Politicians eye religious powerhouse

A rocking religious worship album became the biggest selling CD in the country this week, leaping over big-label pop releases on the mainstream chart.

It's the latest outing from the Sydney-based evangelical church Hillsong, which also ships millions of CDs overseas.

The church is fast becoming an emerging religious powerhouse in Australia, with thousands of recruits and some influential figures taking more than a passing interest.

It's no great political secret that governments these days are largely won or lost in the handful of marginal seats on the outer edges of Australia's capital cities.

Winning the hearts and minds of the 'aspirational voters' in those areas is considered the door to government and it seems politicians are starting to realise that God may hold some of the keys.

Hillsong church in Sydney's north-west is the rocking heartland of Australia's booming evangelical Christian movement.

At its concerts, there's no wayward behaviour, no bad-boy stage antics, no backstage atrocities, and no drugs - these people are high on God. But there is room for politics.

The Gospel according to Peter

Brian Houston from Hillsong says the church invited Federal Treasurer Peter Costello along one evening last week.

During the course of the evening, Mr Costello said: "I've addressed a few audiences in my time but I don't think I've ever seen one with the enthusiasm and the commitment of tonight's gathering."

In just 20 years, the Hillsong Church has gone from a small service in a school hall in the north-western suburbs to a stadium-like weekly "event".

"These days, every weekend over 17,500 people pass through the doors from Friday night through to Sunday night and it's been quite a miraculous story," Mr Houston said.

It is in fact the fastest-growing religious experience in the country.

The new Pentecostal preachers know it, the mainstream churches know it and, increasingly, the nation's politicians know it, too.

Uniting Church minister David Millikan says Hillsong illustrates a change in Australian Christianity.

"What we see at Hillsong is the beginnings of a whole new shift in Australian Christianity," Dr Millikan said.

Churches like Hillsong have a lot of money and they have a lot of political power and Mr Costello urges a return to the Christian faith.

"We need a return to faith and the values which have made our country strong," he said.

Mr Costello's remarkably passionate opening address to the Hillsong conference in Sydney last week was public affirmation of the growing political influence of this new spiritualism.

"The editorial writers may not understand it but I want to say to you - more lives have been transformed by faith in Christ than have been transformed by the editorial writers," Mr Costello told the crowd.

Mr Costello, the son of a Baptist lay preacher, had been promising for some time to show a more compassionate political face and it seems it's faith that's emerging as the vehicle to help broaden his political image.

Not that that surprises many.

Destined by God

From all corners of the church, the Treasurer's religious convictions are well known.

"I think that he is a man of faith and he is a man of values and I took great encouragement from the fact he was courageous enough to be so bold about those issues," Mr Houston said.

Dr Millikan says the Treasurer believes he is destined to be prime minister.

"I actually think that he feels that he has been destined by God to be the prime minister," he said. "I'm sure he feels that in his very being."

What does surprise many, though, is Mr Costello's enthusiastic embrace of Hillsong. It's a long leap of faith from Baptist austerity to rock 'n' roll religion but then, these days that could just as easily be interpreted as simply smart and pragmatic politics.

This is the key to why the Hillsong church and churches like it have become so successful and why the politicians in turn are becoming more interested.

The message is a thoroughly modern one and one that sits neatly with the aspirations of people who live in suburbs like this. A powerful part of that message is the gospel of prosperity.

If you believe in Jesus, the Church says, he'll reward you here on earth as well as in heaven.

'The Howard Government at prayer'

Mr Houston is also the author of a book called You Need More Money. It's a Christian gospel that sits easily alongside today's dominant political paradigm.

"The church isn't about money but I do believe it is about equipping people to live lives that are bigger themselves," he said.

"And if we have nothing, there's nothing we can do. If we have a little, we can help a little. And if we've got a lot, there's a whole lot we can do."

Dr Millikan says that is the message Hillsong promotes.

"Hillsong says that if you come to Jesus, then Jesus offers you, in fact promises you, that you will have a prosperous life, you'll be healthy, you'll be wealthy, your marriage will flourish, you'll have a good sex life, your business will flourish and you will be a prosperous winner in this society," he said.

"Now, that is the religious version of exactly what the Howard Government is saying to us, and what they are holding out as the idea for Australian society.

"So in that sense, Hillsong is the Howard Government at prayer."

However Opposition leader Mark Latham might have something to say about that.

The fact is the aspirational suburbs, of course, are often the ones sitting on the closest margins and both the preachers and the politicians want to win them over.

Louise Markus is the Liberal candidate for the western Sydney seat of Greenway.

She's campaigning hard and could be a real chance to win in what used to be safe Labor territory.

But the demographics here are changing fast and, while she doesn't want to make much of it, at least to us, the fact that she's an active member of the Hillsong church won't actually do her any harm.

"I'm not here to talk about Hillsong church specifically, what's important to me is the people across the whole of this electorate and what's important to them," Ms Markus said.

When asked if she thought being a member of the church gave her some advantages, she said the values candidates represent were a significant factor when voting.

Ms Markus says her values are the values of the Liberal Party, with family and individual responsibility at their heart.

Comfortable convergence

Religious activists like Dr Millikan say the two are a comfortable and convenient mix.

"The mainline churches are more problematic," he said.

"The mainline churches ask questions about refugee policy, about welfare policy and, see, the Howard Government has a very troubled relationship with people who question or argue about the justice or equity of what's happening in Australia.

"They'll never get that discussion from Hillsong."

The Hillsong church says it hasn't deliberately set out on a partisan political path but Mr Houston says his flock is naturally interested in the direction the country's taking.

"I gave Mr Latham an invitation to come this year and speak for a few minutes about his vision for the country but maybe they're not quite seeing this demographic as important as some in the Liberal Party have seen it," he said.

"Maybe Mr Latham should rethink - Peter Costello's obviously onto something here."

This week, the Hillsong worship album has topped the music charts.

"The worship of Jesus Christ, this week at least, is the number one most popular music in the nation," Mr Houston said.

"So, that's what I stand for. That's what we live for. It's certainly a great moment."

It is certainly great marketing but then maybe that is what both the preachers and the politicians have always been looking for.