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Parliament is not a church

By Meg Wallace - posted Wednesday, 16 January 2008

In 2006 Kevin Rudd expressed his views on the relationship between religion and the state. He spoke at a conference held in honour of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for his anti-Nazi activities.

Bonhoeffer was a brave and intelligent man. He was a minister of religion, and a member of the German resistance, who was part of a bid to assassinate Hitler. He was captured and executed. Truly a man to be admired.

Rudd’s speech was published as an article in The Monthly and expanded on these views in an interview with Stephen Crittenden on the ABC’s Religion Report. Rudd declared that Bonhoeffer is the man he admires most of the 20th century.


However, it is proposed here that as the political leader of a nation where there is a wide diversity of beliefs, both religious and secular, Prime Minister Rudd would do better by seeking political (rather than personal moral) guidance, in the views of a political theorist, not a theologian.

Such a theorist is John Rawls, widely acclaimed political philosopher, who was concerned to ensure those of all beliefs, not just Christian beliefs, enjoy equal opportunity for self-fulfilment, both material and immaterial. All citizens would have a say in government, but Rawls was aware of the need to ensure that no ideology, religious or otherwise, would be used to influence unduly policy and legislation.

Rawls was concerned with developing a model for a liberal democratic society that provides for justice and fairness, for all members. He began by considering how we would determine such a society by developing what he called a theory of justice.

He realised that those determining the principles that should underlie such a society would naturally want to bring to the task their personal perspectives and interests such as their religious or other beliefs, their gender, ethnicity and culture. They would tend to favour a society that best served these interests. To ensure this did not happen, he concluded, such people would have to work from behind a “veil of ignorance”. Their task would involve determining a society that is just and fair for all, regardless the above specific characteristics. Religious beliefs as such, then, would not determine the principles of a just society.

Under these circumstances, practical reason would lead our architects of society to require the best basic standard of fairness, equality and treating others as one would want to be treated: standards that all could accept. The principles of justice would form what Rawls went on to call “public reason”: reasoning for the structure of government and human rights upon which all citizens could agree. Public reason would be affirmed through a democratic process that fairly includes all individuals and underlies public policy. It would thus be “freestanding” of personal philosophical, religious and moral doctrines (“comprehensive doctrines”).

While those participating in the functions of government may be guided by their personal convictions, public reason requires that public policy, legislation and judicial decision-making is justified from principles of public reason, not comprehensive doctrines (although the two may well be compatible).


Meantime, individuals can adopt their chosen comprehensive doctrines and exercise these in accordance with the accepted public reason (that is, in a nutshell, limited only if they adversely affect the rights of others to do the same).

This model, Rawls argues, provides a means for a peaceful, tolerant and durable liberal democracy, with true freedom of belief for all. The price for this freedom and durability is reciprocal recognition of the rights of others, based on an “overlapping consensus” regarding the principles of liberal democracy.

The many nations that have subscribed to the international human rights instruments (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; International Covenant on Civil and Political Right and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights: Australia is signatory of all three) have, in effect, adopted a form of public reason by accepting basic internationally recognised human rights.

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About the Author

Meg Wallace is the President of the Rationalist Society of NSW. She is a lawyer and former academic.

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