In August 2010, the last Australian federal elections didn’t give any majority in the Chamber of Representatives. The Labor Party led by Julia Gillard finally formed a minority government with the support of one Green MP and three independent MPs. In the second house of Parliament - the Senate - the Australian Greens Party won 9 seats with 11,76% of votes and now holds the balance of powers, as Marion Maddox explains. She also examines the relations between the Australian Greens and Christianity, and throws light on the very unusual profile of one of these 9 Green Senators: Jim Reiher, who is also… a Pentecostal theologian.
Marion Maddox is Associate Professor at Macquary University in Sydney and director of the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion. She is a specialist of the relations between religion and politics and the author of God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, a book published in 2005. She’s currently doing research on Evangelical megachurches.
M. Maddox: "On 10 July, Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced her government's historic carbon abatement scheme, which has been stated policy of successive governments since John Howard's final term [in 2007], but which she has only just succeeded in getting approved by a multi-party committee.
The main reason she can expect to get it through Parliament is that, on 1 July, Australia's new Senate was sworn in. The old Senate was controlled by conservative parties, but in the new one, the balance of power is held by the Greens.
The last federal election campaign was remarkable for the way that several churches tried to portray the Greens as anti-Christian. For example, the Catholic Cardinal, George Pell, who (unlike the Pope) does not believe in human-made climate change, controversially declared the Greens to be "sweet camouflaged poison" and "thoroughly anti-Christian". Conservative Protestant lobbies made similar claims. During the election campaign, some Catholic schools sent material home with students warning parents not to vote Green, and one Greens campaigner was refused permission to distribute party information outside a polling booth on the site of a Catholic church.
Yet the Greens have a very strong Christian element. Greens Deputy Leader, Tasmanian Senator Christine Milne has been a member of the Advisory Committee to Catholic Earthcare Australia, an agency of the Catholic Bishops' Commission for Justice and Development. One Greens candidate who narrowly missed election, as Senator for the Australian Capital Territory [New South Wales], was Lin Hatfield Dodds, a practising Christian and former National Director of UnitingCare Australia, the social service organisation for the Uniting Church, Australia's third-largest denomination.
In fact, the Greens have had an unusually large proportion of practising Christian candidates. The first Green in federal parliament, Western Australian Senator Jo Vallentine (1990-92), is a Quaker; she was followed by Christabel Chamarette (1992-96), who gained her entree to politics through her work on the Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission.
Maybe these aren't so surprising, since the Quakers, the Uniting Church and the Anglicans are all quite progressive denominations. But some Greens come from traditionally more conservative parts of the church. An intriguing example is Pentecostal theologian Jim Reiher."
- A Pentecostal theologian standing as a Green candidate may be regarded as unseemly by many. Is Jim Reiher a non-conformist or does he belong to a wider stream of Australian evangelicalism?
"He is certainly unusual. You get the flavour from the introduction to an interview with Reiher, published in the Churches of Christ magazine, Australian Christian, a few years ago:
"Jim Reiher is a senior lecturer at Tabor College in Melbourne, author of the acclaimed The Eye of the Needle ... Oh, did I mention that he was running as an Upper House candidate for the Greens in the Victorian election in November? Now, let's be honest. When you read "Green", didn't you imagine a group of tree-hugging gay activists with long hair? And beards...Well, it might be time to smash a stereotype or three. The Australian Christian sat down with Jim Reiher the other day and found a passionate and articulate follower of Jesus trying to make a difference..."
The magazine no doubt guessed many of its readers' responses correctly; but a smaller number of Australian evangelicals would have been quietly celebrating the fact that someone was breaking the stereotype of them as conservative activists with conservative haircuts and right wing politics!
Like the many other Christians (and Muslims, Jews and other religious believers) who either join or support the Greens, they see caring for God's creation as part of their religious responsibility. They also see other Green policies, such as a compassionate stance towards refugees, as more compatible with their faith than the hardline positions of the two major parties."
- He has recently published "The Eye of the Needle", a theological critique of the prosperity gospel. Could you just explain us what is at stakes here?
"Many Australian Pentecostals and evangelicals have been influenced by an American movement called 'prosperity gospel' or 'Word of Faith', which teaches that God wants Christians to be rich, and if you pray the right way you will receive financial prosperity. The Eye of the Needle was Reiher's theological challenge to remember the biblical message about social justice. Since 2007, he is part of a ministry called Urban Neighbours of Hope that works with urban poor in Melbourne, Sydney, Mae Sot and Bankok. His latest book is a commentary on the Letter of James (called James), which interprets the biblical text as a manual for social activists. We could say that he is holding out for an older tradition of evangelicalism that emphasises salvation of the whole person, not just their soul."
Illustrations: The Australian House of Parliament; M. Maddox; Green Devil (Dickinson College); "Step Up and Go Green for Jesus" (nestlearning.com); J. Reiher; Tree's hug (The Smallest User Blog); J. Reiher's book.