There is a lot of confused thinking about the concept of separation of church and state in particular, and the role of faith in public life in general. The former is often used by secularists to insist that religion should have nothing to do with politics, and that the public square should be a religion-free zone. Moreover, it is argued that Australia is a secular nation, and all religious influence must be rigorously guarded against.
But is this in fact the case? Although this entire discussion is a complex and multi-layered one, it is worth looking at in some detail.
Perhaps the best place to begin is to explore the origin of the phrase in question. It of course arises out of the founding of the United States. As is well known, many of the people fleeing the old world for the new did so for religious reasons. People came to America looking for religious freedom. Many religious minorities were ill-treated back in Europe and the UK, and they came to the new land looking for freedom to worship as they saw fit. Indeed, religious liberty was a central issue in the colonists’ dispute with Great Britain.
Thus many regarded America as a “shining city,” a “light set on a hill” – a place where faith could be fully allowed to flourish. It is the idea of a single state church, or an established church, that many of these believers were seeking to escape from. However, some of the original American states did have established churches. Thus early on in the Republic’s history, religious matters such as these needed to be sorted out.
Part of the response took the form of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Ratified in 1791, it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
The first ten words are known as the “Establishment Clause” and the last six words are known as the “Free Exercise Clause”. The first says the Federal Government should not establish a national denominational church, while the second says it should not interfere with religious freedom. In effect it promotes a freedom for religion, not a freedom from religion.
The authors of the First Amendment certainly did not have in mind the notion that religion should have no influence or bearing on the way public and political matters were conducted. Far from it. Indeed, it can be argued that the Founding Fathers spoke with one voice on the importance of religion in civic life. They did not see religion as a threat to democracy, but as essential to it.
It was Thomas Jefferson who first coined the now-famous phrase, “wall of separation between church and state.” And this was much later, in 1802. The phrase itself is nowhere to be found in the US Constitution. Jefferson used it in a letter to a group of Baptists in Connecticut with whom he was having a dispute. But in later correspondence and political rulings he clearly affirmed the thrust of the First Amendment.
The Scene Today
So just how do we understand this separation idea? Again, the main idea was that no one denomination become the official national church. Religious freedom was the aim, along with the prevention of sectarian strife.
But some might ask, Is not Australia a secular society? Yes and no. Various researchers have documented the many religious strands that went into the founding of Australia. Admittedly its history is much different from that of America, but it certainly was built on the Judeo-Christian worldview in varying degrees.
I was once asked by a journalist from a homosexual newspaper, “Is Australia a Christian nation, or should it be?” The answer is somewhat complex. In one sense no nation is or can be Christian. Only individuals can be.
But, as I asked the journalist, are there Christian principles that could be applied to this nation, that would make it a better place? Absolutely. If we simply focused on a few of the Ten Commandments, such as, Do not lie, Do not steal, Do not kill, that would certainly be a good thing if it were reflected in our laws and were part of the national psyche.
Indeed, a good case can be made that much of Western law is just that: based on Judeo-Christian principles. Our legislation did not come out of a vacuum, but was, to a great extent, clearly informed by biblical morality.
Most nations have laws on the books about murder, theft, rape, and so on. Those happen to coincide with biblical principles of morality. Thus it is interesting to hear secularists argue that religion should have nothing to do with our laws and politics. Nothing? What then do they intend? Should we repeal all laws on murder, theft and the like because they have a religious basis?
Virtually all law and legislation is based on some sort of morality. Even seemingly moral-free laws, like working hours legislation, are based on deeper moral principles. We set labour laws because we affirm the dignity of man, and believe it is immoral and unethical for employers to abuse employees. This comes straight out of the Judeo-Christian worldview.
Moreover, if these religious principles are to be prevented from informing and flavouring our laws, then other principles surely will. The question is not, should morality influence politics and law?, but whose morality? If we quarantine Christian values from influencing the public arena, that just means that secular values will influence it.
Indeed, no government can be value-free. Nearly all governments, laws, and policies, presuppose, and are based upon, various values, beliefs and moral considerations. Seeking to separate politics and legislation from morality or values is a pipe dream. It simply cannot be done. The real question again is, whose values and which values will prevail?
Assessing the Secularists
Thus the secularists are being disingenuous here. They do not really want a value-free Australia. They just do not want religious values. They are quite happy to promote their own values however.
But even that point can be further teased out. What the secularists really seem to get bent out of shape about is not religion per se, but the conservative variety. That is simply because most secularists adhere to the left side of politics, and they dislike conservatism as much as they do religion.
This case can easily be made. When the civil rights movement was in full steam in the US late last century, it was largely driven by the churches. Martin Luther King’s speeches on segregation were soaked in Scripture. Consider just one representative remark: “Our hard challenge and our sublime opportunity is to bear witness to the spirit of Christ in fashioning a truly Christian world.”
Strange, but I do not recall the secularists insisting that King keep religion out of politics. I do not recall hearing the secularists claim that America was on the verge of a theocratic takeover.
And as I have written elsewhere, the secularists did not go apoplectic when a Uniting Church minister was also a Democrat Senator here in Australia. Must have had something to do with his strong left-wing political views. And resident atheist Phillip Adams did not cry “theocracy!” when Kevin Rudd, from the left side of politics, made his recent pleas for Christian involvement with the Labor party. Instead, Adams actually praised Rudd.
The clearest indication is just to look up the various secularist web sites. They say straight out that what they detest is the Religious Right.
Thus the paranoia about a religious takeover in Australia is really a case of selective outrage on the part of the secularists. They do not get too concerned about the religious left, only the religious right. But this is not the only double standard of the secularists.
While they rail hard and long about the dangers of religion, they seem to be dismissive of the fact that they too may in fact be religious. Indeed, the US Supreme Court rightly ruled some years ago that secular humanism is a religion. It too is an all-encompassing world view, with a set of beliefs and values. Instead of worshipping a transcendent God, they worship themselves, or the State, or power, or whatever.
They have their own sacred texts, such as the three Humanist Manifestos, and so on. They have their own religious dogmas, like the inalienable right to have an abortion, etc. They have their own core principles and beliefs, such as philosophical naturalism and moral relativism, which are viewed as sacrosanct and not allowed to be criticised. They can be as dogmatic as any religious person, in other words.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of Australians consider themselves to be Christian means we should not be surprised to see Christian influence and ideas seen in public life. The Christian majority has every right to voice its concerns, seek to lobby governments, and make its case in the political and public arenas, just as secularists do.
But increasingly we are seeing the vocal secularists demand that religious folk simply shut up, and keep their religion to themselves. That might be an option if the secularists would shut up and keep their beliefs to themselves.
But in a democracy religious folk can and should speak their minds and seek to influence the political system. If secularists don’t like it, then let them work harder to make their own case. But simply seeking to shout down and shut down the religious majority is not the way to proceed.
Just how and to what extent believers can and should influence public policy is the stuff of another article. Suffice it to say that in a democracy, there should be room for people of faith to make their case just as secularists seek to. We should not be browbeaten by the secularists with their distorted views of what public life should look like. We do not need to let the secularists lay down the rules as to how religious people should act in the political and social arenas.