As we move toward a federal election, there will be a group of Christians who declare “Australia is a Christian country” and want the law to reflect Christian values.
Well intentioned they may be, but they are misinformed. Australia is not and never has been a Christian country. When the modern Australian state formally came into being in 1901 the Constitution was at pains to make clear we were a secular democracy. Section 116 says:
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.
In the process of drafting the Constitution churches argued for recognition of God and that all law ultimately derives from God, but these were rejected. A restrained reference to “Almighty God” was included in the preamble but not in the Constitution itself.
In light of this it is nothing more than mythology to suggest Australia was established as a Christian country. We have been intentionally secular ever since we began.
Nor does the fact that the majority of Australians profess nominal allegiance to a Christian denomination make us a Christian country. It makes us a secular democracy where the majority have a nominal affiliation to a particular religion. Even were the majority of Australians practicing Christians we would still be a secular state. The fact that the majority of Australians drive motor vehicles makes us a car-driving nation, but this doesn’t mean we make laws that privilege car driving over motor cycling, walking or using public transport.Rather we make space for all modes of transport. Similarly a secular state doesn’t make laws preferencing one religion over another but makes space for all religions to be practiced.
To say we are a secular state then, does not mean there is no place for religion. It is to say that the Government shall neither mandate any religion as the religion of Australia, prohibit the practice of any religion, or preference one religion over another.
In a secular liberal democracy there is no singular moral vision. Rather there is a plurality of values co-existing together and undergirded by some foundational freedoms – freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the like. So we expect to see Christians, Muslims, pagans and people of no religious conviction existing side by side, each pursuing their vision of the good life and respecting the freedom of others to do the same.
The government should legislate for the common good, but never by overriding the fundamental freedoms of any citizen. In illiberal democracies minorities are tyrannised by the majority. If the majority support discrimination against a particular group then that is legitimate. But in a liberal democracy freedoms are protected by the State even when the majority struggle to accept a particular group.
If Australians are to accept the Christian vision of the good life it should be because they have willingly chosen it, not because Christians are a powerful enough lobby group to get it legislated. Where we should be putting our political efforts is in articulating and defending the fundamental freedoms of our fellow citizens both in Australia and globally. These would include the freedoms identified in the various rights instruments that have been agreed internationally, such as the right to asylum, the right to food, the right to education, the right to equal treatment under the law, the right of future generations to enjoy the environment. These are the sort of things we should be lobbying about and looking for from our political leaders. As for the embrace of other Christian virtues those should come about because we have so passionately and effectively shared the good news of Jesus with our family, friends and neighbours that they have personally embraced Jesus.
The history of the church has been anything but glorious when we have confused these issues. I for one am very glad to live in a secular, liberal democracy, for I know of no other system that has been as effective in protecting the freedoms of its citizens, including me, to live out my faith and beliefs.