Religion’s Voice is Loud in the Public Square!
An article by Max Wallace, first published in On Line Opinion on 5.1.16: (see footnote)
It is an often-heard claim, expressed in newspaper articles, academia, and on-line public forums, that religion is being banished from the public square. The allegation is that:
1. the intrusion of religious opinions in a public forum, however that may occur, is now considered by many to be inappropriate, and this is a form of censorship;
2. the widespread notion that politicians’ private religious convictions should not be expressed publicly, is a form of self-censorship by them that denies citizens access to their true motives, so that much political debate, where religion has a perspective, is therefore unfairly defined out of existence.
Result: religion is being unfairly banished from the public square and we would all benefit if religion got a fair shake.
You can see why they would think that. In many ways, religion, Christianity in particular, is front and centre in Australian public life.
Australia is a constitutional monarchy with the head of state, the Queen, also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She in turn answers to her Christian God. God is mentioned in the preamble to the constitution. All parliaments bar one (ACT) open with Christian prayers. The Australian flag has three Christian crosses in the union jack corner.
The Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, partly funded by the government, is symbolically just down the road from the federal parliament. Australia’s secular national anthem regularly includes contrived Christian verses sung in private religious schools, against protocol, and there is no sanction.
Federal government gives at least $5.3B annually to private, religious schools. State funerals are always held in cathedrals. The legal year starts with a procession of judges into a church with its accompanying quest for God’s influence on judicial decision-making.
Religious organisations have also received approximately $700M of public funding to employ mainly evangelical chaplains in mainly public schools. These chaplains are paid approximately $20,000 per annum to help ‘counsel’ children, but of course, not religiously. Secular counsellors are barred from being employed.
At its core, I suggest, the public square argument, which is in truth exaggerated, is really a contest between those who would elevate religious belief above government (theocrats) and those who believe government should not be beholden to any one particular view and govern fairly for all (secularists).
When laws are introduced, or suggested, to create equality between religious and non-religious citizens, such as gay marriage, they cry ‘discrimination’ against their belief as if their God’s law trumps civil law in our democracy. They have this one-eyed, committed sense of religious entitlement.
As theocrats, many public square theorists tend to extract their data from their starting point which is that everything in the western world including government, law and democracy derives from Christianity. They believe that is self-evident. That is why they are theocrats.
Forget the origins of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Forget Athens and the Greek philosophers. Forget the Enlightenment. Forget other civilizations’ contributions. No, it’s all about them.
However, I suggest the public square argument is really a cri de coeur concerning religion’s decline in the West which is demonstrated by:
- religion’s steady decline in terms of memberships and church attendances; as an idea in the public mind, expressed in the census figures, religion’s ship is slowly but surely sinking.
- religion’s overall inability to prevent social reforms that tend to undermine religion through their secularising effect.
On the first point, the August 2016 census will show us just how low religion has sunk in Australia when – for the first time – citizens are asked up front whether they have a religion or not, and, if so, what it is.
Unlike the 2013 New Zealand census where Christianity has slumped to somewhere between 49 and 42 per cent (NZ citizens can tick more than one box for religious affiliation) the Australian census has for decades concealed the ‘no religion’ option at the bottom of the religion question under a checklist of religion options. The result of shifting it to the top of the question will be an interesting exercise.
There is now a good reason why politicians, in particular, soft-peddle on their religious beliefs. The first is that electorally, it can be a kiss of death. Disinterested citizens don’t want to be preached to.
An IPSOS survey in 2015, on religion and politics, was published by Russell Blackford; ‘Most Australian voters are not influenced by religion’, The Conversation, 13 September, 2015.
The poll found that 86 per cent of Australians do not take religion into consideration when they vote; 26 per cent said the question had no application to them; 60 per cent said religion did not influence them at all; 14 per cent said they were ‘somewhat influenced’. Only 5 per cent said they were ‘very much influenced’.
On the second point, by way of evidence, here is a list of social initiatives and reforms achieved in spite of conservative church opposition since the 1870s:
- the creation of free, secular and compulsory public schools
- the opening of museums, public libraries and later sports activities and shops on Sundays
- the end of prohibition and the extension of the opening hours of hotels and clubs selling alcohol, later extended to seven days a week
- new no-fault divorce laws
- the lowering of the age of consent
- legislation to allow civil celebrants
- sex before marriage and the widespread use of oral contraceptives
- the common law compromise concerning abortion, the acceptance of a woman’s right to choose and later the decriminalisation of abortion in some states
- the legalisation of homosexuality
- the right of lesbian women to IVF and more liberal approaches to gay adoption
- a loosening of the laws concerning blasphemy and censorship
- the extension of horse racing into night time meetings
A case study of these battles was the Western Australian parliament of 2002 which introduced gay and prostitution law reforms, and eased off on prohibiting abortion.
In a useful review of what happened, journalist Steve Pennells (‘Pulpit Politics’, West Australian 14 September 2002) wrote the politicians had been ‘ … intimidated, threatened, blacklisted and defamed in a coordinated set of campaigns aimed at influencing the state’s political decisions’.
He cited Liberal MP Arthur Marshall who said ‘ It was intense – it was the force of religion against the force of free thought. It got very spiky and it got very personal. There were people crying in the Assembly.’
The reforms all got through. Another WA MP, John Quigley, openly Catholic, said what theocrats don’t want to hear: ‘Once you are in public service you are not there to pass criminal laws to outlaw behaviours because the Catholic Church agrees or disagrees with it.’
All of the above, and much more, is simply omitted from the public square discussion.
I suggest the push to get more religious discourse into the public square will never work. The public are over it. But many of the religious will never get over it and will continue to grandstand from academic forums to evangelical pulpits.
I say good luck to them. They are serving the cause of the non-religious very well. The longer this dying swan act continues, so the more disaffected citizens will turn off. Politicians of all faiths and none will continue to pass laws based on the exchange of their very different views, and in the light of public opinion.
The conservatives among them can continue to come up with contrived secular reasons why, for example, Australia should not have gay marriage like New Zealand, or voluntary euthanasia, as elsewhere, or become a republic. Good luck to them too. They will hold out for as long as they can, but the weight of history, as detailed above, is against them.
And, of course, from the perspective of the advocates of the public square thesis this decline in overt religious commitment, and discussion of religious views in parliament, and the media, has got nothing to do with religion itself. It has got nothing to do with the Royal Commission into institutional abuse of children in Australia and on-going, frequent mention of their privileged tax-exempt status and other privileges like exemption from legislation.
When your basic starting point is flawed like this, chances are the rest of your reasoning will be flawed.
Even more to the point, their attack on secularism refuses to engage a perspective such as that of American Presbyterian T. David Gordon (‘The Decline of Christianity in the West? A Contrarian View’ Ordained Services Online, May, 2007) who argued that if Christianity was waning, it is more due to the religious themselves having sufficient trust in their faith to be persuasive, absent the coercive power of the state.
He said: ‘if religious people disbelieve in the power of the Christian gospel to compete on a level playing field; if religious people no longer believe that Christ’s example and words have the power to attract people to him, then perhaps Christianity is indeed in decline. But the decline has nothing to do with assault from without, and everything to do with unbelief from within.’
Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists. He is an academic who’s published many articles on politics and religion and he is author of the ‘The Purple Economy’, 2007.
This article was first published in Opinion On Line on 5.1.16 under the title: “Religion’s dying swan act: secularism is banishing it from the public square.”
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