Conventional Religion (n = 1087) received far more mentions than Common Religion (n = 302) or the Secular Sacred (n = 29) (see Table 1
). They appeared in the following order from largest to smallest number of references: Religion (n = 302); Catholic (n = 277); Islam (n = 207); Christianity (n = 130); Judaism (n = 80); Anglican (n = 49); Buddhist (n = 15); Hindu (n = 12); Pentecostal (n = 8); Sikh (n = 7) (see Table 5
). Catholicism is the largest religious grouping in Australia, so the high number of Catholic references is not surprising. The high number of references to Islam and Judaism do not match their numerical presence in Australia, but does add further evidence of the predominance of Abrahamic faiths in Australian public life, noted by Weng and Halafoff
mentioned Christianity the most in 61 articles. This was followed by The Age
with 51 mentions, and The Herald Sun
with 18 (see Table 5
). Out of the Christian denominations Catholicism received by far the most attention (n = 277), then Anglicanism (n = 49) and Pentecostalism (n = 8). The Australian
and The Age
had the most in-depth and diverse range of articles on Christianity, across the denominations. The Herald Sun
had much fewer mentions.
In terms of tone, most Christian references across the three papers were neutral (n = 58), along with 52 positive, 17 negative and three mixed. This pattern was also evident in The Age
and The Herald Sun
. By contrast, The Australian
had a significantly higher number of positive references to Christianity (n = 32), than neutral (n = 24), or negative (n = 5) (see Table 6
). This could perhaps reflect a Christian bias present in The Australian
Most mentions of any Christian category in all four papers related to Christian educational institutions, such as Christian schools, Catholic education peak bodies, or the Australian Catholic University (ACU) closing, re-opening, or being otherwise affected by COVID-19 outbreaks. Faith-based and Catholic education in particular, have a significant presence in Australia (Halafoff et al. 2019
). A large portion of mentions of Christianity also referred to COVID-19 restrictions to church services, particularly during Easter, funerals, weddings, and shifts of these rituals online. Articles also focused on Christian authority, deviance, religious identity, sport, and The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Christian authority figures, including educational peak bodies, Christian welfare institutions, priests, pastors, archbishops, and ACU academics, were frequently deferred to for advice, expert opinion, or encouragement during the first waves of the pandemic. This is a product of the systematic nature in which many public services are outsourced to religious institutions, the large proportion of Christian schools in Australia, and also of a cultural privileging of Christian ideas as a source of morality, meaning, and service, particularly by more conservative news sources. This was evident across all papers, and mostly in The Australian and The Herald Sun.
was most explicit in depicting Christian institutions as responsible protectors during the pandemic, who were taking pre-emptive steps such as negotiating the closure of schools and enforcing restrictions in church services and moving them online. They were presented positively, as custodians who negotiated with the state on the behalf of the people. For example, a news article in The Australian
discussed how the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference released a statement pre-lockdown listing ‘restrictions and advice’ on how churches should deal with coronavirus including that: ‘Holy water should be temporarily removed from stoops at the doors of churches to reduce the possibility of transmission of the virus’ (Johnstone 2020, p. 8
). The Australian
also reported how Sydney ‘Archbishop Fisher urged congregations to… view regular “mass for you at home broadcasts” on TV, watch live-streamed online services available from certain parishes or find ways to “pray from home”’ (Norington 2020 p. 3
As Easter occurred during the first lockdown, many articles that mentioned Christianity were related to this religious observance. This ranged from light-hearted quips about eating hot cross buns, to stories about COVID restrictions for churches, to the online streaming of services, and messages of ‘hope, faith and patience’ from Christian leaders during these hard times, such as from The Queen, The Pope and Australian Cardinal George Pell (Reid 2020, p. 7
). This further emphasises how Christian voices hold special authority in Australian newspapers, exhibiting their role of pastoral carers by providing messages of encouragement and support. In a news article, The Australian
(2020b, p. 21
) also reported Pentecostal Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Easter message, ‘filmed beside a striking image of a 6th-century icon of Christ’, in which he stated that ‘Australians of faith… will live out their beliefs over the long weekend by doing the right thing. That includes staying home, checking on neighbours and supporting communities, families and friends—at a safe distance.’ Easter articles also commented on the challenges faced by Christian congregations as a result of pandemic restrictions and the resilience of Christian churches during the crisis, through their adaptation to streaming online.
By contrast, The Australian
and The Age
reported on the Greek Orthodox Church in Australia as deviant, as opposed to the exemplary pre-emptive restrictions enforced by the Catholic Church:
If coronavirus fears have led to holy water being removed from Roman Catholic churches, and a ban on drinking from the chalice or priests placing the communion wafer on the tongue, no such hygiene measures apply to the Greek Orthodox Church… worshippers sip wine from a spoon dipped into the same chalice cup. The spoon is dipped back into the cup for the next person. The communion wafer is also delivered via the same spoon into the mouths of between 80 and 100 worshippers a week… The highest ranks of the Roman Catholic Church have taken a different tack, curtailing all rituals that risk infection.
also highlighted the deviancy of Shincheonji, a ‘Secretive cult behind Korean outbreak,’ with branches in Australia, due to ‘forbidding of face masks’ and flouting of other restrictions (Fowler 2020, p. 10
). This demonstrates the prevalence of the myth of a virtuous white Christian Australia, and a deep seeded suspicion to the ethnic ‘other’, even if they are Christian.
Morrison’s Pentecostal Christian identity was also frequently discussed across the papers with regard to ‘What drives him, what are his core values and beliefs?’ (Bramston 2020, p. 10
). His religious identity was often discussed alongside his devotion to football, as an opinion piece in The Australian
[Morrison] listed his personal interests thus: “Church (Hillsong Church, Waterloo), Family, Politics, Reading (biography, travel, history, Australian fiction), Kayaking, Waratahs [NSW rugby union team], AFL [Australian Football League] (Western Bulldogs).” Both the order and content were instructive. His religion came first and that other Aussie religion last.
This reflects a prevailing underlying mistrust of close and overt religion and state relations in Australia, and a deeper faith in the less threatening ‘religion’ of football.
Substantive discussion of the exoneration of Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was controversially cleared of sexual abuse charges uncovered by The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, featured in all papers particularly in The Australian and The Age. Most of these articles did not focus primarily on the coronavirus; however, several articles discussed Pell in relation to COVID-19. The Australian, was most empathetic toward him. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, anger towards Pell and/or the Catholic Church’s response to sexual abuse of children emerged in the public’s Letters to the Editor in The Herald Sun and The Age, rather than in articles, perhaps reflecting the grip of church authority over media institutions more than over the population.
Religion was mentioned more frequently than Christianity, across the papers with 302 mentions in total. The Australian
mentioned it 132 times, The Age
108 times and The Herald Sun
62 (see Table 5
). Most mentions of religion were neutral in tone in all newspapers. The Australian
and The Herald Sun
had more positive mentions of religion than negative ones; however, The Age
had more negative mentions of religion than positive mentions (see Table 7
Religion was discussed as a potential source of strength and comfort during the COVID-19 crisis. Religion was also often discussed in relation to a range of political issues, such as Australia’s Religious Freedom Bill, Australia’s relations with China, Black Lives Matter, identity politics, racism and diversity, with mainly passing mentions of coronavirus. Notably, each newspaper focused on different political issues. Religion was also often mentioned in relation to sport.
Religion was quite often discussed as a source of strength and something to turn to during the difficult times of the pandemic, interestingly alongside more non-religious/secular resources, particularly in The Australian
and The Age
. This reflects the fact that religion continues to play a significant role in Australia, alongside other worldviews. By contrast, other mentions lamented that religious leadership was lacking in response to the pandemic in secular times. An opinion piece in The Australian
by conservative commentator Peta Credlin stressed that people were less prepared to face mortality due to their lack of religious faith (Credlin 2020a, p. 60
), and a letter in The Age
queried ‘Where are the messages of hope and resilience? Where are the voices of religious and spiritual leaders?’ in this crisis (The Age 2020h, p. 22
focused mainly on discussion of the proposed Religious Freedom legislation, in letters to the editor, that mostly opposed the legislation. The Australian
included a piece by conservative media commentator Alan Jones expressed strong anti-Chinese sentiments that ‘COVID-19 is rightly, as Donald Trump asserts, a China virus… The Chinese communist regime is responsible for your business going broke and closing down’ in an article that also referenced the Chinese ‘Book of Changes’ as ‘providing inspiration to the worlds of religion’ (Jones 2020, p. 26
The Herald Sun
focused on outrage against the Black Lives Matter protests and was highly critical of the message of the movement and resistant to acknowledging the persistence of racism in Australia. These mentions only referred to religion in passing, as an example of other diversities that intersect with race. For example, an opinion piece stated that ‘[e]very one’s life matters regardless of colour, age, gender or religion’ (Kennett 2020, p. 20
Sport was reported to be a unifier in Australia among diverse groups, including religious groups. A news article in The Australian
noted that ‘footy is the social fabric of regional towns’, as a ‘small town is made up of many groups. There’ll be the historical society, the cemetery trust, the religious groups, the environmental group, and the local farming group’ and ‘[w]hat pulls them all together is the Football [,the] Netball Club’ (Lunn 2020, p. 2
). Once again, it’s noteworthy here that religious groups are listed among many other types of non-religious groups. There were also some complaints raised regarding sporting events being allowed more people than religious gatherings (Penberthy 2020b, p. 53
Islam received the most coverage of minority faiths in articles that mentioned the pandemic, across all of the newspapers, with 207 references in total. These were mostly neutral (n = 130) and then negative (n = 58), with far less positive (n = 17) and mixed (n = 2) references (see Table 9
). Most of the negative and mixed coverage on minority faiths handling of COVID-19, including increasing and countering the spread of the virus, was focused on Muslim communities.
The reporting in The Australian
, had the highest number of neutral (n = 78) and negative Islam/Muslim references (n = 38), with very few positive ones (n = 4). For example, a Domestic news article in The Australian
reported how: ‘A family Eid celebration that broke public health restrictions has emerged as the cause of one of Victoria’s biggest family clusters.’ It also stated that, ‘[a]t the time, Victorians were prohibited from having more than five guests in their homes… The Coburg Eid breach occurred despite a campaign by the Islamic community and Andrew’s government to inform people about dangers of the virus’ (Baxendale and Fergurson 2020, p. 5
By contrast, The Age
discussed the challenges facing Muslims in Victoria in celebrating the holy month of Ramadan during a pandemic, yet chose to highlight the more positive opportunities that at home and online celebrations and acts of service presented for the Muslim community. It had 34 neutral, 11 negative and 10 positive Islam/Muslim references and was far more balanced. For example, a Domestic news article paraphrased Islamic Council of Victoria vice-president Adel Salman highlighting that: ‘Ramadan will continue to be the month of giving, with Muslims donating directly to charities and food agencies to support communities in need, including those who may have lost their jobs due to the pandemic’ (Topsfield and Rosa 2020, p. 11
). Later in the year, Salman was again called upon by The Age
to comment on the outbreak in public housing towers. He explained that while ‘more could have been done to engage people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) families before the crisis escalated… the increased efforts of the government and health authorities’ to ‘speak more directly with people from CALD backgrounds’ was ‘definitely welcome[d]’ (Tomazin 2020, p. 4
The Herald Sun
also featured higher numbers of neutral (n = 18) and negative Islam/Muslim references (n = 9), with few positive ones (n = 3). The Herald Sun
conservative media commentator Andrew Bolt used this call by Muslim community leaders for better messaging about the coronavirus to stress divides between communities. In an opinion piece he highlighted how major outbreaks have occurred in communities with high numbers of immigrants and Muslims in particular:
And now look. Is it coincidence that the three worst virus hotspots in Victoria have been seven public housing commission towers (145 cases), the al-Taqwa college (142) and the Cedar Meats abattoir (111)? Many of the people in those towers are immigrants, often from Africa; the al-Taqwa community is Muslim, many immigrants; and Cedar Meats, is a Labor-donating company that employs many immigrants… In fact, some are illiterate even in their own language. The Muslim Women Australia group suggested simpler messaging, perhaps using pictures.
again included a response from a Muslim community leader, Omar Hallak, principal and founder of the Al-Taqwa Islamic College, who commented on the impact this kind of negative reporting was having on Muslim communities in Melbourne: ‘There is a lot of worry and fear in the Victorian community at the moment and we understand this… Sadly, some people with extreme views have sent ugly messages to the college and posted on social media. Our families see these things and it gives them pain’ (Le Grand 2020, p. 1
Other articles that mentioned Islam and Muslims were mainly negative and mixed, and centred on issues of terrorism and extremism, critiques of China and Black Lives Matters. Articles on China during the pandemic included empathetic concerns regarding the human rights abuse of Muslim Uyghurs and the Muslim “re-education” camps in Xinjiang. A letter to the editor in The Herald Sun
during the lockdowns that mentioned Muslims and other minorities, but was not primarily focused on the coronavirus, problematically argued for the denial of differences and the silencing of dissent in the face of division in the name of unity, at the time of Black Lives Matter protests in the US and Australia:
Too much division “WE the people” is the opening line of the United States constitution. This means “everyone”. I’m an old man and it saddens me to see so much division in society. Black, white, yellow, brown, Muslim, Christian, Jew, gay, straight... who cares? Why do we need to have a label? Get over yourself. Just be a human.