Monday, April 23, 2007


Review: CHURCH AND STATE, Australia’s Imaginary Wall, by Tom Frame (UNSW Press 2006)

Tom Frame, historian and writer, left a military career in the navy to train for the Anglican priesthood and was, until recently, the (high profile) Bishop of the Australian armed forces. In this little book (96 pages) he probes the complex relationship between church and state, especially in Australia, where the influence of religious organizations, lobby groups and individuals has increased the temperature of the discussion about whether and to what extent government policy should be ‘ínformed’ (to use a neutral word) by religious dogma.

Briefly: Tom Frame reminds us that the Australian constitution does not formally separate church and state. He argues that some contact between the two spheres is both inevitable and, occasionally, desirable. But, yes, there are tensions, and, he believes, Christians are largely responsible for these.

This is really an ancient problem, as theologian Karl Barth famously reminded us: the state which God has ordained to keep order in Romans 13 is also the ‘beast from the abyss’ in Revelation 13.

Tom’s first words: ‘Australia is not a Christian nation… it never has been, [although] public life has, of course, been shaped by a long and close encounter with Christianity.’ There’s nothing in Australian law (as there is in British law) which gives any privilege to the Anglican church or precedence to any religion.

Those who demand a strict separation between church and state (eg. the Australian Democrats) are ‘separationists’: they want to erect a legal ‘wall’ that prevents interactions from a fear that an ‘established’ church might emerge. Thus separationists want to end any special privileges churches receive – eg. taxation benefits, because, it is claimed, they amount to de facto recognition of Christianity. The opposite view is that because a clear majority of Australians declare some connection with a Christian denomination, some public reflection of the beliefs and values of Christians is warranted.

There are of course, extremists on both sides: some advocating a theocracy, others a purely secular state. And inevitably against the backdrop of global religiously-inspired terrorism, church-state relations have become a cause of widespread anxiety.

Tom’s historical overview is succinct and well-researched. Ancient Israel was a theocracy: there was no administrative or political division between the religious and mundane aspects of life. Jesus was largely indifferent to Roman rule: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; and to God what belongs to God’ (Matthew 22:21). The Christian apostles told their people to live in peace with each other and with the powers-that-be, although when those powers stepped up their persecution, they were an evil to be resisted – but peacefully, and if necessary, through martyrdom. The state was simply the means to an end in the divine ordering of the world. But Constantine’s conversion to Christianity (312 AD) changed all that: Christian baptism became a rite administered at birth, and was now a symbol of citizenship. For 1,000 years, 400 to 1400, in Western Europe, church and state were thoroughly intertwined – ending, in England, when Henry VIII declared in 1534 that the Pope’s jurisdiction did not extend to his realm. The English church was effectively nationalized and the church *in* England became the Church *of* England. But people like John Bunyan now suffered if they were not willing to conform to the laws and dogmas of the established church.

The pioneering American white settlers sailed across the Atlantic to get away from the strictures of state religions in Europe. For the first time we read of a ‘wall of separation’ between ‘the garden of religion’ and the ‘wilderness’ of temporal government (Roger Williams). Thus began the practice in the U.S. of church leaders and politicians advocating separation: as Tom Frame writes ‘the former [is] for protection, the latter to avoid interference.’ Thus began a uniquely modern phenomenon: the idea of constitutional freedom *from* religion, leading one nation (France, since 1905) towards constitutional secularism. To Tom’s knowledge no other nation has similarly legislated for a formal and legal separation of church and state. Overall, 2000 years of Christian church history led French theologian Jacques Ellul to lament that ‘whenever the Church has been in a position of power, it has regarded freedom as an enemy.’

Tom's interim conclusion at this point (p. 47: halfway through the book): ‘It is for these reasons that Christians must be encouraged to allow some distance between the church and state – for the church’s good, if nothing else.’

After some discussion over the years, the words ‘humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’ were eventually added to the ‘draft preamble’ to the Australian constitution (1898). Section 116 deals with religion (it’s similar to the first amendment in the U.S.): ‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’

Of course there has been public discussion about all this, when, for example Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to participate in any politics or wars, or the Exclusive Brethren forbid voting (but allow many dollars to be spent lobbying for conservative political causes), or the Scientologists arguing (1983) that they are actually a religion and should be exempt as other churches are from government taxes. Then there was the Defense of Government Schools debate, and (Tom writes) ‘the subsequent legal argument highlighted the significant differences between the US first amendment and the widely held but mistaken belief that the Australian constitution provided a ‘wall of separation’.

Conclusions? ‘At no stage do the founders of the Australian federation seem to have been motivated by a sense that engagement between religion and the state was itself an undesirable thing’ (Catholic academic lawyer Joshua Puls).

A ‘wall of separation’ is impossible to maintain. Church and State… ‘are not two societies that can be separated by the erection of a wall between them. Religion exists within a society and is part of it’ (Dr. Cliff Pannam QC).

Tom’s cautious about right-wing religious influence on the political process in Australia (he’s referring to conservative groups like the Christian Democratic Party, Family First, and the Australian Christian Lobby, and Creationism/Intelligent Design people): he is concerned about the absence of strong ‘accountability to the broader Christian community’. A socially conservative mindset does not reflect the mindset of all Christian traditions in Australia.

But he’s also critical of ‘doctrinaire secularism’, which in its extreme form in the U.S. tries to forbid mentioning God or do any religious act in the public square. Doctrinaire secularism is not religiously neutral: it actually amounts to the promotion of a type of atheism as the unofficial state religion.

But, overall, ‘I have argued that interactions between the church and the state are inevitable, and, for the greatest part, no threat to the health of the body politic.’ ‘Christianity does not need political goodwill or financial support to survive or fulfil its mission…’ but secularists can sleep easily because ‘there is no future prospect of a religious establishment in Australia and none should be encouraged…. Unlike the U.S. Australia does not need a wall of separation between church and state, and none will be needed in the future.'

I have only a couple of minor puzzles with Tom’s approach. Why does he use the (evangelically- biassed) New American Standard translation of the Bible when he could have chosen a more respectable version, like the NRSV?

More importantly, he should have given us just a few pages outlining sympathetically the approaches to the left and right of his position. Why did the outstanding leftist jurist and senator Lionel Murphy fear too much religion ‘meddling’ with politics? On the other hand, why do the evangelical right fear that their convictions about abortion and homosexuality (in particular) will be eroded by liberal legislation?

Also he could have given ordinary folks a better handle on the essence of the debate, which might be expressed this way by conservative Christians: ‘The doctrine of separation between church and state is not about keeping religion out of politics, but keeping politics out of religion.’ And in these words by more liberal – but not secularist - thinkers: ‘If freedom and democracy mean anything, they mean the right of the individual to bring their personal beliefs into the sphere of public discourse regardless of the religious, philosophical, or political basis of those beliefs.’

Rowland Croucher
April 2007

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