Thursday, June 28, 2007

What does Church/ State Separation really mean?

The Sydney Daily Telegraph June 26th carried an opinion piece from Jim Wallace, the leader of the Australian Christian Lobby. I have personally heard Mr Wallace speak on several occasions and generally support his views. However, on this occasion he invoked what I regard as an incorrect definition of what the separation between the Church and the State really means. The text of the piece is below, followed by my response.

Silent church answers no prayer
By Jim Wallace

"IN my SAS days we used the term "flat, dumb and happy" for people who were not prepared to take a chance. It's derived from military parachuting and refers to those who are effectively freefalling and not making a difference.

Some people would like the church to be "flat, dumb and happy" – it's all right for the church to be there, provided it doesn't influence our lives or the way we are governed.

In the controversy over Cardinal George Pell's comments on the embryonic cloning Bill, this message rang out loud and clear. The over-the-top reaction to Cardinal Pell putting forward the Catholic Church's view was concerning to say the least.

Surely, in a democratic society, Cardinal Pell had the right to reinforce the Catholic Church's teaching with those parliamentarians who have identified themselves with his faith? So too did the Anglicans, the Baptists and other church groups.

One phrase which is bandied about on these occasions is "the separation of church and state". Those seeking to advance the cause of secularism tend to trumpet it as a reason why the church should have nothing to do with politics.

They conveniently forget that this phrase means nothing of the kind. What it means is that the state shouldn't run the church and the church shouldn't run the state. It is meant to guarantee freedom of religion, something which Christians are in hearty agreement with!

The notion that the church should stay out of politics is not only misinformed but would be highly detrimental for society. Who plead the cause of the poor and the needy? Where would the moral voice be to rally against pornography, violence and the undermining of family values?

According to the 2001 ABS Census, nearly 13 million people – or 68 per cent of Australians – declared themselves as Christians. If the clear majority identify with Christian values, isn't it only right that the Christian voice should influence our government and society?

Some people mistake the desire to influence governments with theocracy, where religion rules the nation. Such a concept is not on the Christian agenda.

There are no countries in the world which are Christian theocratic states. There are, however, theocratic Islamic states in which Christians are often persecuted. This is not an example we would want to follow in Australia.

Australia's government and society has benefited much from its Christian heritage. From social services to education, the church has played a vital role.

There are many competing agendas that would love to see the church silenced in an election year – history and commonsense say that wouldn't be for the best."

My response:

The Constitutional Divide that Protects our Democracy.

Jim Wallace is correct in his observation that our political processes are enriched by the religious faith of politicians when it informs their decision making. He implies the doctrine of “the separation of Church and State” is a cudgel only wielded by those seeking to “advance the cause of secularism”. This claim reveals how wrong-headed a lot of religiously motivated forays into politics are, however well motivated they may be.

The doctrine Mr Wallace espouses is most famously enshrined in the constitution of the U.S.A. The drafters of our constitution saw fit to borrow the wording of this section whole when our Federators made their deliberations. The ambiguity Australia inherited about the position of the dividing line between the two sides has become a mixed blessing, if you’ll excuse the pun.

For example, much is made on the fact that the Coalition has doubled funding to private (largely Christian) schools during its tenure. In reality, the Government and the taxpayer get an enormous bargain from this arrangement, since the parents of privately educated students massively subsidise the cost of their education; expenses our public treasuries do not then have to meet. Far from being state sponsored dogma, it’s an arrangement where Parents gain choice and everyone wins.

But for every such fillip, a darker side exists. The political party Family First made every effort to smooth over their Church connections at the last Federal election. However, many instances came to light of Pastors in the Family First fold exhorting their parishioners to support the party as an act of piety. One recorded instance of a Pastor closely linked to a Family First Senate candidate told his congregation prior to the 2004 election that their votes “belonged to God” and that failing to remember that fact would make them “an anger magnet for God”. At other Churches, Family First openly recruited funds and workers. When does such activism cross the line into coercion?

It is in such cases that Mr Wallace completely misses the real concerns people have over the meaning of Church and State separation. The concern is that such disingenuous attempts to inject the Christian message into public discourse do more harm than good. Cardinal Pell, or anyone with an axe to grind on stem-cell research, abortion or euthanasia feel compelled by their convictions to speak up, and good on them. People like Cardinal Pell are indeed entitled to their own opinions; but they’re just not entitled to their own facts. Good politicians make decisions based on facts.

Flipwise, Wallis’s putative “secularists” are not, as he would claim, devoid of moral sensibility, unable to reason out an opposition to violence or pornography.

Mr Wallis fears that for the Church to be “silenced” in important debates would be unwise. Rather, he should exhort Christians to be aware that their method of expressing convictions can backfire, and even damage the integrity of the Church and the political process. Overt or covert religious parties represent too great a temptation to violate the right of Christians to feel their political allegiance is a private matter unrelated to their fellowship. A French word, sadly untranslatable, laïcité, expresses the concept perfectly.

Politically interested Christians should join either of the mainstream parties, where more good can be done than on the fringes of politics. Not so they can then become pawns of a faction, but to be the Salt and Light Jesus exhorted His followers to be.

The distinction between a Christian nation and a secular nation with a majority of Christians may seem fine, but it is an important one; one we are in danger of blurring. The former would indeed be a Theocracy. Although Mr Wallis claim none now exist, History is replete with them. The latter, however, is a proven prescription for prosperity, tolerance and peace.


Anonymous said...

The mainstream parties as a choice between one nation and the liberals??? And what if joining a "mainstream" party means to compromise your stance on the things you believe are important? I would have thought joining a party which reflected what your values are would be the best process.

Pell's comments rankled me because they suggest that particular religious affiliations translate to particular political beliefs. There are plenty of catholics who have diverse opinions on so called moral issues such as stem cell research, abortion etc. Similarly, there are many religious people who would believe that a certain behaviour is sinful but should not be illegal generally.

Anonymous said...

Love it. I'm gonna link it.

Separation of church and state means that all laws and decisions of state are based in secular reason, and definitely never justified by theology.

Doesn't mean that a Christian (or Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or observant Jew etc) shouldn't suggest why their value system is relevant to government. But if they can't justify it through the reason of secular civil society then it has no place in government policy or law.