Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Friday, 31 October 2008

The Lord's Prayer and the Australian Parliament - hints about the changing ways Australians think

In a post on my personal blog, In defence of the Lord's Prayer in the Australian Parliament, I mounted a case for the continued use of the Lord's Prayer at the start of sessions in the Federal Parliament. The comments that followed left me in a minority of one!

I found the discussion interesting in part because of the hints it provided about changes in the way Australians think. I want to explore those hints in this post. My discussion does not pretend to be rigorous, simply putting ideas forward for further discussion.

To set the scene, the Lord's Prayer has, to my knowledge, been used in the Australian Parliament since Federation. This passed without comment until quite recently when persistent moves began to have it dropped. Listening to the debates on the matter, the proponents are quite passionate about it. So what has changed?

In teasing this through, I am not arguing positions. Rather, I am pointing to various linked themes and asking questions. I am providing links to some of my own posts where I see these as relevant.

Is/was Australian a Christian Country?

I got drawn into this one in Was Australia a Christian country - and what comes now. However, there is a broader question.

In the past, the question as to whether or not Australia was a Christian country was primarily of interest to the Churches promoting spiritual and moral revival. There was, I think, a usually implicit assumption that Australia was in fact a Christian country even if observance by many was quite nominal.

The need to argue, to prove if you like, that Australia is not and indeed never has been a Christian country is (I think) quite new. This got me thinking. When did it first emerge, who argued it, why was it seen as important?

Separation of Church and State

The argument here is that the retention of the prayer is a breach of the principle of separation of church and state. Now for reasons I outlined in Freedom of religion in Australia - a historical note, church and state have always been separate in Australia, with freedom of religion actually enshrined in the constitution. This did not prevent us then or now using the Lord's Prayer as a matter of custom, having military chaplains, using a variety of religious symbols in public activities and so on.

In all this, there has always been a view in Australia that churches should butt out of politics. This was, I think, most pronounced on the non-Labor side. I haven't checked my sources, but I can think of a number of pronouncements by Liberal politicians. The position on the Labor side was more complicated because of the traditional linkages as well as changing relationships between that Party and elements within the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic vote was very important to the Party.

Again, something has changed with the concept of separation of church and state somehow gaining extra power. Again, I wondered in my mind when this first happened, who argued it?

Changing attitudes to religion

The discussion provided a number of hints about Australia's changing attitudes to religion.

Australians have always been a fairly irreligious lot. Some years ago I had a friend who was doing religious studies as part of her university course. The bible was one of the set texts. When she got into a lift carrying the bible, she suddenly had half the lift to herself! More recently at a parents' function at my daughters' Anglican school, a number of parents complained about the emphasis the school placed on religion. I actually found this quite odd. After all, they had chosen to send their daughters to a church school.

In recent years, church attendances along with the proportion of the population claiming especially Christian affiliation have been in decline. Yet in all this, I have the strong impression, one that could be checked through media mapping, that we talk far more about religion in Australia than we used to.

The influence of 9/11 and the War on Terrorism is obviously one influence. For example, one comment linked the need to keep church and state separate because of the push for Sharia law in certain countries. A second commentator commented on what the writer saw as an imbalance in reporting on Muslim issues.

Inn my post, I commented on what I saw as an anti-religion tone in some of the commentary. This was really intended to draw a response, and indeed it did. However, it was also meant as a serious point.

There has always been a sceptic theme in Australian thinking. However, the rise of a consciously atheist stream, the argument that the Lord's Prayer should not be used because it might offend atheists, marks a significant change, one that future historians will probably explore.

This change is not unique to Australia. In this context, it is always a difficulty to disentangle Australian features from broader elements, including the conscious use or even misuse of international trends for local purposes. I explored one element of this in Australia's Culture Wars - uniquely Australian?

In the discussion, I was left wondering to what extent the loss of moral authority of Australia's Christian Churches through things such as sexual scandals had opened the way for alternative views. In Australia of the past, the Churches were seen as largely dominant in the general moral sphere. Again, I suspect that this change is potentially measurable.

Liberal Democracy and a Pluralist Australia

There was one reference in the discussion on the separation of church and state suggesting that the continuation of the use of the Lord's Prayer was incompatible with Australia's position as a liberal democracy.

I am not sure when the phrase "liberal democracy" first emerged. Again, and I stand to be corrected, I think that its current usage is quite recent. It has now become a symbol, a set of attributes, used to describe certain western countries.

More broadly, there were a number of comments suggesting that maintenance of the Lord's Prayer was incompatible with Australia's position as a multi-ethnic community. I am not quite sure why this should be so. However, that is beside the point for the purposes of this post.

The real issue is the evolution and application of the concept that Australia's institutions, policies and programs attuned to the majority needed to be adjusted to accommodate the presence of minorities.

This is not an attack on those policies, although I do have reservations about certain aspects. Rather, I am talking just about the history.

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