Where Wong gets it Wrong (pt. 2): The idea of a secular society

This is the second of two posts responding to a recent speech by Senator Penny Wong on the rationale for same sex marriage ‘rights’ to be granted to gay and lesbian Australians. Please read Part 1 first and perhaps take the time to read Senator Wong’s speech for context.

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Assertion #2: Australia is a secular society & religious belief has no part in law-making

People of faith (as Wong herself claims to be) would be wise to reject the categorisation of Australia as a “secular society” – or at least insist on strict boundaries on what such a phrase is intended to mean.

We undeniably have a secular government: in the sense that there is no religious test for holding public office (a problem that long plagued the United Kingdom, but which was partly demanded by their unique historico-political circumstances). Nor is there any constitutional power held by the federal government to establish a national religion, nor any appropriate role for the government to interfere in spiritual, liturgical or theological matters.

But when we speak of a “secular society” or “separation of church and state” we must always be careful that we are not ceding too much ground to “secularists.” By secularists, I mean those members of society who take a combative attitude towards all forms of organised religion, supernatural belief and transcendent morality and seek to bar it from every aspect of public life and prejudice the national mind against all kinds of faith.

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We see a very active secularist push in the United States, where many political figures, educators and commentators are uncomfortable with the potential for enormous influence on the nation’s politics by a sizeable devoutly religious segment of the population. A more hardened form of secularism is entrenched in modern France, where the revolutionary spirit has driven the political culture to seek to completely sideline the Catholic Church from exercising its once powerful influence in the country. The most extreme and – arguably the most successful – projects in secularism have been Communist countries, where the regimes have eliminated both religious and political freedom, made Marxism a kind of religion of its own and thus kept religious views completely out of public life (N.B. secularists in democratic societies would likely contest my categorization of communist countries as secular, but I am suggesting it is the probable end-point of a secularism pushed too far).

Wong pays lip-service to the idea of ensuring that secular is not interpreted as meaning “anti-religious,” but her attitude toward religious beliefs she disagrees with suggests that she is masking her secularism to make her intentions appear more benign than they actually are. She doesn’t believe that Christian (or any other) religious beliefs about marriage should have any bearing upon the legal definition. And she seems happy to silence those voices in favour of exclusively heterosexual marriage by trumpeting her idea of secularism.

Australia should be more helpfully understood as a ‘pluralistic’ society. People of faith do have a right to express their views publicly (because we are a democracy) and seek what they think is best for the nation (because we are a ‘commonwealth’). Citizens who vote – and participate in the political process in other ways – have real beliefs about life, God and the universe and these views will naturally affect how they approach political and social questions.

Just as we might be exhorted not to leave our brains at the door when going to church, we should not be expected to leave our soul at the gate when we enter the polling booth.

secularism

Secularism prejudicially preferences atheism, humanism, agnosticism and religious indifference over sincerely held religious beliefs. Pluralism recognises that society is a complex combination of people with certain shared absolute values and beliefs and certain disputed ones. Secularism seeks to silence religious voices by telling them to keep their personal beliefs private. Pluralism accepts that people of any or no religion can freely express their honest opinions on a subject in the public sphere. These views will then be assessed and either accepted, modified or rejected by politicians and other members of the public in the course of the debate.

Secularism attempts to safeguard the religious neutrality of the state and government by limiting religious freedom and denying religious individuals and organisations political influence. Pluralism achieves a multi-religious society by legally enshrining religious freedom and preventing the establishment of a state religion. But it welcomes the input of all citizens in political life – irrespective of how much their religion shapes their political views.

Principled pluralism is a better way forward than hardened secularism.

  1. “Liberal democracy is not compatible with fundamentalism of any description, whether ideological or spiritual.”

There is a deep irony and lack of self-awareness in this statement. Senator Wong implies that you mustn’t take your religious beliefs “too seriously” (the majority of Australians would agree with the sentiment): because this might come at the expense of the paramount values of a liberal democracy. But she fails to acknowledge that there is a kind of sexual fundamentalism raging across Western civilisation which is seldom condemned as incompatible with liberalism and democracy by those who share its understanding of sexuality.

Perhaps the average Australian can more easily identify the difficulties posed to social cohesion by hardcore adherents of Christianity and Islam or the threat to political liberty that is inherent in communism and fascism. But it is time to wake up and acknowledge that a cultural revolution that idolises sexual orientation but detests religious liberty is continuing to unfold in this country (and others). Sexual fundamentalism and progressive fundamentalism promote their own forms of strict orthodoxy and are not hesitant to use tools of coercion and oppression to enforce their views and punish dissent.

“Religious freedom means being free to worship and to follow your faith without suffering persecution or discrimination for your beliefs. It does not mean imposing your beliefs on everyone else.”

This is one of the central themes of Senator Wong’s address. Religious beliefs are being wielded as weapons which harm the rights and freedoms of other members of society who do not share such views.

She later adds:

“Religion-based moral codes continue to limit the freedoms and the rights of those who, in the view of religious groups, do not ‘conform’ to their views. In advocating, and indeed proselytizing, their own views, they too often restrict and constrain the rights of others.”

This is proof that the Senator is herself a hardened secularist. She purports that secularism entails: “the ability of everyone to believe what they wish, to practise their religion as they see fit, to express their ethical and moral preferences, to say what they wish – but all without imposing their beliefs and views on anyone, and without inflicting injury or hurt.” But this amounts to saying that freedom of religion (and associated acts of free speech) must be exercised separately from any freedom to participate in the political process. If you have religiously-influenced views on marriage you can express them (until those rights are taken away by a future government anyway), but you are disqualified from acting in any way that advances those views in the political process.

Because Wong argues that “In a secular society, ‘the norm’ is not the view of the majority,” there can be no question of persuading the majority of your fellow Australians that your view of marriage is the one society should recognise and celebrate (especially by way of getting them to accept your religious worldview). Even if 15 million of the 16-17 million eligible voters in Australia could be convinced that marriage should legally remain defined by the current definition indefinitely, Wong’s moral casuistry would demand that the government still legislate in favour of SSM, because it supposedly proceeds from an inviolable principle of equality (the idea of which was rejected in part 1).

Arguments made from a non-religious stand-point are not inherently better than religiously-informed ones. Politicians seem to recognise that certain moral issues are better decided by a conscience vote in Parliament when there are serious ethical questions involved. In Australian history, such issues have naturally been resolved by MPs voting in accordance with their deeply held beliefs about life, death and humanity – often overtly religious in nature. Matters of marriage and sexuality have been resolved in this manner in previous Federal parliaments and funnily enough, the ALP repeatedly calls for a “free vote” on the issue, in which members from both sides could be expected to vote with their conscience and beliefs.

If politicians are entitled to vote in accordance with their conscience and core principles (something which the Senator and her party only believe in when it suits them), surely people of faith who vote, pay taxes and contribute to the well-being of society are entitled to vote according to their own deeply held values and petition their representatives to advance those views inside and outside of parliament? A hardcore secularism that won’t allow for this is no longer liberal or democratic. If Senator Wong pursues this path, she risks committing the very crime against the heart of our society that she accuses opponents of SSM of doing.

Unless something changes soon, a future government in which people with the same attitudes as Senator Wong hold the reins of power will foreseeably damage freedom of religion in Australia; pass laws that open the doors for persecution and discrimination on the basis of genuinely held beliefs; and impose their own (non-religious, but nonetheless ideological) beliefs upon the rest of us.

It’s time to stop being complacent and apply the blowtorch to politicians that want to use the idea of a secular society to curb religious freedom. Because they need to start feeling the pressure they’re trying to put on people of faith. Australian democracy must learn to thrive as a principled pluralistic society, or it will be slowly choked to death by a secularism that will squeeze the life out of religious liberty and silence millions of voices.

For more Christian responses to Senator Wong’s speech, check out David Ould’s sterling effort on ABC’s the Drum last week or my former theology lecturer Dr. Michael Bird’s response at The Thermidorian. John Piper has also written about the Christian commitment to pluralism – instead of secularism or religious coercion – in the context of seeking to glorify God as supreme in all things. 

[1] Orderinchaos “Penny Wong speaking at an event in Perth on 31 July 2014” CC BY-SA 4.0 wikipedia
[2] David Goehring “Hey, You Got Your Church In My State!” flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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