Sir Robert Gordon Menzies was Prime Minister of Australia from 1939-1941 and again from 1949-1966. He often referred to himself as ‘a simple Presbyterian’, and in 1916 he was president of the Christian Student Union at Melbourne University. His creed was the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the immortality of the human soul, the equality of all human beings before God, the ethic of a selfless individualism, the notion that citizens’ duties preceded their rights and the ideal that citizens in civil society live as members of one another.
Stephen Chavura and Gregor Melleuish refer to his ‘cultural puritanism’, but it was cultural rather than doctrinal. His thinking was shaped by a number of conflicting theological influences: the liberal evangelist, Henry Drummond; the evangelical C. H. Nash from the Melbourne Bible Institute; Patrick John Murdoch, the minister at Camberwell, who preached a general orthodoxy from an errant Bible; and Fred McKay, the liberal successor to John Flynn of the Australian Inland Mission.
Menzies was a man of his theological times who saw no incompatibility between his churchmanship and his membership in a Masonic Lodge. In 1935 he clearly rejected biblical inerrancy, but in 1960 he respectfully called the Bible ‘the greatest piece of literature in the world’. His speeches were peppered with biblical quotations and allusions. He was, rightly, a decided opponent of what he called ‘the strange, mad doctrines of communism’. On the issue of state aid, he was no opportunist, and favoured it for all denominations well before the Catholic Goulburn strike of July 1962. In his last years he became disillusioned with the moral liberalism which infected both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, and in protest voted for the Democratic Labor Party.
In the light of the present discussion about a religious discrimination bill, it is interesting that Menzies favoured religious freedom but thought that the codification of laws could run counter to freedoms for the people – yet another instance of his being astute beyond his theology.
– Peter Barnes
Peter Barnes is the editor of AP and pastor at Revesby Presbyterian Church NSW.