It is an often-heard claim, expressed in newspaper articles, academia, and on-line public forums, that religion is being banished from the public square. The allegation is that:
- the intrusion of religious opinions in a public forum, however that may occur, is now considered by many to be inappropriate, and this is a form of censorship;
- the widespread notion that politicians' private religious convictions should not be expressed publicly is a form of self-censorship by them that denies citizens access to their true motives
so that much political debate where religion has a perspective is therefore unfairly defined out of existence.
Result: religion is being unfairly banished from the public square and we would all benefit if religion got a fair shake.
You can see why they would think that.
In many ways, religion, Christianity in particular, is front and centre in Australian public life.
Australia is a constitutional monarchy with the head of state, the Queen, also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. She in turn answers to her Christian God. God is mentioned in the preamble to the constitution. All parliaments bar one (ACT) open with Christian prayers. The Australian flag has three Christian crosses in the union jack corner. The Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, partly funded by the government, is symbolically just down the road from the federal parliament. Australia's secular national anthem regularly includes contrived Christian verses sung in private religious schools, against protocol, and there is no sanction. Federal government gives at least $5.3B annually to private, religious schools. State funerals are always held in cathedrals. The legal year starts with a procession of judges into a church with its accompanying quest for God's influence on judicial decision-making.
Religious organisations have also received approximately $700M of public funding to employ mainly evangelical chaplains in mainly public schools. These chaplains are paid approximately $20,000 per annum to help 'counsel' children, but of course, not religiously. Secular counselors arebarredfrom being employed.
At its core, I suggest, the public square argument, which is in truth exaggerated, is really a contest between those who would elevate religious belief above government (theocrats) and those who believe government should not be beholden to any one particular view and govern fairly for all (secularists).
When laws are introduced, or suggested, to create equality between religious and non-religious citizens, such as gay marriage, they cry 'discrimination' against their belief as if their God's law trumps civil law in our democracy. They have this one-eyed, committed sense of religious entitlement.
As theocrats, many public square theorists tend to extract their data from their starting point which is that everything in the western world including government, law and democracy derives from Christianity. They believe that is self-evident. That is why they are theocrats.
Forget the origins of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Forget Athens and the Greek philosophers. Forget the Enlightenment. Forget other civilizations' contributions. No, it's all about them.
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Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.