||Year End 2005|
Interview: Back to the Future
Unions: A Real Page Turner
Industrial: The Pin-Striped Union
International: Around The World In 365 Days
Legends: Terrific, Tommy
Your Rights At Work: Worth Fighting For
Politics: The Year That Was
Economics: Master and Servant Revisited
Culture: 2005: The Year of Living Repetitively
Bad Boss: The Bottom Ten
Religion: Hymns from a Different Song Sheet
The Locker Room
Waves of Destruction
Free to Rat
Tax Cuts and Cockroaches
Proportion, Not Distortion
Hymns from a Different Song Sheet
Religion is politics. Never mind what the Australian Constitution says about the separation of church and state, the two are inextricably intertwined around the power levers of our society. When church leaders went out into the broader community this year to comment on the new industrial relations legislation they were sure of their ground in a debate about work, family and society.
When it was time to speak, all the major Christian denominations decried the Work Choices legislation in extensive and detailed terms - all, that is, except one. The major exception was the Hillsong church. Hillsong's Pastor, Brian Houston, who is also President of the Assembly of God in Australia, was positively ambivalent about the legislation. Strange as it was that one Christian church was out of step with the others, a deeper look at Hillsong's political supporters and the values preached during services there reveals to us that Houston's ambivalence is actually very sound in political - rather than spiritual or moral - terms.
Of the other Christian denominations, it was the Reverend Poulos, from the Uniting Church, who was most strident in her comments, describing the government's changes to unfair dismissal laws as "immoral". In a detailed critique of the legislation she wrapped up her comments in a media release she titled, "Industrial Relations Reforms set to Hurt Workers".
Anglican Arch Bishop, Peter Jensen, declared himself alarmed at how the "proposals shift the differential of power in favour of employers" and cautioned that vulnerable workers would need to be protected from the unintended effects of the reforms. Cardinal George Pell, was a little more subdued than the others but managed to express a "concern that minimum wages would be pushed lower in real terms."
Hillsong's Brian Houston, on the other hand, launched into the debate to declare his support for church leaders - rather than working people - in a statement that began by championing the rights of clergy to comment on the direction of the nation. Later, he found time to suggest that analysis of the reforms was important but added that we should always be open to change. He said we should, "protect workers against injustice and provide an avenue for recourse in genuine unfair dismissal cases, whilst still being fair and workable for employers," and, in case there was any doubt this fence sitter was teetering either way, he added, "Employers and employees each have rights."
Houston had his reasons. In part, Houston is caught up in the way that religion and politics have changed so considerably over the past century. Houston's Hillsong is a revealing example of how far we've come.
In the Victorian era Christian socialists were the more politically active in arguing the rights of working people. Back then, churches saw the quest for social justice in terms of a Christian message of loving one another and looking out for your neighbor. This perspective held together in the broader church community through to the 1950s and 60s of the last century, to the extent that it was often said that you could count on a worker's allegiance to the Catholic Church and the Labor Party.
Times have changed greatly. Hillsong congregations listen to a slightly different message. The congregation is made up of the same ordinary working people attending to their spiritual needs but they gather in crowds of over 18 000 in Sydney each weekend while membership of older mainstream churches is declining. Membership of the Australian Labor party is somewhere south of 15 000, if that.
The values that are preached at Hillsong - values that differ considerably from the social justice message you might expect from a more traditional Christian church - offer clues as to what draws in the larger crowds.
Often referred to as 'Happy Clappy Christians' Hillsongers are famous for using music to entertain and raise the spirits. Inside a feel good stadium that's big enough to accommodate the wingspan of a 747, parishioners watch a warm up comedian before the light show and music begins. Through all this a pastiche of images runs on two screens the size of billboards at either end of the stage. Younger church members run down to the stage and slam dance to God rock while images of John Howard (he opened the new Hillsong church) and Brian Houston are blasted around the auditorium.
Thirty minutes in, Houston comes on stage, looking and sounding a lot like Elvis without the big collars and rhinestones, as he chants in a deep baritone promising miracles will happen that night. And that, essentially, is the message on offer. He reads letters from the faithful describing prayers to God that helped turn a business around, secure a $100 000 a year job - with a mobile phone and car - and turned prisoners at a detention facility into regular viewers of Hillsong's television broadcast at six every Sunday morning.
It's still Christianity, but it leans more heavily on a philosophy known as the prosperity gospel: you pray to god, he gives you lots of money and with the success you're able to help others: a trickle down theory that uses holy water. Hillsong does give some portion of the millions it makes tax-free every year, but exactly how much is never disclosed.
Politically, Houston has supported the movement of Christians into politics. One of his regular attendees at Hillsong and member of the church, Louis Markus, is the Liberal federal member for Greenway, and a declared supporter of the Howard Government's Workchoices legislation.
The problem Houston has is that as President of the Assembly of God church he is also aligned to the Family First party. Family First's Federal chairman, Peter Harris, has been a member of Paradise AOG for ten or fifteen years, on his own account, and, for at least the last five, has been on the church board. All of this is a worry for Houston because Stephen Fielding represents Family First in the Senate where he voted against the Workchoices legislation because he has concerns that it was detrimental to family life.
This is why Houston has been so subdued and equivocal about the legislation.
All is not lost, however, because Houston may even turn at some point, depending on which way the political and social winds are blowing and subvert the dominant paradigm of preaching at his church. At a Hillsong conference early this year Bob Carr was one of many to address the assembled. Houston has also been prepared to take part in a debate organised by the Fabian society on the topic of religion and politics.
In fact, there are a number of Christians in Australia (following the lead of Jim Wallis in the United States) who are questioning the focus on individualism in right wing Christianity to bring back ideas of compassion and concern for our neighbors. This may be an area where Kim Beazley - a commited Christian - can make up some ground as his predecessor, Mark Latham, was invited to Hillsong but declined to appear.
In any case, there is a road back to a genuinely compassionate 'Christian' faith as long as we move away from the current distortions. It's a rescue operation that is even more crucial now, as a deepening social crisis begins to develop in the world the new industrial relations legislation will create.
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