On religious freedom (my submission to the Federal Government’s Expert Panel on Religious Freedom)

In the wash up from the changes to the Marriage Act and the constant presence of ‘religious freedom’ in the debate, the Federal Government appointed a committee to investigate religious freedoms in Australia. I was part of a committee effort from our denomination which you can read here, but also chucked in my own submission online (submissions close on Wednesday). Here’s what I wrote.


To the Expert Panel on Religious Freedom,

I wear many hats. I am a husband and father. I am a pluralist. I am a secularist. I am an Australian citizen. I am a community volunteer. I am a neighbour. I am a friend. And I am a minister of religion in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. One thing remains true as I wear each of these hats — I am a follower of Jesus; a Christian; and this fundamentally informs each of these roles I undertake in our society. As I wear each of these hats — often simultaneously — my contribution to society beyond the protection of my own interests relies on certain freedoms that we take for granted in Australia; freedoms that I believe have been essential in building our nation, and freedoms that I believe are important (though not essential) for our shared future.

It seems clear to me that the definitions around many of these hats have become unclear, especially in the public conversation about religious freedoms and the role of faith in our modern democratic nation; perhaps nowhere more pointedly than in the recent debate around same sex marriage. The postal survey represented a pivotal moment in the conversation around religious freedom in Australia; a turning point, perhaps, in our secular, liberal, pluralist, democracy; wearing several of my hats it seemed to me that there is widespread confusion about the nature of our democracy and the relationship between institutional religious groups, religious individuals, our neighbours, and those engaged in political decision making. I write to tease out some of this confusion and to make a simple suggestion about the nature of religious belief in our nation, and its connection to life in the public sphere, the commons, or the private sector — that is, life outside the ‘sacred’ space of religious property and the privacy of one’s own home; it seems to me that unless all parties to the conversation about religious freedom understand the nature of religious belief — even for minority communities or individuals — this process will disenfranchise and alienate religious adherents, and perhaps lead to a more fractured society, and a public space that only appears more harmonious because people and communities are withdrawing from participation in our common life for fear of consequences of making ones ‘private beliefs’ public.

As someone committed to a pluralist, secular, Australia, I chose to abstain in the Federal Government’s postal survey. I felt like I was being asked to vote for or against the religious freedom of others and remain uneasy about the precedent of putting such freedoms to a popular vote. I took this position because as a Christian, as someone who takes the Bible’s account of human nature as authoritative, I believe that each human is not only made in the image of God, but that we are created as worshippers, that each human, whether we worship a transcendent being or not, is fundamentally religious, that we are creatures who practice our beliefs about where ultimate meaning is found — that our actions are a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and that these motivations are often religious in nature, whether explicitly religious (in terms of participation in organised institutions or codified belief systems), or mirror religious practices — like rituals, sacrifice, and the pursuit of life according to some sense of meaning or purpose.

This is not a new or unique way of contemplating human nature or religious belief, it sits within a classical stream of Christian teaching, and can be found threaded through the Old Testament, expressed in the New Testament, perhaps most clearly in the words of the Apostle Paul who suggests those humans who don’t worship the God revealed to the world in the person of Jesus have “worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). I write this to explain, in part, how Christians understand secularism and pluralism. To live in a secular democracy is to live in a society where different religious views — or communities of people who worship differently — are united in some sort of secondary commitment, not united around a shared view of what is ultimate (that would be a theocracy), but agreeing to come together in disagreement on these questions to pursue common goods; agreeing to do this on the basis that no particular religious system sets the agenda or controls that which is held in common. Christians can participate in a secular democracy with great enthusiasm, using the freedom it affords to follow the example of Jesus Christ, pursuing the sacrificial love of our neighbours (even our enemies) free to proclaim our beliefs about what is true and good for humanity; the message that the God who made everything is knowable and that he is ‘reconciling all things to himself’ through Jesus (Colossians 1:20). We can do this knowing that people can and will disagree with us — that they will form their own communities and we can trust that they will also seek the good of their neighbours, and the community at large, from their particular beliefs; this is the sort of pluralism that our democracy — built on compromise between communities (religious or otherwise) — requires. As a Christian and an office holder in the institutional church I am the first to put up my hand to admit that Christians have, at times, sought to wield our influence — both historical and numerical — to limit the freedoms of others, and to pursue our own vision of the good human life through the laws of the land rather than through the appeal of our beliefs and practice to our neighbours; this failure on our part, and the attempts of Christians to limit the (essentially religious) freedom of others (in, for example, the marriage debate) may go some way towards explaining the pendulum swing against institutional religion in the public debate in Australia, but it does not necessarily justify the limitation of religious freedoms in our nation.

As a Presbyterian Minister I represent a stream of the Christian faith described as ‘protestant’ — tracing the fundamentals of our doctrine and practice back to the Protestant Reformation, a movement that celebrated its 500th anniversary last year; a movement launched by the reformer Martin Luther. The Reformation reiterated a view that religion is not simply a private matter; it is not what Australian poet Manning Clark described as ‘a shy hope in the heart’, but a fundamental conviction about truth and life in the the world that shapes action in private, at home, and at work. This conviction birthed what was labeled ‘the protestant work ethic’ — a commitment to vocation recapturing the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to a church in Colossians, outlining how Christian belief leads to Christian living. Paul said “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

The Reformation turned this principle (and others — perhaps especially that because of Jesus and the role he plays in bringing direct access to God for all who believe — we don’t need ‘religious’ middle men to come between us and God, or to teach with divine authority) into a doctrine described as ‘the priesthood of all believers’. Martin Luther wrote a letter to the German nobility outlining this belief and its implication that there is no essential difference between an employee of the institutional church — the clergy — and the average Christian in the community. He said:

“As St. Paul says (1 Cor. 12.), we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, Gospel, and faith, these alone make spiritual and Christian people. Thus we are all consecrated as priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “Ye are a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2. 9)…”

The implications he draws from this position are that for those who hold these beliefs, every public function of a person — every hat one wears — is a God given vocation to be used in service of God and man. Every Christian is viewed as ‘priest’ — we’re all office bearers in God’s church.

“A cobbler, a smith, a peasant, every man, has the office and function of his calling, and yet all alike are consecrated priests and bishops, and every man should by his office or function be useful and beneficial to the rest, so that various kinds of work may all be united for the furtherance of body and soul, just as the members of the body all serve one another.”

This perhaps explains why so much of the conversation around changes to the Marriage Act focused on seemingly ancillary occupations like bakers and florists; for a Christian baker or Christian florist in this theological tradition (and many others), faith is not simply a private sacred matter but a position or belief that informs one’s approach to the workplace, and to life in public. Faith in Jesus — the belief that because he lived, died, was raised from the dead, and now rules from heaven as Lord and king — compels us to submit every inch of our life to him, and that in response to his great mercy to us we should love and serve others, and ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’ (Romans 12:1), seeking to represent and honour him in word and deed. In the other immortal words of Luther, it is here we stand, we can do none else. Belief in Jesus can’t simply be compartmentalised as ‘private’, or put to the side and taken up again as we enter and leave our houses and church buildings.

When one couples these standard protestant positions — the “priesthood of all believers” and the “protestant work ethic” — it becomes clear why so many Christians in our community are concerned about religious freedoms that focus exclusively on private religious belief or those ‘public’ figures appointed by Christian institutions (the clergy). Another classic position in protestant (especially ‘reformed’) theology is the belief that there is no neat divide between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ — this is true, as outlined above, for the lives of adherents, but it is also true for how we view the world; public space in a secular democracy is not ‘secular’ in the sense that we believe God is absent, the apostle Paul taught that ‘in Jesus all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:17), and that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (1 Corinthians 10:26, where he quotes the Old Testament (Psalm 24:1) while explaining how the Corinthians should take part in ‘contested’ public life; life shared by worshippers of other gods).

It seems clear to me, as a minister of religion, and as a citizen, that it would be harmful to the unity of our nation — built on a commitment to disagreement (rather than on shared worship of a common ‘god’), to restrict religious freedoms to religious office bearers in ‘sacred space’ — to do so would be both to misunderstand the nature of religious belief and its link to practice (at least in my own tradition, where I speak with some expertise — but also, evidentially, in others), and would lead to people holding these religious convictions to withdraw from common life in public space to enclaves and private spaces; surely the best future for our nation is one where our diversity produces richness and resilience through civil disagreement and tolerance, rather than a fragmented nation where different communities withdraw into their own bubbles such that we are able to find less and less in common; less to unite us as citizens?

I thank you for your service of our community and nation in your consideration of this complex matter; I am praying for wisdom and endurance for you all as you work your way through submissions. As you do, I urge you to consider the nature of religious belief and its relationship to public life, or ‘life in the commons’ and the implications this has for notions of ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ when making recommendations about religious freedom in Australia.

In Christ,

Rev Nathan Campbell

Presbyterian Church of Australia

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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