Church and State: Australia’s Imaginary Wall (Ch 5)

Tom Frame; University of New South Wales, 2006. 

The following is the product of research being conducted for a paper regarding the Christian role in politics. 

Tom Frame is the Anglican Bishop for the Australian Defence Force. The following is part of a book that looks at the working relationship and tensions between Church and State in Australia. This book is a part of a series that explore, social, political and cultural issues in association with Australian Policy Online.

Some general criticisms
The continuing debate about church-state relations has endured many unhelpful contributors and suffered many unproductive contributions, especially from Christians. Their number includes those who want to promote fidelity to Australian’s “Christian heritage” wand those determined to “take back” the nation for Christ. Most have no knowledge of constitutional law. Few have any familiarity with the long-running and complex theological debates surrounding the nexus between religion and politics. They are simply motivated by fear that their children will be influenced by secular humanists or drawn to another religion and a desire to share with non-believers the benefits of Christianity – whether they are wanted or not. Although well-meaning, they find it hard to believe that anyone could find them patronising and misguided. p 88.

Christianity no longer privileged or special in Australia
Within the space of several decades, the church has moved from nearer the centre of public life to the periphery. It has lost ground. Christians no longer enjoy political, social, or moral ascendency. Many clergy feel besieged or ignored. Whereas previously the church’s position meant a great deal in national affairs and Christian thinkers were accorded prime place in the public square, Christians can no longer presume they will even be heard, let alone heeded, in an increasingly indifferent and hostile society. Christian’s are one among many “special interest” groups vying for influence and the crowd’s ear. For many in the church, it is now about winning a war of survival. And yet, many of the supposed tensions are more imagined than real as Christians fight battles hat need not be fought, using resources more profitably deployed elsewhere. In contemporary Australia Christians have considerable scope to live their lives as they choose, free from state regulation or legal hindrance… The state does not prevent them from creating discrete local communities in which the peculiarities of the Christian faith are upheld. p 91.

Conclusions – some good news.
Christianity does not need political goodwill or financial support to survive or fulfil its mission. Influence and agency are the preferred modes of Christian interaction with the world. p 93.

There is no future prospect of a religious establishment in Australia and none should be encouraged. p 94.

The nature of these [future church and state] interactions will be contested from time to time. Such a situation is to be expected in an open and democratic society which values the free flow and exchange of ideas and opinions. But if some of the present unhelpful tensions are to be eased, Christians must take the initiative in reducing suspicion by declaring their support for religious diversity, acknowledging the separation of church and state implied in the Constitution, and their willingness to use spiritual and pastoral rather than political and polemical means to achieve their objectives. This country might have a “Christian heritage” but it is no one’s interests fro those who do not share Christian beliefs to be subjected to discrimination, repression or coercion. p 94-5.

The absence of any wall [of separation between church and state] points to the sophistication of Australia’s public life and the quality of its democracy. It also reflects a commitment to the shared values and common aspirations that are just as important to those with religious beliefs as to those with none.  p 95.

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