Eighteen powerful people in religion

Australians may not go to church as often as we used to, but there’s no escaping the influence religion has over our lives. 

Socially and politically, religious leaders are using their clout and followers to influence the national debate on topics such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion. It’s not just the cardinals, rabbis and clerics who are shouting from the pulpit either. Religious lobby groups are making noise -- and getting results.

Then there’s our reliance on religious-backed social services, such as hospitals, schools and aged care facilities. From the cradle to the grave, the government is increasingly looking to the church to take care of us.

Who’s putting religion into our lives? It’s a sermon ripe for scrutiny. 

Tim Costello (CEO World Vision)

The brother of a federal Treasurer and perhaps the most recognisable Baptist minister in the country, Costello is a go-to voice for the media on social justice issues like gambling, poverty and homelessness. World Vision, a Christian evangelical group, is Australia’s largest charity, with $345 million in revenue in 2011 (including $41.2 million in AusAID grants).

Samier Dandan (president, Lebanese Muslim Association)

Based out of Sydney’s Lakemba mosque (one of the biggest in the country), Dandan is the slick political operator at the head of the Lebanese Muslim Association. The LMA’s full force was felt at last year’s NSW state election, where Dandan threw support behind a swag of Liberal candidates in seats with high Muslim populations.

Bill Daniels (executive director, Independent Schools Council of Australia)

Mention the words ‘private school funding’ and not far away you’ll find Bill Daniels, adversary of those who want more money for public schools. He’s not really a religious leader himself, but he does represent Christian, Islamic and Jewish schools (and other non-religious independent schools).

Vicki Dunstan (president, Scientology Australia)

Scientology may be a mere blip on the spiritual radar -- there are 2,163 Australian devotees according to the 2011 census -- but the controversial organisation still gets tax exempt status. That’s despite a political push from people like Senator Nick Xenophon to repeal it. Even celebrity followers like James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch have backed away from what many call a dangerous cult.

Brian and Bobbie Houston (founders, Hillsong Church)

The rockstars of the evangelical scene, the Houstons began their Pentecostal megachurch in Sydney’s Hills district in the ‘80s. It’s gone on to become a worldwide phenomenon, with churches in London, New York City and Moscow. Backed by a slick marketing effort and a music label powerhouse that has sold more than 12 million records, Hillsong just keeps getting bigger.

Peter James (CEO, Scripture Union Queensland)

The National School Chaplaincy Program hit controversy this year, after Queensland father-of-four Ron Williams successfully brought a High Court challenge against the $222 million plan. Nevertheless, federal funding for chaplains in schools continues unabated (after being increased under the Gillard government), with the Scripture Union providing the lion's share.

Peter Jensen (Anglican archbishop, Sydney)

One of loudest voices in opposition of gay marriage, Jensen made headlines recently for telling parishioners changes to the Marriage Act could lead to polygamy and incest. He has also attacked atheism, calling it a form of self-idolatry and has linked secularism to loneliness. As one of the most senior Anglicans in the country (out of 3.7 million), he has sway.

Martin Laverty (CEO, Catholic Health Australia)

It’s easy to forget how much of our health and aged care is provided by faith-backed organisations. One of the biggest is Catholic Health Australia, with 19,000 aged care beds and 75 hospitals (24 of which are public). With size comes the power to refuse certain services, such as abortion and birth control. Laverty says Catholic hospitals are up front about procedures they can and can’t do.

Hafez Kassem (president, Australian Federation of Islamic Councils)

The peak body for Muslims in Australia, AFIC has in the past caused controversy with its involvement in Islamic schools and by calling for more Sharia law. That suggestion was made by Kassem’s predecessor Ikebal Patel, who remains on the board as secretary (and is still powerful, according to some).

Robert Magid (owner and publisher, Australian Jewish News)

With a weekly circulation of around 70,000, Australian Jewish News has become a significant voice amongst the local diaspora. Magid recently sparked a debate in the community, when an op-ed for the paper suggested the Jewish community should be less compassionate towards boat people.

Ibrahim Abu Mohamed (grand mufti)

It’s been a few years since the colourful Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali was mufti of Australia, but many still remember his remarks liking scantily-clad women to “uncovered meat”. Dr Mohamed is more reserved than al-Hilali, pledging to act against any signs of extremism amongst young Muslims.

Fred Nile (politician)

Another of the pro-family, pro-life brigade, Nile is the grandfather of the NSW upper house with more than thirty years’ service. A well-known adversary of the gay movement (every year he leads a prayer for rain during Mardi Gras), Nile is part of the so-called "Guns n Moses" power-sharing arrangement in the legislative assembly (along with the Shooters’ Party). On his hit list is banning the teaching of ethics in the classroom.

Stephen O’Doherty (CEO, Christian Schools Australia)

A former journalist and NSW state Liberal MP, O'Doherty’s now hoping any changes to school funding under the Gillard government means more money for Christian schools. Like other religious schools, they want to retain the right to hire and fire staff on the basis of faith. In the past they’ve railed against schools not being allowed to teach creationism.

George Pell (Catholic archbishop, Sydney)

More Australians identify as Catholics than any other faith and at the top of the pile is Sydney archbishop George Pell. Splitting his time between Rome and Sydney, Pell has the ear of politicians on both sides including Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. His power is undoubted but can he deal with the abuse scandals that continue to rock the church?

Colin Rubenstein (executive director, Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council)

Australia’s powerful Israel lobby regularly sponsors trips for politicians, activists, journalists and public servants to the Holy Land, where they are given an on-the-ground education on politics in the Middle East. The trips include meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials and politicians, but some say there are other Jewish groups more focused on domestic outcomes. 

Therese Temby (chair, National Catholic Education Commission)  

Around 20% of students are enrolled in Catholic schools, with Temby fighting tooth and nail to ensure they aren’t worse off under any funding model changes brought about by the Gonski review. Temby and others argue their schools do more with less. And of course that means religious education in the classroom.

Jim Wallace (managing director, Australian Christian Lobby)

Wallace is on a mission from God to bring more religion into Australian politics. The group, which professes to stick up for families as a “voice for values”, is well-known for opposing same-sex marriage, but they also don’t like euthanasia, stem cell research and R-rated video games. Prime Minister Julia Gillard will be speaking at the ACL’s national conference in October.

Peter Wertheim (executive director, Executive Council of Australian Jewry)

ECAJ have been pushing hard to keep anti-discrimination laws strong, particularly those that relate to racial hatred. Standing in Wertheim’s way is Tony Abbott, who recently told an audience he would narrow the definition for racial vilification, as it infringed on free speech.

*Check back later in the week to see who makes the top ten.

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