In my first year as a university student I contested a number of elections, my first being a tilt for the Students’ Representative Council (SRC).
With the election imminent, in full campaign mode, I arrived on campus on a beautiful sunny winter morning and encountered a young man handing out leaflets for an event being conducted by a student Christian group.
After politely declining his invitation, I told him that I wished him well and said that I thought it was positive that his organisation was part of the wonderful social, cultural and intellectual mosaic of campus life.
He responded, “You are a Jew. You are going to Hell.” I thanked him, while suggesting that, regardless of my eternal destination, I had other places to be that day.
A few minutes later I encountered another leafleteer, this time someone competing against me for the same elected position.
We chatted civilly, and he accepted that, while I was running as a non-ideological independent, he had a well-developed political philosophy and our campaigns were parallel, not really competitive.
In the end, I ended up being elected to the SRC (whether Hell is a later destination, I have yet to discover).
The anonymous “Christian” campaigner is a distant memory but I have been fortunate to have maintained contact with my SRC rival. He has not only played an important role in helping Australians understand domestic politics and international affairs, but has now entered the battle to bring religious and cultural literacy to a new generation of Australians.
That student, who was wise beyond his years (a decided disadvantage in campus politics), was Greg Sheridan, today one of Australia’s best-known journalists.
In his most recent book, God is Good For You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times (Sydney, Allen & Unwin 2018), he mounts a vigorous argument that Christianity in particular, and religion more broadly, has made invaluable contributions to our society, including, but not solely, through the lives of many who have served in exemplary ways.
In the course of doing so, Sheridan provides a readable, easily comprehensible discussion of Christian beliefs for non-Christian readers.
He records similarities and differences in theology and practice between the branches of Christianity one is most likely to encounter in Australia and throws in some insights into Sikhism and Jewish philosophy.
In June, Deloitte Access Economics published a report on the volunteering and donating behaviour of “religious people”, and noted that, very conservatively, the economic contribution of this demographic to Australia is in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
This is beyond that made to their own denominations or to religious activity – with the study confirming my own anecdotal experience.
In discussions with Australians involved in areas as diverse as social housing, access for those with disabilities, anti-racism and environmentalism, I have been struck by the over-representation of people to whom religious faith is a vital part of their identities.
On this theme, a recent memoir by Barbara Miller, White Woman, Black Heart; Journey Home to Old Mapoon (Barbara Miller Books; Cairns 2018), documents this wonderful woman’s work to confront and oppose racism in Australia, driven by her Christian faith.
Her book is essential reading for serious students of Australian history, particularly with regard to the politics of the relationship with our Indigenous population.
Sheridan, largely due to the respect he has earned, found prime ministers, and other men and women who have served as parliamentarians, willing to say a little about the role of Christianity in their lives – in chapters which should be of interest to the Australians they have served and, in some cases, continue to serve.
Given the reticence of many Australians, especially those in public life, to talk openly about personal religious beliefs, we generally know little about this aspect of the lives of our elected representatives.
Without judging the assertion in the title of Sheridan’s book, I have little hesitation in saying that reading it will be good for you.