The helm of political affairs
The one word notably absent from the book is spirituality, a term too often debased or used as a synonym for religion, but surely a necessary part of religion. What’s missing is what old-style Catholicism might have referred to as the interior life of the soul.
There seems a spontaneous Protestant perspective to the analysis: Catholics are less biblically literate and less inclined to religionspeak, whereas they did say lots of prayers and beget lots of mystics.
I miss the tough thinking of God, Actually. Rather than deploying his considerable intellect, Williams seems to be ticking boxes and making up about eight categories. These range from ‘‘ good and faithful servants’’ through ‘‘ righteous straighteners’’ (too much Manning Clark for my taste) and ‘‘ fellow travellers’’ to ‘‘ gentlemanly agnostics’’. Williams has his favourites. The most successful Christian prime ministers in his view are Joe Lyons and Paul Keating. He would like the top award to go to Jim Scullin, for whom ‘‘ Christ and Labor were one’’ (Clark again), but concedes that politically Scullin was a failure.
He has a bias that’s part charity, part a yearning to recruit non-obvious players for the team, to label as embryonic or struggling believers men whose biographers would have no truck with this. And at least once he admits total defeat and sails uncomfortably close to censoriousness. His six pages on Harold Holt contain the boldest line in the book: ‘‘ like most of his fellow citizens — then and now — [Holt] was an apathetic agnostic’’. His ‘‘ parents set a dissolute example . . . an inveterate womaniser . . . there was a hedonistic side . . . [he] had a limited imagination’’.
So in 1967 Holt ‘‘ was ill-equipped to deal with a series of personal and political setbacks . . . But then the rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against Holt’s house . . . Holt staggered, then fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:26-27).’’ Which means Williams favours the suicide at Cheviot Beach theory. This too deterministic morality tale leaves me uncomfortable.
Williams acknowledges political scientists Judith Brett and John Warhurst as fellow workers in this field. All three seem to point to the present as the most religiously interesting political moment we’ve had: an increasingly secular nation has provided itself with two candidates for the prime ministership who are the most knowledgeable and devout Christians in our history. There’s a book there.