When can religion influence politics? (or why a Christmas public holiday is OK)

We have finished the year with worries about the border between religion and politics – the Fairfax feature, Charles Richardson’s warning that Rodney Smith is too sanguine about the influence of ‘fundamentalists’, and Ross Fitzgerald’s why-oh-why piece on the fate of ‘secular democracy’. Implicit in these critiques seems to be a quasi-constitutional belief that religion has no place in the public sphere.

Ross Fitzgerald, for example, seems to be particuarly upset about the millions spent on World Catholic Youth Day. But why is this different from the numerous sporting and other major events that get state sponsorship? As Chris Berg argued during the week, the benefits of these events are typically fictitious. But given politicians like sponsoring international events, are the Catholics illegitimate in a way the petrol-heads who descend on Melbourne for car racing are not?

Fitzgerald and Charles are both concerned about religious influence on Stephen Conroy’s internet filtering plans. But given that there are also mundane secular reasons for this policy – such as Conroy says enforcing the existing censorship rules – does the fact that the Australian Christian Lobby is backing Conroy make the policy worse (especially as ACL is appealing not to religious values, but to the not-terribly-controversial view that children should not see pornography).

There are good historical reasons why constitutions limit the role of religion in the state. Up to the modern period violent religious conflict frequently dominated political life, and ending the state as a spoil to be fought over was part of putting an end to this. In 19th century Australia, though efforts to ‘establish’ the Church of England failed, state and religion were intertwined with subsidies being paid directly to various churches, but this too inevitably caused sectarian disputes. Favouring one religion over another ended by the later part of the 19th century. The Commonwealth Constitution written in the 1890s included an anti-sectarian provision.

But non-sectarian religous influence continued in Australian politics. The most obvious examples are two explicitly religious public holidays, Christmas and Easter. Yet few people seem worried about these, despite increasing numbers of non-Christians living in Australia. If a policy can appeal widely it doesn’t seem to matter that religious people are particularly keen on it. That should be the general approach to these things. It rules out narrowly sectarian justifications, but also gives Christians and other believers a legitimate political voice.

39 thoughts on “When can religion influence politics? (or why a Christmas public holiday is OK)

  1. Surely the reason that papers run religion in politics is because the articles spark interest during periods when little happens.

    Most people are unconcerned. The likelihood of state religious persecution in Australia is slim.

    Given that state politicians like to sponsor events coming into their state why do you think that the Atheists Convention in Melbourne next year has no state sponsorship?


  2. They only like events that bring significant numbers of international tourists and foreign media coverage. However at one level this is surprising, since state governments do not directly get much financial return from tourism.

    There are calls to persecute the Exclusive Brethren and the Scientologists, and regular attempts to get at religion via funding for private schools and changes to anti-discrimination law.


  3. Networks that exist for worship and (in some cases) to do good works are too powerful to become quasi-political organisations. What possible counter-organisations exist to prevent a distortion of our political affairs?

    Sure, there is less perversion of religion by harnessing it for political purposes in Australia than there is in the US. But there is more in Australia now than there used to be, and we have a habit of following US tendencies even as we deride them.

    People are justly alarmed – people who practice rather than wield their faith and people who value liberal democracy (two groups that substantially overlap).


  4. It’s a division between science and fairy tails. To have any chance of being affective there needs to be some attempt to use evidence when developing public policy. Lets not pretend otherwise.


  5. Charles – However few issues turn on science versus fairy tales. Religious people are making moral claims on various issues, which science cannot settle.


  6. Public policy ought to be both (i) focused on serving the common or public good and (ii) based on reasons that are publicly accessible and reviewable. This is, of course, much easier to say than to achieve.
    But suppose a religious person stands up in public and says, e.g. “For the sake of everyone, the law should not allow individual citizens to use violence against others except where they can reasonably prove that it was necessary for their self-defence or to defend the innocent”. Is this to be dismissed merely because the person who says it happens to be religious?
    One of the ways to spot an anti-religious bigot is by their refusal to acknowledge some very simple and self-evident truths, e.g. that religious claims are not all of a piece. There are some propositions stated in religious creeds that only relate to the internal workings of the religious group itself, e.g. “Remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy”. But there are also others that relate to the public or common good and which can be justified with reasons independent of revelation and religious tradition, e.g. “Thou shalt not murder”.
    The people who rant in outrage when a religious person speaks to the public good (which, if you look at the record, I think is what you’ll find they usually do when they get involved in public policy debates) show they act in bad faith — their real motive is personal antagonism to religion, not fear of religion’s supposedly nasty effects.


  7. Not sure if you caught that movie Religilous recently but at one stage in it there’s a profile on a Creationist Theme Park in the USA. These Christians believe that humans camped out and tamed dinosaurs. They even had one display of a Stegasaurus with a saddle on it! This is modern day Christianity in America. These people believe in Virgin Births, the Shroud of Turin, nuns who cure cancer a hundred years after they die and weeping walls in a house in Haberfield. They also believe that porn makes people rape and kill so the internet should be filtered, that sex before marriage and sex outside of marriage should be punishable by jail terms and that there’s no need for an official inquiry when 600 church clergy are taken through the courts for child sex abuse. Is it any wonder that there are people saying ‘enough in enough’?


  8. I agree with Charles: too often it is science versus fairy tales fighting over public policy, but I don’t think banning environmentalists from public life is practical. Gaia-worship is just part of the mix, we are a bit stuck with that. Stuck with just arguing the various cases, like everyone else.


  9. “Andrew Norton
    January 1st, 2010 06:05

    Charles – However few issues turn on science versus fairy tales. Religious people are making moral claims on various issues, which science cannot settle.”

    True; but you don’t have to invoke a mythical beings or books written by tribes enjoying the stone age to argue for the “sanctity of life”, or that such an argument is trumped by the need for a child to have loving parents and a planet that is overpopulated.


  10. “True; but you don’t have to invoke a mythical beings or books written by tribes enjoying the stone age to argue for the “sanctity of life”

    I think you will find that such claims are rarely made in general debate – as in the ACL link in the post religious groups tend to use secular arguments. Their motivation is no doubt at least partly religious, but as for other groups in issue politics they make the arguments that require the smallest leap for the target audience (ie it is easier to convince people that kids should not see porn than to convince them that the Bible is true, that this truth has implications for the porn debate, etc etc).


  11. “as in the ACL link in the post religious groups tend to use secular arguments. ”

    And is that because it is accepted politics is no place for religious argument?

    The ACL ( whoever they are) press release shows a complete lack of technical knowledge; it would seem a belief in a mythical being (if the members actually do) doesn’t help much when it comes to understanding what a URL is and that blocking one may force the use of another, but hardly removes access to the material.


  12. “And is that because it is accepted politics is no place for religious argument?”

    From ACL’s perspective, it is more likely to be the reason I advanced in comment 11.

    I’ve only read a little of their site, but they seem to behave much like other lobby/advocacy groups.


  13. Given my my views on Conroy’s press release ( see 13) and what ACL appears to be, I think your question would be better phrased.

    Does endorsement by bunch of cranks that formed an association with the word “Christian” in the associations name add any validity to Conroy’s press release?

    If you take ACL and Conroy’s filter seriously then serious issue are raised that need to be debated.

    If Conroy’s efforts were a serious attempt to censor the internet then the need to keep the blocked URL’s secret would disappear ( knowing the old URL’s would not help those interested or curious find the material). If this was the case the issue of secret cencorship would be something I believe we all should take very seriously.

    We would then have competing ideas, the need for judicial oversight and the need to protect delicate minds from non delicate ideas (be they porn or politics).

    As the church has never really been a serious supporter of social democracy ( wealth should belong to the church, not the individual, we are owned by god) I think it would be easy to see which side of the debate the churches ( the power that ran the theocracies in period gone by, or presently depending on the country) would fall. If your not a reader of history just look at the surviving eastern theocracies.

    Should the church’s inputs and comments on such a debate be taken seriously. As our social systems got to where they are by overthrowing the power of the church, I suspect the answer is no.


  14. As the church has never really been a serious supporter of social democracy ( wealth should belong to the church, not the individual, we are owned by god)

    Not sure about this. Easy to read ‘wealth should belong to the state, not the individual, we are owned by government’. It seems to me the kind of social order that Charles condemns in theocracy is just as oppessive as social democracy.


  15. I’ve long put the view that arguments stand or fall on their merits, not on the identity, interests, or other beliefs of the person making them (though obviously it is sensible to give more time to people likely to make good arguments).

    And I agree with Sinc; the various church ‘social justice’ agencies seem to me to be an integral part of the lobby calling for further income and wealth distribution. My old CIS colleague Peter Saunders used to regularly do battle with them.


  16. “My old CIS colleague Peter Saunders used to regularly do battle with them.”

    Well after all, Jesus was a bit of a lefty.
    I think when debating this issue you have to separate those that believe in mythical beings but keep it to themselves when debating an issues, those that invoke ancient texts to bolster there arguments, those that associate with the names of great religions, and selectively quote their texts, to underpin their point of view ( I suspect a few Australian politicians and a few lobby groups fall into this group) and the church against which the merchant class has so long fought.


  17. Charles – The point I am making through these posts is really just whether invoking ancient texts is just another bad argument, or a special kind of bad argument that is worth the additional focus some religious groups seem to be getting. My view is that it belongs in the former category.


  18. “or a special kind of bad argument that is worth the additional focus some religious groups seem to be getting.”

    We have rules preventing the direct criticism of religious belief systems (having had a grandma try to strangle me for criticizing a football club I understand why). Perhaps along with such protection it is fair to have tarboos on how the belief systems flow into the public debate.


  19. (having had a grandma try to strangle me for criticizing a football club I understand why)

    Charles , you totally certain it was for that reason alone?


  20. Yes Charles… I’ve been to all the over populated places like Paris, London, Amsterdam, HK, Singapore, Beijing tokyo, Shanghai etc. and lived in slap bang in NYC for 15 years which is very “over populated” by your assertion.

    Funny thing about those places is that the people seem to be relatively wealthy so perhaps if correlation is causation you could argue that the more “overpopulated” the richer the place

    having answered your questions now please answer mine.


  21. JC

    I couldn’t see a yard stick you would use to claim the world was not overpopulated. Now I understand; wealth is your measure.

    I suspect you don’t believe in global warming, and it you do no doubt you don’t believe man is responsible. You probable don’t believe in peak oil, that we only have one planet and that resources are limited. You probable don’t believe the planet is currently runing an extinction rate that is now the 5th highest over geological times. If you did you probable don’t believe man is responsible; and if you believe man is responsible you probable don’t care.

    For all I know you may not believe in evolution, you may believe that god put us here a few thousand years ago and there is no need to consider long term consequences. In short I suspect we have totally different world views and there is no use debating the topic.

    I was however interested in what sort of world view would lead one to believe 7 billion people isn’t too many. Thanks for the insight.


  22. Speaking of Malthusians and the rejection of science, here is a great article that Stephen Kirchner recently linked to on his blog. It notes that even in 200 AD, some people thought that world was overpopulated when there were only 180 million people around.
    Here is my favourite passage:

    Never has there been a political movement that has got things so spectacularly wrong time and time again yet which keeps on rearing its ugly head and saying: ‘This time it’s definitely going to happen! This time overpopulation is definitely going to cause social and political breakdown!’ There is a reason Malthusians are always wrong. It isn’t because they’re stupid… well, it might be a little bit because they’re stupid. But more fundamentally it is because, while they present their views as fact-based and scientific, in reality they are driven by a deeply held misanthropy that continually overlooks mankind’s ability to overcome problems and create new worlds.


  23. Though surely through most of history – ie, before the scientific-industrial revolution – over-population was an issue, as evidenced by regular periods in which the available food sources were insufficient. Starvation and disease brought numbers back down to manageable levels.


  24. Charles:
    You still haven’t answered the question. Can you please, as i did yours.

    What evidence do you have of overpopulation?



  25. Charles :

    If this technology comes off…….here’s one example why you should rethink your Malthusian theories and why it would add further impetus that this country could hold a coupla hundred million people. yes, a couple of hundred.

    Technology can nearly solve all human problems and the way to unlock is is to endure capital is relatively abundant, cheap and accessible which means don’t hate your regular investment banker all that much as they are the dudes putting up the initial risk capital to finance these projects for commercial use.

    Company officials claim the Engineered Osmosis (EO) process can produce drinking water at less than half the cost of current desalination methods by eliminating the need the for high-pressures used in modern Reverse Osmosis systems, thereby cutting electricity and fuel demands by more than 90%.

    By November 2009 Oasys company officials were saying they would be producing fresh water for 1/10th of RO plant costs.

    Because it employs only waste heat and a small amount of electricity for pumping water (unlike with reverse osmosis, the water doesn’t have to be pressurized) Oasys says it can produce fresh water at one-tenth the cost of today’s reverse osmosis plants.

    This is a big story of true. A 90% cost reduction in producing fresh water from seawater is pretty damn big and essentially makes fresh water unlimited leaving current fresh water where it is.



  26. Jeremy

    That we will always find technological solutions to our problems, that population growth can go on for ever.

    We are destroying diversity, in the end we will suffer the fate of any monoculture system.


  27. Perhaps one reason that arguments based on religious authority are viewed as particularly unwelcome in the political arena is that they are often not arguments that admit debate or discussion.

    Even when the arguments between conservatives, liberals, socialists and so forth become rancorous, there is still the underlying acknowledgement that we are all Enlightenment philosophers, with a logical underpinning to our various beliefs. This means that the debate can go somewhere – we might successfully convince our opponent of the folly of his reasoning, or perhaps he will change our mind instead.

    When the argument is made based on recieved authority from a higher power, then there is little such hope. The more daring among us may attempt to take the argument to the realms of theology, attempting to convince the religious with religious counter-arguments; but most of us will be naturally suspicious of taking this path. If one makes a religious argument that simply appeals to God for its correctness, one is not really engaging with the political debate on the same terms as the other players.


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