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How healthy is Australia's secularism?
by Phil Uebergang
As a Christian, I am an advocate of secular societies. I believe that God made us in His image, giving us the choice to either accept or reject His authority. The choice is freely given, and it must be made freely. It is when this choice is unnaturally enforced that the Christian Church becomes gravely unhealthy, and this occurs when it becomes a political tool.
During the last millennia the Catholic Church was sometimes used to manipulate the uneducated masses in pursuit of political and empire building goals. The results of this were the crusades, inquisitions and other general un-Christian practices. This speaks not only of the importance of literary education and freedom of information in society, both of which empower individuals to fend for themselves, but also of the necessity to remove State politics from church leadership.
We have seen this more recently in Australia as factions of the Christian Church glibly bowed to political will, and became complicit in crimes against humanity with the breaking up of Aboriginal families and communities.
I view secularism as the freedom to choose what or what not to believe in, and this sits comfortably with genuine fundamental Christianity. In a way it is what Martin Luther stood for - the freedom to establish an informed, personal relationship with God, without interference from political contrivances.
It is a necessity of secular societies to protect religion from interference by the governing executive. Even the so-called secular 'religions' such as Marxism are corrupted by power politics, with tragic results. Power inevitably corrupts, which is the reason that a democracy based upon individual rights under law is the most benign and effective form of government we know of. It is for this reason that the separation of church from state is written into our Constitution - to protect the individual civil liberty of religious freedom from the abuse of power.
Thus the strongest definition we can have of a secular society is one in which the functions of church and state are separate. The secular executive functions of the state are distinct from the freedom within churches of all religions to express their theology.
Australian society takes its benign secularism for granted, but it didn't occur by accident. It's an end result of centuries of political and social struggle and while Australians blithely go about their daily business in this safe and unified nation, few thoughts are spared for the sequence of events that have brought us to this fortunate situation.
The irony of secularism is that it must have a sectarian foundation. There must be a core of values that stem from a set of beliefs by which society is prepared to govern itself, which must then result in secular governance. Australian legislature and common law has been strongly influenced by the value of the individual, as proclaimed by Christianity. Muslim societies take an approach based upon Islam, and so on. We identify cultures based to a large extent upon their religious tradition.
Secularism has been inherited by Australia from primarily British influences. But with freedom from traditional British constraints Australia was able, in its first century or so, to take a remarkable leadership role in developing the concepts of social democracy and individual rights, culminating in our fortuitous federation. We could do no better than to use this as the foundation for a sense of proud and coherent national identity.
The Christian Church - our traditional cultural religion - has played a leading role in agitating and advocating for the secular social democracy we enjoy today. It still plays an important role through education, charities, public comment, public and government advisories, and its own local communities and parishes. A positive aspect of today's churches is the strength of inter-denominational and inter-religion think tanks and cultural understanding groups. A secular society cannot get any healthier than this.
Under secularism, it is not the function of any church to govern or make law. The church must measure its effectiveness through its influence on the community as a whole which will then, in a social democracy, translate into decision making regarding secular governance.
But Australia has never been a particularly religious country, and the last few decades have seen a decline in traditional church membership as many find themselves more comfortable with the moralistic and idealistic freedom of secular 'religions' and philosophies. This has unfortunately led to a misunderstanding of the nature of our secularism and a growing desire to suppress the liberty of the church to express itself. There is a common misunderstanding that our Constitution was written to protect the State from a perceived corrupting influence of the Church.
For a politician to be a member of a church, and to allow their personal and professional decisions to be influenced by the moral code of their religion, is an acceptable and natural result of freedom of religion in a secular state. It is certainly not unconstitutional, as many think today.
This attitude is actually a non secular expression of repression of religious thought and moral influence. Should these ideas become entrenched it would be a concern for the future of Australia's secularism, as freedom of religious expression is gradually replaced with a totalitarian domination by secular philosophy. Ironically, this attitude could combine with sectarianism itself to weaken secularism.
Our current executive is losing touch with the humble privilege of its position and in doing so is undermining its secular mandate, deftly ignoring our Constitution and breaching the fragile trust that secularism requires.
John Howard is using his signature tactics of division and confusion to stifle the voice of religious dissent against government policy, forcing political will onto the religious community.
The government has taken upon itself the task of organising the Islamic leadership in Australia. That mainstream Islamic groups have bowed to this pressure, whether it be ostensibly for the sake of their reputation or not, should be ringing alarm bells within both the Islamic community and the wider population.
The Australian newspaper, on 14th October, carried a front page article on the appointment of an outspoken evangelical Anglican, Ian Harper, to head the Government's 'Fair Pay Commission'. Given that there has been widespread opposition by churches to reducing minimum working conditions, the appointment must be regarded with scepticism.
The chairman of the Anglican National General Synod public affairs committee, Ray Cleary, sees Prime Minister Howard's hand in a tactical ploy to silence the church. If this is indeed the case then Mr Howard has succeeded, since the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, claims to be pleased with the appointment. Did a similar pattern of manipulation and division emerge which resulted in the church betraying the trust of Aboriginal families last century?
In this current situation the executive has misused its power by attempting to manipulate church opinion, rather than responding appropriately to the concerns of the church. It is a subtle shift from secular governance to sectarian control. A genuine approach would have ensured that the appointment was perceived as neutral, as befitting a public servant of a controversial government policy. The appointment was, at the very least, irresponsible.
There is no reason to expect that the Labor opposition would follow a different path, given their own willingness to renounce the fabric of the rule of law and civil liberty in agreeing to new domestic security legislation, allowing prolonged incarceration without charge.
If the situation is becoming tenuous in Australia it is worse in the USA, where it has been revealed that President Bush has hijacked Christianity in support of the invasion of Iraq, proclaiming that God told him to do it. The Christian Church in the US, in cooperation with other religions, must take a firm stance against what is either insanity or cynical politics, to protect itself from this sort of executive interference.
Also, the last presidential election in the USA was distracted by the overt interference of politicians in Christian doctrine to win votes over issues such as abortion, rather than focusing on genuine secular issues of dramatic consequence to the country's governance.
While some may argue that the church is the driving force behind such actions, I claim quite frankly as a fundamental Christian that it is not. The driving force is the politics of the state, cynically recognising the influence of religion.
Sadly there will always be weak factions of church leadership who fall under a delusional spell, allowing themselves to be used for political purposes in what they see as achieving moral victories. Unfortunately, what may seem like a harmless foray today can open the door for catastrophe tomorrow.
For our benign secular democracy to manage the infringements of politics into religion, the secular and sectarian communities of Australia need to remain united to keep the protective barriers in place. We have good friends in the Constitution and the benevolence of our remarkable history, working for us as a solid foundation. Let's help to keep Australia secular.