This review appeared in Policy magazine in Spring 2010.
In many Western countries, marriage is a subject of passionate political contention. Gay marriage triggers controversy wherever it is proposed. Conservatives suggest ‘covenant’ marriages with stricter obligations than imposed under current marriage law. Religions and cultures that permit men to take multiple wives challenge monogamous marriage. Participants in these debates disagree on much but concur on one thing: the state should decide what marriage means.
Tamara Metz questions this assumption. In her book Untying the Knot: Marriage, the State, and the Case for Their Divorceshe argues that a liberal state should not determine which relationships count as marriages. Disputes over how to define marriage show that there is no consensus on its meaning. The state should see marriage in the same way it sees religion, another subject on which agreement seems impossible, as a private matter in which governments should not interfere. There are other ways of promoting long-term relationships and protecting the parties to them.
Liberal thinkers on marriage
Core liberal ideas suggest that marriage and state should be separate, but, historically, leading liberal thinkers have not called for their separation. Metz shows that while John Locke—a leading liberal figure on the separation of church and state — and John Stuart Mill both applied liberal principles to marriage, neither saw a clear dividing line between marriage and the state. Both assumed that marriage, unlike religion, would be ‘established’ — an institution officially recognised and regulated by the state.
Liberalism is a philosophy of individual freedom, but liberals disagree on what counts as a threat to freedom. Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom explores how liberal thinkers see non-state groups as both sources of and dangers to individual freedom. It traces this tension back through centuries of European and American intellectual history. The issues change but the tensions persist, especially around sensitive matters of personal identity and rights.
Contemporary controversies around non-state groups often involve religious or cultural minorities with views that part from modern norms on women, children and sexuality. In Australia, many religious organisations, for example, oppose gay marriage and fear being forced to conduct gay weddings. But it is not just traditional groups that trigger disputes. A few years ago, a Melbourne gay bar attracted widespread criticism for refusing entry to women and straight men. Different thinkers in the liberal tradition could come down on either side of these debates.
(A shorter version of this review, omitting discussion of how the American experience influenced Australian politics to the mid-19th century, is cross-posted at Goodreads.)
This book is the first in David Kemp’s five-volume history of liberalism in Australia. The series, three volumes out to date, will cover 1788 to 2019. This first book takes us from European settlement in 1788 to 1860, when the colonies had achieved a substantial level of democratic self-government. It is principally a political history with special reference to liberalism; it focuses on major players and their involvement in big debates and events, not on the philosophical views of long-forgotten writers and activists.
To disclose my biases, I have known David Kemp for decades, including working for and with him, and share his interest in and concern for the Australian liberal tradition, with its ups and downs over 200 or so years in Australia. Some years ago I read a manuscript that turned into the first two volumes of this series.
In 1788, when British settlers arrived in the place that became Sydney, there was not yet such a thing as liberalism. The period covered by this first volume is the early decades of both Australia (that name is post-1788 too, but for convenience I’ll use it for the colonies collectively) and liberalism.
Although 1788 was before liberalism, many of the institutions and ideas that were later joined under the label ‘liberal’ were forming. Liberalism came in part from the creative linking between and expansion of existing ideas, institutions and issues.
Yesterday’s Essential Research poll asked about the fastest growing religion between 1996 and 2006. I would have guessed Buddhism, most people thought Islam, but Essential says the correct answer is Hinduism. Actually I think I am right – Hinduism grew more quickly than Buddhism in percentage terms, but Buddhism grew more in absolute terms.
Questions in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009 show that Buddhists are the second most popular religious group in the country, after Christians. Consistent with comments on today’s thread, not many people have negative views of Hindu people, with the largest number having neither positive nor negative views. Predictably, Muslims are the least popular group.
As is often the case with soft opinion, polling methods rather than opinion shifts probably explain the difference. Essential does its surveys online, so people can see the ‘Don’t know’ option and easily choose it, while with telephone polls there is a stronger pressure to give an answer. When pressed, it seems people tend to go to negative on this issue.
A persistent line of social criticism argues that status competition is wasteful when people pay a premium for something that is not functionally superior but confers greater social status. Gittins uses the example of a a BMW versus a ‘perfectly satisfactory’ Toyota.
The public school lobby endlessly obsesses over a fairly small number of genuinely high-status schools – Sydney Grammar, MLC, Scotch, Ascham etc. Perhaps trying to get your kid into one of these is ‘status competition’ – though it could be just ensuring your kids get the same high standard of facilities at school that they get at home. Ross has a history of being over-confident in inferring motives from behaviour. Continue reading “Schools and status competition”→
It’s full of useful statistics on enrolments over time and surveys the literature and arguments surrounding religious schools, many of which have also been discussed over the years at this blog (I was originally going to be a co-author of this one, but could never make the time).
It finds the evidence against religious schools on sectarianism, intolerance etc to be lacking. This is my reading of the Australian evidence too.
However, while private schools definitely out-perform non-selective government schools on academic performance even after controlling for family characteristics, we can’t yet confidently make such a claim on the religious/values questions that influence some parents in sending their kids to religious schools.
We are not even sure whether religious schools make their students more religious in the long term – the limited and dated evidence suggests not, after controlling for the fact that religious families are more likely to send their kids to religious schools. I am one of the many atheist products of Christian schooling (not that the school influenced this either way).
One curious feature of Australian school education is that it has a very large private sector, but few non-government schools are secular. The Independent Schools Association says that 84% of independent schools have a religious affiliation, but this overstates the size of the entirely secular non-government system open to parents wanting a ‘mainstream’ private education.
About half the schools in the no religious affiliation group are Steiner or Montessori schools. Take out ‘special schools, international schools, Indigenous schools’ – descriptions of the content of the ‘other’ category – and it looks like government schools have the general secular market almost to themselves. My analysis of census figures shows that only just over 10% of children whose parents say they are atheists, agnostics or have no religion are attending non-government schools, less than a third of the general rate of private school attendance. Continue reading “Why are there so few secular private schools?”→
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?
Their Nielsen poll had however been scooped by Pollytics blog, which reported during the week that most Australians think that religion and politics should be separate
Even among religious believers, 80% agree with the proposition that religion and politics should be separate. But religion appeared more popular when the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asked about whether politicians should follow Christian values in making decisions. Even among those with no religion, 10% thought politicians should follow Christian values, along with nearly 40% of people with a religion. Continue reading “The public’s view of religion and politics”→