The Post-Christian Secular State


One of roadblocks to marriage equality is religion. ‘Devout’ of all faiths argue we should stick with the ‘god-given’ norm: heterosexual marriage only. This elevates a religious doctrine into a law. It’s is a bad idea in a country where the majority hold faith lightly, if at all, more from habit than strong belief.

Tim Wilson, newly elected MP for Goldstein, argues that Australia is not a secular society, but rather a pluralist one, where different ideas and views can co-exist. He said it would be wrong to impose secularism, and in fact it would be a failure. Rather he proposed a “lived culture of rights with responsibilities”.

Tim-WilsonI’m not entirely sure what any of that means, but I do agree that Australia is not yet a secular state. But that is its clear and natural direction of travel.

To digress: a few years ago I heard a priest preaching to a largely elderly congregation, arguing they were complacent in their faith, because they had been born and raised in “Christendom”, a time and place where society derived its attitudes and morals from Christian teachings.

Christendom no longer exists, he said. Now we have to compete for our place in the public square on an equal footing with other Christians, other faiths, and people of no faith.

He is right. We can argue whether Australia ever was a Christian nation, but it certainly isn’t now. On the other hand, we are not yet a fully secular state. We’re stuck somewhere between.

Religion, and in particular Christianity, still holds too much sway. Partly due to John Howard, who tried to slow its decline by outsourcing government services to “faith-based” providers, giving them guaranteed taxpayer income, turning them into arms-length parts of the state.

A truly secular state would have no laws about religion, either for, or against. A truly secular state, to be respected by everyone, must not take sides, have no dealings with religions. A state that works hand in glove with, say, Catholic organizations, will never be seen to be fair to all other brands of Christianity, let alone Islam or Judaism. In a truly secular state, religion is a wholly private matter.

The state can marry who it likes

The marriage equality fight has become a proxy battle about the role of religion. It should be a no brainer: marriage is a private, secular matter, managed by the state, open to all faiths. Thus Catholics may refuse to marry the divorced, Jews may refuse to marry non-Jews, all may refuse to marry same-sex partners. But, unencumbered by irrational ‘doctrine’, the state can marry any two adults it likes.

If we were truly a secular state, there’d be no problem. But we’re not yet a secular state: no longer a Christian state, nor a ‘pluralist’ one, whatever that may mean. Australia is instead a post-Christian state, in transition.

When we were a Christian state, the churches accumulated privileges. Religion, in and of itself, was A Good Thing. By the time I was a teenager that was all over, and good riddance. Churches were declining.

God on taxpayer life support

pic DFAT

Then George W Bush and John Howard, came along, determined to diminish the state and prop up religion. They outsourced swathes of government business to “faith-based” agencies. It bought them both swags of votes. But the churches, now on taxpayer life support, continue to decline. The transition to a secular state has been slowed, but not halted. It’s a failed policy, but somehow we’re still stuck with it.

We are now in a limbo, neither pluralist nor secular, nor Christian: an artificially maintained post-Christian state, with other religions are clamoring to get on the gravy train. I suspect this is the ‘pluralist’ model Wilson was spruiking: all religions attached to the government teat, and perhaps therefore less inclined to be critical.

The way forward, and not just for marriage equality, is the way were going naturally. Remove the props and privileges. Get government out of the religion business. Treat everyone, believers and non-believers, the same. Provide government services directly, not via the Salvation Army, or the Catholic Church.

Remove the brakes on Australia’s natural progress towards a secular society. Stop throwing good money after bad. We can never be an agile, nimble society with our feet concreted into the churchyard.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)