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Australia's foundations were definitely and deliberately not Christian

By Helen Irving - posted Wednesday, 9 June 2004

Does Australia have an official religion? You could be forgiven for thinking so, if recent statements by senior members of government are anything to go by. In the words of Treasurer, Peter Costello at the recent National Day of Thanksgiving Commemoration, the Ten Commandments "are the foundation of our law and our society". Not only our law, but our moral standards and values derive, Costello said, from the "Judeo-Christian tradition" or more specifically (as the rest of his speech made clear) from Australia's "historic Christian faith". Prime Minister Howard has similarly claimed that "we are predominantly a society instructed by the Judeo-Christian ethic". And according to our Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffrey, Australia has a "Christian heritage" and "faith in God has been an important establishing and unifying principle for our nation". But it isn't only words that might suggest a link between church and state in this country. When the Governor-General made this statement, it was as host of the launch of the National Day of Thanksgiving at his official residence, Government House, on 29 May.

An initiative of church organisations and the Australian Prayer Network, this so-called "National Day" has received not only the Vice-Regal imprimatur but also the Prime Minister's public endorsement, as well that of members of parliament. Indeed, its creation was confirmed at a meeting in Parliament House itself. While all involved claim to welcome other religions, it is abundantly clear that a specifically Christian message is intended. Our highest values, it is asserted, are rooted in the Christian faith. The "moral decay" in our society (evidenced by drug taking, divorce and violent music), said Costello, can only be resisted by those who adhere to the faith.

Such claims are not only offensive to the many decent and honourable Australians who are either non-religious or follow another faith. More significantly, they distort our history and disturb our carefully-wrought constitutional settlement. Australia has a 'secular heritage'. Throughout the nineteenth century, colonial governments took pains not to encourage sectarianism and refused to give official recognition to one church over others. State schools were required to be secular. Unlike in England, there was no established church.


This policy was reflected nationally in the Commonwealth Constitution. The Constitution' framers faced two questions head-on: was Australia a nation with a particular religious character? Should the Constitution recognise this? They answered no to both. During debate, much concern was expressed about the potential for religious intolerance, even official support for religious persecution. Governments, framers said, should not inquire into the beliefs of individuals. In the words of future first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, the "whole mode of government, the whole province of the State, is secular … and there is no justification for inserting into your secular documents of State provisions or expressions which refer to matters best dealt with by the churches". Finally, in response to a flood of petitions from church organisations, praying for references both to God and to Christian practice to be included in the Constitution, they added eight words to its hitherto-secular Preamble: Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God.  But in doing so, the framers made it abundantly clear that the formula was intended to be "universal, and not necessarily applicable only to Christians".

Even then, they were worried that the words might be mistaken for an endorsement of a national religion. So they added section 116 to the Constitution expressly prohibiting the Commonwealth from establishing a religion, requiring or prohibiting religious practice, or imposing any religious test for public office. Not only did it depart from English practice, it went even further than the First Amendment in the United States Constitution, which only forbids laws establishing a religion or prohibiting free religious practice. Departing again from English precedent, they also gave incoming Australian parliamentarians the constitutional alternative of either a religious oath or a secular affirmation.

Certainly, a majority of Australians still identify as Christians. Members of Parliament are entitled to do so like anyone else but, as section 116 makes clear, religion is not the business of Australia's government. Costello also commented that governments should "never get into religious endeavours". Why, then, does his speech appear on the Treasurer's website? Why are government members hosting and endorsing religious organisations? Why was there a special advance screening of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ for members and their staff, in Parliament House in February? When senior leaders claim that moral standards are grounded in a particular religion, and admonish those who fail the test of faith, they are crossing the line that carefully separates church and state in Australia. They are intruding into the consciences of individuals, as officials in theocratic nations do. This is not the "Australian heritage". 

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 3 June 2004.

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About the Author

Dr Helen Irving teaches in the Faculty of Law at Sydney University. She is a contributor to Trusting the People: An Elected President for an Australian Republic, edited by Senator Andrew Murray (available July 2001 from the Senator's office).

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