The announcement of the Federal Government’s $90 million “God Squad” (National Schools Chaplaincy Program), and the response by the churches, was depressingly predictable.
For the Howard Government, there is no separation between church and state. While the treasurer lectures the Muslim community about their need to accept “the separation of church and state in Australia”, he is propping up the religious establishment by pouring millions of dollars into their pockets.
The God Squad is but the latest program which ensures, in the eyes of government, the rightful role and place of religion, and especifically, churches in Australian society.
And the response was equally predictable. Take the money and run according to a leading Sydney Anglican. Not only should churches be applying “for any funding that’s around”, but also churches should be writing “to the government to thank them”.
This is a seduction, which in the end leaves everyone very satisfied. The government gets to extend its “soft theocracy”, and the churches, fast losing members, balance yet another budget. Evangelical entrepreneurs and astute religious financial managers tapping into the market fundamentalism of the Federal Government, now keep the churches in business.
Never have so few Christians been paid so much from the Federal Treasury to survive.
A stroll through the government’s budget shows the degree to which the Howard Government is funding religious big business.
More than $10 billion has gone into church schools and it’s increasing. Since 1997, “Christian affiliated independent schools enrolments have risen 450 per cent”. The Christian Community Schools, a network of Bible-believing, evangelical schools (“all staff must agree that the Bible is infallible and inerrant”) are mobilising for increased funding. For the cost of a postage stamp, the God Squad program will deliver another $20,000 into the budget of every church school in Australia.
The integration of church schools into the market economy was complete when one church school, in its goal to be the brightest and best and richest, poached “the entire Year 10 championship volley ball team” from a neighbouring government school. No church school is going to make headlines with its scholarship program for 100 children with disabilities from the western suburbs.
Churches actively participated in the destruction of the Commonwealth Employment Service, and were rewarded with job network contracts running into millions of dollars. Churches are set to receive some $20 million every year, “to provide abortion counselling services”. Another $20 million will go to the Catholic Church for “the 2008 World Youth Day to be attended by the Pope”.
The Howard Government’s education loan scheme not only funds the training of the nation’s clergy, but has enabled the dramatic expansion of the training colleges of every charismatic Christian education group. Hundreds of thousands of Australian Defence Forces' dollars go to army chaplains, all holding officer rank
However, it’s in the aged care area where the church may get its first glimpse of its own vulnerability and the market forces, which it has so strongly supported. Millions have been poured into religion-based aged care services, by the government. But aged care is also the most lucrative of all services, and the global financial institutions are beginning to move. It is reported that Macquarie Bank, following deals done with Salvation Army, is targeting the aged care assets of Uniting Care, Anglicare and Baptist Community services (The Australian, July 22, 2006). Watch carefully how the churches respond to these approaches.
And it is “divine intervention”, according to another investigation which delivers another $500 million through deals entered into by local, state and federal governments, to enable churches to avoid, among other things, GST, payroll taxes and council rates, as well as the protection of fringe benefits taxation arrangements (The Age, April 29, 2006).
It’s this ideological commitment to propping up churches which drives the God Squad program. As the health minister put it: “We think that religious faith is important. We also think that the faith of our fathers is important. It shouldn’t be devalued or downgraded, and we are just providing some modest assistance to schools that also think that religious faith is important.” (The Age, November 1, 2006.)
Both the churches and the government know how the seduction game works.
The Howard Government, sensitive to criticism, demands silence from the church providers of aged care, community and job network services, and gets it. Brigadier chaplains will not be standing in solidarity with soldiers and sailors screwed by a perverse army justice system. Theological colleges have never had it so good, so they won’t be found publicly attacking the tertiary education policies of the Howard Government. And it will be the combination of distorted theology, and the promise of more cash, which will ensure the support of churches for the God Squad program.
Already guaranteed their seat at the Reference Group table, there will be no support for Buddhist or Wiccan or rationalist members. Providing that the cheques are delivered, no church school will oppose a government minister or their "delegated authority", ultimately deciding who becomes a chaplain.
The God Squad is nothing new. It’s but a further step in the corruption of churches in their struggle to survive.
Alan Matheson is a retired Churches of Christ minister who worked in a migration centre in Melbourne, then the human rights program of the World Council of Churches, before returning to take responsibility for the international program of the ACTU.