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God and the Democrats

By Ted Witham - posted Tuesday, 5 September 2006

The Australian Democrats are campaigning to get God out of government. They are keen to ensure the propriety of the relationship between church and state.

As a Christian whose politics lean to the left, I support the idea of examining how the churches participate in the political process. I share the Democrats’ concern about the particular case of a committed Catholic health minister dismissing stem cell research.

The relationships between churches and the government have changed since the legislature of the 1890s set up secular schools and a secular Commonwealth. A hundred years later, a fresh look is needed. The Democrats, however, are push-polling through a questionnaire on their website. Some of the questions are designed to yield pre-determined answers and others reflect ignorance or are calculated to misinform.


I want to cross swords with the Democrats on two issues:

  1. the provision of Religious Education (RE) in government schools; and
  2. the funding of chaplains in government schools.

RE or not RE?

The Democrats’ questionnaire asks you whether you prefer visiting RE classes to continue, or not. This is disingenuous. The opposite of church-based RE is not its absence. The legislation setting up our secular schools linked the religious education provided by visiting RE teachers to the “general” religious instruction provided for the school by its regular teachers. The nexus between the two is explicit. Change one and you affect the other.

In most government schools today, the critical teaching of “world religions” is taught poorly, if at all. Teachers are simply not well prepared in this area which is reduced to a side issue in Studies of Society and English. The kernel of the problem may be not the visiting RE teachers, but the lack of good teaching about all religions within the normal school program.

In this world made fearful by religious extremists, high-quality teaching about religion helps make students more discerning of religious claims, including those made by their visiting RE teachers. The linkage our early legislators made between special Christian and general religious instruction is genuine wisdom.

State school chaplains

The Democrats show that they have neither the knowledge nor the sophistication to handle the debate about government school chaplains.


Australian churchgoers will be surprised to hear chaplaincies described as “taxpayer-funded” given their own exertions to raise funds for the local chaplains.

The churches conceive of chaplaincy in state schools as a service the churches offer to the school community. This gift has been so welcomed by school communities that schools are willing to expand the chaplaincy service from their own budgets, and Governments and business also choose to underwrite it. While state governments may increase their funding even further in order to exert greater control over chaplaincy, church people would be alarmed if the balance of funding shifted to the point where the government had the majority say.

Government control over chaplaincy would rinse chaplaincy clean of all its value. Chaplaincy has been welcomed because it meets a strong need for “spiritual care” within school communities.

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About the Author

Ted Witham is the Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Religious Education (Inc.). He was Executive Director of The Churches’ Commission on Education in WA, and an on-call consultant to the Curriculum Council of WA (Religion and Life curriculum). You can read his blog Mind Journeys here.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Ted Witham
Related Links
Chaplaincy in Queensland
Chaplaincy in Victoria
Chaplaincy in WA
Visiting (Christian) RE in Victoria
Visiting (Special) RE in WA

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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