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The power and glory: Who is the most influential religious person in Australia?

Kevin Rudd. Photo courtesy of John Harrison

Cardinal George Pell is the most powerful and influential religious leader in Australia, according to The Power Index, an online news site which purports to measure such things.

Alongside Pell are Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen and Jim Wallace from the Australian Christian Lobby.

Read The Power Index Religion list here: www.thepowerindex.com.au/powerlists/religion/

Are these people really the most influential religious leaders in Australia?

The problem with The Power Index is its methodology. Its website says:

"These lists, in a number of categories of power and influence, are at the heart of understanding who runs Australia. Across the year, our editorial team conducts hundreds of interviews with knowledgeable people at, and close to, the centre of power. On and off the record.

"The result is our lists, ranked in order, of the ten most powerful and influential people in categories."

However, the advent of new forms of measurement – such as text analytics – enable us to quantify "influence" and "persuasion".

By using the software applications, some of which, such as Discursis, are still being refined, we can identify who it was that sent the tweet that sparked a viral feeding frenzy.

Text analytics as a field is but a decade old, but its underlying algorithms harness the power of computers to identify concepts, themes, trends and sentiment in very large volumes of data.

Such new technologies simply make a nonsense of the claims of The Power Index to be able to identify and rank those who are powerful and influential through "interview and investigation".

Despite its protestations of journalistic purity, this is tabloidism at its worst.

"Each of our Power Lists takes six weeks of interviews and investigation to put together. We examine what people have done in the previous 12 months to see how they're likely to wield their power in the future and determine if they're actually as potent as they're perceived to be."

There is a touching naivety about such an approach, which has computational social scientists either rocking with laughter or open-mouthed in disbelief.

It is so delightfully twentieth century – nobody measures attributes such as power and influence this way any more.

Finally, with this list, The Power Index is looking at those whose profession is the practice of religion: designated religious leaders.

My view is that the most powerful religious figure in Australia is Kevin Rudd.

He has truly articulated, and practises, the relationship between faith and works.

And he has done so at the coalface of raw power: politics.

He has also made a substantial contribution to our theological understanding of power, through his essay in The Monthly on Bonhoeffer and his follow-up essay on the Global Financial Crisis. Both are worthy of a re-read.

Issues of administrative dyfunctionality apart, Kevin Rudd represented a moral force in politics the like of which we have not seen in Australia perhaps since the days of Deakin, Cook and Fisher a century ago.

Which begs the question: Is this why he had to be taken down?

The lack of theological sophistication among journalists such as those who run The Power Index leads them into the error of conflating designated roles with influence.

Dr John Harrison is the Undergraduate Program Director in Journalism and Communication at The University of Queensland.

Photo : Kevin Rudd. Photo courtesy of John Harrison