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My study of the prime ministers enables a simple five-part categorization of them according to their faith. The five categories are observant Christians regular church-goers , conventional Christians occasional church-goers , nominal Christians attendance only on formal occasions , articulate agnostics, who speak publicly about their disbelief, and nominal agnostics, who may be judged by their actions. Two Menzies and Keating have been conventional Christians. One Holt was a nominal atheist or agnostic. Chifley worried about his status as a Catholic.


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It is said that Ben Chifley always sat at the back of St Christopher's, reflecting his uncertainty about how the church regarded him because of his mixed marriage in a Presbyterian church in Sydney. I had hoped to have Chifley's chair with me this evening but it has been loaned to the National Museum for an exhibition on the contribution of Irish-Australians to Australia.

Catholics : There have been five Catholic prime ministers. Their beliefs have always been accorded special attention, both in their own right and with regards to their supposed deference to their priests and bishops. The pattern of their beliefs is accorded a special intensity, so that the term 'devout' is applied almost solely to Catholics as its opposite 'lapsed' the same is true of the term 'practicing'.

Catholics themselves use these terms as well as others such as 'cultural' and 'tribal' to describe their belief systems and their attachment to their religious communities.


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  • There is also a sense in which Catholics are referred to collectively the 'Catholic community' in a way that is rarely the case with other denominations. Geoffrey Blainey later commented on this apparent over-representation. The first four Catholic PMs, while very different in many ways, share one characteristic.

    They were all practising Catholics. St Christopher's Cathedral in Canberra honours them among its famous parishioners for this reason. Scullin was the first Catholic prime minister. He was active in the Catholic Young Men's Society. But he acknowledges that 'he remained committed to his faith and its practice throughout his life'. Lyons, who began political life in the Labor Party before switching to the conservatives, is variously described as a 'loyal' and 'devout' Catholic.

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    He and his wife are known for their very large family, a Catholic characteristic in the eyes of many. Forde, who was only briefly Prime Minister, had an unexceptional traditional Catholic education and life, common among many Catholic Labor MPs of his generation. Chifley's faith story was complicated because of his mixed marriage.

    He married Elizabeth McKenzie in the Glebe Presbyterian Church in Sydney, to avoid controversy and embarrassment to their families in their home city of Bathurst.

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    This was a big step at those times to go counter to the papal decree, called Ne Temere, against such mixed marriages. Bravely he decided that 'One of us had to take the knock. It better be me'. Yet he continued to attend Sunday Mass regularly in Bathurst and Canberra, but he felt like an outsider and, at St Christopher's in Canberra, reputedly sat at the very back of the church. He reflected to a constituent later that 'I do go to church regularly, but I am afraid the church does not regard me as one of its model children'.

    Eventually Chifley, prior to the Labor Split, was at odds with conservative Catholics within his own party, whom he condemned as religious fanatics for their anti-Communism. Keating on the other hand is best regarded as a cultural or tribal Catholic. According to another biographer, Michael Gordon, he 'attended Mass irregularly but was faithful to the tenets of the church'. He exemplifies Irish-Catholicism in its Labor links. Bankstown, where Keating grew up, was once known as Irishtown.

    Paul Kelly emphatically describes Keating as a Catholic. He quotes Keating's chief of staff, Don Russell, as saying that 'he was always the Catholic boy driven to do good'. In his own words Keating describes the link between faith and politics in terms of community tensions and perceived discrimination against Catholics. In relation to his experience of sectarianism he recalled: 'I resented it. You wouldn't have those doors closed against you if you weren't a tyke'.

    Anglicans : The first of the so-called establishment faiths, because of its upper middle class following and its English connections, was the Church of England Anglicans , known as the Anglican Church of Australia since The church, through their governing boards and their names, is associated many of Australia's elite private schools, such as Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra Grammar Schools.

    Anglicans were for many years the largest of the Christian denominations, until overtaken by Catholics at the Census. While large, Anglicanism also suffers from frequent nominalism and a relatively low regular church attendance. There have been about nine Anglican prime ministers. This means that fewer Australian prime ministers than might be expected, given the size and prominence of the denomination, have actively identified as Anglicans, though many have attended Anglican schools and colleges. Stanley Melbourne Bruce is a case in point.

    However the two most recent prime ministers, John Howard and Kevin Rudd, have been observant, church-going Anglicans. He led a Cabinet renowned for its Christian identification. Yet he himself was uncomfortable being called a Christian leader in public and when introduced as such he emphasised that he respected 'fully the secular nature of our society'.

    He remains a monthly regular church-goer in his retirement from public life.

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    Rudd had a Catholic upbringing through his mother's faith and attended first a Catholic school and then Nambour High School. He became an Anglican about the time he married Therese Rein in Canberra. Rudd attended church weekly. Presbyterians : The second of the establishment Protestant denominations is Presbyterianism, which is associated particularly with Australians of Scottish background. Gough Whitlam, too, was raised in a Presbyterian household.

    This means that the three great patricians of post-war Australian politics, at least by reputation, have had Presbyterian connections. But strictly speaking there have been only three Presbyterian prime ministers, including Menzies, though several more, including the Country Party's Arthur Fadden and John McEwen, had Presbyterian antecedents.

    Menzies was notably Scots in his personal identification. His father James, though not by first choice a Methodist has been called 'a dedicated and highly emotional Methodist lay preacher'. Growing up in Jeparit in country Victoria, where there was no Presbyterian church, Menzies lived in a largely Methodist world. Yet he maintained Presbyterian roots through his grandmother and from the time of his secondary school education in Melbourne attended a Presbyterian church. His wife Pattie was Presbyterian too and they married in a Presbyterian church.

    For the rest of his life he described himself as just 'a simple Presbyterian'. His most famous statement of his values, 'The Forgotten People' radio address, included a religious element. One of his themes in this address, though not the most important one, was spirituality.

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    If human homes are to fulfil their destiny then we must have frugality and savings for education and prayers. We have homes spiritual. This is a notion which finds its simplest and most moving expression in 'The Cotter's Saturday Night' of Burns. Human nature is at its greatest when it combines dependence upon God with independence of man. Fraser was notably of the Western Districts establishment.

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    But Fraser himself, following his marriage to his wife Tamie, appears to have become an Anglican. Much earlier, against the ideological tide of the church, Labor produced its own Presbyterian prime minister, Andrew Fisher. Few Presbyterians were socialists but Fisher was a friend and colleague of the Scot Keir Hardie, a Christian socialist as Kevin Rudd commonly points out, and one of the founders of the British Labour Party.

    Fisher, brought up in a staunch Presbyterian household, was a Sunday school superintendent as a young man, observed the Sabbath, and was teetotal as his faith demanded. Among early prime ministers George Reid was also Presbyterian.