The Fairfax broadsheets this morning report on research by Anna Crabb (published in the Australian Journal of Political Science) showing that over the years 2000 to 2006 Australian politicians increasingly made reference to Christian themes, as measured by use of the terms Christ, church, faith, pray, Jesus, Bible, spiritual, God, and religion. In 2000, 9% of speeches by prominent federal politicians mentioned one of these terms, rising steadily to a peak of 24% in 2005, before dropping back down to 22% in 2006.
The empirical work is interesting, though it is difficult to sort out to what extent this represents shifting norms in political speech (as against a claimed norm of keeping religion and politics separate), and to what extent the issues of this time period gave greater cause to mention religion.
Clearly, the rise of any terrorist movement intent on mass murder would have been mentioned regularly by politicians, and that Islamist movements killed in the name of a religion gave religion in general a salience it would not otherwise have had. Indeed, were it not for terrorism-related mentions there would have been no clear trend in religious mentions over 2000-2003.
Though Crabb does not precisely quantify it, many other references came from debates about cloning, use of embyros in research, and the abortion drug RU486. These are legitimate secular matters of concern, but once they are on the political agenda these basic issues of life and death will inevitably attract comment that draws on religious beliefs without there being any change in underlying norms about when religious considerations are appropriate.
As with much academic work (this is a former Honours thesis), things go most awry when the square pegs of empirical research come to be pushed into the round holes of theory. I very much doubt that many politicians have even heard of a ‘Rawlsian liberal consensus’, requiring arguments to defensible by reason rather than particular religious doctrines, much less decided to weaken adherence to it.
Out of the violent religious conflicts of Europe’s past, a sensible compromise slowly developed – the state would tolerate multiple religions, and religions would not try to control the state. All were better off. This compromise largely worked even where, as in some European countries, there was still an ‘established’ church (largely as a formality or technicality) and political parties with ‘Christian’ in their titles.
This was never intended as (in Crabb’s phrase) ‘the separation of religion and politics’. It’s quite possible to invoke religious considerations on a particular issue without risking the harms that separation of church and state was designed to prevent. In religiously diverse democratic societies, the main reason religious arguments won’t be used that often by politicians is that they won’t be persuasive to people of other faiths or non-believers. If religious arguments are made, they deserve to be categorised as just another bad argument, rather than a special type of bad argument with the potential for broader harm.
When Crabb lists examples of ‘privileging’ Christian views – handouts to the Catholic World Youth Day, the school chaplains program, and excluding pro-abortion groups from government telephone pregnancy counselling service – we can easily agree with her that these represent poor policy, but if that’s all the harm we get from a more than doubling of religious mentions we are getting off very lightly.
Religion still has a special place in the lives of many Australians, including some politicians. It’s hard to see how them mentioning this in political contexts has risks that require a norm against any intermingling of religious and political arguments.