(Christian) Religion and Secularism: A Response to Brian Morris

Note: this article first appeared in the online newsletter Engage.mail, published by the Evangelical Alliance’s ethics think-tank, Ethos.

I am usually fairly sanguine about the place of Christianity within modern society. Claims that an aggressive secularism is systematically attempting to extirpate religion in general, and Christian faith in particular, from the public square can often seem exaggerated. Every so often, however, I find my insouciance disturbed by some honest pundit or commentator, who with unusual clarity reveals the intentions of a certain strand of secular thought. Aside from providing (some) warrant for those anxious about anti-Christian hostility, such candour does have the advantage of giving one a fairly clear target at which to aim.

The opinions of Brian Morris, which appeared in both print and online media outlets last year (see, for example “It’s Time: Make Politicians Wear Religion on their Sleeve,” New Matilda, 17th August, 2015), constitute one such example. Morris, a former journalist, has turned his hand to advocating for his particular conception of secularism. As part of this project, he called on MPs to openly declare their religious commitments, in much the same way that elected officials reveal any pecuniary interests that may conflict with their parliamentary duties. Morris contextualised his view by saying that ‘politicized religion’ has surreptitiously retarded progress on a number of fronts, including efforts to legalise same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia. For him, parliamentary debate around SSM ‘subverts any notion of a secular Australia’.

Targeting Christianity especially, Morris argued that in a multicultural and multi-religious country such as Australia, it made sense for Christian MPs to be more transparent about their views. He suggested that one way of ensuring greater openness was to have politicians’ beliefs – and their influence on whatever views they may happen to hold – placed on public record. Others, like Fiona Patten (head of the Australian Sex Party) appear to have gone even further, suggesting for example that some kind of register of religious affiliation might be appropriate.

But let’s stick with Morris for a moment. One might be tempted to agree with him, at least to some extent. Say an MP is both a staunch member of the Catholic Church and has parliamentary oversight for various social welfare organisations (many of which have roots in, and are connected with, institutional Catholicism). It’s fair and reasonable to think that such an individual would be completely transparent in revealing his or her religious links. If that’s what is meant by politicians’ religious commitments being registered or placed on public record, then one will hear no argument from me.

The trouble is that Morris means more than this. Indeed, the suggestion that the airing of religiously-grounded views in parliament (say, in relation to the SSM debate) is itself evidence of the subversion of secularism indicates as much. So, too, does his interpretation of the Australian Constitution, which he argues was intended to ‘keep religion out of politics’. At base, it seems that Brian Morris wants to excise religion and opinions rooted in religious devotion from the public square. This is not merely advocacy for the institutional separation of church and state – something with which we can all agree – but for the rather radical idea, common among a more aggressive species of secularist, that religion’s presence in public-political life should be completely uprooted.

There are, however, several glaring problems with that kind of position. To begin, one must ask how it would even be possible, logistically-speaking, to achieve such an aim. How does Morris and others of his ilk propose to interrogate politicians on their religious commitments or to ensure those beliefs are publicly registered? Lying behind this is the very basic question of how one actually defines religion, which – notoriously – eludes all efforts at delimitation. What counts as a ‘religious’ commitment in the first place? Mere church membership? General theistic belief? A relatively doctrinal construction of religious convictions? What about the certainty that the cosmos is unified by a ‘higher’ meaning? In an age of spiritual pluralism, where all kinds of beliefs may fall under the umbrella of ‘religion’ (including those of politicians), arguing for some kind of public record comprising such beliefs is to engage in a project that defies precision by its very nature.

Similarly, how would Morris propose MPs corral their religious convictions in order to approach contentious issues in a manner that pleases him? He dismisses, for instance, Eric Abetz’s complaint that only the ‘intellectually bankrupt’ could expect a religious individual to ‘leave their religion at the doors of parliament’. But what’s to object to here? In my view, it reflects the common-sense view that religion – like any kind worldview (even atheistic ones) – is often embedded in the deepest strata of a person’s thinking and behaviour. Asking, say, a Christian to view policy issues without framing them through the lens of his or her worldview is akin to asking someone who wears glasses to remove them in order to ‘properly’ appreciate the lines and contours of a landscape painting.

This appears to be joined to Morris’ (unworkable) suggestion that religion in Australia should be ‘re-positioned’ as a wholly privatized phenomenon. However, short of barring religious individuals from entering public life, it would seem impossible to guarantee that religiously-inspired beliefs – which constitute a ‘framework of reality’ that enables many people to make sense of their world – seep into public discourse and parliamentary debate. Indeed, as social entities, religious individuals are themselves evidence that religion cannot be a purely private matter; their very presence suggests that the public and private dimensions of life can never be truly walled off from each other. Moreover, it seems that Morris has ‘solved’ the question of how one is to define religion only by conveniently opting for a narrow conception – driven, one thinks, by Enlightenment dualisms. Unfortunately, he has ignored the phenomenological diversity of religious expression, substituting for it a reductive characterisation that simply assumes (wrongly, I might say) its inherently privatized nature. Morris adopts a very ‘thin’ understanding of spirituality, which, apart from anything else, fails to reckon with both its ubiquity and its formative role in driving many individuals to work for the common good by way of public and political service.

In promoting his views, Morris evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. But he also fails to understand the nature of Australian secularism, and does so in two main ways. First, Morris’ view that the Australian Constitution was meant to banish religion from political discourse is quite misleading. It was not intended to purify the political process of the apparently baleful effects of religious thought. Rather, the Constitution’s provisions regarding religion prohibit the passage of laws that establish an official creed, hamper religious freedom or disqualify anyone from public office on the basis of their religious (or non-religious) convictions. Here is the relevant statement, from S.116:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

The text says nothing about individual politicians forming and articulating their opinions on a range of issues according to a religiously-grounded worldview, and to say that it does suggests adherence to a peculiarly aggressive form of secular absolutism. If anything, the Constitution ensures a kind of ideational pluralism, where a host of ideas, creeds, norms and principles – both religious and non-religious – can compete with each other on an equal footing. The infrastructure of the state may be free from formal religious control, certainly; but this in no way means what Morris thinks it means – namely, the public invisibility of religious or spiritual worldviews, or the people who embody them.

Second, in advocating a shift of religion’s place in contemporary Australian life, Morris seems to ignore the very deep roots it has sunk into the country’s political, legal and social landscape. As such, he has de-historicized the country’s institutions, divesting them of their religious-ethical content. I regard it as uncontroversial that Australia’s political culture, its laws and many of its normative principles (whether codified or not) owe a great debt to what might broadly be called its Judeo-Christian heritage. Of course, we are the beneficiaries of a number of intellectual streams, including that constellation of ideas known as the Enlightenment. But it is more than a little churlish to suggest that religion – in this case, Christianity – has no place in the very institutions it helps underpin. No one is suggesting, say, that Christian individuals should be given carte blanche simply because of the spiritual tradition they carry. But again, it would seem intrinsically impossible, given the origins of many of our political and ethical values, to completely leach the public square of religious influence. Calling for politicians to reveal their religious commitments (as they might their financial interests) frames the debate in terms of a basic conflict between one’s spirituality and a fully-orbed devotion to democratic processes. But if what I have said about the foundations of Australia’s political culture is correct, then there is no necessary conflict; quite the opposite, in fact.

* * *

Those like Brian Morris seem to be espousing a revolutionary kind of secularism, which seeks to effect a tectonic change in the conduct of Western politics, and religion’s place in modern society. Unfortunately, Morris badly misconceives both religiosity and secularism, even as he casts himself as the latter’s defender. Calling for elected officials to publicly declare their so-called religious interests – part of a wider attempt to ‘re-position’ religion as a purely private matter – is logistically impractical and intolerably intrusive. It fails to reckon with the ubiquitous reality of a dimension of life that can never be wholly privatized, whilst hollowing out a favoured concept in the interests of zealously prosecuting a particular agenda. Of course, this is not an implicit call for spiritual revanchism; I don’t think we should seek a return to the pre-secular past. That said, Christians ought to be confident as they step out into the public sphere, knowing that the cultural framework is not only not inimical to their values, but owes a great deal to them. The efforts of radical secularists notwithstanding, one’s attempt to influence public discourse or enter the political arena as (say) an avowed Christian is a legitimate enterprise.

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