Howard's Brethren: the church from hell

Issue 

Behind the Exclusive BrethrenBy Michael BachelardScribe, 2008298 pp, $27.95

In 2006, then Prime Minister John Howard gave a radio interview in which he got stuck into Muslims for not properly integrating into Australia, by which he meant "accepting Australian values". He particularly focused on "the equality of men and women".

He said: "And I think that people who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia: that men and women have equality and they're entitled to full respect."

As in so much that Howard said, he was sparing with the whole truth. From the beginning of his parliamentary career, Howard patronised the lobbying efforts of one of the weirdest sects to ever disgrace the name of Christianity. A group which, according to this new book, holds that women must always be inferior to men: the Exclusive Brethren.

Under his prime ministership they prospered, and rewarded him handsomely with undeclared, "arms length" political support.

From Michael Bachelard's account in Behind the Exclusive Brethren, group, 15,000 strong in Australia, also holds that its church has the right to psychologically torment and break its members. Some of the accounts in this book are horrifying.

Because it holds that the world is evil, the Brethren must exclude outsiders, making recruitment next to impossible. Therefore, it especially clutches onto the children of sect members.

If Brethren marriages break down, the kids are fought over using a special multi-million dollar fighting fund for dragging out family court matters until the sect's opponents are broken.

Marital stress is common among the Brethren due to the psychological pressures they place themselves under, the sect's internal police-state atmosphere and its resulting alcoholism.

Within the organisation, people can find themselves "shut up", meaning no member will speak to them until they repent of whatever the hierarchy finds objectionable. It literally means, for example, that a person will live their life in one room of the family house, completely shunned, receiving meals on a plate left at the door, sometimes for years.

Bachelard reveals excommunication goes one step further. The individual is kicked out of the family home and every family member is under discipline to turn away from them forever. One man was excommunicated without warning for having asked a question in a meeting 16 years earlier.

If these charming people were just keeping to themselves, treating each other viciously and at least leaving others alone they could be regarded as relatively harmless, if gormless. After all, adults have the right to be nutters, if they choose.

But the Exclusive Brethren, in total contradiction to its own theology of separation from the world, is deeply involved in Australian politics. Bachelard reveals its posturing as an independent interest group, splashing out hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting Liberal campaigns. While hiding behind fake names and addresses, it has run dishonest attack ads against the Greens in particular.

Howard's Work Choices legislation had the insane provision that employees of Brethren-run businesses could never have a union organiser visit the workplace because the Brethren has a collective conscientious objection to joining unions. That is: the religion of a group of employers could control the democratic rights of an employee.

The rights of employees mean little to the Brethren, because the church urges its members to be employers rather than workers and it has high level tax advisors helping its members to run their businesses through a maze of family trusts and partnerships. Brethren help each other with interest free loans and guaranteed custom.

Bachelard says wealthy Brethren, and many are rich, commonly structure their income so that they can draw social security payments. Similarly, the Brethren private school system is structured to allow it to receive the highest level of payment for schools in needy areas.

It is brazen welfare for the rich, achieved through undue, hypocritical political influence. Greens Senator Christine Milne has so far unsuccessfully attempted to get an inquiry into the Brethren's exemptions under the tax act, its role in destroying families and the arrangements for governing its schools.

Bachelard's book is a very good compendium of everything that is wrong with the Brethren and exposes its parliamentary connections. The sooner a spotlight gets turned onto this shady operation the better.

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