Politicians Should Have To Declare Their Religion

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There’s a major gap between MPs and the public that we don’t often talk about, writes Brian Morris.

A raft of socio-political issues, under the cold hand of winter, have advanced with all the speed of an Antarctic glacier. And the furtive fingers slowing progress are those of pious politicians.

But the polarisation of politics and public policy will soon come to a head; determined by two telling factors.

The first will be same-sex marriage – that’s if the Turnbull government is returned in July and they persist with the socially divisive, religiously vindictive, and utterly wasteful $160 million-dollar plebiscite.

When Ireland, America and Italy, three of the most culturally Christianised countries, can contemplate and codify laws to validate same-sex unions, then one must stand staggered by Canberra’s Christian conservatism to steadfastly strangle progressive change. There will be a backlash.

The second factor will also set into stark relief the religious disconnect between government and the people.

On August 9th, the Census will herald a substantial change on the question of Religious Affiliation. Just five weeks after the election – and under the weight of a record 440 submissions – the Australian Bureau of Statistics has finally moved the ‘No Religion’ option (up from last place) to the top of the form.

At the 2011 Census the ‘No Religion’ tally was just 22 per cent , an absurdly low figure given its position, and a ‘loaded’ question that assumed every person had a designated faith. New Zealand lifted its ‘No Religion’ option to the top in 2013, almost doubling its score. Australia will undoubtedly follow suit.

Religious neutrality has been rising steadily for decades. A Morgan Research graph from April 2014 showed Christianity was down from 61 per cent (2011 Census) to 52 per cent.  Conversely, the No Religion figure was up from 22 per cent (in 2011) to a record 37 per cent.  By the August Census it will be closer to 50 per cent.

Similarly, the Catholic tally in 2011 was just 25 per cent, but given the number of scandals over the past five years that figure is expected to fall significantly, primarily due to Royal Commission into institutional responses to child abuse.

These two converging graph-lines of religiosity – one falling, one rising – may not have the seismic upheaval of grinding tectonic plates when they meet, but the political tremors will certainly become more severe.

A widening religious disconnect between parliament and the people will inevitably become more volatile.

That the full sweep of social policy has become more religiously-politicised is beyond doubt, with a stark imbalance between the religiously neutral community and politicians who flaunt their faith.

This federal election is an opportune time to lift the taboo, to openly discuss how religion has become an increasingly divisive force in politics.

Voters and mainstream media are free to question all candidates on how their religious beliefs (or none) impact in the political sphere, and determine their mindset on the full range of contemporary issues.

In a secular democracy we need politicians to be transparent, honest and accountable for their decisions.

We do know that heavily Christianised politicians reject the secular agenda. Last August, Tony Abbott won a two-thirds LNP party-room majority to dump their own ‘conscience vote’ on same-sex marriage, opting instead for a divisive and non-binding $160 million plebiscite.

And John Howard took unilateral action in 1997 to overturn an established law allowing Voluntary Euthanasia in the Northern Territory. The ABC’s Vote Compass, just released, shows that from 200,000 votes cast a clear 75 per cent support Voluntary Euthanasia laws.  Only politically influential church groups remain opposed.

Both actions by Abbott and Howard were influenced by religion – as are all contemporary secular issues.

They include the Safe Schools Program, the need for ‘ethics’ classes rather than religious education in all schools, abandoning the Chaplaincy Program, enforcing national pro-abortion laws (still illegal in some states), it means rejecting Malcolm Turnbull’s brain-snap to fund only private schools, and instead to fully fund public education (Gonski).

And it also means taking immediate action to legalise same-sex marriage; to abandon the extravagant and vindictive plebiscite; and to legalise voluntary euthanasia.

It includes, too, action on climate change, and scrapping the absurd practice of ‘prayers in parliament’ and replacing them with a secular pledge; to uphold all national and international covenants and to work for the benefit all members of society.

Parliamentary ‘religionism‘ is way out of step with a public majority who now reject corporatised Christianity. And if Malcolm Turnbull is returned on 2nd July the nation will have another government that is very little different from the Christian Right government he inherited from Tony Abbott in September last year.

We have high-profile Christians like Cory Bernardi, George Brandis, Scott Morrison, et al talking up religion; the Parliamentary Christian  Fellowship is run by MP Louise Markus, one of several parliamentary members of Hillsong; and PCF organises Canberra’s Prayer Breakfasts for the entire political fraternity.

Like no other nation that is constitutionally non-theocratic, federal parliament begins each session with the Lord’s Prayer, and it’s a sanctuary where politicians can indulge their religious predilections. And while Canberra persists with its Prayer Breakfasts, the legal fraternity gathers for their annual Red Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.

When senior members of the legal profession who administer secular law line up for God’s blessing of their work, you have to ask whether they know anything at all about separation of church and state.

All this in a constitutionally ‘secular’ nation!

Indeed, it can be said that almost since federation Australia is better described as a “Soft Theocracy”.

It’s a term coined by Dr Max Wallace, author of ‘The Purple Economy‘, which examines the wealth and power of religion and the need for democracies to ensure they have a robust and constitutionally enforceable separation of church and state, equal to the separation of powers between the executive, legislature and the judiciary.

Secularism is very simple, to quote James Kirk Wall.

“No persecution or privileges (handouts) based on religious beliefs. It’s not pro-atheism or anti-atheism. It’s not pro-religion, or anti-religion. It’s about individual rights and liberties. It’s about the law applying equally to everyone.”

But as Canberra continues to bask in the warm glow of supernatural indulgence, almost eight in ten members of a long-suffering public clearly and explicitly want secular change.

As evidence, an independent IPSOS poll in January showed that 78 per cent of the population want religion and politics to be separated from the affairs of the nation, both at the state and federal level.

It’s time we lifted the taboo to publicly discuss religion in politics and to demand of our politicians that they clearly identify the extent to which their religious faith will dictate their party room vote on the entire secular agenda.

And there is no earthly reason why MPs and Senators should not publish the depth of their God-beliefs in their parliamentary biographies, or the personal websites of candidates seeking election.

They are required to declare their pecuniary interests, why not their supernatural interests?

What’s also alarming is that no politicians are prepared to state they have ‘no religion’ when the majority of Australians no longer feel the need for corporatised churches or paranormal beliefs.

Interestingly, the new voting system for the senate makes it much easier for electors to individually select representatives for both houses, candidates who might better reflect their own secular values.

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Brian Morris

As a journalist and PR well versed in secular politics, Sacred to Secular was inevitable. World travel shaped Brian’s interest in social justice — wealth, poverty and religion in many countries. His book is critically acclaimed, including from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. It’s an analysis of Christianity, its origins and the harm it does. It’s a call for Australia to become fully secular.

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