Is religion important in Australian society?
Not only does religion have a historic significance for the world’s cultures, but it remains an indispensable part of human society. Faith and spirituality bring people together as a community, helping those away from home to preserve traditions and provide comfort during times of uncertainty.
Australia is a predominantly Christian society, at over 52% of the population. It is also one of the most ethnically diverse countries. Since the first overseas arrivals, the proportion of people affiliated with a non-Christian religion has been steadily growing. And according to the 2016 census, it has reached 8.2%.
Source: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016
But this article is not about religion as such. We are going to talk about the role of faith leaders in society. A role that goes far beyond service, teachings and spiritual counselling.
Faith leaders play a crucial role in educating people on major issues. They provide social aid and support, facilitate behavioural change, mobilise communities in case of emergency and much more. That is why today, governments, institutions and organisations work closely with faith leaders to communicate and spread important information across culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
We are going to discuss who faith leaders are and why they play a key role in community communications. We will also look at some examples of collaboration with faith leaders on state-wide social initiatives.
What are the roles of a faith leader?
Studies have examined the various roles of faith leaders in their congregations and how they can be used in community communications. Let’s look at some of them.
Role model, motivator, theologian
These fundamental functions are performed through direct personal interactions, such as counselling and teaching sessions. Research on the involvement of faith leaders in health communications has identified a direct relationship between these roles and campaign effectiveness. Pastors can encourage community participation in health promotion programs when performing as theologians who connect health messages with spiritual principles (Ramsey, 2004; Demark-Wahnefried et al., 2000).
Partner with knowledge of the congregation
Since it is common for people to seek mental and spiritual support from the clergy in difficult life situations, they are in a unique position to know the current issues, needs and concerns within their congregation, as well as people’s cultures, beliefs and worldviews. So, they are able to provide the necessary insights into the community (Pichert et al., 2006).
Gatekeeper or an access point to the congregation
Research demonstrated that during public communication campaigns the initial contact with the target group is often found through the religious leader, who has the authority to endorse the initiative and give access to the congregation (Davis et al., 1994; Kaplan et al., 2006).
The informer recognises the current issues within, and outside of, the community and provides essential information to the people. In partnerships with organisations, informers use their knowledge and awareness about their congregation to achieve the desired campaign outcomes (Francis, 2009).
As a mediator between the third parties and the congregation, faith leaders can act as consultants for both sides. At one end, they can help design relevant and culturally appropriate communication campaigns; and respond to people’s questions and concerns at the other.
Research into breast and cervical cancer awareness programs found that pastors recognise their role of spokesperson for behavioural change in their congregations (Pichert et al., 2006).
It is clear that the responsibilities of faith leaders in their congregations are considerable and varied, and that they can act as key partners in community communications and social change campaigns.
What are some real-life examples of campaigns, where faith leaders were involved as indispensable stakeholders?
HIV and BBV awareness
In 2016, the senior pastor of the City North Community Church, Samuel Smith, worked together with Multicultural Health & Support Service (MHSS) on the HIV and blood-borne viruses awareness initiative.
The campaign was focused on African communities. As a faith leader who has got influence and direct access to the community, Pastor Samuel Smith was helping to:
- Raise awareness around HIV and blood-borne viruses (BBVs) prevention and treatment
- Break down the stigma associated with the viruses and diseases
- Eliminate cultural and psychological barriers to treatment
“As faith leaders, it is our responsibility to provide spiritual support to those infected or affected by HIV and other blood-borne viruses. Faith leaders have a powerful voice. It is our duty to remind our members that HIV and other viruses are not just prevalent in developing countries, but are affecting people all around the world. But now we have good services like MHSS to help our communities”, – Pastor Samuel Smith commented in the interview for the Centre of Culture, Ethnicity & Health.
A united faith against modern slavery
Global Freedom Network is the joint declaration of religious leaders around the world against modern slavery.
The Australian Freedom Network has participated in the global initiative since 2015. Within the program framework, Australian faith leaders work in collaboration with the private, public and civil sectors to eradicate human trafficking.
Religious faith can be a powerful motivating force to inspire individuals and communities to take both spiritual and practical actions. Christian Evangelical, Baptist, Salvation Army, Presbyterian, Coptic Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic, Muslim Sunni and Shai, Lutheran, Jewish, Hindu, Quakers, Uniting Church and Buddhist leaders joined forces to:
– Raise awareness about slavery amongst their communities
– Inspire and encourage people to take meaningful action
– Provide ongoing support and spiritual action
– Unify faith-based organisations to collaborate on the global goal.
Sustainability and climate change
The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) is a national multi-faith, member-based organisation committed to action on climate change.
It brings together prominent people from all of Australia’s major faith traditions. The members of the ARRCC’s Religious Leader Ambassadors Group are Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and other faith leaders who work together on initiatives addressing climate change.
“The climate situation is much more than a political or even a scientific issue. It is a profoundly moral one… Despite the differences in our faith, we all regard addressing the climate emergency as our shared moral challenge. We stand together for our common home, the Earth.” (St George & Sutherland Shire Leader) – states the open letter to Australian prime minister Scott Morrison issued by 150 religious leaders from across Australia in January 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic
As we mentioned earlier, people in faith communities increasingly turn to their leaders during times of crisis and uncertainty. Spirituality becomes the source of comfort, and faith leaders, in turn, are trusted sources of information and help.
Following several major epidemics, including Ebola in West Africa in 2014-2016 and Samoa’s measles epidemic in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has also amply demonstrated the significant role of faith leaders in community communications.
“We don’t just work in a religious vacuum. We work very closely also with civil society. Working closely with organisations, CSOs and NGOs also helps us in understanding and ensuring that we are looking at all the issues surrounding the rollouts… We are ensuring that it’s reputable and done safely” – comments The General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, Reverend James Bhagwan for Pacific Beat, ABC News.
So, what is the contribution of faith leaders to the COVID-19 response?
Fighting misinformation. Faith leaders have been key partners of the government and WHO in distributing reliable timely information across communities. Knowing where the credible information is coming from, they have also directed people to reputable and trusted sources. That is especially important now, when the media is inundated with misinformation.
Direct communication. In our digital age, face-to-face communication remains a powerful communication channel. People can have real-life conversations with each other and their leaders, ask questions and get answers and effectively spread information across the entire community in a way that is not possible through the media.
Resolving ethical and cultural concerns. New and unfamiliar events like the recent pandemic, inevitably arise a lot of questions, doubts and confusion amongst faith communities. Do vaccines contain any animal products? Can traditional gatherings be held during the lockdown? Is vaccinating allowed during Ramadan? Faith leaders have been resolving many of these concerns that conflict with people’s faith.
Facilitating behavioural change. This point is summing up the former ones. Religious leaders have a lot of influence. By providing trusted information, having personal communication with people, answering their questions, providing support in various forms, and generally acting as a prime example, faith leaders promote behavioural change within their congregations.
Domestic abuse and violence towards women
Many migrant and refugee women experience violence and domestic abuse. It is often driven by gender inequality, family relationships, immigration context and other factors. It is a serious moral issue and faith leaders are in a strong position to fight it.
Faith has a strong constructive power in promoting social change. Through teachings and doctrines, religious institutions conduct values and beliefs around relationships and gender roles to their members. By shaping the right attitudes and behaviours towards women in their congregations and by providing moral support to victims, clergy can help prevent domestic violence.
The research has shown that it’s common for CALD women who have been affected by domestic abuse to seek support from their faith networks. Spiritual leaders are among the first individuals to whom they are likely to disclose (Beaulaurier et al. 2007; Horne & Levitt, 2004; Westenberg, 2017).
In Australia, as well as internationally, efforts have been taken to encourage and strengthen faith leaders’ response to domestic abuse and violence towards women (Bent-Goodley et al. 2012; Fowler et al. 2006). Most initiatives aim to:
- Build faith leaders’ understanding of the breadth of forms of violence
- Train faith leaders to respond to disclosures of violence with a focus on the safety of women and their children
- Increase faith leaders’ knowledge of locally available help services
- Provide spiritual support to women
- Hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.
Preventing Violence Against Women by Multicultural Centre For Women’s Health
One of the current programs of MCWH focuses on helping women in regional Victoria.
CALD women in regional areas face more barriers to accessing help services, due to the lack of awareness, language barriers and limited transportation options. It’s common for CALD women to seek support from their religious leader because they trust the leader, they speak the same language, and s/he understands the woman’s culture.
MCWH is committed to supporting the health, wellbeing, and social equality of CALD women, by sharing awareness information and promoting available help services. Within the program, MCWH partners with many other organisations to eradicate domestic violence.
Promoting Equality and Respect: An Interfaith Collaboration on Preventing Family Violence
The Interfaith Network is a group of diverse cultural and religious faiths, working in partnership with the City of Greater Dandenong Council to promote peace and harmony within the municipality.
In 2015, The Interfaith Network and the City of Greater Dandenong collaborated with spiritual leaders from various traditions including Baha’i, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islam, Jewish, Sathya Sai and Sikh, to release a faith-based resource focused on prevention of family violence in the community: “Promoting Equality and Respect: An Interfaith Collaboration on Preventing Family Violence”.
Considering that faith leaders are influential role models in the community, who people turn to for moral guidance and support, the resource is designed for spiritual leaders. As the main community mediators and persons of influence, they are expected to address family violence in the community. This resource helps them to have a better understanding of the issue of family violence and provides guidelines on the actions they can take to prevent and respond to it.
The role of faith leaders cannot be overestimated in a multicultural society such as Australia. They are spiritual teachers, counsellors, role models and mediators for their communities. And these roles become particularly prominent and important in challenging times, as we can see now, during the global pandemic.
At LOTE, we wanted to learn more about the roles of faith leaders in society and gain first-hand insights from their experiences. That is why we organised our recent webinar ‘The Crucial Role of Faith Leaders in CALD Communications”.
If you missed the webinar, you can find the recording on our YouTube channel.
Beaulaurier RL, Seff LR, Newman FL, Dunlop B. (2007) External barriers to help-seeking for older women who experience intimate partner violence. Journal of Family Violence.;22:747–755.
Bent-Goodley, T. B. (2012). The ultimate betrayal: A renewed perspective of domestic violence. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Bent-Goodley TB, Fowler DN. (2006) Spiritual and Religious Abuse: Expanding What is Known About Domestic Violence. Affilia. 21(3):282-295.
Davis, D. T., Bustamante, A., Brown, C. P., Wolde-Tsadik, G., Savage, E. W., Cheng, X., & Howland, L. (1994). The urban church and cancer control: A source of social influence in minority communities. Public Health Reports, 109(4), 500-505.
Demark-Wahnefried, W., McClelland, J. W., Jackson, B., Campbell, M. K., Cowan, A., Hoben, K., & Rimer, B. K. (2000). Partnering with African American churches to achieve better health: Lessons learned during the Black churches united for better health 5 a day project. Journal of Cancer Education, 15(3), 164-167.
Francis, S. A., Lam, W. K., Cance, J. D., & Hogan, V. K. (2009). What’s the 411? Assessing the feasibility of providing African American adolescents with HIV/AIDS prevention education in a faith-based setting. Journal of Religion & Health, 48(2), 164-77 (32 ref).
Horne, S. G. , & Levitt H. M. (2004). Shelter from the raging wind: Religious needs of victims of intimate partner violence and faith leaders’ responses. Journal of Religion and Abuse, 5, 83–98.
Kaplan, S. A., Ruddock, C., Golub, M., Davis, J., Foley, R. S., Devia, C., . . . Calman, N. (2009). Stirring up the mud: Using a community-based participatory approach to address health disparities through a faith-based initiative. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 20(4), 1111-1123.
Pichert, J. W., McClellan, L. H., Larson, C., Kenerson, D., Brown, A., Reid, R., . . . Hargreaves, M. (2006). Development and evaluation of a Bible college-based course on faith and health. The Journal of Ambulatory Care Management, 29(2), 141-150.
Ramsey, C. A. (2004). Models of health built on foundations of faith: A qualitative exploration of Judeo-Christian perspectives of faith and health initiatives in central South Carolina. (Ph.D., University of South Carolina).
Westenberg, Leonie. (2017). ‘When She Calls for Help’—Domestic Violence in Christian Families. Social Sciences. 6. 71.