Australia: Healthy Pluralism or Dogmatic Secularism?

Australians are understandably focused on combating COVID-19 right now. We are also beginning to highlight the threat Communist China is posing to geopolitical stability around the globe. Indeed, perhaps because of the issue of Communist China’s ambitions it is important for Australians to understand and appreciate the values of our democratic system.

I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or if it stems from a failure in our university education, but it’s clear that there is an abundance of confusion regarding religion’s relationship with Australian public life. Indeed, this remains one of the key issues facing Australia, as evidenced by the same sex marriage debate in 2017 and ongoing discussions over the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

Take for example, these tweets by Jane Caro last night. Jane Caro is a well known social commentator here in Australia. She said, 

“I fiercely believe in separation of church and state and that religious beliefs should not be privileged (tax free status anyone) over any other beliefs. Theocracies are deadly dangerous, particularly to women and LGBTQI people. I don’t want to ban them, or privilege them.”

First of all, pretty much no one wants or believes in theocracies.  Is there a movement in Australia to turn our democracy into a theocracy?  This line of argument is a red herring. Supporters of theocracies are negligible, and it is certainly not what Christian Churches in Australia posit. 

Second, Christians strongly believe in the separation of church and state. It is after all, an historic Christian view. It was Jesus who said, 

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus wasn’t arguing for the exclusion of religious ideas from the political sphere and neither was he fusing them together. Similarly, the Australia Constitution doesn’t advocate for a secularism without religious ideas and contributions, but rather that Government will not be controlled by any single religious organisation.

It is important to realise that the social pluralism we enjoy today is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Indeed, Australia’s political and social pluralism  is one of the byproducts of Christian theism. If, as some hardline secularists want, that we rid our culture of all public vestiges of Judeo-Christianity, we will in fact destroy the underpinnings for a healthy pluralistic society and instead create one that is far more authoritarian and far less tolerant. Do we want to take that road?

No one disputes that there have been alternative views over 2,000 years of history, but our nation’s position on Church and State is the result of centuries of Christian influence and ideas. Christian’s aren’t wanting to diminish these distinctions.

Third, Caro’s real position is not in fact the separation of church and state, but the separation of religion and state. These are two quite different philosophical views. Caro’s public record demonstrates that she believes religious ideas should be squeezed out of the public square and receive no benefit of existence from Government.

To be fair, in last night’s Twitter exchange she later tried to backtrack a little, “Nope. As far as I am concerned you can keep your beliefs, proselytise them all you want, run & finance your schools & hospitals, exercise your right to vote, stand for office, pay your taxes & live according to your own values, just all the rest of us – no more & no less.”

In other words, tax benefits should only be given to organisations that represent a secular (which is now commonly although erroneously understood as atheistic) contribution to public life. The problem is, that’s not social pluralism.  

Earlier this year, Caro complained when the Prime Minister offered a prayer. She said, 

“Praying is fine, dedicating Australia – a secular, pluralistic democracy – to his god is not. It’s not his country to dedicate to anyone, and 30% of us have no faith & many that do – worship a different god from his. That was my issue.”

“As I responded at the time, the problem with Caro’s argument is that it falls flat no matter what the Prime Minister believes. If he was a Hindu and prayed to one of the thousands of Hindu gods, he would be out of sync with the majority of Australians. If the PM was an atheist and in principle refused to prayer, he would be out of step with the many millions of Australians who are praying during this crisis.

The Prime Minister praying for our nation doesn’t undermine our pluralism, it is a shining example of it.” 

Dr Michael Bird notes in the 2016 article, Whose Religion? Which Secularism? Australia Has a Serious Religious Literacy Problem, the parameters of secularism have been redefined, “no longer as the freedom of the individual in religion, but as the scrubbing of religion from all public spheres.”

A pluralist society allows difference whereas authoritarian secularism demands sameness. Which offers a better understanding of equality? 

At the end of the day, hardline secularists are not aiming for equality but for conformity. Behind this is either an intellectual laziness or dishonesty. The assumption is, secularism is morally superior and morally neutral. This doesn’t stack up on even a superficial level. Everyone brings to the table their own theological and moral commitments, which are always religious in some shape and form.

As Jonathan Leeman observes in his book on political theology, 

“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battle ground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour’.

My point in writing today is this, the conversation about the role of religion in society isn’t going away soon. It’s not even on pause, the issue is simply gurgling quietly behind the scenes. Twitter is probably not the most useful way for challenging popular misconceptions about the partnership between religion and state, but conversations need to be had. 

Christians Avoiding the Pitfalls of Political Polarisation

I get it, our society isn’t just polarised, it’s being torn apart by tribalism, divisions, and unbending ideologues. It’s hard enough being an average Aussie let alone one who believes Jesus is Lord. What are we meant to do when we disagree with the Government? How should we respond when we don’t like what a Government says or decides?

Thankfully God hasn’t left us walking in the darkness. In his wisdom, God gives us clear instructions and principles in his word. Just like me who can feel heated by some of the political debates going on and therefore needs to be reminded of these words, I suspect many of us do.

I’m not intending to pull out every nugget in every verse that I quote below. My aim is simply to draw our attention to the main imperative or principle that is mentioned in each of these Bible passages.

 

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Pray

Take, for example, 1 Timothy 2:1-3

”I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-3)

We are commanded to pray for those in authority. The imperative isn’t conditioned by our political preferences or by the decisions made in our favour. Keep in mind that Paul was writing at a time where there were no democratic societies and where there was little toleration of Christians.

We pray for our Governments and political representatives, not because we always agree with them, but they have a God given responsibility for society.

Indeed, Governments, politicians, and bureaucrats need our prayers. Not every authority is conscious of this or a would accept this proposition. They nonetheless carry significant responsibility and work long stressful and often thankless hours.  When I’ve messaged an MP and asked how I can pray for them, the response has rarely been, “no, don’t pray for me”.

Listen to what verse 3 says, “this is good and pleases God our Savior”.

 

Be subject to

What about Romans 13?

”Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.” (Romans 13:1-3)

We are not only to pray for governing authorities but also to submit to and obey those in authority. Why? These authorities have been established by God, for the good order of society and to punish wrongdoing.

Submit

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people”. (1 Peter 2:13-15)

Listening to, honouring, and obeying the Government is God’s will for every Christian. It is one of the ways we do good and it serves to silence some of the ridiculous criticisms aimed at Christians. I am surprised (perhaps not) at how our readiness to adhere to Governments often depends on who is in power. It is amazing to see how much our political preferences shape our rhetoric and responses to a Government.

Also this, it is sometimes assumed that we will make a clearer statement for the Gospel by standing apart from the authorities, but that isn’t the argument given here in 1 Peter nor in Romans 13. We can bear faithful witness to Christ by submitting to authority.

Another issue relates to trust. Do we trust the words and decisions being made by those in Spring St and in Canberra? I understand the trust issues as much as any Australian. It may also be the case that those making decisions have a fuller perspective and better understanding of the issue than I. I’m not a medical doctor or a lawyer or an economist, and so I want to tread very carefully when issues relate to those subjects and countless others. I’m blessed to have members at my church and among my friendship networks who are professionals in these areas and whom I can go to with my questions and seek understanding. My point is, submitting to authorities is not only right, following expert advice is usually the wise course of action.

 

Appeal

In Acts ch.25 the Apostle Paul, having been arrested,  is interrogated by the Roman Governor of Judea.

Paul made his defense: “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar.”

Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?”

10 Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. 11 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”

12 After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!”

On this occasion, Paul uses his right as a citizen to appeal to Caesar. During his ministry, Paul was arrested and imprisoned on multiple occasions and he didn’t always make this legal case in his defence. He does however on this occasion.

When we disagree or hold a legitimate concern, we ought to follow due process. Not every citizen in every society has the opportunity or even the political right to address concerns to their governing authorities. One of God’s graces to us is that we do have this kind of freedom in Australia. We can write to our local MP. We can arrange meetings and even present our positions to Ministers of the Government. If that fails, every few years we have the democrat privilege of voting for (or against) our political representatives.

Christians have a choice, we can join in the fray and take sides on every single issue, and so add to the anger and cultural fragmentation. Or, we can choose the more difficult path. We can watch our tone carefully. We can choose to keep our words to ourselves.  When we open our mouths we should begin with prayer for those in authority. When we speak we can find good things to affirm and not only criticise the contemptible.

We don’t all have to be John Knox all the time and in every situation. Not every issue is a Martin Luther, ‘Here I stand’ moment. Life is far more complex. Even among Bible-believing Christians, we will sometimes come to different conclusions about the gravity of a subject and how Christians ought to respond.

I can’t help but wonder whether some of our Christian voice stems from a mistaken eschatology. In our protestations are we trying to make heaven out of earth? Do we conflate the nation state with the kingdom of God? Or, in speaking up are we appealing to the common good and love for neighbour, and upholding the tradition of religious toleration, defending for all people freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and religion?

There are times for civil disobedience but those occasions ought to be rare and for extraordinary reasons. There are first order issues and situations where a Christian must say no because it would be paramount to sinning against God, but that is not every matter. I can foresee a time where churches in Victoria will be forced to choose between Christ and the State, especially on issues surrounding sexuality. We may be pushed into the insane position of deciding whether we will teach God’s view on human sexuality or comply with Government regulation. When that day comes, the stand we take will look feeble and sound reminiscent of the boy who cried wolf. We need to be careful about using up all our capital now on lesser matters.

This is a good time for Christians to press closer to what God says in his word about Church and State. Begin with prayer, assume submission and obedience, do good, and choose our battles carefully. “This is good and pleases God”.

 


Let the reader note, in this piece I’m not addressing specific stories that have come out this week, but  I am thinking more generally.