To The Expert Panel
I tender this submission as a husband and father, who is both involved in church work, and who sits as a non-executive director of a Christian schools association.
February 14th, Valentine’s Day, is an appropriate day for the cut off date for submissions to this Religious Freedom Review in Australia because it reminds us that the love of God and the love of humanity that springs from it should not be co-opted, coerced or constrained by a government. And history has proven that when it is, no good comes of it, no common good at least.
And it’s in the light of love that I ask those of you on the review panel to consider the adverse consequences of any movement – and there is a movement afoot – to suppress the voice of religion in the public square, especially in the light of the same sex marriage result.
Much has been said about religious freedom already, and much of it in the negative by those who would curtail religious expression in the public square. And much of that curtailment comes about from a complete misunderstanding, indeed alienation from, the religious mind and practice of many Australians, including a good many who voted in the plebiscite on same sex marriage, whether it was Yes or No.
Religion is not intended merely for the private sphere, as if somehow what one thinks has no bearing on how one behaves. To think so is to assume that religion is the only central conviction of a human being that does not have inevitable public consequences.
It is as if those opposed to religion in the public square presume that their own positions on this matter are neutral, plucked from the ether as it were, and are merely the foundational building blocks of society, which must be freed from the detritus of dogma. A dogma itself surely!
The consequences of so constraining public religious practice, and of bending its philosophical framework to satisfy the secular framework that would privatise religion will outflow in negative ways to the wider community. Why is this?
Let me explain this in terms of my own experience, both in my role as pastor of a local church in Perth, and as a non-executive board member of a Christian schools association.
First, as a pastor I conclude our church services on a Sunday evening with the well-worn religious words of many a church leader down the centuries: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”, not at all meaning that my congregation should go from the building merely to engage in privatised religious activity. No.
This statement is designed to send people out – to go – into their worlds of work and education in the polis to live out their religious convictions in practical and meaningful public ways. It is a statement that the religious mind has the common good in mind. It is a statement that any bifurcation of private and public is anathema to the central tenets of the Christian faith in particular, but also to those, at the very least, in the other monotheistic faiths of Islam and Judaism.
This religious conviction has established a vast network of care and compassion in this country, often care and compassion given out to those who do not share the faith of those providing it. And that is the way it should be. The mediating institutions of our culture, which came before government, are built upon the conviction that alternate ethical communities are central to a flourishing society.
Which brings me to my second point. Much of the recent talk around the flow-on from same sex marriage has had to do with the so-called discriminatory practices of the faith-based education sector. There is indeed a strong voice that says this sector should no longer be funded by the government as it fosters discriminatory practices.
It is mooted that such a decision would make for a healthier society that is less discriminatory. Let me assure you there is much obfuscation around this matter by opponents of traditional faith based schools, and a highlighting of minor negative matters, the arguments of which are so stretched to breaking point as to be transparent. Which they are. Many of these arguments are see-through in their intolerance of a perspective and public practice not their own. And you do not have to read far to find them.
However, as the Cardus Education Survey of 2014 makes clear, diversity within the education system is central to a healthy educational ecosystem. In other words, private schools are a public good.
Indeed that much is true of all ecosystems. If you want to kill a healthy ecosystem take one or more of its components out of the mix and watch it slowly die, even parts of it which, on the surface, seem to be at odds with other parts, and which seem to have different end goals.
We must remember that as a nation our sociological and cultural strength lies in pluralism; a system in which many differing positions are not merely tolerated, but promoted and indeed patronised by government, in order that a true diversity – a healthy public ecosystem – is established. The faith-based education sector is one such example of a mediating institution, and hard secularists who do not understand religion, much less like it, display no deep diversity at all in their calls for it to be defunded unless it signs up to a particularly narrow view of sexuality.
Author James KA Smith makes this point about the Cardus Survey findings:
…one of the reasons Christian policies often champion the cause of school choice and true pluralism in education, challenging the state’s monopoly on schooling, is based on evidence showing that the common good is better served by the state making room for a diverse array of educational institutions and approaches.
The common good is what is at stake when it comes to religious freedom. True religion has its blighted side, just as every other public square perspective has, including the self-consciously secular.
Hence to make such an appeal springs from the double-sided coin of self-interest and the common good. Self-interest in that my own community of faith is increasingly concerned at the illiberal voice in our culture that would seek to silence it in the public square.
And the common good, in that, just as the God of love did not keep himself to himself, but in Christ gave up himself for humanity, the outflow of religious freedom means more freedom for more people. A casual glance back over the 20th century tyrannies will amply demonstrate that the suppression of religious freedom is a barometer in that it betrays a wider suppression of freedom.
I close with the story of a trip to Prague that I made in my youth. I stayed in the home of a Protestant pastor and his family, behind the walled enclosure in which his home and his church had been permitted during the communist years.
We sat down to eat and I looked up at the kitchen door. A large picture of Vaclav Havel was pinned there. Havel, the great chain-smoking womanising, atheist dissident-turned-president. When I asked why such a man – a man whose lifestyle was at odds with the Christian gospel – should have pride of place in the kitchen of a conservative Christian family, the answer was simple.
“Why, he gave us our freedom.”
Yes, Vaclav Havel gave them their freedom. He recognised both the import of mediating institutions, but also the need to permit the flourishing and patronage of public freedoms that did not necessarily align with his own external practices. Deep freedom was at stake.
Havel gave the Czechs and the Slovaks their freedom. Or more to the point, he gave back to them the freedom that was rightfully theirs. It is that hard won precious freedom, a freedom that we currently have in Australia that I request our government not to take away. For if it does, it can be assured that the health of our national ecosystem will suffer in the wake of it.