Leaving aside all of the legal and constitutional intricacies of the decision today by the High Court of Australia that the funding of the school chaplaincy program is invalid the cultural and social milieu in which such a decision sits is telling. The PR battle has been lost already. Just check out the humble, determined, yet gracious bloke who challenged the ruling authorities on this one, Mr Everyman from Toowoomba, Darryl Kerrigan, er Ron Williams.
Yes folks, no matter what happens from here on in, the cultural narrative that shall spring up from this decision is the cultural narrative that rightly made the Australian movie, The Castle such a quotable cult classic. The manner in which the objection to the chaplaincy program has been made – through an everyday father of six children from Bonnie Doon, er Toowoomba – is more likely to win the battle in the long run whether or not the program regains commonwealth validation or whether or not the States take this on. Just as with The Castle, Ron Williams is depicted as going it alone against the imposing, grey impersonal powers of the Commonwealth – oh, and the imposing, grey impersonal powers of the Christian church too. For despite the fact that Ron pulled the trigger on a legal question that is threatening dozens of other programs with huge levels of funding, programs that have nothing to do with schools or chaplains, it is the sacred-secular divide battle in Australia, or at least what that divide looks like, that is at stake here.
Of course the ground work for such eventualities has already been laid, not least of all A Current Affair’s disgraceful twisting of the work of OAC in schools, and the taking out of context comments made by the excellent, erudite, and far from fundamentalist Geoff Westlake (see his reply to ACA here).
Now don’t get me wrong. I am extremely cagey about governments funding specifically religious/denominational/faith-promoting work in schools, especially if it is not open about its agenda. I believe strongly that the gospel works best from a position of weakness in the culture that, despite the weakness – nay because of it – can break the hardest soil and heart. So I take a very much “bottom up” approach to how the gospel seeps into the culture. It’s high time Christians in the West started reading the Bible as the cultural losers, and ensuring that they don’t become angry, bitter or self-righteous in the face of a declining culture, “declining” meaning both morally and in the sense of “rejecting”, “saying no” to Christianity. When a culture is in decline, as the West’s inevitably is in so many ways after so much long-term dominance, its baseline narrative finds itself subject to tighter scrutiny and is given less latitude or room for error than other perspectives. That is why we find ourselves in the almost humorous position in the Western context – and one that is seen in Australia all too readily – in which the Left excoriates Christianity for its perceived – and often real – evils, but can airbrush (that’s Photoshop for you Y-Gen types) some of the major inconsistencies of other religions. Hence Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ artwork being defended so voraciously by the likes of David Marr, who at the same time states that not all forms of freedom of speech should be tolerated if they offend certain groups.
The future looks like this: Faith-based schools will be required to demonstrate that they can fulfil all of the equal opportunity laws that the Commonwealth decides on (to do with matters of faith and ethics – and for ethics read “sexual preference, marital status etc), or risk losing funding. Never mind that this would put a huge burden on the state system to re-school, and pay for the education of, one third of the school population of the country. To make such a costly decision simply indicates that for ideological reasons the state would prefer to cut off its nose to spite its face. But make no mistake, that is coming, and the cultural narrative will play it along the same lines as the Kerrigan/Williams narrative, and the likes of ACA and QandA will lap it up.
My advice for Christians is to play this softly-softly. With all of the cultural traction heading in the direction of a Kerrigan-style little person takes on the state, we are on a hiding to nothing if we paint placards and man barricades. And the more nuanced conversation yet – one to be played out outside the media – is whether or not a secular context has room for – and indeed can support financially – moral communities that it may not necessarily agree with. If secularism is as confident as it says it is to hold the pluralist framework together it should be able to fund and support organisations that challenge the basic tenets of secular faith. But was the program even doing that? That’s debatable. From my experience it was run by hard working, underpaid tertiary educated people who have a pastoral heart and were well regarded within their communities. If that goes perhaps the likes of the Skeptics’ Society – or even David Marr – could start recruiting committed secularists, with identical tertiary qualifications and experience as those they replace, to fulfil those roles on the same basic wages. After all secularists believe in something – right?
Oh, and we have Jesus.