secular state?

Christian, It’s Time to Find Your Political Voice

15 June 2021

3.6 MINS

An excerpt from Kurt Mahlburg’s book Cross and Culture: Can Jesus Save the West?

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Conventional wisdom today says that people are entitled to their religious beliefs, so long as they keep these views out of politics. Under this logic, the public square should be religiously neutral so that faith and politics don’t mix. The “separation of church and state” is the phrase people most often use to justify this idea.

But when the founders of Western nations instituted the separation of church and state, what they were trying to prevent was not so much the incursion of religion into the political sphere, but the opposite: they hoped to stop the government’s overreach into religious life. Like Luther before them, they were concerned about authorities having too much sway over the inner lives of their people.

In Australia, there is an accepted mythology that our nation is more worldly and irreligious than Britain or America because of our convict past. It’s true that criminals were well-represented among the early white populations — especially in the penal colonies of Sydney and Tasmania. But that was only the case until around the 1850s. Beyond that point, the majority of immigrants were free settlers who came from all over Europe, and who built places of worship as a matter of priority.

The many churches, chapels and cathedrals peppered across the continent still stand as evidence of Australia’s strong Christian roots. My own hometown of Lobethal was one of many German settlements in South Australia founded in the 19th century: Lobethal was Martin Luther’s translation of the “valley of praise” mentioned in 2 Chronicles 20:26.

Australia’s Christian identity was rigorously discussed in the lead up to Federation in 1901. This was understandable: the percentage of Australians identifying as Christians at the time was in the high 90s. Alfred Deakin — who led the movement for Federation and became Australia’s second Prime Minister — declared that, “Without God and without immortality there can be no true or efficient morality from generation to generation, no task for the race, and no goal for it to attain.” He spoke on behalf of a nation.

Australia didn’t federate as a specifically “Christian nation”, but we did proclaim our proud British identity — and by definition, that also meant Protestant. This is why, when words like “secular” and “secularism” were used in early Australia, they didn’t describe a society free of religion. They described an Australia that all Christians — whether Protestant, Catholic or otherwise — could agree on. This was important given how many Catholics, from Ireland especially, had come to call Australia home. Greg Sheridan, a descendant of Irish Catholics, agrees:

Australian secularism never thought that Christianity would be banished from the public square; it thought we would all be civil to each other and that particular strands of Christianity wouldn’t fight with each other — that was what was meant by Australian secularism.

The phrase “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God” appears in the preamble to Australia’s Constitution. The Federation delegates considered leaving this phrase out, but thousands of people petitioned their delegates to make sure it stayed in. Stephen Chavura makes the case that, so strongly did Australians feel about this issue that had their pleas been ignored, Australia may not have become a Federation at all.

It was only from around the 1960s that the phrase “the separation of church and state” was being reframed by secularists to keep religious views out of public life. This was a trend not just in Australia but around the West. Over time, Christians and people of other faiths have felt the force of this and have largely been intimidated into silence. But we shouldn’t be.

Committed secularists may not meet in buildings and sing together to reinforce their creed, but as we have seen, the secular creed is pervasive in our culture, and it is certainly not neutral or self-evident. Just like Christianity before it, the post-Christian creed makes dogmatic metaphysical statements about the nature of reality and the purpose of human existence. As such, if we were really concerned with having a “neutral” public square, we would have to purge the secular creed as well.

The simple fact is that every single person views life through his or her own particular philosophical lens: this is just as true for the secularist as it is for the religious believer. And because our various beliefs are so bound up in our identity and our perceptions of the world, there is no way we can set them aside when we discuss society and politics.

The idea of a “secular state” or a religiously neutral public square is a myth: it’s an unworkable pipe dream of the Enlightenment. Politics and beliefs — secular or otherwise — will forever be mixing. And as long as Christians are members of representative democracies, they are not only permitted but should be expected to let their beliefs influence their political behaviour, just like everyone else.

Consider what Australian politician Mark Latham says about this:

I think the churches have gone too quiet. […] I’m not a Christian; I’m not a member of a church, but I recognise the values of the church as a civilising force in our society, and I would hope that the church would be more active instead of becoming part of a silent majority. The church is too silent on these things and needs to make a stand.

Christian, it’s time to find your political voice.

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Check out Kurt Mahlburg’s book Cross and Culture: Can Jesus Save the West?
Photo by Melody Ayres-Griffiths on Unsplash.

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One Comment

  1. SondyWard 16 June 2021 at 11:03 am - Reply

    Agree!

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