True be­liev­ers and ag­nos­tics at

In God They Trust? The Re­li­gious Be­liefs of Aus­tralia’s Prime Min­is­ters 1901-2013

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ger­ard Wind­sor

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?

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