One of the stories I first heard on my recent visit to Australia was about what helped swing the vote last November to Kevin Rudd, the new Labor prime minister. I read some new political data by veteran pollster and researcher John Black, who is respected across Australia's political spectrum. Black reported that the pivotal swing vote to Labor this time was among evangelicals and Pentecostals, especially in some key seats in the states of Queensland and South Australia.
That was especially surprising and significant in a very secular country. The Labor Party here, like parties of the left elsewhere, has not been known as "religion friendly," and the Liberal Party (the conservatives in Australia) has had much of the religious vote by tradition and default. But this time was different for a number of reasons.
First, Kevin Rudd was a new kind of Labor candidate who speaks openly and comfortably about his faith. Rudd -- a Catholic who attends an Anglican church -- is theologically articulate, and even likes to write articles about German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Even more important, the evangelical/Pentecostal swing vote was due to how the agenda is changing in those faith communities. In the past, as in the U.S., issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and cloning seemed to be the primary concerns among the religious. But now the “religious agenda” includes global poverty, climate change, and the rights of Aboriginal people, especially among a new generation of Australian believers.
Christian organizations, such as World Vision, are among the leading voices on poverty, the environment, and the trafficking of women and children in economic and sexual slavery. The university events at which I spoke last week were led by “Vision Generation,” a youth movement sparked by World Vision that is leading a campaign to challenge the chocolate industry's use of child workers in West Africa, where 70 percent of the world's cocoa is harvested. The venues were packed. And everywhere I went, the protection of the earth and the threat of global warming was front and center.
Rudd’s clear Christian faith and his embrace of the new agenda of social justice and environmental stewardship seemed to be the big reasons why the evangelical and Pentecostal vote shifted this time. And that swing made a crucial electoral difference.
As I reported in my last post, I met with Kevin Rudd over dinner one night and had a long conversation about all these issues. But I also met with the leading Independent senator, Nick Xenophon, who may represent the balance of power in the new political configuration. He is from the Greek Orthodox Church and is also an articulate Christian on social justice. And on my last day in the country, I was also able to chat briefly with the opposition conservative leader, Brendan Nelson, who told me he meets regularly with faith leaders in Australia, and has also read my books. All the media interviews I did during the week were eager to explore the issues of faith and politics, both in the U.S. and in Australia. For a "secular" country, the social and political impact of faith seems to have become a hot topic.