It has become commonplace for the Australian Christian Lobby and some right-wing churches to claim Christianity is the source of Australian values. Tolerance, equality of opportunity and between genders, the fair go – yep, when it comes to these and other values Christians claim to have got there first.
As one contributor to the Australian Human Rights Commission's study 2011 Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia put it: "… whether it be government, social welfare, health, science, on the battlefield and all kinds of pioneering work … it has been committed Christians that have very often spearheaded the way … Christianity … has historically shaped this nation over the past 230 years and not other religions."
Such claims are not idle, but directed at specific political objectives. These include maintaining a calendar that marks Christian feast days and Sunday but affords no recognition to the holy days of other religions. It entails preserving the existing constitutional preamble that many told the commission demonstrated the government's obligation "to respect the Christian religion as its first and foremost responsibility". As one Christian group told the commission, "We object to the idea that other religions are equal to the worship of Almighty God."
But the big-ticket items to which such claims are directed is the protection of the freedom to discriminate and to proselytise. Civil liberties group Liberty Victoria pointed out that, "If religious groups sought exemption from laws preventing racial discrimination, there would be public consternation. Substituting the word 'black' for women and homosexuals … [doesn't make] discrimination … acceptable."
But conservative Christians were having none of it. "There can be no compromise to one's religious beliefs," they said. The church's "ability to discriminate … is central to the democratic freedoms of our country".
The Prime Minister has seized on the church's excuse of tradition as justification for a refusal to act against injustice. She opposed gay marriage because there are "important things from our past that need to continue to be part of our present and part of our future".
The usual response to such claims is recourse to the facts. Sadly, however, evidence can be ineffective. As the climate change debate has shown, slanging matches tend to benefit those defending the status quo with few facts on their side. This is because nurturing doubt is enough to stoke public cynicism and shrivel support for change.
We'd do better to wield reason. Racial bigotry was part of Australia's beginnings, yet few contend it is among the "important things from our past [that] need to continue".
Reason also cripples claims the church is responsible for values that Human Rights Commission research shows sections of it still don't support. As the Ad Hoc Interfaith Committee explains, the main tolerance many Christians thought deserved legal protection was their "lower tolerance" for homosexuality.
Australia is a wonderful country because of what good people of all faiths believed in and fought for, often in the face of opposition from the church. Our future must be founded on what we believe is good and right for us now, not what those in the past believed. To get there, reason, empathy and generosity will be key.
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