Howard's Methodism: How Convenient?!

By Maddox, Marion | Journal of Australian Studies, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Howard's Methodism: How Convenient?!

Maddox, Marion, Journal of Australian Studies

Analyses of John Howard's social policy often attribute his social conservatism to personal nostalgia, seeking sources in his schooling, family background and church attendance. For example, recent publications have attributed Howard's positions on unemployment, industrial relations, multiculturalism, reconciliation and refugees to his childhood Methodism. There are good reasons for skepticism about such accounts, however. This article draws on archival research on 1950s Methodism, both nationally and in the congregation the Howard family attended, to demonstrate that, in instance after instance, Howard's current social policy positions tend to conflict with the political tenor of 1950s Methodism. Instead of looking back to the lounge rooms and church halls of 1950s Earlwood, we do better to seek sources for the Liberal Party's recent social policy departures in contemporary international neoconservative politics.

John Howard, Methodist

One oft-noted feature of the Howard ascendancy is the rollback of once-cherished liberal achievements. One by one, the post-Whitlam generation watched the erosion or severe circumscribing of the Office of the Status of Women, the Affirmative Action Agency, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Racial Discrimination Act (1975). Seeking explanations for moves so apparently out-of-step with mainstream opinion, it has become axiomatic to link Howard's social conservatism to his Methodist childhood. The Methodism of the 1950s has been credited with Howard's industrial relations policies, (1) Indigenous affairs policies, (2) reluctance to apologise to the stolen generations, (3) reservations about the terms 'reconciliation' (4) and multiculturalism, (5) and commitments to mutual obligation, (6) a strong work ethic, (7) individual responsibility, (8) censorship and picket-fence family values. (9) The implication is that, while Howard's economics are a matter of considered political conviction developed throughout the course of his career, his social policy is a kind of default mechanism, ingrained in childhood and never rethought--as David Marr phrased it in a throw-away line: 'He's a good Methodist boy'. (10)

Such attributions make it hard to remember that Howard is no longer a Methodist boy. Neither, in Australia, is anyone else: Methodists joined the Uniting Church in 1977, but Howard was long gone. Marrying into Sydney Anglicanism, he identifies religiously as an Anglican. However, this carries nothing of the iconic weight of his childhood Methodism. As one rough indication, a Google search found a couple of dozen items describing the prime minister as a Methodist, many attributing some current Howard policy position to the denomination's influence. For example, right-wing eminence gris Ray Evans on the H R Nicholls Society website encourages Howard, as a Methodist, to take advantage of a biblical mandate for abolishing the minimum wage. (11) A drug-reform webpage cites Howard's view on heroin injecting rooms as the 'Methodist view'. (12) Throwaway references to Howard's Methodism are also relatively common, aside from any policy connection. For example, a recent letter to the editor asked, in connection with Howard's ability to withstand charges of dishonesty, 'Is this Methodist acting?' (13) One satirical constitutional preamble describes Howard as 'not only short, but a Methodist; a hanging offence in decent countries'. (14) By contrast, only three websites referred to his Anglicanism. Despite the Hollingworth controversy, which caused the words 'John Howard' and 'Anglican' to appear together in numerous news reports, opinion pieces and so on, their authors eschew any temptation to connect the terms. All were straightforward biographical statements, innocent of policy overtones. The image of 'John Howard, Methodist' is evidently working in the public imagination beyond simple biography.

Howard himself has reinforced the impression of Methodism's special place in his political formation. …

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