The Essential Religious Belief of Robert Menzies

Addressing the nation in one of his “Australia Man-to-Man” broadcasts of 1954, the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, mused on the importance of education and moral character. He reflected that the most important thing in the world, for himself, was:

man’s relation to his maker: his relation to the divine and spiritual law. The second most important thing is man’s relation to man, with all that it implies of brotherhood and understanding and fair play and responsibility.

These were the sensibilities of both a Christian and a humanist, a national leader at once in touch with the God of the Bible and with the complexity of the human condition.

Like Australia’s other towering leader of Scots heritage, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Menzies drank from the cisterns of Presbyterianism and the Scottish Enlightenment. Interwoven with his liberal philosophy, his religious faith informed most aspects of his lengthy public life from the formation of his political credo and conception of democracy, to his sworn opposition to communism, affirmation of religious freedom, repudiation of sectarianism, defence of church schools and support for values-based education. 

Fond of describing himself as a “simple Presbyterian”, Menzies inherited a strong tradition of Scots Presbyterianism from his father’s side of the family. However, when James Menzies settled in Jeparit with his wife Kate in 1893, there was no Presbyterian church so the elder Menzies joined the Methodist fold and became a trustee and lay preacher of the Jeparit Methodist Church. According to Menzies’s biographer A.W. Martin, James Menzies seemed to blend the strict Calvinism of Presbyterianism with the more emotional temperament fostered by Methodist teachings. It was into this religious environment that Robert Menzies was born, with regular church-going and Bible-reading forming a part of his early upbringing. In the household the main books included the Bible, the Presbyterian hymn book, The Ingoldsby Legends and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Menzies served as President of the Melbourne University Students’ Christian Union in 1916. At the same time, he played a prominent role in his local church Bible class at North Carlton and then at Kew, where he once preached a sermon on the “Sacredness of the Secular”. Under the influence of the evangelical Anglican clergyman C.H. Nash, who later founded the Melbourne Bible Institute in 1920, Menzies adopted the habit of daily Bible reading. As Menzies embarked on his legal career at the bar in the 1920s, he occasionally worshipped at Kew Presbyterian Church with his wife Pattie, who shared his Scottish Presbyterian roots.

Throughout his lengthy career in politics, Menzies exhibited signs of his religious faith. Peppered with phrases from Christian scripture such as “my brother’s keeper” and “a house of many mansions”, his speeches reflected his Presbyterian upbringing. His keynote Forgotten People speech of 1942 espoused what he esteemed as the middle-class Protestant social values of personal integrity, thrift, industry, domestic propriety and community service.

The landmark broadcast also revealed much about Menzies’s understanding of God vis-à-vis humanity. Speaking of “homes spiritual”, he stated his philosophy that “Human nature is greatest when it combines dependence upon God with independence of man”. From his Protestant upbringing, he had imbibed the view that human beings were imperfect and needed to rely upon God for moral guidance and redemption. As a liberal, however, he also embraced the Scottish Enlightenment’s belief in human progress which held that men and women possessed the innate potential to improve themselves through education and the cultivation of civilised habits.  

The most frequent platform on which Menzies discussed moral and religious themes was the “Pleasant Sunday Afternoon” address at Melbourne’s Wesley (Methodist) Church. The Superintendent of Wesley Church from 1935 to 1967, Irving Benson, became a personal friend of Menzies and shared his political outlook. Benson was a Yorkshire-born Methodist of the conservative evangelical tradition who believed, like Menzies, that spiritual renewal rather than an interventionist state was the way forward for society in the post-war period.

Along with R.G. Casey (later Lord Casey), Menzies was regularly invited to appear at Benson’s Pleasant Sunday Afternoons, where he would often speak on the moral and spiritual challenges to Western civilisation posed by Cold War communism and materialism. In a 1961 Pleasant Sunday Afternoon address, he observed that much of the conflict between the free world and the Soviet Union was based on a clash between the Christian conception of the freedom of the human mind and spirit, and the dictated, unfree human spirit under totalitarian communism. 

For Menzies, the dialectical materialism and inherent atheism of communism represented the antithesis to the Christian worldview. Accordingly, his opposition to the ideology was as much based on spiritual and moral sensibilities as it was on political and economic principles. In his 1951 election speech, Menzies denounced communism as “anti-Christian” and as having nothing in common with “the Christian gospel of love and brotherhood”. In an earlier speech on the ideology in 1943, he had juxtaposed communism’s rhetoric of class conflict with Christianity’s teaching on the obligations of mutual understanding and love. Returning to the subject in a 1946 speech, he also condemned atheistic communism for its abolition of marriage, family, country and nationality.

True to his own epithet as a “simple Presbyterian”, Menzies’s personal brand of Protestantism was theologically uncomplicated and essentially practical with an emphasis on self-giving service. Like the Anglican writer and apologist C.S. Lewis, Menzies would have viewed himself as an exponent of “mere Christianity” which rejected atheism to affirm the Christian basics of a Trinitarian God, a divinely inspired Bible and personal redemption through Christ. In his Christmas messages, he recognised the Cross as the “figure of sacrifice” and acknowledged that Jesus Christ was “human as well as divine”. In his 1960 speech to open the Bible Society’s new headquarters in Canberra, he described the Bible as the “repository of our faith and our inspiration” and remarked that the “great gospel” and the “whole spirit of Christianity” is contained in this “great and immortal book”.

While he was proud of his Scottish Presbyterian identity, Menzies’s Protestantism was broad, and downplayed the theological differences between the denominations of Christianity. In a 1958 speech to a Salvation Army citizens’ rally, Menzies said:

I know that in the course of history there have been divisions in the Christian Church, and for some reason that seemed good to somebody or other, we are among Protestants, Anglicans or Presbyterians or Methodists or Congregationalists or Baptists. And no doubt we all have some differences among ourselves in terms of governments; sometimes in some points of doctrine. But I always like to feel that underneath all this there is one Bible; there is one message; and that the nearer we get to that, the less will we be concerned with dogma of any kind.

Viewing the Bible as the common wellspring of faith for Christians of all churches, Menzies observed that it was “better to seek the fountainhead than to divide up amongst the little streams”.

Menzies had a high esteem for the practical Christianity of churches such as the Salvation Army and the Central Methodist Missions of Melbourne and Sydney. Admiring the Salvation Army for its relief of poverty and destitution by “holding out a kind hand to individuals”, he remarked that this was something no law or government department could compel a person to do as it came from the impulses of the human heart ignited by religious faith.

For Menzies, the practical expression of Christianity was what made the Church attractive to the surrounding world. He observed that “the practical Christianity of the Salvation Army is, I believe, the great element in it which has brought to it an army of admirers—whether they are Protestant or Catholic or Jew or Gentile, it does not matter”. When churches like the Salvation Army put into practice the Christianity they professed, they enriched not only their own flock but contributed to the common good of all. Like the wartime Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, Menzies believed that the Church was a “society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”.

In his own Presbyterian Church, he identified closely with the Rev. Dr J. Fred McKay, the successor to John Flynn of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Regarding McKay as a personal friend and spiritual confidant, Menzies admired him as a “good, practical Christian”. Praising McKay’s vision and “executive ability to get things done”, he likened him to “a modern Apostle Paul”. McKay featured at important points in Menzies’s life, assisting in the conduct of his daughter’s wedding, taking his son’s burial service and officiating at his state funeral at Melbourne’s Scots Church in May 1978. During his time in Canberra, Menzies also valued the ministry of the Rev. Hector Harrison, the minister of Canberra’s Presbyterian Church of St Andrew, for the “splendid and dignified way” he conducted commemorative public worship services. 

While committed to preserving Australia’s Christian heritage, not least of its church schools, Menzies recognised the diversity of the nation’s faith communities and therefore preached religious freedom, non-sectarianism and tolerance as the norm for Australia. His dedication to these principles was most forcefully articulated in a wartime speech he gave on “Freedom of Worship” in July 1942. Menzies affirmed that religious freedom was “freedom for all, Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Gentile, and that to deny it was to go back to the dark ages of man”. He said that such freedom “must mean freedom for my neighbour as well as for myself”. This was a principle he had long practised, telling his own father that being the young Member for East Yarra meant “being the Member for the lot”—for “Presbyterians, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, [and] Brahmins for all I know”.

For Menzies, freedom of belief also meant freedom of unbelief. Accordingly, it encompassed not only people of all faiths but also those of no faith. His commitment to religious freedom was based not simply on a sense of fair play but also on his appreciation of human diversity: “We are a diversity of creatures, with a diversity of minds and emotions and imaginations and faiths. When we claim freedom of worship we claim room and respect for all.”

Attending his dedication to religious liberty was a rejection of sectarianism, which he regarded as repugnant to both liberal and Christian principles: “Sectarian strife is the enemy of freedom of worship, not its friend.” It is “the denial of Christianity, not its proof”. He believed that religious faith was all the poorer if it focused merely on opposing the faith of somebody else, leading all too often to malice and hatred rather than generosity and tolerance. By tolerance, Menzies did not imply the acceptance of every belief and practice as morally equivalent, as “tolerance” is frequently understood to mean today, but rather a recognition that every other honest person who, hating the same evil, will “see a different road by which to come against it”.

Menzies had a long record of seeking to heal the Catholic–Protestant rift that had long blighted Australian society. In 1928, he defended his decision to attend the opening of a Catholic school in his electorate of East Yarra amid opposition from some of his constituents. As the Victorian Attorney-General in the early 1930s, he attracted criticism for standing up to some Protestants who wanted to ban a large Catholic eucharistic procession through the streets of central Melbourne.

As Prime Minister in 1939, he addressed a Melbourne peace rally organised by the Australian National Secretariat for Catholic Action and stressed the shared faith of all present by drawing attention to his presence, as a Presbyterian, on a Catholic platform. In his second period as Prime Minister, his co-operation with Catholics on the contentious state aid issue was recognised when he was invited as guest of honour to the annual Cardinal’s Dinner in Sydney in 1964, presided over by Cardinal Norman Gilroy. Addressing the dinner, Menzies told his audience that he had never lent himself “to any bitter disputes between people on the basis of their religion, their political views or their social position”. At the dinner, he also affirmed that citizens of all faiths were part of Australia and had a duty to serve the country to the best of their talents.

As well as building bridges with Catholics, Menzies enjoyed an excellent rapport with Australia’s Jewish community. He respected the Jewish legacy for its profound contribution to Western civilisation and admired the Jewish people for their cultural traditions of scholarship, civic-mindedness and enduring sense of kinship. Frequently invited to speak at ceremonies organised by the Jewish community, Menzies praised the Jewish people for their contribution to Australia.

With the establishment of Israel as an independent state in 1948, in which Australia had played a key role through the United Nations, Menzies applauded this as both a milestone for Israel’s Jews and a significant moment for Australia’s Jewish community. For Menzies, “the civilised world saw in the establishment of Israel not only the providing of an independent home to many Jewish people but also a shining symbol of delivery from bondage”. Menzies drew on the perennial theme of redemption originating in the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. With the much more immediate historical backdrop of the Holocaust, Menzies drew on another biblical theme to welcome the establishment of Israel as a symbol of “world repentance”.

Menzies made the point that while the establishment of Israel provided a special homeland for the Jewish people, it in no way implied that Australia’s Jews should be considered a separate people from the rest of Australia. Menzies stressed that the 70,000 Jews in Australia were “not only in Australia but of Australia”:

For here, you are not, and should not be, a race apart. In this free country, all are free; all are equal before the law; religious or sectional prejudices tend to “fade into the light of common day” … The great Jewish contribution to Australia is not sectional or sectarian but a community contribution, neither discriminating nor being discriminated against.

Menzies was also sensitive to the desire of Australia’s Jews to conserve their heritage, character and identity forged over thousands of years. In a speech to open a Jewish college in Melbourne, it was evident he saw no tension between these two imperatives:

I don’t know of any group in the community which preserves its character, its family character, its intimate association, its own pride and its own faith, while at the same time, being so integrally bound up with the community as the whole.

His pronouncements as Prime Minister seldom touched on the specifics of religious doctrine, but Menzies nonetheless affirmed that the Judeo-Christian ethic was fundamental to both the character of civilisation and the survival of human freedom. Like Whig-Liberal statesmen such as Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln, he appreciated the indebtedness of modern democracy to the Judeo-Christian inheritance and the Enlightenment. From his own keen sense of history, he understood that the disastrous attempts of the French and Bolshevik revolutions to crush religious freedom had led to tyranny and oppression. For Menzies, the twentieth century represented a depressing catalogue of strife and war in which the triumph of pagan ideologies had served to disfigure human civilisation.

As the antidote to the “soulless materialism” propagated by communism and fascism, Menzies espoused a Christian-inspired liberalism. At least in its understanding of the divine origins of human dignity and freedom, it was not philosophically dissimilar to the Whig liberalism of Burke and Gladstone, the US Republican tradition of Lincoln, or more contemporaneously, the Christian democracy of post-war Europe, most notably in West Germany. Menzies’s philosophy of liberalism was based on a conception of democracy that viewed all individuals as equal in the sight of God. In an October 1942 speech on the “Nature of Democracy”, he said:

Democracy is more than a machine, it is a spirit. It is based upon the Christian conception that there is in every human soul a spark of the divine; that, with all their inequalities of mind and body, the souls of men stand equal in the sight of God.

For Menzies, this foundation of liberal democracy was basic and broad enough to appeal to Christians of all creeds, particularly when counterposed with the common enemy of “godless communism”.

This appeal to a common Christian inspiration proved instrumental when Menzies went on to establish the Liberal Party of Australia in late 1944. Whilst commonly spoken of as a “Protestant party”, owing to the dominant faith of its “forgotten people” constituency, the Liberal Party was never founded as an avowedly Christian party, unlike some of the Christian Democratic parties in post-war Europe. Pledging to govern for all Australians in the broad national interest, it would be a party open to people of all faiths and none.

Nevertheless, Menzies and the philosophical platform of his new party still embodied broadly Christian ideals. Its guiding ethos spoke to the Protestant social ethics of selfless individualism, industry, thrift and reliance upon divine providence, whilst its vision for a civilised capitalism, preference for subsidiarity and defence of private property and the family aligned with much of Catholic social teaching. Menzies’s creed of Christian-inspired liberalism was never couched in doctrinally-specific terms, so it could be accepted by citizens of all faiths in Australia who affirmed its core values as critical to the common good.

It is impossible to understand Menzies’s philosophy and approach to education without appreciating the importance he attached to religious faith. For Menzies, faith was the essential foundation to the formation of moral character and citizenship in the pupil and the student. Speaking to a parliamentary motion on education in 1945, Menzies told the House of Representatives that “religion gives to people a sensitive understanding of their obligations” which alone could make a community of individuals successful. He reminded the parliament that Australia had the advantage of a system of church schools of all denominations, based upon the belief that education should always be conducted against a religious background. This contrasted with the state education system whose schools were, by statute, purely secular in their teaching.

To give practical effect to his support for church schools, Menzies as Prime Minister took the first initiative to provide state aid to independent schools, particularly those in the Catholic system. As early as 1943, Menzies had stated that “it is unlikely that the church schools can in the post-war period efficiently survive unless there is some measure of state assistance to them”. In a speech to Sydney’s Newington College, he told his audience that the standards of faith and the impulses of the spirit that church schools provided would “enable them to avoid the bitter wretched paganism that has beset the world in the last fifty years”.

Through a combination of broad sympathies and political mastery, Menzies was able to identify with Protestants in their love of the Bible, with Catholics in their dedication to their schools, with Jews in their links to Israel, with all people of faith in their renunciation of atheistic communism, and with all liberally-minded citizens in their affirmation of religious freedom. In an age where the great pillars of faith have been weathered by secularism and where religious liberty is increasingly contested, Menzies’s sturdy belief and broad embrace of Australia’s faith communities provide a way forward for a flourishing society nourished by things beyond the material.

David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre and the author of the forthcoming book God and Menzies: The Religious Outlook of Australia’s Longest Serving Prime Minister.


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