Worrying about religion

Michael Hogan, The University of Sydney

Amanda Lohrey Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia, Quarterly Essay 22, Melbourne, Black Inc. 2006 (79 pp). ISBN 1-86395-230-6 (paperback) RRP $14.95.

Tom Frame Church and State: Australia’s Imaginary Wall, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2006 (96 pp). ISBN 0-86840-916-2 (paperback) RRP $16.95.

In recent years the mass media has delighted in reporting developments in Australian politics and culture that suggest that religion is becoming a worrying influence on public life. A number of commentators have responded by writing books on the topic. At the centre of it all has been Prime Minister John Howard, the influences on and from whom prompted Marion Maddox to write her essay, God Under Howard: How the Religious Right Has Hijacked Australian Politics (2005). The term ‘the religious right’ takes on added importance because it has been the topic of almost constant media attention in commentaries on American politics, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush. If I were an American liberal democrat, contemplating trends in US politics, I think that I would be worried. Should we be worried in Australia?

Amanda Lohrey’s short book is useful because it discusses the wide range of issues, personalities, and organisations that are involved in the interface between religion and politics in contemporary Australia. She argues from the perspective of someone who values the secular traditions of Australian history and constitutional law. She writes for readers who share those values, partly to reassure them that the sky is not about to fall in. She devotes attention to: the Hillsong gospel of prosperity; the role of Family First Senator Steve Fielding in Canberra; personalities like Sydney’s conservative trio of George Pell, Peter Jensen, and John Howard; issues like abortion, RU486, stem cell research and the whole coded agenda of ‘family values’; the shadowy activity of some wealthy Exclusive Brethren; and the infiltration of the NSW Liberal Party by hard-line religious conservatives.

Lohrey’s basic argument is that, although secular Australians may not like hearing the more strident voices of the religious right, Australia is not likely to be taken back to the 1950s. She is perfectly right. The Christian right is very much a minority voice, which has influence in some spheres because of political accidents like the election of Steve Fielding on Labor Party preferences and the nicely balanced party alignment in the Senate. She could have added that Fielding is likely to be much less influential than a predecessor in the Senate, Tasmania’s Brian Harradine, who regularly squeezed concessions on ‘family values’ out of governments for 30 years. The established churches are still more politically significant than the fundamentalists, and their voice is influential only when politicians like what they say. Cardinal Pell, for example, is not in the same league of national influence as his much less outspoken predecessor from the 1950s, Cardinal Gilroy.

Australia is not likely to be taken back to the 1950s.

Tom Frame discusses similar developments in Australian politics, but from an entirely different perspective. Frame is an Anglican bishop, serving as senior chaplain to the Australian Defence Forces. Given that background, one might imagine that he would be defending the Christian right. Not a bit of it. He writes for readers who share his Christian background—to explain to them that trying to strong-arm the Australian political system in order to install Christian values is not the way to go. While Lohrey’s book is an easy read, Frame demands more attention from the reader. His summaries of twenty centuries of Christian theology and practice on the relationship between church and state, and a similar period of social and political theory on that topic, are rather hard going. But they are worthwhile, and the book is eminently sensible. Secular readers (especially the more rabid among them—yes, there are fundamentalist secularists) would profit from trying to understand how far many Christian fundamentalists are diverging from their own history and traditions.

Both Lohrey and Frame accept the truth that Australians are not particularly religious. Few go to church regularly, and most of those who claim some denominational allegiance in the regular Australian Census have the most tenuous attachment to their church. Yet, to say that Australian society is not very religious is not the same as saying that it is a secular society. Nor is it, as some Liberal Party politicians would like to assert, a Christian society. Rather, Australia’s traditions are of religious pluralism, in which political and cultural institutions have tried to encourage acceptance of difference. Throughout its history since European settlement Australians have insisted that they share the same rights and freedoms, whatever their religious adherence or lack of it.

Parliaments, law courts, political parties, and sporting clubs have struggled with the pluralist model, but have generally come to accept it. Sectarian division has been a feature of Australian society since the beginning of European settlement, as I have argued in an earlier work (Hogan 1987). The old sectarianism has all but gone, and even the Rugby League and Aussie Rules clubs that used to be notorious as ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ clubs are no longer so—although now some may be ethnically defined. (Why do you think that Collingwood became such a hated football club in Melbourne? Because it was a sign that Catholics could organise and do something better than Protestants, at a time when that was regarded as a rebuke to the majority.)

Although both Lohrey and Frame appreciate that a democratic political system must not be handed over to any group in society that proclaims an absolutist value system, there is one significant difference in their approach to Australian society—the concept of a separation of church and state. For Lohrey, who cites constitutional historian Helen Irving in support, Australia has a legal tradition of such separation, which she does not want to see compromised. Frame, by contrast, sees the two domains as sharing the same political space—the space of important social and political values. Each of his five chapters discusses different aspects of the supposed ‘wall of separation’, and his concluding chapter is significantly entitled: ‘A land without walls’.

Both Lohrey and Frame accept the truth that Australians are not particularly religious.

From an historical and legal perspective Frame is right, while Lohrey and Irving are wrong. The Australian colonies invented their own solution to the problems of church-state relations, which they copied neither from England, with its established church, nor from the United States, with its principle of separation—although they borrowed from both. Although the colonies insisted in the 19th century that the state does not give formal support to any religion—so that clergymen do not get government salaries and do pay taxes—they also recognised the existing religious pluralism and set up a system of equal financial treatment for all denominations or religions. Church and state always have been partners in activities such as education, hospitals, and social welfare, where religious institutions have attracted state funding and some tax relief. For the first half century of European development the state was incapable of providing these services; churches did them by default. That relationship has continued into the 21st century, so that Tony Abbott’s desire to see voluntary and religious agencies providing employment services is entirely in that tradition (even if it is, in my opinion, a shameless abandonment by the state of its responsibility). The Australian principle is fundamentally one of neutrality, not separation.

The debate on this matter has been confused by the Fathers of the Australian Constitution, who borrowed almost the exact wording of the American Bill of Rights article on religion to construct Section116 of our Constitution:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

There is argument among modern jurists about whether this implied some kind of separation of church and state on the new nation. There may have been some members of the Constitutional Conventions of the 1890s who thought, or hoped, so. However, most delegates would not have supported it if they thought that it was going to over-rule existing principles in the colonies. Thus, it explicitly applies only to the Commonwealth, and does not bind State governments, let alone private organisations. It is a very weak protection for religion (and for the state). In case there remained any argument about whether this established an American-style separation of church and state, this was firmly rejected by a clear majority of the High Court in the so-called DOGS case of 1981, while the suggestion that its provisions should apply to the States (as they do in America) was rejected almost as clearly when it was put to the Australian people in a 1988 referendum. (We were asked to approve, among other matters, a constitutional change ‘to extend freedom of religion’, that is, to the States. Encouraged by the major churches, we voted no!)

It is one thing to argue about what the situation is in Australia. The more important question is what it should be. There may well be an argument, which is often made by secularists, that we should firmly entrench a principle of separation into our State and Commonwealth Constitutions to make up for the feeble protection of s. 116 of the Australian Constitution. The question then becomes: how desirable is the American model for Australia, and how well does it achieve in America what it attempted? The short answer is that Australians should exercise caution in borrowing any more from the United States. There is a very useful book that examines how well the American system works. Monsma and Soper (1997) are American academics, concerned about the very powerful influence of old ‘bible belt’ and modern urban ‘megachurches’ on both major American political parties. Their discussion is built around a comparative analysis of five nations that have tried to find ways of guaranteeing the neutrality of the state and providing genuine freedom of religion or lack of it. Their case studies are: the United States, with its separation principle; Netherlands, with an historical religious compromise between two major faiths; England, where there is still an established church; Germany, with a complicated pattern of official partnership; and Australia, with a multicultural neutrality.

Australians should exercise caution in borrowing any more from the United States.

Although their book is now nearly ten years old, the argument deserves attention in this country. For strict separationists in Australia there would be no hesitation in putting America at one end of the scale (the desirable end) and England at the other, while Australia would come somewhere in the middle. Monsma and Soper show, however, that it does not work out that way at all. Despite the existence of a separation principle in the United States, religion has a more aggressive and overt influence on the political arena there than in the other countries they studied. Separation may be announced in the Bill of Rights, but tell that to the tele-evangelists! This is an argument about how the relationship actually works, not about constitutional principles. In looking at the real situation they found examples of inconsistency and abuse in all the countries they examined. Nowhere is there complete freedom of religious practice for all faiths, and every nation interprets a principle of state neutrality in ways that favour some religious or non-religious groups over others. However, the Monsma and Soper ranking would probably put the Netherlands at the good end of the scale and the United States at the other. And yes, Australia is still somewhere in the middle.

This suggests that there is work to be done in reforming the supposed neutrality of the state in Australia. And indeed there is. However, to start and end the discussion with assertions about the need for a stricter separation of church and state seems to me to be a hindrance to such reform. The main problems here (as in the United States) are about how the claimed ruling principle is observed in practice. How neutral, then, is the state in dealing with different religions in Australia? The major denominations have no complaints, but smaller (and ethnically specific) religious groups do. The issues come down to discrimination by governments and private organisations against people on the basis of their religion. There are anti-discrimination laws in the Commonwealth and the States, but (even where religion is not explicitly excluded from most provisions, as in New South Wales) there remain difficulties for some smaller religious groups. The best source on this matter is now over twenty years old, but it remains important both because it was written by a government agency, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board (1984), criticising deficiencies in its own government’s legislation, and because nothing has been done in those twenty years to improve the situation. The fundamental reform suggested in that 560 page report still remains desirable and achievable—to give throughout Australia the same protection from discrimination on the basis of religion as already applies to discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnic origin or disability.


Hogan, M. 1987, The Sectarian Strand: Religion in Australian History, Penguin. Ringwood, Vic.

Maddox, M. 2005, God Under Howard: How the Religious Right has Hijacked Australian Politics, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Monsma, S.V. & Soper, J.C. 1997, The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Five Democracies, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.

NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, 1984, Discrimination and Religious Conviction, NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, Sydney.

Michael Hogan is an Honorary Associate in the Faculty of Economics and Business at The University of Sydney.

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