Protestant Christian mould.

To help navigate this problem, Ira Allen and Saul Allen proposed that political scientists should think of religions as ‘systems of shared activity organized around transcendental signifiers’.3 Focusing on activity systems (which are observable) avoids favouring faith or belief (which are not only inaccessible to the researcher but also of greater importance in some traditions than others). Similarly, ‘transcendental signifiers’ are observable in public discourse, and not limited to such things as deities (which not all traditions have). The Allens’ definition also helpfully avoids seeing ‘religion’ as static, allowing for the fact that such activity systems change over time, in interaction with other aspects of society, including the political.

Religion and democratic politics

Religious studies scholar Timothy Fitzgerald argued that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ acquired their modern meanings through being conceptually separated from one another in the 17th century. ‘In this new formula’, according to Fitzgerald, ‘religion has nothing in its true nature to do with “power”’ and ‘governance and the political state’ were redefined as ‘non-religious’. A consequence of the pattern Fitzgerald identified is that modern Western political thought has theorised that religion and politics are safest when kept separated. This preference for separation is often traced to the trauma of the European wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.4

To Naomi Goldenberg, religions are more helpfully understood as ‘vestigial states’ – that is, ‘the cultural remnants of former sovereignties that persist within current states’.5 The main difference lies in the ‘abstractions they cite to justify their authority’.6 Where fully functioning states ‘might ground themselves on such terms as freedom, equality, justice, or as the proper homelands of an idealized race or ethnicity’, the ‘vestigial states called religions often appeal to some form of divinity (generally male)’.7 Goldenberg’s observations clarify that the kinds of organisations conventionally called religions, and those conventionally called states, share concerns with the organisation and distribution of (among other things) material goods and power (of various kinds). Little wonder separating ‘religion’ from ‘politics’ proves much harder than it sounds.

In Australia, as elsewhere, religious communities have exhibited varying political alignments, and the rise of the ‘no religion’ category provokes further questions. Moreover, the demand to keep religion out of political debate is arguably anti-democratic, preventing some people (the religiously committed) from drawing on their deepest convictions in thinking about public concerns. Rejecting the conventional wisdom that religion renders public life unstable, several scholars have argued for democracy over secularism.8 Lori Beaman gives the name ‘deep equality’ to the forms of ‘agonistic respect’ that facilitate democratic community across religious differences.9

The Constitution and formal political institutions

Australia’s Constitution and formal political institutions are not completely secular, nor do they embody religious values, language and symbols to the extent of those of some other liberal democracies, including the UK.

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1901 (Cth) begins with reference to ‘the people … humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’, an expression that the late 19th-century framers of the Constitution thought would be inclusive enough to avoid offending adherents of most faiths. A century later, in a much more secularised social context, delegates debating a possible Australian republic at the 1998 Constitutional Convention were happy to retain a reference to God in the preamble to the Constitution, seeing it as a reminder of a generic source of authority over lawmakers or as a reflection of the nation’s best aspirations, or both.10

The other direct reference to religion in the Constitution occurs in section 116, which states:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for the establishing of a religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

A casual reading of section 116 might suggest that it erects a strong, American-style wall separating church and state. In fact, the Constitution’s drafters were not particularly careful about the wording of section 116, leaving constitutional protection of religious freedom in Australia relatively weak. While the High Court has defined ‘religion’ broadly, it has interpreted ‘law for’ in section 116 as prohibiting the Commonwealth only from making laws specifically intended to establish a religion, impose observance, or prohibit free exercise. The court has upheld Commonwealth laws that impinge on the exercise of a religion but are not designed to do so. In addition, section 116 does not prevent the states or territories from making laws concerning religion. Attempts in 1944 and 1988 to address these issues via constitutional amendments both failed.11

Indigenous religion

For at least 60,000 years, the territory that is currently Australia was covered by a dense network of interlocking activity systems for organising power, knowledge, law and goods. These systems were conceived in terms of humans’ relationships with one another, with the land and with non-human others, both physical and spiritual. The languages in which these systems were expressed – more than 250, with some 800 dialectal varieties12 – did not distinguish ‘religion’ from other areas of life, such as political or economic. In the words of native title scholars Michael Dodson and Diana McCarthy, ‘The Indigenous process by which historical events become part of an everlasting and immutable Creation are ritualistic and religious’.13 In addition to areas that European ways of thinking normally consider ‘religious’, this process is also the basis of some matters – such as land ownership – that European ways of thinking consider economic and of others – such as relationships, rights and responsibilities between groups of people – that European ways of thinking consider political. As Dodson and McCarthy observe, ‘the fit between traditional knowledge systems and Australian law is neither close nor comfortable’.14

In the colonial era, missions tried (with a few exceptions) to reshape Indigenous peoples’ political and economic systems, along with their beliefs, to fit a European image of a ‘Christian’ way of life.15 Belief had practical consequences; for example, colonial courts in the 1840s denied the testimony of Indigenous witnesses because they were ‘ignorant of the existence of a God or a future state’ or even ‘had no religion at all’.16

Yet, little more than a century later, Indigenous law was considered too religious for an Australian court to recognise. The 1971 Gove case was the first land claim to be heard in a federal court. Justice Blackburn found that the Yolŋu claimants’ relationship to their land was ‘religious or spiritual’ and that this precluded the court from granting their claim.17 In a further twist, anthropologist Nonie Sharp has shown how the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) finally undid the doctrine of terra nullius and recognised Indigenous ownership, but at the cost of downplaying the religious and spiritual aspects of Indigenous land law.18

In 2017, the First Nations Constitutional Convention, meeting at Uluru, encapsulated the unity of the spiritual, material and political by declaring that Indigenous sovereignty:

is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This is the basis of our ownership of the soil, or, better, of sovereignty.

The Uluru statement then spells out the consequences of that sovereignty’s fracture, including catastrophic incarceration rates. It proposes political solutions, including a Makarrata Commission, and a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution, enabling ‘this ancient sovereignty’ to ‘shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’.19

Patterns of religious belonging and commitment



















Other Christian






Total Christian




































Other religions






Total religions other than Christianity






No religion






Not stated






Table 1 Religious identification in the Census since Federation (selected years). Source: ABS 2017; ABS 2014.

*Includes Church of England ** Less than 0.1 per cent

Australia’s contemporary pattern is religious pluralism. According to the 2016 Census, the largest single religious group – 30 per cent of the population – were those who identified as having no religious commitment (Table 1). Australians who identified as Christian comprised around half the population (52 per cent). Catholics were the largest individual Christian group (23 per cent), followed by Anglicans (13 per cent). The ‘other Christian’ group (16 per cent) is diverse, with Uniting Church identifiers comprising the largest sub-group at 4 per cent. ‘Other’ religions are also diverse, with Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus the largest non-Christian religious groups.

It is also clear from Table 1 that Australians’ religious identities are more diverse now than they were at Federation in 1901, when nearly all of the population identified as Christian. Those Christians were divided, with the largest two groups being Church of England (Anglican in contemporary terms) and Catholic. The ‘other Christians’ were overwhelmingly Protestants – Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists and the like. This pattern of an Anglican and other Protestant majority and a significant Catholic minority reflected the colonising populations’ overwhelmingly British and Irish origins, which had not altered much by the Second World War. As other parts of this chapter show, this foundational period of Christian dominance and subsequent diversity has had important effects on Australian political institutions, political organisations and public policies.

Greater religious diversity began to develop from the 1970s, driven by two main processes. The first was the growth of immigration from outside Europe, which has increased the proportion of Australians from Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh traditions. At the 2016 Census, 4 per cent of people born in Australia identified with a religion other than Christianity, compared with 21 per cent of people born overseas.20

The second process has been secularisation. Since the 1970s, fewer and fewer Australians have declared any religious allegiance. In 2016, 10 per cent of Australians aged in their 80s and 90s had no religion, compared with 25 per cent of those in their 50s and over 40 per cent of those in their 20s.21 This secularising trend is also evident in patterns of religious practice and belief. About half of Australian adults attended at least one religious service a month in 1950, compared with one-fifth by the 1990s and one-sixth over the past decade. Practices such as prayer, as well as belief in God, have also declined. In 2018, 30 per cent of Australians prayed or meditated at least once a week. Twenty-six per cent believed in God, with another 30 per cent believing in a ‘spirit’ or ‘life force’.22

These patterns of religious pluralism and secularism mean that religion has very different interactions with Australian politics than it does with politics in the USA. In America, Christian identification, church attendance, beliefs and devotional practices are more common and more socially valued than they are in Australia.23 Devout American politicians who invoke Christian language thus share religious experiences and beliefs with many American voters in a way that devout Australian politicians do not. This does not mean that religion is unimportant in Australian politics; however, it means that American patterns of religious influence on politics cannot be assumed to operate in Australia.

Parties and voters

When the Australian party system solidified in the early 20th century, it did so primarily along class lines. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) was born out of the trade union movement, while the forerunners to the current Liberal and National parties drew heavily on the support of urban and rural businesspeople and professionals. This class divide had some religious undertones, particularly in the non-Labor parties, which were dominated by Protestants. Labor attracted Protestant as well as Catholic activists and leaders. Labor’s first five federal leaders were Protestants, before the party elected a Catholic leader, James Scullin, in 1928. Despite the ALP’s diversity, a mythology of Labor Catholicism versus Liberal–National (Coalition) Protestantism became popular in Australia, particularly after the First World War conscription debate saw prominent Protestants, including Prime Minister Billy Hughes, leave Labor to take up leading roles in the non-Labor parties.24

Labor’s ranks continue to include Catholics and Protestants. By contrast, the non-Labor parties remained dominated by Protestants until the final decades of the 20th century, when upward social mobility among Catholics increased their presence and visibility within the Liberal and National parties. Three of the four federal Liberal leaders since 2007 have been Catholics. This trend effectively ended any lingering sectarian traces in the major party contest.25

Political scientists have identified two longstanding relationships between religion and voting in Australia. The first is that religious identification affects party support. At the 2016 federal election, for example, 44 per cent of Catholics voted for Labor or the Greens, compared with 37 per cent of Anglicans and 33 per cent of Uniting Church adherents. Voters with no religion were most likely to support Labor (56 per cent). The second pattern is that more observant members of religious groups are less likely to support left-of-centre parties. In 2016, 33 per cent of voters who attend religious services at least once a month voted Labor or Green, compared with 49 per cent of voters who never attended.26

Religious commitment among political elites

Australia’s federal politicians have at least as high rates religious adherence as the general population.27 Also, leaders have become more outspoken about their religion. For example, in the decade to 2019, three prime ministers (Rudd, Abbott and Morrison) have regularly discussed their Christian faith (respectively, Anglican, Catholic and Pentecostal), while a fourth (Turnbull) was a less vocal, but consistent, church attender (Catholic). Only Julia Gillard claimed no religion. The tendency for Australian politicians to discuss their religion publicly has increased as popular levels of religious commitment have fallen.28

It is tempting to look for direct correlations between politicians’ religions and specific policies, but the reality is considerably more complicated. To take a few examples, the ALP’s longstanding opposition to public funding of Catholic schools was permanently altered by Gough Whitlam, a self-described agnostic from a Protestant family. Further education policy changes favouring Christian schools and introducing religious chaplains in public schools were initiated by John Howard, who, while in office, described himself as only a sporadic churchgoer.29 Same-sex marriage was eventually legislated under the Catholic (and marriage equality advocate) Malcolm Turnbull, having been resisted by the atheist Julia Gillard. Religion is not an independent force in political processes; it interacts with party pressures, politicians’ career paths, electoral calculations and community expectations, among other factors.30

Religious communities as political actors

There is no peak religious organisation that speaks in the public arena for all religious communities, or even for all Christians. Most, but not all, major Christian denominations are members of the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA), which, among other activities, makes statements on public policy issues such as economic justice, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights, refugee rights and welfare, foreign aid, peace and security. Member churches are not, however, bound by NCCA statements. Muslims Australia (the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils) and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) act as national peak bodies for most significant Islamic and Jewish communities. The NCCA, Muslims Australia and ECAJ maintain interfaith dialogue and express similar positions on some policy issues, such as religious tolerance, refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights; however, united action in other policy areas has been limited.31

Several developments in the lobbying efforts of Australian religious communities have been evident in recent decades. The first has been the growth, since the 1960s, of interest groups and social movements with positions that directly challenge traditional religious values. Where once the Christian churches were dominant voices, particularly on ‘moral’ issues such as euthanasia, sexuality and abortion, now they are just one set of voices competing with a range of other vocal and well-organised interests.

The sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants (including Anglicans) that marked the lobbying efforts of Christian churches for much of the 20th century has largely disappeared, replaced by an increasing tendency to unite against secular voices in policy debates.32 In recent years, this co-operation has extended to Islamic and other religious communities. In addition, sections of the churches have sought a role within social movements alongside secular groups with whom they share positions, a pattern that developed from the late 1970s in movements for peace, Aboriginal land rights, refugees and the environment.33

The most recent development has been the increase in professional lobbying by or on behalf of religious communities. This development has been most obvious in the Canberra-based Australian Christian Lobby, which has employed staff to lobby parliamentarians and influence voters since 2001, mostly in support of conservative policy positions. Its techniques are partly borrowed from similar organisations in the USA, but it has less influence than its American counterparts.34

Religious communities as service providers

Australia’s shift to neoliberal governance has increasingly built religious organisations into policy implementation, as providers of services that were previously supplied predominantly by public agencies. Especially since the mid-1990s, education, welfare, aged care, health and disability services have been progressively privatised, with religious organisations as major participants. Economist Paul Oslington calculated in 2015 that, due to contracting arrangements with governments, ‘Church-related not-for-profit organizations deliver approximately half of social services in Australia’, and that this proportion would increase due to the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.35

The effects of this shift included hastening the de-unionisation and deregulation of workforces in social services. The transfer of substantial quantities of previously government services to religious organisations, which are exempt from aspects of anti-discrimination law, removed a significant proportion of the education, health and welfare workforce from the reach of these protections and raised questions about the use of public money for services that were not provided on a purely non-discriminatory basis. Religious organisations have historically been effective critics of government policy; but, from the mid-1990s, the contracts under which they become agents of government policy often included ‘no-criticism’ clauses, limiting this capacity.36 By giving a publicly funded boost to organisations with declining memberships, Oslington observed, the contracting system put ‘most Australians’ contact with Christianity … through education or social services rather than congregations’.37

One area where the involvement of religious organisations in delivering public services has been particularly evident is schooling. By 1880, all of the Australian colonies had abolished public subsidies for religious schools, and from then until 1963, religious schools received no public money. ‘State aid’, as it was called, was reintroduced incrementally, first by the Coalition government under Robert Menzies. This was followed by a much larger expansion, in 1973, by the Labor government led by Gough Whitlam. The original justification was equity, given the dire state of many Catholic schools that were unable to afford even basic facilities. The return to ‘state aid’ was part of a larger package of education reform overseen by the Commonwealth Schools Commission, which was required to observe the ‘primary obligation … to provide and maintain government school systems … of the highest standard and … open, without fees or religious tests, to all children’.38

Since then, however, the funding mix has consistently favoured private schools over public schools, as well as shifting from the neediest schools to benefit the better-resourced schools.39 In 2019, one in three private schools received more public funding per student than public schools with similar student profiles.40 Since more than 90 per cent of private schools have some form of Christian affiliation, this represents a substantial public subsidy to religious organisations.


This chapter has demonstrated that, while Australia’s formal political institutions are broadly secular, Australian politics has been substantially shaped by dominant Christian traditions, often in surprising ways. Members of non-Christian religions have taken prominent roles in Australian public life, but their traditions’ impacts on the public culture have been smaller overall than that of Christianity. Indigenous ways of knowing, including the spiritual dimensions of sovereignty and land ownership, remain an aspect of the Australian religious landscape that the non-Indigenous population is still attempting to comprehend.


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Maddox, Marion (2015). Finding God in global politics. International Political Science Review 36(2): 185–96. DOI: 10.1177/0192512113509419

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—— (2014b). Religion and politics. In Paul Hedges, ed. Controversies in contemporary religion: education, law, politics, society and spirituality. Volume 2: debates in the public square and ethical issues, 265–92. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

—— (2005). God under Howard: the rise of the religious right in Australian politics. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

—— (2001). For God and country: religious dynamics in Australian federal politics. Canberra: Department of the Parliamentary Library.

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About the authors

Marion Maddox PhD PhD FAHA is a professor in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University in Sydney. She specialises in religion and politics. Her publications include Taking God to school: the end of Australia’s egalitarian education? (2014), God under Howard: the rise of the religious right in Australian politics (2005) and For God and country: religious dynamics in Australian federal politics (2001).


Rodney Smith is professor of Australian politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Among other books, he is the author of Against the machines (2006) and Australian political culture (2001) and co-editor of From Carr to Keneally (2012). He is the current editor of The Australasian Parliamentary Review.

1 Maddox 2015.

2 Nongbri 2013, 18.

3 Allen and Allen 2016, 559.

4 Fitzgerald 2015.

5 Goldenberg 2013.

6 Goldenberg 2013.

7 Goldenberg 2013, 40–1.

8 Bader 2008; Connolly 1999.

9 Beaman 2017.

10 Maddox 2001, 41–90.

11 Beck 2018.

12 Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies 2019.

13 Dodson and McCarthy 2006.

14 Dodson and McCarthy 2006.

15 Rowse 2017.

16 Smandych 2006, 107.

17 Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd and the Commonwealth of Australia (1971) 17 FLR 141, 167, 270–1 (Gove).

18 Sharp 1996, 149–88.

19 First Nations National Constitutional Convention 2017.

20 ABS 2017.

21 ABS 2017.

22 Pepper and Powell 2018; Smith 2001, 253–4.

23 Putnam and Campbell 2010.

24 Hogan 1987, 178–88

25 Hogan 1987, chapter 10.

26 Bean 2018, 240–1.

27 Maddox 2001, 11–19.

28 Crabb 2009.

29 Maddox 2014a, 183; Maddox 2005, 258.

30 Maddox 2014b.

31 Executive Council of Australian Jewry 2019; Muslims Australia AFIC 2019; National Council of Churches in Australia n.d.

32 Hogan 1987.

33 Smith 2014.

34 Maddox 2005; Payne 2019; Smith 2014; Smith 2009.

35 Oslington 2015.

36 Maddox 2005, 228–59.

37 Oslington 2015.

38 Commonwealth Schools Commission Act 1973 (Cth), section 13(4)(a).

39 Maddox 2014a, 83–6.

40 Ting, Liu and Scott 2019.