A Hard Culture? Religion and Politics in Turn-of-the-Century Australian History

By Bellanta, Melissa | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2010 | Go to article overview

A Hard Culture? Religion and Politics in Turn-of-the-Century Australian History


Bellanta, Melissa, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Ever since she took up with Bob Hawke and later tried to block publication of another of his biographies, Blanche d'Alpuget's Robert J. Hawke: A Biography (1982) has received something of a beating. The perceived vanities and publicity-seeking antics of both d'Alpuget and Hawke have tended to overshadow assessments of the book itself. (1) Whatever one's estimate of Robert J. Hawke, however, there is no doubt that it provides a powerful allegory of the relationship between Australian politics, religious belief and masculinity--or rather, of the dominant way in which that relationship was viewed for much of the twentieth century.

D'Alpuget's biography of Hawke takes us back to the pious certitudes of his youth, when he "accepted unquestioningly that God was the centre of everything". (2) It draws attention to the fact that his father was a Congregationalist minister, and that his devout mother once pledged him to a life of temperance. At university, d'Alpuget tells us, Hawke was of a prayerful if Casanova-like temperament, heavily involved in the activities of his local church. Inevitably, however, there came a time when he began to question his religious convictions. For some time, doubt washed over him, and Hawke wrested with it conscientiously. Finally he emerged on the shore of unbelief, his ears full of what Matthew Arnold might have called the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of faith". (3)

By this means, d'Alpuget implicitly presents Hawke's apostasy as his rite of passage into mature political life. When he cast aside Christianity, she suggests, he at last began to emerge from the influence of his revered father and domineering mother. He also seized upon a life of politics and made it his own. The last day of Hawke's life as a Christian, she concludes, "was his first as a political agitator". (4)

Losing-my-religion narratives of the kind d'Alpuget tells about Hawke often appear in the biographies and memoirs of great men, both in Australia and elsewhere. (5) The reason these loss-of-faith narratives have such potency is that they resonate with the one regularly told about Western history at large. They serve as emblems of the broader process of secularisation which is said to have begun in about the late-eighteenth century, and to have transformed various societies in Europe and the English-speaking world. Progressively across the nineteenth-century, we hear, intelligent men began to struggle with the implications of scientific discovery for religious belief, to wrest from the church its control over public life, and to vest it instead in rational civic and political institutions. Only once this process was underway were these men's societies able to re-make themselves as modern democratic nations. Secularisation and political maturity went hand in hand. (6)

This basic narrative about societies reaching maturity through a loss of religion has possibly had greater potency in Australia than elsewhere. In Australia, the notion of a young colony emerging from the shadow of its mother country, guided by an anticlerical and pragmatic spirit of independence, has brought a nationalist twist to the collective loss-of-faith plotline. Over the years, many Left historians have suggested that labour politics appealed to its participants at the turn of the twentieth century as a substitute for religion, allowing them (like Bob Hawke) to transfer a passion for spiritual transcendence to more secular ends. Alternatively, a range of scholars have claimed that Australia has possessed a uniquely "hard" political culture for much of its post-1788 history, arising from the fact that the scientific-rationalist values of the Enlightenment gained a firmer foothold there than they attained back in Europe. Because Australia was formed in the late eighteenth century and thus "born modern", as it were, these scholars claim that its process of secularisation was more direct and complete than elsewhere. …

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