Secularism’s balancing act

David James / 08 October 2014

Achieving the right balance between religious beliefs and the state is not proving easy anywhere in the world.

Ask most Australians and they will tell you that Australia is a secular state. At first glance they would seem to have an unassailable case. Section 116 of the Australian constitution 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.”

It seems clear cut, but it is not so in practice. Making neat divisions between freedom of religion (the ability to follow or not follow beliefs) and freedom from religion (protection from others’ imposing their religious, or non religious, views on you) is rarely straightforward. While few Australians advocate the extremes of outright theocracy or compulsory atheism – there is a general acceptance that people should not interfere in others’ beliefs – finding the correct balance can prove problematic. Such tensions are to some extent inevitable. Legal frameworks are relatively fixed, must be universal and tend to change slowly, if at all. Social attitudes and political interests are fluid and can move profoundly. Max Wallace, Director of the Australia New Zealand Secular Association, argues for neutrality based on clear demarcation lines. “(It requires) a constitutional separation of church and state where the state gives no aid to religion and no aid to alternatives to religion. That should be understood, briefly, as the definition of secularism.”

Australia has no such clear division in practice, according to Marion Maddox, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research on Social Equality at Macquarie University and author of For God and Country: Religious Dynamics in Australian Federal Politics. She comments that section 116 of the Constitution has proved ineffective at preventing state aid to religion and it also offers only limited protection of individuals’ religious freedom.

“Under the court’s consistently minimalist interpretations, if an individual’s right to religious freedom conflicts with the interests of the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth wins,” she writes. “Moreover, despite section 116 falling in the Constitution’s chapter on the powers of the States, it constrains only the Federal government. Alone among the States, Tasmania’s Constitution Act protects religious freedom and prohibits the imposition of a religious test.”

Wallace describes Australia as a “soft theocracy”: a constitutional monarchy in which the head of state is the Queen of Australia and also Supreme Governor of the Church of England in England. He believes the Australian constitution does not create a clear separation of church and state, unlike in America, where the Supreme Court has applied a stricter interpretation.

“In the 1981 Defence of Government Schools case, which concerned federal funding for religious, mainly Catholic, schools, three judges of the High Court, including the Chief Justice, concluded s.116 does not mean separation of church and state,” he says.

There have been similar legal results since. “The point is, if there was a separation of church and state in Australia, government subvention of religion could be more easily contested in the courts,” says Wallace. “Church and government interests are using taxpayers’ money and resources through exemptions and functionally through grants and privileges. By the time one factors in prayers in parliaments, Christian crosses in the national flag, other overt support for Christian activities such as religious instruction and evangelical chaplains in public schools, it’s difficult to see how Australia could be characterised, legally, as a secular nation.”

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]“Most people in the country, including believers of various religious positions, are prepared to have a ‘live and let live’ approach to the different faiths” – Lev Lafayette.[/quote]

Lev Lafayette, spokesperson for the Victorian Secular Lobby describes Australia’s law as “quite weak” believing it is out of step with the wider society. “Where Australia is secular is in its population,” says Lafayette. “Most people in the country, including believers of various religious positions, are prepared to have a ‘live and let live’ approach to the different faiths, whilst at the same time being uncomfortable with the involvement of religious doctrines in political life.”

“There are exceptions of course, but the opinion polls, census reports, and studies that I have reviewed indicate that the Australian population is largely and increasingly a secular one. It’s just that our political leaders and the political system do not reflect this.”

If the lines that separate church and state are smudged, identifying an effective alternative is far from simple. Changes to the Australian constitution, which require a referendum, are almost never achieved in Australia. And conventional political activity can easily lead to unintended consequences. Secularism, which is typically understood as a policy of even handedness and non-interference, sits uneasily with political ideologies.

Scott Hedges, a researcher on secularism in Australia, says the politics of the secular groups can be “deeply corrosive” to the purpose that they aim to achieve. He believes the secular polity in Australia is likely to create different results to those intended, because secularism is adopted as a party position, then blended with other political views.

“These (other views) are not necessarily secular in nature, nor do they follow from support of secular principles,” he says. “If this notion of a ‘secular government’ is going to be useful it has to be something which has allies on both sides of the political spectrum, and not be a province of the Left.”

The dangers of political action in the religious sphere can be witnessed in the fate of secularism’s traditional opponent: the religious Right in America. Political scientist Robert Putnam, co- author of American Grace: How religion divides and unites us, a study of religious belief in America, described in a recent radio interview the effects of the political campaign. In the 1980s American evangelicals and religious conservatives became more powerful and assertive, especially over the issues of abortion and homosexuality. They became the ‘calling card’ of religion in America.

The results of the political activity were surprising. According to Putnam: “A new generation of Americans who came of age in the 1990s and then into the 21st century began to say to themselves, ‘Well, if religion is just about being conservative and being Republican, being a member of the Republican Party and you know, hostile to homosexuals and so on, that’s not me, I’m out of here’”.

Far from increasing the power of religion in the state, the result was a rapid growth in the number of people described by sociologists as ‘nones’: people professing no religious affiliation. In the course of two decades the ‘nones’ went from 5-7 per cent of the younger population to more than a third.

The change in America occurred over only two decades, very different from the slow march of secularism in Western Europe and Australia, which has taken place incrementally for almost a century. It represents a warning about the potential dangers of mixing politics and religion.

Putnam said most of the new ‘nones’ are not atheists. “These are not people who’ve been convinced by the new atheism, of Dawkins and others. There’s one factor that distinguishes the young nones from the people who have stayed in church, and that is, they are really upset about mixing politics and religion.”

The lesson seems to be that avoiding partisan politics and attempting to be even handed and tolerant is the best way to achieve a clear outcome. That is the view of Maddox, who argues that religion should not be kept out of politics, it should be included.

“Far from wanting less religion in politics, I think that, at least in the current climate, we need more,” she writes. “If our leaders identify, and still more if they merely hint at, a religious dimension to their stances on such matters as teen pregnancy, abortion, environmental protection, refugees, industrial relations or tax, we are entitled — indeed, obliged — to ask what that dimension is: from what doctrinal position does it follow; how the politician traces the connection; what sources informed their doctrinal position; and so on. Then, just as with other topics, we can decide how persuasive we find their replies. And vote accordingly.”

The implication is that to achieve a healthy separation of church and state something beyond conventional politics is required. “Religion should be treated as a more normal part of the political discussion,” writes Maddox. “All sorts of values feed into a political position, and most are accepted as a legitimate part of political debate. Different economic schools of thought, for example, contribute to different kinds of economic policy. Different beliefs about the nature, causes and consequences of climate change contribute (albeit perhaps less than economic interests or susceptibility to lobbying) to different stances on emissions reduction.

“Different ideological orientations nurture different approaches to international relations. Consequently, we expect to be able to ask about what beliefs leaders hold in each of those areas. When we disagree, we challenge and debate them.

“Why don’t we include religion in that process? Partly, because of the fear of where that kind of debate can lead. No sensible person could desire the sort of public inquiry into individuals’ faith which, in past centuries, has led to religious tests for public office, to torture and executions for heresy and to wars of religion. This is, of course, the basis of the liberal tradition of political secularism. Social secularism also plays a role: the reluctance to enter into public theological debate also reflects a largely secular electorate’s squeamishness about what might emerge.”

Another potential justification for the separation of church and state is the changing ethnic character of many states due to global migration flows. This is especially pronounced in Australia, which has had the second highest post-Second World War migration in the world (relative to the size of the population). It has resulted in the population becoming more diverse in both religious and cultural terms.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 1991 about a quarter of Australians were Anglican and another quarter was Catholic. Another fifth were Christians from other denominations and thirteen per cent had no religion.

By 2011, the picture had become more complex. There had been increases in both the numbers of non-Christian religious adherents and people professing to have no religion. Buddhism (2.5%) Islam (2.2%) and Hinduism (1.3%) accounted for 6 per cent of the total, about double the level in 1991 and those professing no religion rose from 13 per cent to 22 per cent.

Such diversity suggests secularism is becoming the only workable option for social cohesion. But this does not necessarily amount to a legal argument. The fluidity of social trends does not translate into a reason to change relatively invariant legal structures.

“In principle (multiculturalism) shouldn’t matter,” says Lafayette. “Secularism should, and can be, a universal principle that applies to any and all people regardless of their metaphysical beliefs.”

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]“If there was a separation of church and state in Australia, government subvention of religion could be more easily contested in the courts” – Max Wallace.[/quote]
Wallace agrees there are no legal implications, adding that it is only important politically when the “ethnic vote matters”. “Through multiculturalism, when we all respect each others’ human rights, when what you believe, the colour of your skin, your gender, your sexuality, is irrelevant, that’s a positive. Liberty, fraternity, equality is the aim, as the French figured out back in 1789.”

Australia is not alone in having an uneasy relationship between the laws that define the relationship of the church and state, and the general attitude of the population. Lafayette says the United States, despite having a comparatively religious population, has robust secular legal protections. Although there have been numerous attempts to change this he says they have been largely prevented by the strength of the constitutional protections, historical precedent in the courts, and “interestingly a defence of secularism by a large number of religious people”.

Such clear divisions run counter to the political and social character of America, however. Wallace says that although America has a stronger legal separation of church and state than Australia, it would be “unthinkable” to have an atheist president (the current prime minister Julia Gillard professes to be an atheist). “Constitutionally, Australia is well behind the US federal government and some of its states. For example, some US states allow gay marriage and voluntary euthanasia, although, a woman’s right to choose is under threat again.”

The European states have a variety of ways of balancing legal and social positions on religion and the state. At one end of the spectrum, some countries have a strict legal divide. An example is the French policy of laïcité (absence of religious involvement), although France also has examples of the prevention of symbolic religious expression. At the other end of the spectrum, there are several European states with state religions such as the various Nordic Lutheran churches. Yet often these societies are strongly secular in practice.

Wallace argues that it is difficult to generalise about Europe, which has both republics and constitutional monarchies. But he notes that the secular state was born in France. “The turmoil of its birth has affected most European nations in a positive, secular sense. Their populations are also drifting away from religious affiliation while the churches remain legally entrenched and politically well-connected.

“For example, Germany and other nations still collect ‘church taxes’ from citizens on behalf of the churches. The removal of any mention of religion from the European Constitution was a major development but a rider favouring the Catholic Church was soon added. The relevant decisions of the European Court of Human Rights have been a mixed bag with some decisions favouring secularism and others religion.”

Viewed through this international perspective, Australia’s situation appears to be a typical instance of how Western democracies find it hard to resolve tensions between the law and public attitudes about religion.

Neither is the issue likely to go away. Wallace believes the major political parties “fawn” over the perceived religious vote. “Christian political parties can achieve enough votes in state and federal elections for their preferences to matter in tight contests in marginal electorates. They could determine which party may rule. Only the Secular Party and the Sex Party argue for separation of church and state.

“Nevertheless, Australia is quite secular socially with a significant, ongoing decline in religious affiliation. This lack of religiosity, counterbalances, to some extent, the influence of the churches and the Australian Christian Lobby. The historical process of secularisation, the decline of religious influence in a majority of citizens’ everyday lives, thanks largely to public education and materialistic styles of life, erodes religion slowly but surely in Australia, as elsewhere.”

Political parties do not necessarily use religion just to enlist specific constituencies. Maddox says the Howard government’s outsourcing of government welfare activities to church agencies and encouragement of religious schools was not simply an appeal to the largest number of voters. She believes the approach was more subtle.

“In Australia’s relatively non-religious political climate, such moves were not intended to appeal to a large religious right voter base; no such base exists. Instead, they bestowed an aura of religious and moral legitimacy upon policies whose effects — such as increasing social inequality, reducing women’s and other
workers’ rights, and brutal treatment of asylum-seekers –could otherwise seem merely self-interested,  cynical or racist.

“Although around eighty per cent of Australians seldom or never attend church, many responded not to specific theological ideas but to a general, nostalgic sense of religion as character building and conducive to social order. Many voters perceived these qualities as necessary not for themselves, but for other people.”

The parliamentary oath and parliamentary prayers

A favourite topic of those who argue for stronger secularism in Australia is parliamentary oaths and parliamentary prayers. Yet even amongst those who want to change current practices there are a range of views. Achieving an acceptable legal balance is not self evident.

Lyn Allison, former leader of the Australian Democrats wants any mention of religion removed. “Why should religion have anything to do with people making a public commitment?” she asks. “You could argue that this unreasonably forces people to publicly declare whether they are religious and Christian or not and that this is divisive. For consistency, I think we should oppose a role for religion in parliament and in pledges that have some legal or quasi legal status on the basis that religious observances should be private or conducted in places other than those that are associated with the state — parliament, legal institutions — because they should be secular.”

Rod Bower, a committee member of the Rationalist Society of Australia, argues for a “purely” secular oath, which he says serves as a reminder that the parliamentarian is making a serious commitment. “Plurality is invalid here – it would ultimately lead to silly things like a different oath for every religion, or someone wanting to swear on a packet of spaghetti. The only supposed value of adding a dose of religion to the oath is that, in theory, it frightens the swearer with a threat of divine retribution if they don’t do what they said they would. As I see it, if someone is a true believer they will know that the Divine is watching them whether they make a religious oath or not, but of course history has shown that threat is ineffective.”

Anthony Englund, a committee member of the RSA has a different emphasis. He says a religious oath is not a problem if someone considers that their religious belief system helps them to serve the public. “All I care about is whether or not that set of beliefs leads them to harm or restrict others. There are lots of religious people who in fact share pretty much the same views on secular issues as non-religious people.  “I also think that passing a law that someone can’t refer to something important to them is somehow going to stop them
from taking that thing into account when carrying out the job is a bit of stretch. You can’t stop people’s actions being driven by their beliefs (religious or otherwise). But we can, and should, stop those actions when they cause harm to or restrict others.”

Paul Tonson, a Uniting Church minister, favours a nonaligned approach. He says he would prefer that parliamentarians be invited to consider their privileges and obligations in a reflective moment prior to business. “I would hope that an agreed non-sectarian process be found through which this opportunity would be provided, but it need not be for every session of parliament. By the same token, I would be happy and glad to see the opening church service of a new parliament replaced by some kind of reflective gathering in which
expressions of obligation and commitment are publicly made.”

This article was published as the cover story in the Australian Rationalist, June 2013


All the more reason.