Home » Columns

Whatever happened to secular democracy?

28 December 2009 8,834 views 6 Comments

WITH the rise of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott federally and Kristina Keneally in NSW, religion is re-encroaching on politics.

The biggest influence is in NSW. When Catholic World Youth Day descended on that state in July last year, many taxpayers resented being forced to pay $20 million in security charges for the event and $40m for the use of Randwick racecourse. The reason that atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Anglicans and even a few Catholics were being forced to go along with this was essentially because then premier Morris Iemma and many of his fellow committed Catholics in the NSW ALP Right were born into that religion. They didn’t want a confrontation with Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell over a cheaper location.

The idea that NSW taxpayers could be forced to fund a Scientology convention or a Rastafarian smoke-in would be laughable. But they’re both bona fide religions in their own right and meet roughly the same criteria as Christianity and Islam for all the lurks and perks.

Why was there little organised opposition, then, to this unpopular rort? The main reason was that there was no significant dissent from within the parliament.

On the opposition side, a man who reputedly is influential in the NSW Liberal preselection processes, upper house MP David Clarke, is very strong in some of his Catholic views. Two other devout Christians, Fred Nile and Gordon Moyes, happened to sit on the all-important cross-benches in the upper house, with the result that the propriety of handing $60m in NSW taxpayers’ money to support an already wealthy religion could have been better examined.

More recently, Clarke and Nile were guest speakers at last month’s Australia’s Future and Global Jihad conference in Sydney, alongside Danny Nalliah from the Catch the Fire Ministries. Other attendees were Peter and Jenny Stokes from the fundamentalist Christian morals group Salt Shakers Inc and Emmanuel Michael from the Assyrian Federation of Australia. Why would one of the Liberal Party’s top policy-makers be at such a conference, which was backing the notion that our Christian heritage was under attack from evil forces? And what about Kevin Rudd’s attendance at the Australian Christian Lobby’s annual general meeting last month?

The secular Nathan Rees’s elevation to the premiership in NSW afforded a glimmer of hope that the state’s politics would not be dominated by conservative Christian ethics.

But those hopes were dashed by the recent ascendancy of another devout Catholic to the top job in NSW. Sporting a strange mix of American accent and fashion chic, Kristina Keneally boasts a BA in political science and religion and a masters degree in feminist theology from Ohio. She met her Young Labor husband at Catholic World Youth Day in Poland in 1991, which says much about her leanings.

The election of Christian hard-liners to positions of power and influence in NSW doesn’t stop at Macquarie Street. NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione is a devout Baptist who worships at the influential Hillsong Church. He is responsible for the first official police Bible, bound in police blue with an official NSW Police crest on the cover. On Scipione’s watch, all new NSW police graduates from the Goulburn Academy are routinely offered one of these special Bibles.

While Scipione is doing good work in trying to curtail alcohol-based violence, he has made no secret of the fact he brings his Christian faith into his policing work. Out at Hillsong that means treating homosexuality as a disease to be cured rather than an identity to be lived. But is it a fair whack that taxpayers are funding police Bibles? Will they also produce a Koran with a NSW Police logo for Muslim officers? With 38 per cent of our federal politicians being members of the devout Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, and a half-dozen well-known journalists in the press gallery claiming Jesus as their saviour, the non-believers, infidels, atheists, secularists and our many slightly spiritual but anti-organised religion citizens need to be delivered from this anti-intellectualism.

The final word on the Christianisation of Australian politics surely comes from the head of the Australian Christian Lobby, former SAS officer Jim Wallace. Unlike some stakeholders, Wallace has publicly claimed to have had regular contact with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy – Catholic – as Conroy developed his unpopular model for filtering our internet.

Last month Wallace sent out a media release urging other parties to preference the Australian Sex Party last in the Bradfield and Higgins by-elections, as they had done with One Nation.

The Sex Party came third in Bradfield and a close fourth in Higgins.

Wallace needs to take a cold shower. That there is now an Australian political party prepared to challenge the pious claptrap that dominates most of the other parties is refreshing.

The Newspoll survey published last month showed that 32 per cent of NSW voters thought there was too much religion in politics.

With the orchestrated rise of Keneally and Tony Abbott, that figure may have risen.


  • Bill O'Connell said:


    A tale. Fred Nile turned up at the famous ALP National Conference in Terrigal in 1975 with a ute load of porn mags. He pushed this material under the doors of delegates with a note demanding it be banned. The following day, John Button moved a motion unanimously carried censuring Nile for “distributing unsolicited pornography”. I maintain to this day humour is the best way of dealing with these people, although I admit to failure on this front. Try as I might, I cannot talk two friends, chain and leather clad bike dykes, into a harmless frolic. That is to rush up behind a silk frocked and capped Pell, all jewels and crosses, and link arms with him. The picture! The picture! Mind, I wouldn’t suggest the same with Scipione. Too many guns. Or Wallace. Trained to kill.

    Bill O’Connell

  • Roy Stannard said:

    I would like to congratulate you on your well argued article ‘Whatever happened to secular democracy?’ in The Australian. Well might you and others of the same opinion like myself ask. It seems to be a sad consequence of Islamic jihadism that Christianity is being brought forward as the defender of Western values. Well the old saying, ‘With friends like that ….. ‘ immediately comes to mind.
    As you undoubtedly know, secular democracy in the modern world grew out the Enlightenment and its commitment to rationality and freedom. These concepts which form the basis of an equalitarian and tolerant society have never been fully accepted (if accepted at all) by many Christians, let alone the Islamists.

    In my opinion for what it’s worth, the current confrontations between the jihadists and the West are no more than the most recent skirmish in a conflict that goes back to the Greeks. While religionists of whatever persuasion remain committed variously to virgin birth, burning bushes, virgins in paradise, angels and all the other irrational and incoherent paraphernalia, they will always be opposed in one way or another to the ideals of the Enlightenment, and in turn, to secular democracy.

  • John Brown said:

    There are many many issues raised here – many more than one should expect in a secular and democratic society.

    The issue of separation of church and state is often raised, however this is rarely backed up with anything tangible or very often they are emotive arguments.

    However, when one looks at the existence of the Decree Crimen Sollicitations we have Canon law of the church defining law for Catholics on a secular matter. Solicitation and sexual abuse are crimes dealt with by our legal and policing systems. What right does the catholic church have to pass decrees and laws in regards matters which are civil matters; matters which rightfully belong in our courts and our legal system.

    The Church may have the right to deal with religious matters in this regard however it is in breach of our constitution when it has and when it applies its own laws to matters which are matters of the state.

    Religions are permitted to operate in our country provided they are in compliance with our laws. The Decree Crimen is clearly in breach of that requirement.

    The sexual abuse of children is a matter for the state and the country, however the Prime Minister when asked in this regard responded by saying that this was a matter for the catholic church. He went on further to say that he did not stand outside the church and dictate to them as to how they should act. To those of us who have experienced the abuse of the church and the failure of our state system to provide justice and compensation to victims and to see their perpetrators receives the same sentences as other sexual abusers rather than the favored treatments we have seen so often.

    The Church is very clearly making and implementing laws which pertain to criminal matters which are in the realm of state responsibility. The Prime Minister has taken a sworn oath to uphold Australian law before all else yet here he is clearly putting the responsibility for criminal matters in to the hands of the religious.

    Which news reporter will ask the prime Minister if he still holds with those views and how that sits with his oath of office. Perhaps they could also ask him if he see this in any way as trading in the lives of victims and their right to equal representation by the prime Minister of Australia.



  • Zac said:

    Roy Stannard,

    There is no such thing as “secular democracy” in the first place. To start off you should define “secular democracy”. And before you start quoting those Atheistic invention – “separation of Church and state” – I would like you to post some evidence which says it is part of Western/Australian law. By the way the editor of “The Australian” explains “secular democracy” as explicitly as possible. Quote ” Yet it (World Youth Day – WYD) is resisted by many who seek a radical change in the status quo. They represent an aggressive “new secularism”, a philosophy much discussed by Benedict, that aspires to deny religion by shrinking it to a strictly private affair. In terms of governance, such advocates want not a traditional secular state to enshrine religious freedom, but the creation of atheism as the de facto established religion to drive real religion from the public domain.

    <blockquote cite= "This constitutes one of the most radical and intolerant projects in Australian political history."

    Source: The test of Spirit, The Australian

    While you say quote "secular democracy in the modern world grew out the Enlightenment and its commitment to rationality and freedom. These concepts which form the basis of an equalitarian and tolerant society have never been fully accepted (if accepted at all) by many Christians," unquote. History tells me that premise is absolutely wrong. But for the sake of argument let me go with your premise. If the basis of enlightenment, rationality and freedon is secular democracy, well, seems to me it is not (check out the back ups below) working with the secularists around the world. Then the question is how would you expect your secular utopia to work with Christians?

    Here is some case studies for you…

    Case study 1 – “As an Atheist I find many fellow Atheists very bigoted. Although I don’t believe in God, I don’t use that as an excuse to bash Christians for their beleifs as many do. I have never heard a Christian say ban Atheism unlike many Atheists wanting to ban religion. Learn to accept differing opinions.”

    Comment Posted by: Another Atheist of Brissy 06:33pm Thursday 26th June

    Source: Gold Coast boy charged for wearing obscene t-shirt, thegoldcoast.com.au

    Case Study 2 – Turkish authorities have detained at least 21 hardline nationalists, including two prominent retired generals, in a widening police investigation into a suspected coup plot.

    Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the detentions were linked to the investigation into

    Ref: Turkey rounds up secularists over coup claim, The Australian

  • John Craig said:

    As I suggested (eg on 20/4/09) in response to your earlier expressed concerns, there is a great deal of merit in keeping religion out of Australia’s political system (see Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics ).

    However your recent article seemed to criticise various politicians specifically on the basis of their Christian faith or values (while implying that those who did not express Christian faith or values were in some way superior). This did not contribute to your claimed goal of promoting secular democracy.

    Rather than criticising particular beliefs or those who hold them, it would be more helpful to criticise claims that public policy should be based on religious principles.
    Why? Reliance on religious principles will tend to be inappropriate because public policies often apply to systems that are too complex and rapidly changing to be defined simply in terms of unchanging principles that are meant to guide individual behaviour. For example, charity is an individual virtue, but the risk of welfare dependency makes the issue more complex issue for governments. Similarly, engagement with political power means that simple-minded idealists acting in accord with their religious principles can inadvertently generate counter-productive outcomes (see Comments on Reform Failure ).

    Likewise claims that churches should be involved in politics are also inappropriate (eg consider Mr Rudd’s ‘Faith in Politics’ article, and organised political lobbying from particular religious perspectives). The risk is that complex policy questions may be over-simplistically treated as merely matters of morality.
    Individual politicians should not be criticised because of their (eg Christian) religious beliefs. Even if you do not subscribe to their faith or values, the foundation of Australia’s liberal legal and government system seems to be acceptance of Christian teaching by a substantial segment of the community (see Familiarity with the Bible: Churches’ not State Responsibility). Thus, though you may wish that it were not so, it is inevitable that there will be Christians is political offices in Australia.

    Moreover given the religious dimension of the political agendas of Islamist extremists, it is highly desirable that some questions about the consequences of religion be the subject of political debate, because:
    there is good reason to believe that the broader world-views which have been elaborated around the religion of Islam are responsible for the political and economic failures of Muslim dominated countries in recent centuries – failures which extremists ascribe to external oppression as the rationale for their violance against those they see as ‘oppressors’ (see Discouraging Pointless Extremism and About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science ); and
    the Western world’s failure to analyse or debate such issues – and the US’s preference (which Australia has unthinkly followed) for trying to defeat ignorance on the battlefield – has been a decidedly inadequate way of responing to the threat posed by Islamist extremism.

    John Craig, Centre for Policy and Development Systems

  • Geoff Hinds said:

    EVEN though I am commenting on an article in The Australian I hope you will consider publishing my letter as it is a really hot theme for our day.

    As an open-minded “evangelical Christian”, I have a lot of sympathy with the complaint by Ross Fitzgerald (The Australian, 28/12/09) that religion is making too much inroad into Australian politics and society.

    Let me try and explain my understanding of the phrase “evangelical Christian”.

    I believe in Jesus Christ, not only as the Son of God, but, note, The Word of God (not the Bible – we judge the Bible by Jesus, not Jesus by the Bible).

    However, the Bible does contain the Word of God, as does life’s experiences.

    I believe in personal salvation where we accept the reality of evil, and that Christ died for our sins, and God raised him from the dead, as a guarantee of life after death to all who believe.

    I believe that God is a relationship to be enjoyed, not an endless argument that only concentrates on the head, and ignores the heart.

    However, like the late Ted Noffs, I am a rebel within the Church.

    I strongly resent the hidden but accepted view of many of the names mentioned in the article by Ross Fitzgerald, that, as an evangelical, I should automatically support right-wing politics.

    The big mistake they make is that they believe they can somehow force their morality on everyone else, and influencing politics is the way to do it.

    However, their morality views are so narrow, and they have not caught up with the movement in America, where Christian leaders like Jim Wallis and Rick Warren have broadened the agenda, hence the election of Barack Obama – at least Kevin Rudd has a good grasp of what Wallis and Warren are all about – the “social Gospel”.

    I reject right-wing politics, as an evangelical Christian, because I believe it encourages greed, selfishness and the gross imbalance of the economic system we live under.

    This does not mean those on the left are any better – the history of Communist governments shows otherwise.

    Somewhere, there in the middle, as Mal-colm Turnbull was showing us, is a way forward that will lead us closer to what could be called “God’s good Government” (Jesus called it the Kingdom of God).

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.