The uneasy dance of religion and politics has long been an issue in Australian public life. The poisonous sectarian disputes of the 19th century were uppermost in the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they formulated Section 116, in the hope that this would guarantee the new Commonwealth a secular State.
At any given time, religious lobbies work to influence governments and this is sometimes perceived as sinister, although arguably it is no less or more so than the efforts of other interest groups seeking to influence public policy. Moreover, the success of religious zealots in galvanising a hedonistic Australian electorate with a traditional antipathy to wowsers has been mixed, to say the least.
Nevertheless, when Peter Costello waved his arms in the Hillsong auditorium and Steve Fielding was catapulted into the Senate at the last Federal election, Christian spokesmen were quick to claim that Australia was undergoing a religious revival though no one thought to relay this information to Pope Benedict XVI.
In August 2005, the Pope issued a dire warning: mainstream Christianity was dying out more quickly in Australia than anywhere else in the world. Perhaps this apprehension accounts for the Vatican’s decision to mount the World Youth Day in Sydney.
It may also account for the curious recent interventions made by the head of Australia’s five million Catholics, Cardinal George Pell. Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen is at least clear on what it means to live in a secular, liberal democracy, but Dr Pell seems confused and in doubt.
In a lecture given in October 2004 to the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in the United States, Dr Pell told his audience that liberal democracy is a world of ’empty secularism’ that is over-focused on ‘individual autonomy.’ The problem with democracy, said the Cardinal, quoting John Paul II, is that it is not a good thing in itself; its value depends on the moral vision that it serves, and a secular democracy is lacking in moral vision.
To dismiss a system based on the principles of equality before the law, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and action, and responsibility for community as lacking a moral vision was extraordinary in itself but there was more.
Pell went on to argue that the essential flaw in this political system is that it is ‘secular,’ a virus of godlessness that gives rise to a catalogue of anathemas, including abortion, pornography, IVF-assisted reproduction and stem-cell research. Because of this, democracy is made vulnerable to the forces of darkness, and in particular to the growth of Islam. Secular democracy not only cannot stop the rise of intolerant religion, it in fact contributes to and worsens it.
Dr Pell urged his audience to rethink the meaning of ‘normative democracy’ and, while not prepared to argue openly for ‘Christian democracy’ this would be too much of a minefield, even for a controversial cardinal instead came up with a model called ‘democratic personalism,’ founded on ‘the transcendent dignity of the human.’ By ‘transcendent’ he meant that we need to recognise our ‘dependence on God’ and place this at the centre of our system of governance. This, he asserted, did not constitute an argument for theocracy.
But if placing God at the centre of our system of governance is not theocracy, then what is it? How can a democratic government be based on a series of ancient texts handed down as dogma, texts that are not subject to democratic debate in the way that legislation is (or is supposed to be)?
By any standards this was an astonishing statement of political illiteracy, and with it Dr Pell emerged as a front-liner in the current culture wars against secularism. His is a militant posture that sets out to blur a number of distinctions, the most important of which is the distinction between secularism and atheism.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of secularism: the militant version that is anti-religion per se, and the secularism that conceives of the State as a neutral referee between competing belief systems; the upholder of individual liberty and freedom of conscience (provided that freedom is not harmful to others). This latter is the secularism that most Australians endorse.
To be secular is not to be anti-religion, but to be anti-theocracy. Secular doesn’t mean without; it doesn’t mean empty. On the contrary, in the context of liberal democracy it means multiple and diverse or, to pursue the spatial metaphor, ‘full.’
This was something that the founders of the Australian Constitution understood, and they went to some pains to enshrine it in law, even expressly prohibiting the Commonwealth from imposing any religious test for public office. In the words of Federation historian Helen Irving, ‘Not only did [Section 116] depart from English practice, it went beyond the First Amendment in the US Constitution, which only forbids laws establishing a religion or prohibiting free religious practice.’
This makes Australia the most secular liberal democracy in the world. But it doesn’t mean that we are godless, and this conflation of secular and godless is too often and too glibly made.
Liberal democrats have no objection to the individual’s faith in God; they simply assert the importance of allowing individuals to find their own way through to that faith in their own way, and in their own time. The dangers of any other route are manifold.
That separation of Church and State guarantees one of the great civilising achievements of modernity: freedom of religious observance and non-discrimination on the basis of religious faith. This, in turn, gives rise to freedom of conscience that’s what the word liberal refers to and a secular democracy, as opposed to a theocratic one, guarantees that freedom. It guarantees that on every ethical issue in the public realm, a case must be made.
This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 22 “ Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia by Amanda Lohrey, (Black Inc) RRP $14.95.
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