Stand up, and be counted and challenged

Charlotte Baines, Monash University

Gary Bouma Being Faithful in Diversity, Adelaide, ATF Press, 2011 (112 pp). ISBN 9-78192151-102-8 (paperback) RRP $33.95.

Recently, the Anglican Church Diocese in Sydney declared and defended their theological and political position in the public arena. In a submission to a recently completed research and consultation project on ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief in the 21st century’ conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (see Bouma et al. 2011), the Diocese declared that they ‘value freedom’, that they oppose a national bill of rights, and that they support wide exemptions to anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of gender, sexuality, marital status and pregnancy in their religious centres, service organisations, and places of employment (Standing Committee of the Synod of the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney 2009). They made it clear that they are ready and willing to defend their primary allegiance to Jesus Christ who stands above the laws of the state. Specifically, they stated that ‘Christians carry a very real belief that Jesus Christ stands above us all. He has our primary allegiance, which we will not change for anyone’ (2009, p. 2).

The Anglican Church Diocese wants state privilege as the norm. By state privilege, I refer to an unfettered right to follow the one true religion, to proselytise with little regard for the rights of others, and to assert that other religions and beliefs are inferior to their religion. Claims to state privilege aim to eliminate other religions, and raise questions for the role of religion in Australian society. Is Australia a Christian nation? In what ways are governments and organisations responding to religious difference? How is religious conflict and competition being managed? How can religion produce social cohesion?

The lack of clarity on the management of religious diversity, both locally and globally, makes Gary Bouma’s Being Faithful in Diversity a valuable and timely contribution to the sociological study of religion. This new book began as the Lloyd Geering Lectures in Wellington, New Zealand. This short series of lectures on religion and society are an initiative of the St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society (n.d.). Although St Andrew’s Church is Presbyterian Christian, the Trust does not favour any particular religious group. Bouma’s lectures are directed at a Christian audience, but all arguably religious groups face the same issues and questions he raises (p. xiv).

Is Australia a Christian nation?

Being Faithful has a professional and personal agenda—Bouma lives and breathes what he preaches. Bouma has been familiar with Christian diversity from an early age. His father’s side of the family was ‘strict Calvinist’ and his mother’s side was never seen inside a church (p. 18). He is an Anglican priest who has been a ‘religious professional in eight different denominations’ including Quaker, Presbyterian and the United Church of Canada (p. 18). He writes ‘religious diversity and conflict is not something I study out there, but they have been a lived part of my existence from my birth through all my life’ (p. 25) and that his ‘life’s calling and religious vocation is to be involved as an activist and researcher in the management of religious diversity, very much involved in inter-religious activities’ (p. 26). He identifies himself as a Liberal Protestant Christian who wants other Liberal Protestants to declare and defend a voice of compassion—an inclusive view of the world, which he believes is lacking in existing policy debates. He points out that:

The theological contestation in public policy debates in a secular society like Australia is now calling on people to name their value positions and if somebody says, “I am a Christian and think that …” and they are the only ones in the room that are willing to say that then that voice becomes the Christian voice. And if that voice does not include the voice of compassion, then those of us who take a more inclusive view are left out of the debate, and our views do not count (p. 63).

By adopting a popular and personal tone of voice, Bouma challenges Christians to be faithful in diversity. He makes a case that:

Being faithful in diversity means that we take responsibility for being who we are as persons and as religious groups in a context of diversity, ready to stand, ready to articulate our position, ready to listen and allow other voices to be heard and ready to be accountable (pp. 104–105).

Being Faithful complements existing Australian studies on religion and politics, and religion and the law. Recently, Marian Maddox (2005) and Anna Crabb (2009) have examined the role of religion in public policy and parliamentary language respectively. Maddox (2005) claimed that the Howard Government produced Christian right policy positions with the help of think tanks, forums, and parliamentary breakfasts. Focusing on parliamentary language, Crabb analysed the characteristics of 2,422 speeches given by nineteen prominent Coalition MPs, and 41 prominent Labor politicians between 2000 and 2006. She found that of speeches she examined, 21 per cent contained variants of Christian words: Christ, church, religious, pray, Jesus, bible, spiritual, God and or religion (2009, p. 263), and that the breadth of policy issues incorporating Christian terms in speeches had increased from nineteen to 32 different policy areas between 2000 to 2006 (2009, p. 264).

Bouma lives and breathes what he preaches.

Other recent studies have analysed the interpretation and application of religious exemptions and exceptions in schools, and discrimination on the grounds of sex, sexuality and marital status in educational institutions (Evans & Gaze 2010; Evans & Ujvari 2009). Carolyn Evans and Beth Gaze have found that religious schools are not homogenous, with some under the authority of their parent religion, and others highly independent. While some schools rarely or never invoke the exceptions for religion under the Anti Discrimination Act, others interpret the exceptions in a more expansive way (2010, p. 422). In other research, Caroline Evans and Leilani Ujvari (2009) find, on the one hand, that there are sound arguments to support religious schools that discriminate in favour of co-religionists. On the other hand, they also point out that wide exemptions to discriminate on the grounds of sex, sexuality, marital status and religion can be problematic, since they are based on a rejection or criticism of a particular religious heritage or belief.

Being Faithful extends past research, and contributes to existing policy debates in two ways. First, it examines the rise and consequences of religious diversity. This provides a context to understand how the religious landscape is changing, and why some Christian groups and politicians may be declaring and defending Christianity in public policy and parliamentary language. Second, it addresses the challenges to, and opportunities for, reflecting and producing religious difference in schools, hospitals, other social services and society more broadly.


In chapter one, Bouma argues that religious difference should be recognised and not eliminated in society. He explains that, since World War II, globalisation and mass migration have exposed city and country dwellers to new religions from around the world. Bouma uses Census data to document increased religious diversity in Australia in the 60 years to 2006. The data reveal increasing diversity, rising proportions of those declaring no religion, and falling rates of identification with English Protestant groups (p. 6; see also Bouma et al. 2011, pp. 16–21). With these facts in mind, Bouma argues that religious diversity is all around us and cannot be ignored: ‘The religiously different are living next door. They are members of your family. They are shopping with you. They are in the streets alongside you’ (p. 13).

Increased religious diversity raises significant questions for policy makers. Bouma explains that:

With the rise of religious diversity come questions about how to incorporate different languages, various cultures and diverse religions. How is a society, its schools, its social services and its work places to accommodate a wider variety of religious needs? I need this for my faith. I need Halal food. I need to wear this or that. I need this day off. I need to be able to pray during the day (p. 15).

As a policy maker, I feel challenged to recognise the reality of increased diversity, and to acknowledge that new policy responses may be needed to manage religious change. Bouma implies the need for a national conversation on government and organisational responses to religious diversity, because we have more questions than answers on this issue. Who is willing and able to respond to religious difference? What types of new responses are needed? How can new religious groups be accommodated and included? Bouma provides some answers to these questions by discussing his involvement with the Multifaith Advisory Group in the state of Victoria in chapter three. Perhaps a government summit—akin to the 2020 summit in 2008—could be useful to address these questions.


Increased religious diversity raises significant questions for policy makers.

In chapter two, Bouma identifies as ‘road rage on the highway to heaven’ the competition and conflict that some religious groups engage in on their journey to salvation. He explains that competition and conflict can arise from boundary maintenance, where important differences are being used to label and strengthen boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (p. 38). Competition can be healthy, but conflict is divisive, as Bouma observes:

In conflict, one party seeks to drive the other out, to eliminate the competition, to annihilate the other. One group seeks to deny the right of the other to exist … For example, Evangelical Christian groups might oppose the building of mosques because they do not want Muslims in their town, or because they consider Islam a threat to their society (p. 32).

He informs us that ‘negative othering’ can arise from conflict, where one group seeks to ‘dehumanize the other’, and to treat them as if they do not have a right to exist (p. 33). He contends that ‘negative othering’ can lead extremist groups to create conflict and even to engage in violence (p. 38). ‘Negative othering’ can also be used to suppress diversity. Bouma is wise to acknowledge the consequences of this approach:

Efforts to overcome diversity through driving out those who are different are doomed to failure in advanced modern industrial societies. Not only will they produce unity, or even uniformity, the levels of repression required to achieve this and the dehumanizing forms of negative othering involved will lead to unacceptable levels of social conflict … (p. 45).

By distinguishing competition and conflict, Bouma highlights both positive and negative responses to religious diversity. He suggests that positive responses to religious diversity can only be fully realised when we understand the full scale and scope of negative responses. Bouma provides valuable insights for policy makers on how ‘negative othering’ is produced and expressed. He implies that terrorist organisations, like Al-Qaeda, are engaging in global acts of terrorism to eliminate, repress and dehumanise the other. This explication is particularly useful for national and global leaders, whom Bouma calls to reject ‘negative othering’ in the wider context of global terrorism.


Exclusionary religious views can challenge social cohesion.

In chapter three, Bouma examines how exclusionary religious views can challenge social cohesion, with examples of strategies used to exclude some religious groups in Australia. Some Australian states classify Witchcraft as illegal (p. 69). Other Australians label Australia a ‘Christian society,’ and attempt to limit migration to certain groups (p. 69). Bouma opposes exclusionary policies as he believes they are a costly exercise:

Exclusion produces people who are bitter, who are envious, prone to conflict, likely to withdraw from society … Exclusion is a very costly social exercise. It leads to enclaves, despair, to violence and forces those excluded to adopt survival kinds of responses (p. 68).

Bouma proposes strategies for inclusion, which are easier to develop than exclusionary policies. These include inter-religious relations, and civil inclusion and cultures of inclusion—where people accept there are real differences (pp. 70–72). He recognises that these strategies require active supports, observing that:

We do need some structures that enable respectful conversations as we share our different perspectives in shaping a way forward. We need some structures to hold us together, to affirm our interdependence and to restrain those who would go it alone or would eliminate the other (p. 73).

It remains unclear how some of Bouma’s inclusion strategies—such as education about world religions in public schools—would ever receive widespread political and popular support. These challenges reinforce the need for a national conversation on government and organisational responses to religious diversity. Indeed they create more questions for national consideration. What strategies for inclusion are working well? What could be improved?


Bouma challenges Christians to be faithful to their own religious position, where ‘being faithful in diversity means being true to ourselves being who we are’ (p. 78). He recognises that religiously different groups may value different practices and beliefs: some groups may be more faithful to a creed than to a ritual or practice, others may place a high value on religious identity (pp. 79–80). Bouma invites all Christians to stand up, and be counted and challenged—declare your differences and articulate your relationship with others:

Because religious difference has become more apparent and can no longer be expected to go away any time soon we have to consider and become articulate about how we relate to others. The “we” I presume here is that of a compassionate, reflective and concerned Christian. Hard-line exclusivists have declared their approach, but that is not mine. Is there another way? There are some very conflicted approaches to how we approach others in the context of diversity. We have to admit that there are profound differences in the way that we do relate to others and we need to examine those differences as well (p. 77).

He outlines several theological orientations to diversity that can hinder the recognition of difference. These include exclusivism, inclusivism, suppression and relativism (pp. 82–85). Understanding these orientations gives us insight into the challenges at hand. A further challenge is accountability, and the question of to whom religious groups are accountable. Bouma asks whether it is appropriate for religious groups to hold each other to account, and briefly considers the complex role of the state in holding each religious group to account. The task ahead is far from simple. Bouma is right to say that the way forward ‘is not clear and will require much effort on the parts of each and all’ (p. 75).


Bouma, G., Cahill, D., Dellal, H. & Zwartz, A. 2011, Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia: A Research Report Prepared for the Australian Human Rights Commission [Online], Available: [2011, Nov 9].

Crabb, A. 2009, ‘Invoking religion in Australian Politics’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 44, no. 2, pp. 259–279.

Evans, C. & Gaze, B. 2010, ‘Discrimination by religious schools: Views from the coal face, Melbourne University Law Review, vol. 34, pp. 392–424.

Maddox, M. 2005, God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Standing Committee of the Synod of the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney 2009, Submission to Freedom of Religion and Belief Project, 16 February [Online], Available: [2011, Nov 9].

St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society n.d. About us [Online], Available: [2011, Nov 9].

Ujvari, L. & Evans, C. 2009, ‘Non-Discrimination Laws and Religious Schools in Australia’, Adelaide Law Review, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 31–56.

Charlotte Baines is a Councillor and former Mayor of Monash City Council in Melbourne, Australia. She is completing a PhD in the Sociology of Religion at Monash University. Her research explores freedom of religion in contemporary Australia.