A bizarre spectacle unfolded in recent weeks, as South Australia’s Liberal Party rejected the membership applications of some 150 new members on suspicion of being conservative Christians, and demanded proof of party loyalty from another 400.
The party’s power-brokers have since backed down, deciding not to go ahead with the purge. But these events have left many curious about the state of the modern Liberal Party — and whether John Howard’s “broad church” epithet still applies.
John Howard, Australia’s second-longest-serving Prime Minister (1996-2007) and a lifelong Anglican, wouldn’t be the only former Liberal leader unimpressed by this debacle. In the words of Sir Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party,
In my father’s house there are many mansions. Don’t forget it. There is room in every political party for Christian men and women of all schools of Christian thought.
If Menzies could say this of all political parties, he would certainly insist on it in the case of the Liberals. From its founding to its present form with Pentecostal Scott Morrison at the helm, the Liberal Party of Australia has been robustly shaped by Christian ideals, and people of faith have been well-represented in its ranks.
The Liberal Party was founded in 1944, unifying a collection of non-Labor parties concerned about the Labor Party’s socialist plans for post-war Australia. The major streams in the merger were the United Australian Party (UAP) and the Nationalist Party, a successor of the Commonwealth Liberal Party (CLP).
Something all three of these prior parties shared in common was that they were founded by Christians — the UAP by Joseph Lyons, a devout Catholic; the Nationalists by Billy Hughes, a lifelong (if slightly irreverent) Anglican who knew his King James Bible back to front; and the CLP by Alfred Deakin.
Though Alfred Deakin kept his spiritual life from the public gaze, his worldview was deeply religious and broadly Christian. Deakin played a vital role in Australia’s Federation, which he hoped “may be the means of creating and fostering throughout all Australia a Christ-like Citizenship.”1
The Liberal Party was not founded as an explicitly Christian party. However, its values of individual liberty, free enterprise, social equality and limited government are an inheritance of Judeo-Christian theology and ethics, along with Enlightenment philosophy.
By far, the most influential figure in the Liberal Party’s history is its founder, the aforementioned Sir Robert Gordon Menzies (1894-1978). Menzies served twice as Prime Minister for a total of 18 years, making him Australia’s longest-serving head of government. He was also one of Australia’s most erudite statesmen, whose immensely popular The Forgotten People radio broadcasts in the 1940s won the heart of Australia’s working class — and his re-election in 1949.
Robert Menzies was born to Scottish Presbyterian parents who went to a Methodist church in rural Victoria where there was no Presbyterian congregation. He grew up attending church regularly, and maintained his faith throughout his university years, reading the Bible daily and playing a prominent role in his local church Bible class at North Carlton and later Kew. During this time, he also served as President of the Christian Union at Melbourne University.
Before politics, Menzies pursued a career in law, eventually being appointed a King’s Counsel in 1929. He married his wife Pattie at Kew Presbyterian Church, where they continued to worship occasionally. To the end of his life, Menzies took his Scottish religious roots seriously. According to historian and political theorist Stephen Chavura, Menzies’ “Christianity was sincere, but like many of his generation leading up to the rapid secularisation of the 1950s and 1960s, probably more ethical than devotional.”2
Menzies described himself as a “simple Presbyterian”. He upheld the central tenets of Christianity such as the Trinity, a divinely inspired Bible and personal salvation through Christ, while downplaying the differences between denominations. Menzies admired the practical, community-oriented faith of the Salvation Army and the early Methodists. He hoped to see an end to the animosity between Catholics and Protestants that had long plagued Australian society. According to the Menzies Research Institute,
Menzies believed that it was infinitely more constructive for the Church, as a whole, to focus on preaching a common gospel and seeking to enrich the community through good works than to be inwardly preoccupied with settling finer points of doctrine.
“Although Menzies was a secular rather than an ecclesiastical leader, his social thought was infused with Christian ideals,” writes Chavura.3 Menzies championed middle-class Protestant values like hard work, personal integrity, thrift and community service, and he often decorated his speeches with biblical phrases and imagery.
“According to Menzies, the central challenge for developed liberal democracies was the decline of ‘spirit’, or the suffocating effects of prosperity, ease, and socialism on humans’ capacity to create, contribute, and stand on their own feet.”4
It was these threats that prompted Menzies to regularly point Australians back to their shared Christian heritage:
If we are to live together in mutual amity and justice, if we are to be dignified without being proud or overbearing, we must be givers rather than receivers; we must be quick to discharge our duties and modest about our rights. For the harmony and brotherly love of a family is not maintained on a basis of claims. In the wise language of the Bible, the family are “in honour preferring one another”.5
Indeed, Menzies was convinced that “we may have clever citizens, ingenious citizens, even brave citizens, but unless they are citizens whose character has been enriched by the background of religious training they will not be the best citizens for Australia.”6 He saw the Judeo-Christian ethic as the wellspring of human freedom and a bulwark against the many threats to civilisation, whether materialism from within or totalitarianism from without. In the words of Menzies, “We must re-assert the truth that materialism is not enough. Man does not live by bread alone.”7
In a world buffeted by so many modern perils — and opportunities — Menzies guided Australians back to footings that were familiar and secure. “Democracy is more than a machine; it is a spirit,” he affirmed. “It is based upon the Christian conception that there is in every human soul a spark of the divine; that, with all their inequalities of mind and body, the souls of men stand equal in the sight of God.”8 According to Chavura, Menzies understood religion as “part of the last hope for civilisation in the face of the Marxist and capitalist challenges to the human spirit.”9
In founding the Liberal Party, Menzies’ purpose was not merely to fight for an Australian liberalism. Rather, he hoped to create “a political entity that expressed the political principles of a significant section of the Australian population which believed in individual effort, reward for hard work, and the family.”10 These would be irreplaceable values for a new party that rejected the empty promises of materialism and dependence upon the state — and they rested squarely on Christian assumptions.
As the modern world marched on, secularisation proved to be more potent than even Menzies anticipated. Ultimately, some of his starkest warnings fell on deaf ears and Australian society succumbed to the forces Menzies hoped to shield us from.
But this does not change history: it cannot erase the Christian origins of the Liberal Party, which to this day has remained a bastion for believing Australians, even when other political parties are losing the faith. Of this Menzies would be proud, who reasoned:
The greatest problem of the world is not to discover how fast you may travel from one part of the globe to another, but to expand the heart and nature of man, and how you may extend your duties to another man, and how above all, we may understand our duty to our Maker.
- Col Stringer, Discovering Australia’s Christian Heritage (Queensland: Col Stringer, 2000), p. 104.
- Stephen Chavura, “The Christian Social Thought of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies,” Lucas: An Evangelical History Review, 2, no. 12 (December 2018), p. 22.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Robert Menzies, “The Nature of Democracy,” The Forgotten People, p. 172.
- Menzies Research Centre, “Menzies on: Religion”, accessed June 23, 2021.
- Stephen Chavura, “The Christian Social Thought of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies,” Lucas: An Evangelical History Review, Vol. 2, No. 12 (December 2018), p. 32.
- Ibid., p. 26.
- Stephen Chavura and Gregory Melleuish, “The Forgotten Menzies: Cultural Puritanism and Australian Social Thought,” Journal of Religious History, Vol. 44, No. 3 (September 2020), p. 357.