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In God They Trust? The Religious Beliefs of Australia’s Prime Ministers 1901-2013
By Roy Williams Bible Society, 288pp, $19.99 (HB)
ACHARACTER in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall announces that ‘‘ lay interest in theology is a first sign of madness’’. Sydney lawyer Roy Williams gave the lie to this with his 2008 book God, Actually. His argument for Christian belief was unquestionably sane: informed, even-tempered and penetrating. On the strength of it he gave up law and devoted himself to full-time writing.
Where could he go after such a comprehensive apologia? To the adored, or spurned, gods of our democracy, we now find out. In God They Trust? is a way of gauging Christianity’s impact on our political decision-making.
Twenty-three prime ministers are summarised in less than 300 pages. Chris Watson gets four, Edmund Barton and James Scullin five each, while John Howard and Kevin Rudd are the frontrunners with 22 apiece. (Julia Gillard — an unbeliever, not an atheist, in Williams’s estimation, gets nine.)
What gives body to the Howard and Rudd essays is that Williams interviewed both. The main revelations are that Howard never says sorry and that Rudd has an intimacy with biblical scholarship that is quite astonishing.
Yet overall this book seems too formulaic and reductive. Williams has read all the biographies, and his routine is to summarise a PM’s religious upbringing (or lack of it) and answer a small set of questions: Did he go to church? Did he invoke God? Did his speech have biblical or religious expressions or overtones? Did he act and make decisions according to Christian principles?
‘‘ The overall score, then?’’ he writes. ‘‘ Sixteen believers to seven unbelievers.’’
There are problems with this. Done in such summary form, it’s hard to accept the conclusions mean much. Besides, there is widespread disagreement on what the core Christian principles are. Williams acknowledges this and spells out eight of his own, but only in the last pages. We need them nailed to his mast before he starts to assess individuals.
Further, there are other elements of a religious mentality that go unmentioned. What, if any, sense of the transcendent or the sacred did any of these men have? And apart from the formal, public business of going to church, did they pray? What sense of intimacy with their God did they have?