What kind of God does Malcolm Turnbull believe in?

OPINION | Roy Williams
Tuesday 28 June 2016

Both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader describe themselves as believing Christians. Malcolm Turnbull was raised a Protestant, but, in his 40s, became a Catholic; Bill Shorten was raised a Catholic, but, in his 40s, became a Protestant. What have been the key religious influences upon them? To what extent is their faith reflected in their politics?

Malcolm Turnbull is only the second Roman Catholic Prime Minister to come from the Liberal Party. The first, of course, was the man he usurped ten months ago, Tony Abbott.

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Malcolm Turnbull. Credit: Facebook

Unlike Abbott, a practicing Catholic from birth, Turnbull is a late convert. Born in 1954, he has admitted that he “didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing at all”. His father Bruce, who effectively raised him, was a nominal Presbyterian. In the late 1960s young Malcolm was an occasional Sunday worshipper at Randwick Presbyterian church while he boarded at Sydney Grammar School. But by early adulthood he was a self-proclaimed agnostic. It appears he remained that way for almost three decades, well after his marriage to Lucy Hughes in 1980.

Lucy comes from an eminent Sydney family with close ties, going back several generations, to the conservative Anglophile wing of the Catholic Church. By mid-2002, shortly before his entry into federal politics, Turnbull had converted to his wife’s religion. During the Catechumenate process he received instruction from a Jesuit priest, Father Michael Kelly, and ever since has attended Mass periodically at the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Sydney’s Rose Bay.

There is no basis for doubting Turnbull’s belief in the pillars of Christian theology – the existence of a personal Creator God, judgment in the afterlife, the divinity of Jesus. Nor his admiration for the Church. He visited the Vatican in 2006 and on the occasion of World Youth Day in 2008 prayed publicly that the event might “fill the world with Christ’s love”.

It would appear, however, that Turnbull’s deepest beliefs are secular. In terms of public policy, there is little evidence of consistent, applied Christianity. He once told the ABC: “Australians want to be free. They want to have independence … We [the Liberal Party] err on the side of respecting individual judgement and individual choices.”

Turnbull’s libertarian philosophy extends to his attitudes toward religion. He is a strong supporter of inter-faith dialogue: for some Christian tastes his attitudes may be too tolerant.

Commenting on this pronouncement in his 2008 book The Future of Jesus, Peter Jensen, the then Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, wrote this: “I think that Jesus would dispute all of Malcolm Turnbull’s positions.”

Turnbull’s libertarian philosophy extends to his attitudes toward religion. He is a strong supporter of inter-faith dialogue: for some Christian tastes his attitudes may be too tolerant. Two weeks ago he copped criticism from some conservatives for hosting a Ramadan dinner at Kirribilli House: a hate-preaching Sheikh had slipped through the invitation net, and few non-Muslim guests were visible.

A much more valid criticism is that Turnbull does not take seriously enough the secondary teachings of the Catholic Church to which he belongs.

In general, he is of the “neo-liberal” right on economics. Though generous in his own charitable giving, he extols free markets, privatization, lower public debt, a “flexible” labour market, and lower and more regressive taxes. In 2016, his central campaign promise is to implement a $50 billion corporate tax cut. He supported Abbott’s deeply unpopular 2014 budget and has continued Abbott’s brutal cuts to foreign aid.

None of this sits comfortably with Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, a searing indictment of selfish plutocracy.

Two other Turnbull campaign promises (inherited from Abbott) are a $50 billion “investment” in a fleet of submarines, and a wait-and-see approach to global warming. Again, interested readers might compare Pope John XIII’s classic 1963 encyclical on war and armaments, Pacem in Terris, and Pope Francis’ 2015 call-to-action on climate change, Laudato si.

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Likewise, as regards Australia’s harsh treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, Turnbull defends the “stop the boats” approach of his predecessor. His reasoning, in substance, is utilitarian: the ends justify the means. To be sure, most non-churchgoing Australians agree with him. But there is no gainsaying that Turnbull and Abbott (and Bill Shorten too, albeit to a lesser extent) are flouting the compassionate urgings of most Australian churches, Catholic and Protestant.

On the other side of the coin are the many social/moral issues – gambling, temperance, abortion, drugs, censorship of pornography, family law, etc. – on which the churches take a decidedly more conservative stance than Turnbull, and other small-l liberals like him. Take abortion, for instance: in 2006 Turnbull voted for the “morning after” drug RU-486.

As regards same-sex marriage, Turnbull is a long-time supporter of its legalisation. Nevertheless, as Prime Minister, he has maintained the Liberal party-room’s last-ditch stratagem of submitting the question to a national plebiscite. Turnbull promises that, if the Coalition is re-elected, the vote will take place later this year and that, if the vote is “Yes”, his Government will legislate accordingly. In practical reality any leader in that position would have no choice: if and when same-sex marriage is “legitimised” by a decisive popular vote, as seems probable, the fight against it will be lost irretrievably.

The key question for Christian opponents of the redefinition of marriage, at least those for whom this issue is paramount, is whether the plebiscite promised by Turnbull affords any more realistic hope than a conscience vote of MPs in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Opinion polls suggest not. In these circumstances, another consideration is the further damage that must be done to the Christian churches’ beleaguered reputation during a bitterly-fought, and ultimately futile, plebiscite campaign. Horrible and hateful things will be said on both sides: it is naïve to imagine otherwise. That is one reason Turnbull himself formerly opposed a plebiscite.

Read about Bill Shorten’s Christian faith, here.

Roy Williams is the author of In God They Trust? The religious beliefs of Australia’s prime ministers 1901-2013 (Bible Society, 2013) and Post-God Nation? How religion fell off the radar in Australia … and what might be done to get it back on (ABC Books, 2015).

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