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.