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How a veteran reporter became Australia’s defender of the faith

Greg Sheridan: he doesn’t pretend to be a very good Christian. But he is honest

Everybody knows that there is still one rule that keeps our civilisation intact: keep quiet about religion and politics. Or at the very least keep them separate. Apparently Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of the Australian, did not get the memo. For some time, the Catholic Sheridan, one of Australia’s most illustrious journalists, has been showcasing God, Christianity, miracles and even purgatory to the secular press. And it’s working.

Born in Sydney in 1956, Sheridan knew early on that he wanted to be a journalist, drawn to the profession by “a love of words and language, a love of controversy and intellectual debate, a desire to ‘use my gunpowder’ and make a difference”.

He began his journalistic career with the Bulletin, reporting on Vietnamese refugees arriving by boat. This sparked a long-term interest in diplomatic relations in Asia, and he has since authored four books on the subject.

“Books were always critical to me,” he tells me. “George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge inspired me as journalists. And of course Chesterton. One book took me to Asia. Christopher Koch’s Year of Living Dangerously, his magnificent novel of Australian journalists in Sukarno’s Jakarta. And, oddly enough, a [Vincent] Cronin biography of Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit who was one of the first Westerners in China.”

Sheridan joined the nation’s broadsheet, the Australian, in 1984 and became its foreign editor in 1992. Over his 40-year career, Sheridan has interviewed presidents and prime ministers and, in 2016, was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for “distinguished service to print media as a journalist”. Although a practising Catholic, Sheridan is married to Jasbir Kaur “Jessie” Sheridan, who practises the Sikh religion along with their three sons.

In the last few years, Sheridan has increasingly turned from the east to face the troubles of Western culture, and particularly the retreat of Christianity from public life. Deciding to live dangerously, in August 2017 Sheridan tested the waters with an article in the Australian entitled “Is God dead?” with the telling subtitle, “The West has much to lose by banishing Christianity”.

“That article got the biggest readership of any article in the history of the paper since they’ve been able to measure these things,” he said, describing how there was a spike in subscriptions after its publication.

While the responses were mixed – positive feedback, Christians taking umbrage at his theology and atheists questioning the article’s suppositions altogether – the overwhelming message was clear: articles about Christianity are still a coup for newspapers. “It was wonderful positive reinforcement for the paper and positive reinforcement for me,” he said.

The following year, Sheridan began work on a new book, his seventh to date. It was to mark his departure in style and content, both as an author and a journalist. The book, eventually published under the title God is Good for You: A defence of Christianity in Troubled Times (2018), presents an unapologetic case for the truth of Christianity. He presents the Christian faith not as a benign anthropological phenomenon, but as a positive force for good, as an incarnational reality.

The inspiration for the book came while Sheridan was promoting When We Were Young and Foolish (2015), his sixth book which was a memoir of culture, politics and a life in journalism.

“With my last book I went to a lot of writers’ festivals … What struck me about those festivals was that there was not a single book that was pro-Christian. Not one. Nor was there a single book that was pro-Jewish … There were not even books attacking Christianity. It’s as if it had been whited out of the culture.”

A publicist’s dream, Sheridan took only three months to complete God is Good for You. He says it gave him a blessed chance to “escape” Donald Trump and China, which dominate his life as foreign editor, and spend some time with the Book of Genesis.

When God is Good for You hit the shelves in July last year it “outdid all the expectations of the publisher and the author”, selling well beyond its first print run of 4,500 and totalling so far more than 20,000 copies.

The book is in two halves. The first is a set of “eclectic chapters” which argue for the truth of Christianity. Its punchy chapter titles – notably “What did we ever get from Christianity – apart from the idea of the individual, human rights, feminism and liberalism?” – provide entertaining leads into five substantive chapters which range from the state of Christianity to a defence of the Old Testament, a look at divine justice and an excursus on the problem of pain. The second half includes profiles of Christians and religious movements across the country.

A chapter entitled “Politicians – more Christian that you’d think” offers a spiritual profile of some of Australia’s most illustrious public figures, including former prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, John Howard and Kevin Rudd, opposition leaders Bill Shorten and Kim Beazley, treasurer Peter Costello, New South Wales premier Kristina Keneally and even gay rights activist Penny Wong MP.

A conservative, Sheridan describes himself as politically “bisexual” (or, if you prefer, ambidextrous). That is, he leans neither to the Labor nor the Liberal party. His position is summarised by former prime minister, John Howard, who has said: “Last time I checked, God voted neither Labor nor Liberal; he certainly didn’t vote Green.”

It is a tribute to Sheridan’s reputation as a journalist that Australia’s highest calibre politicians have freely answered the following questions: Do you believe in God? Do you pray, and if so how? Do you believe in an afterlife and what does this looks like?

Sheridan has been overwhelmed by the positive feedback he has received from God is Good for You. However, for a high-profile editor to print a pro-Christian book in the current secular climate takes courage. As Tony Abbott, the former prime minister and long-term friend of Sheridan, has said: “The fact that there has, as yet, been no Australian bishop, priest or theologian that anyone would notice to remind us of our mighty inheritance shows how far things have slipped. How can it be that journalists and politicians must become the keepers of faith too?”

On May 18, Australians elected their first Pentecostal prime minister, Scott Morrison. Just weeks before the election, Morrison invited journalists to film him during a praise and worship service at the 1,200-seat Horizon Church in Sutherland Shire, Sydney, which he attends with his wife, Jenny, and daughters. In his acceptance speech, Morrison’s first words to the expectant country were “I’ve always believed in miracles”, and he ended with an emphatic “God bless Australia”. Perhaps we are entering a time where politicians and journalists must use their gunpowder for the faith?

Sheridan, meanwhile, knows he is not a theologian. When pushed he doesn’t even pretend to be a very good Christian. But he is honest, saying: “When the discussion is left only to the morally credible, that conversation is very small.”

When asked whether he would write another book on Christianity, or something similar, Sheridan laughed and said it is not in his plans. But he is only halfway through his average three-year book cycle, so it remains to be seen whether the writer’s itch will strike again.

Sheridan is a subtle thinker, a keen observer of the cultural climate and an engaging writer. He describes his latest book as an attempt to pour “a thimbleful of knowledge into the great ocean of discourse”.

Here’s hoping for a few more thimbles.

In July and August, Greg Sheridan will be speaking in churches across London. God is God For You is published by Allen & Unwin