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How healthy is Australia's secularism?

Phil Uebergang is a regular Webdiary columnist. His last piece was a response to Michael Duffy on ID.

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.


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re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

It is interesting that both Tony Kevin and Phil Uebergang refer to Luther's great challenge of the establishment. Religion is like govenerment - it needs opposition. Religion is also like family, it needs some adolescent rebellion to overthrow stodgy notions. Faith needs ventilation not cement in law. As Phil says, "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."

re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

Phil, your reference to religion in the Australian Constitution is I think this:

"116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth."

Although there is also this from the preamble:

"Whereas the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established:"

Pity those sandgropers, by coming late to the party, they missed out on the Almighty's blessing.

re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

It would take a huge leap of the imagination to speculate who today might be like Martin Luther - because we can't transplant him, Sid Walker, that's hardly fair! The best of us will hopefully look a bit grubby in future reviews, unless society is going backwards. I'd rather ask who right now in history is challenging the ruling powers on the logic of their own foundations to the extent of changing the culture in ways so substantial we see the effects centuries later. Luther may have often been out of step with our contemporary perspective (what human can survive hindsight) but in a case of unbeatable logic Luther used the very scriptures the Church was supposed to be based on. He tore the cancer of works from faith and freed people to serve others without looking for spiritual handouts. He helped enable them to make their own spiritual decisions.

This reminds me why I'm so disappointed with our current federal government. I thought the Howard team of Aussie Battler Lovers would be above creating underclasses just out of embarrassment. But no, they don't seem embarrassed at all. Go Webdiary!

re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

Actually, Australian 'secularism' is in fine fettle Phil.

Criticise away, as long as Christianity, Islam or almost any other religion is your target.

Only one religion may not be criticised, to protect against hate crime :-)

Incidentally, amusing to see Martin Luther referred to in contemporary debate. If Luther was alive today, Webdiary may not link to his website, which may be off-limits as a 'hate site'.

Luther, who actually read Hebrew, had strong things to say about beliefs we cannot, these days, discuss openly.

re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

Phil, thanks for a well-argued and thoughtful piece. It probably won't receive the attention that it deserves: I suspect that most WD readers are very much distracted by Howard's agenda right at this moment.

"Secularism has been inherited by Australia from primarily British influences." Are you sure about this? I don't have any great knowledge of Australian history, but it doesn't ring true to me. Sectarianism in Australia ran along Irish-Catholic vs English-Anglican lines, which also reflected the socio-economic divide between labour and capital. And the iconography of war memorials in Australian towns and settlements illustrates just how closely government, church and Anglophilia were intertwined until the post-war period. Consider also the fact that sectarianism was a prominent feature of Australian politics, particularly in the Eastern states, until the European diaspora following WWII. My guess is that secularism in Australia may have arrived first with secular European Jews generations ago, but that the main influx came with the post-war European migrants. Admittedly many of them held and practised traditional Christian beliefs, but they also brought with them first-hand knowledge of secular European modernism, as well as libertarian and revolutionary ideals in many flavours. Not a few of them had the intellectual wherewithal to reconcile their Christian beliefs with their political ideals. So in my view we can give credit to the Brits for some wonderful music, great science, a rich literary culture, and the fundamentals of our political and adminstrative institutions, but not for a secular society per se. I suspect the credit for that lies elsewhere.

re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

Dear Phil. You touch on a topic that is close to my heart: the relationship between Church and State. In South America, when the Church pulled out of the statecraft business, it left a whopping great hole for 'business' to step in and run the show. The results were even more disasterous than when the church leaders and politicians were bedfellows. Now after the debacle of continuous revolutions and corrupt governments, the Church has once again become a community of resistance, hope and possibility. And they have managed that particular miracle by opting out of the power game. Which is why loggers in the Amazon now get to kill nuns and priests. While I am not against the discourse bewteen church and state per se, I do develop clogged arteries when I suspect less than transparent transactions like that between his holiness Pell and Abbott in the last election. The Vatican we are not.

Michael Christie: I like what you say. Indeed liberalism has co-opted the Church with tax exemptions, concessions and the like. I am also appalled when Churches apply for funding from the Gaming Fund (pokies). I think we would establish a whole new ethical dimmension to our society if the words of the mouth matched the meditations of the heart. And we could start by preaching the social gospel rather than the Hillsongs version. Beautiful music, just a tad off key.

I nearly got happy when the Church leaders came out against the new IR laws. Fortunately, the PM was there to quote the last pope as a means of countering the impact of that united stand... and he picked the wrong guy, there. Can that man ever get anthing right? Pope Jean Paul II was against the excesses of capitalism, honouring instead the solidarity of community, which Hayek, the patron saint of neo-liberalism, did not believe in. Poor Hayek, he will go down in history alomg with the likes of Baron Munchhausen - the liar's liar.

re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

Phil, thanks for this spirited defence of one of the fundamental tenets of liberalism: the negative freedom of the right to practice religion free from state interference.

As an atheist I am an advocate of the right of church leaders to intervene in the public sphere, but don't see why their interventions should hold any more authority than other voices.

I also think you're right to urge for not only the maintenance of the separation of church and state, but also for the need for religious people to attempt to make the state ethical, which is less a goal of what you call social democracy, but rather what used to be called social liberalism.

Here's the rub. The sort of liberalism that underwrites the freedom of religous practice from state interference is more in line with classical liberalism - a negative freedom. In our times this type of Liberalism is back in style, and goes under the name of neo-liberalism. However, the idea of the ethical, or enabling, state begins with a refusal of classical liberalism; arguing that a free market will produce social hierarchies with entrenched poverty, disadvantage etc and that the idea that citizens enter into contracts with equal bargaining power (Workchoices' end game) is a false promise. Instead, social liberalism keeps the capitalist economy but attempts to civilise it through social rights: postive freedoms - the freedom to have an education; to have health care; to a living wage. Rather than going back to the Federation period, when women were yet to obtain the franchise, and we were still British subjects, and the indigenous population had little citizen rights, it might be more useful to go back to those moments of social liberalism, such as the 1907 Harvester case, 1908 for the female franchise or the institution of the Arbitration Court. Keynes was a social Liberal as was Higgins. The rub is that the churches (which are probably not as harmoniously unified as you'd like to think)are not just institutions existing in that space of negative freedom, but are also enabled by the state, through affiliated school funding and tax concessions. It shouldn't be forgotten that a large part of Luther's beef with the Catholic Church was its tithing regime which promised the laity that a place in Heaven could be purchased. John Howard is adept at pulling the purse strings on not only the churches but the ABC, universities etc. Effectively the churches are tied to the government through the provision of funding for these positive freedoms. If the churches want to reshine their moral aura when making ethical demands on the state, these aspects of social liberalism, the funding of positive freedoms, needs to be more closely looked at and argued for.

Out of interest what percentage of workers employed by Church based organisations are on AWAs?

re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

Phil, I agree with you about trying to keep us secular. It has taken us centuries of debate, fighting and so on to reach where we are now.

I wonder about the future of secularism given that we are receiving significant numbers of immigrants each year whose religion is far more prominant and important in their culture in comparison to the present majority.

As these people, or their offspring, obtain positions of community decision making it would seem that their religion will play an important role in the decision making process.

In ten years time, at present immigration rates, we could have say a million Muslams living here. Undoubtably some will be involved politically and given the importance of religion in their culture, what do you see as the impact on our secular society.

I would be interested to get your views on this.

re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

The Daily Briefing today has highlighted an interesting study on religion showing that “Religion is bad for society.” See here:

There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms (Aral and Holmes; Beeghley, Doyle, 2002). It is the responsibility of the research community to address controversial issues and provide the information that the citizens of democracies need to chart their future courses.

re: How healthy is Australia's secularism?

Howard’s efforts to engage the Christian churches in the provision of services usually the responsibility of a secular government (welfare, job placement agencies, health, education) are plain to see. The ideology that drives these policies is more difficult to identify, and might be missed by secularists (although conservative Christians recognise it). In the US, more extreme Christians, promote a more radical agenda. They argue that Christians should take all elected offices and enforce God’s law over any secular law. They believe that the State has nothing to do with human well-being. That is up to God. If God favours you, you will be rich. If you are not rich, it means God has not favoured you, no doubt for a good reason. It is not up to the state to make you well off, comfortable or financially secure.

Conservatives and Christians argue that the decline in social capital and civic engagement is due to loss of faith in Christianity; a return to the churches, they claim, will cure society’s ills. The outlook for Christian revival is not so positive in reality. Secularisation cannot be reversed, and in the religiously deregulated marketplace, Christianity is but one option among a multitude of world religions, occult, and esoteric systems, new religions, and personal spiritualities. Christianity will never again enjoy market dominance in the West.

Australians have to look elsewhere for a renewal of civil society. However, the election of the Coalition to a fourth term with a majority in both houses from July 2005 means that the legacy of communal fragmentation may be far greater than can presently be imagined. Maddox and Garran in their books; Marion Maddox, God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, and Robert Garran, True Believer: John Howard, George Bush and the American Alliance, offer challenging insights into our present situation. They should be read as widely as possible. The challenge is to restore the faith of ordinary Australians in a just and fair society, where attention is paid to, more than just economic growth, and where participation results in social capital, a source of riches that advantages everyone.

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