Will Christian Political Parties Survive? The Future Outlook for CDP

17 June 2019

9 MINS

Growth in the religiously-unaffiliated is a demographic catastrophe for a Christian party that only speaks to the faithful. The recent federal election in Australia has, however, clearly shown that Christians, on the right or left, are a growing voting bloc. So it was not surprising to hear Prime Minister Scott Morrison declare, “I have always believed in miracles,’’ as he pulled off one of the biggest electoral turnarounds in modern political history and retained government for the Coalition despite the negative polling.

Contrary to secular media and public opinion, there seems to be a political shift taking place, yet receiving almost no attention whatsoever from political reporters, the media or indeed the churches – the growth in ‘faith’-based voters.

The most recent ABS Census (2016) in Australia shows that 12.2 million Australians (52%) identified themselves as Christians. According the McCrindle Research, 33% of Australians consider themselves Christian in a more considered sense (8 million people) whilst 9% actively participate in a church or community of faith (1.6 million people) – far more than go to sporting events that require a gate fee. There is an apparent decline in Christianity reflecting the changes in family structure – relatively fewer two-parent families raising their children in faith and church. It also reflects the growth in population by immigration, resulting in the fairly stable number of Christians being a smaller proportion of the total population. So how do we marry up the decline in Christianity with the shift in faith-based voting?

According to a recent ABC News, the ‘religious left’ is growing, and whilst they may not wield the same political power as the Christian right, they are nonetheless emerging as a diverse, passionate and active voting bloc in Australia. Whilst the conservative Christians on the right identify with a distinct set of issues such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia, religious freedom, and abortion, the religious left complicate the voting patterns given that while there’s a “clear commitment to social justice among the progressive and pious on the religious left, they’re not wholly subscribed to the left’s full agenda.” (ABC News Karen Tong)

In light of these trends, what is the future for Christian-based political parties such as the Christian Democratic Party of Australia (CDP)? As the former Federal and NSW State Director of the CDP and Campaign Director for the 2016 federal elections, I was always taunted by secular colleagues with such slogans as “so you work for the Christian Declining Party” or Christian Decimated Party or Devastated, Demolished, Destroyed, Diminishing, Dwindling, Disappearing or indeed “Christian Deteriorating Party.” I soon began to better understand the implications and the extended meaning of Matthew 5:11, Matthew 10:22, or John 15:21, all of which highlight the secular abuse Christian apologists face daily.

Judging solely from the rhetoric and actions of the CDP and its candidates, you would be hard-pressed to tell much difference between 2011, the year that the CDP was ruling the roost in NSW politics holding the balance of power, and the recent 2019 elections. Sure, there was a lot more talk about the unpopular privatisation of NSW’s electricity assets and the impending rout of the New South Wales Labor government, which ended up being unprecedented in modern Australian politics with Kristina Keneally leading her party to its worst defeat since 1940.

The 2011 election saw the 16-year-incumbent Labor Party defeated in a landslide by the Liberal–National Coalition opposition led by Barry O’Farrell, and saw the CDP with a +0.65 swing (+0.74 in 2007) holding balance of power shifting from the Greens.

Interestingly, a lot of CDP candidates began reincarnating themselves as devout Christians, despite evident lack of familiarity with the doctrines and practices of the faith.

Christian Right candidates have always had a difficult task in any election, but their even worse track record in the 2019 election is a perfect window into trends that will set the pace of Christian politics for decades to come. Despite the win by Scott Morrison and the apparently swing by the Christian-left, Australians are moving away from Christianity, including people most likely to vote CDP. In this changed political climate, which exists right now, the CDP can only hope to succeed by greatly expanding its appeal to non-Christians.

The process of secularisation has been moving rapidly in Australia compared to the USA, where a study by Pew Research found that 23 percent of Americans say they’re “unaffiliated” with any religious tradition, up from 20 percent just 3 years earlier. In Australia, the 2017 McCrindle research Faith and Belief in Australia explored the state of Christianity in Australia. The purpose of the research was to investigate faith and belief blockers among Australians and to understand perceptions, opinions, and attitudes towards Jesus, the Church and Christianity. In that study, 44 per cent of respondents did not identify with any religion whatsoever.

In that same study, the biggest block to Australians engaging with Christianity was the Church’s stance and teaching on homosexuality (31% said this completely blocks their interest). This was followed by ‘How could a loving God allow people to go to hell?’ (28%) which explains the public reaction to Israel Folau’s ‘hell’ tweets.

I am neither a brain surgeon nor a rocket scientist, but my sense tells me that this trend away from faith is only bound to increase with time. The trends are that more adults under the age of 50 are ‘opting out’ of religion and claiming ‘no faith’ is now the fastest-growing “religion” in the Australia, leaving agnostics and atheists as the remainder.

While those statistics on the growth of religiously-unaffiliated ought to be impressive enough to warrant serious discussion, the reality is that public polling almost certainly underestimates the numbers of the faithless, because many ‘religious’ Australians have strong negative opinions of those who are atheists or agnostics. This negativity makes non-believers less willing to publicly admit to their opinions, and hence poses a problem for Christian-based political parties.

If the growth in non-believers (unchurched) continues, the argument goes, these people will return to the sanctuary and back into the conservative parties such as One Nation, Australian Conservatives, and of course the Liberal Coalition. The argument might be a comfortable one to conservatives of faith, but it is not supported by the facts.

So, do fewer Christians mean fewer CDP Voters? The implications of Australians’ exodus from cultural Christianity are significant for the political right, because the religiously unaffiliated appear to have a real preference for Greens, One Nation and perhaps even On Issue Parties. In fact, a person’s religious perspective is generally the most accurate predictor aside from party identification of how he or she will vote.

It is this changing aspect of the electorate that will have more of an impact on the Christian conservative movement’s future, e.g. CDP, than any other demographic shift. The fact of the matter is that many voters, if the statistics continue, are abandoning faith and as they do, they are leaving Christian political as well. This demographic trend is creating what we could call the ‘Undecided Unbelievers,’ a voting disparity that is particularly harmful to Christian-based parties, since the Liberal Coalition and One Nation have been much better at getting votes among Christians than the CDP has among the irreligious (the ‘Nones’).

While secular people have always favoured Liberal or Labor for as long as the data goes back, the situation has actually become even worse in recent years for the CDP. Data on past elections indicates a marked decline for CDP support since 1981.

NSW Upper House Elections

Votes

Swing

Party

1981

248,425

+7.8

Call to Australia

(Fred Nile)

2011

127, 233

-1.3

CDP (Paul Green)

2015

126, 305

-0.2

CDP (Fred Nile)

2019

101, 328

-0.65

CDP (Paul Green) Unelected

Federally, the CDP and Christian parties didn’t fare much better.

Federal Senate 2019

Votes

Swing

Party

NSW

75,510

1.09%

CDP

VIC

18,791

+0.23%

CDP

WA

23,983

+0.04

Australian Christians* (AC)

NET

118,284

-0.82

AC formerly ‘split’ from Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group) 2016

The likely reason why CDP support has declined in popularity, especially among the non-religious, is CDP’s long tradition of identifying itself as a Christian party and pushing the “Judeo-Christian values” at any cost, and at the expense of economic and social policies.

As increasing numbers of Australians are choosing non-Christian religions or no faith tradition at all, they are also not choosing the CDP. Some are joining up with One Nation, but many are also choosing “none of the above”, just like what they are doing with religion.

McCrindle and other research indicates that people claiming “no religion” in surveys are much more likely to be young, non-churchgoers and identified with the ‘Nones’ (Religiously Unaffiliated). But generational attrition—the gradual replacing of older religious people with younger secular ones—is not the only reason why Christian-based political parties such as CDP have lost voters. Even a casual observation of people under 65 shows that they have also become more secular in recent years. It is then understandable that Generation X’ers and Baby Boomers have also become more religiously unaffiliated in recent years. Their lack of interest in religion is having an effect on the voting patterns of younger Australians.

According to a 2014 poll commissioned by the American Bible Society, just 35 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 believe the Bible “contains everything a person needs to know how to live a meaningful life.” The millennial generation is also much more sceptical about the role of the Bible within society. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these findings parallel the trend in Australia.

CDP’s Choice: Onward Christian Soldiers or Political Reality?

That so many non-Christians would choose not to vote for the Christian Democratic Party really should come as no surprise, considering the fact that many Christian conservatives—even at the very highest echelons of power and influence—seem to be utterly unaware that their repeated use of Christian symbolism and rhetoric can be perceived as offensive or non-inclusive to people who do not share their beliefs. The ‘Undecided Unbelievers’ are gaining political significance.

I have always held the view as a Christian that we should be ‘intolerant’ of whatever God does not ‘tolerate’, regardless of popular secular opinion. As a former and active political adviser in the first term of the Howard government, I was often guilty of ‘bowing down’ at the altar of public opinion just to ‘win’ votes. I, along with many other Christians in politics, have had to choose between our Christian ethics and the realities of politics. This is now the choice CDP must face.

Interestingly, I have often noticed at various CDP political rallies and meetings that we began with an appeal to Jesus Christ, and rightly so, but without any regard to making an outsider feel at home. This is also true for people who do not believe in any faith. The real issue is that even if non-Christians do not take offense to being excluded, at the very least such public displays of Christian belief at ostensibly secular events certainly do not encourage them to participate or to become enthusiastic. I recall at some of the CDP events, at which I was MC, introducing a Speaker or Guest with an opening invocation but taking no account of the fact that the guest of honour wasn’t a Christian.

As bad as things are now for CDP with regard to secular voters, however, they seem to be worsening. So, unless action is taken—and this must include a ‘concession’ that most Australians support same-sex marriage—as the non-Christian portion of the country continues to grow, the prospects for the Christian-based CDP movement are going to attenuate as the ‘Undecided Unbelievers’ grow.

In loving sincerity, here are the hardcore options for Christian political parties and CDP in particular. First, they need to ‘Reinvent’ themselves. The word ‘Christian’ in a political party name no longer resonates with the electorate. Whist I am not advocating any form of political apostasy, Christian political parties à la CDP, need to rebrand with a view to bringing the ‘Undecided Unbelievers’ from the anti-Christian wilderness into the Christian-tent. To do this they need to restructure the party in terms of nomenclature, leadership and candidate selection.

Secondly, the Christian political movement needs a new ‘Champion’ to wave the Christian flag. When Fred Nile came to the NSW electorate in 1981 under the Call to Australia banner, he was waving the Christian flag and saw a successful +7.8 swing. The Christian political movement desperately needs a ‘new’ Fred Nile who is articulate, engaging, honest, compassionate, flexible (but uncompromising) with integrity and optimism. Many thought that the Australian Conservatives (AC) leader Cory Bernardi was the likely ‘new’ pseudo-Christian champion but alas the AC polled pathetically in all the states (0.5 in NSW) with little or any apparent impact on the electorates.

Thirdly, whilst not ignoring or abandoning traditional biblical-based principles, Christian-based policies need to be more encompassing and certainly more ‘hip-pocket’ oriented. Policies need to correlate Christian beliefs with economic and social issues of homelessness, unemployment, heath, aging population, housing affordability, and so on.

Lastly, any Christian-based party such as the CDP needs to engage with its constituent base – the churches. For far too long, churches have been reluctant to enter the public arena, claiming that ‘church and state’ cannot be sitting in the same pew. As an apologist for FamilyVoice Australia, I am constantly defending the Christian faith. If we are to make disciples, then more than ever we need committed Christians in politics. Any Christian-based political party will need to ensure that it embraces the resources and the spiritual wealth within the houses of God (1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 3:6; and 1 Peter 4:17). The prognosis is clear: voting patterns of regular churchgoers in Australia consistently favour the Coalition, according to the National Church Life survey. In 2016, 41 per cent of church-attending Christians voted for the Liberal-National Party, and 24 per cent voted for Labor. If Christian-based parties such as the CDP are to succeed, they will need to tap into the 65 per cent of church-going voters.

As we approach 2022 and beyond, Christian conservative parties such as CDP face a choice. And there is a choice. They can either continue to pigeonhole their politics and become a small group of frustrated Christian traditionalists who grow ever more resentful toward their fellow Australians, or they can embrace reality—following a faith which wants Christians to first put their own affairs in order and then render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s whilst at the same time carrying out the Great Commission.

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3 Comments

  1. Graham Lawn 17 June 2019 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    Mostly agree with Greg’s analysis. It would also help if there was only one Christian Party and therefore one name only for a Christian Party throughout Australia to remove any confusion or sense of competition.
    Certainly there still needs to be more contact with the churches and education of church voters that putting a Christian Party first is never a wasted vote.

  2. Anna Soh 18 June 2019 at 1:44 am - Reply

    It would be a good thing if all the political parties with strong Christian values were to work together to form one party and it does not need to be called a Christian Party as there are a lot of Australians with strong Christian values but do not consider themselves as Christians as they do not attend church.
    A party that can appeal to believers and non-believers with strong Christian values would be able to obtain more votes and hold the balance of power!

  3. John Mathai 18 June 2019 at 4:04 am - Reply

    Values based party will attract votes as moral values decline in this generation of pluralism and fluidity.

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