Archives For separation of church and state

On the surface this reads like an angry council being spurred on by some angry residents to persecute an Australian church…

Scarborough Baptist Church, in Western Australia, has been ordered to cease almost all its activities because their church property is only technically allowed to conduct religious services and childcare. Their media release says:

“On 18 September 2012 Scarborough Baptist Church received notification from the City of Stirling requiring the Church to cease all activities (including feeding the needy and running craft and pre-school dance classes) not defined by the City as “religious activities”. The penalty for not complying is an immediate fine of $1,000,000 plus $125,000 per day that the Church fails to comply.

Many of these activities are central to the Church’s pastoral role within the community, and have been operating in the church for years; the craft group, for example, has been holding weekly craft meetings for 35 years, and the evening service and community meal has now been running for nearly a decade.

The City of Stirling has failed to provide any evidence that Scarborough Baptist Church has contravened any local by-laws. Through this Direction, the City has taken upon itself the right to define what constitutes a religious activity. According to the City’s correspondence, religious activities exclude, among others: funerals, weddings, Easter services, youth groups, quiz nights to raise funds for local schools, fêtes and fairs to raise funds for world aid, and the provision of meals and services to the community.

It is the position of Scarborough Baptist Church, in accordance with the separation of Church and State, that local government officials not take it upon themselves to define what a religious activity is, be it in the context of a church, mosque, temple, synagogue, or other place of worship.”

I’m not a big fan of that last paragraph – I mean I understand where they’re coming from, but I think they assume a “separation of church and state” that might not actually exist in the form that they’re suggesting it does. However, the idea that local government officials shouldn’t be defining what a religious activity is is pretty sound.

There’s also some nice bits of the Bible to support what Scarborough Baptist are defining as religious activities – especially the bolded bits above:

From James 1:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

And Mark 10, where Jesus is talking to a young rich guy.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”"

Jesus makes it a pretty big deal towards the end of Matthew too, in chapter 25…

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Now. I don’t live in Western Australia, so I’m not exactly sure what’s going down here – but this seems to be a bit of a PR nightmare for the council, and a great opportunity for the church. Perhaps they should move their activities to a park or something while this gets sorted out… but at the very least they’ll be able to talk a bit about what it means to be a Christian – and how these activities relate to what Jesus taught.

The story is getting some coverage, and I guess we can expect to see more of it in coming days… here’s one of the fairly sympathetic stories from a West Australian outlet… where the plot thickens a bit… with two things:

The complaints were apparently initiated by the church’s neighbours… for what some might consider a legitimate reason.

“The council said it was obliged to investigate after receiving complaints from residents over late-night noise and antisocial behaviour such as urination in public…

… Health and compliance manager Peter Morrison said the council has told the church that it would consider changes to allow many of the activities if the church lodged the necessary applications and showed how it would address neighbourhood concerns.

“The church has refused to make any such application,” he said. “Any organisation, church or not, needs to make an application to their local government authority to conduct activities on premises.”

And the council is prepared to allow the church “conduct worship” if it fills out some paperwork.

Here’s what I’d be doing if I were the church in question.

1. Reach out to the neighbourhood. Mending bridges. Apologising. Offering the same love to the immediate neighbours that they seem pretty good at offering to the community at large. Deliberately.

2. Put together a teaching series on what “religion that God accepts” looks like – putting these on the website, and issuing a media release inviting the community along to experience “true religion”… even if they have to do it in a park. This gets the church’s position into the public domain as quickly, clearly, and proactively as possible.

3. Submit to the requests of the government and fill out the paperwork – and see what activities the council deems inappropriate.

4. Write an open letter to the mayor, sent to the local paper, outlining the church’s commitment to praying faithfully for, and serving the city, especially by lovingly pointing people to Jesus, and caring for them as he requires, with no request for special treatment, but a promise to keep on using whatever resources the church has to love and serve the community, out of the hope that they will see their need for Jesus through the love of his people, with a concluding statement that even one day’s worth of the fine will put the church out of business.

Obviously I’m not that church, and they have a much better idea of what’s going on on the ground, with their neighbours, with their finances, and how essential their activities are to their presence in the community. But it’s interesting to work from a non-hypothetical dilemma.

There’s an interesting take on the situation from a guy named Stephen McAlpine here, he suggests a couple of different solutions…

This could be a big deal, or it could be a small deal, either way – it raises some interesting questions about how to be the church in Australia and what it means to have a physical presence in a community.

UPDATE: There’s another good story from a couple of days ago that’s worth a read. I especially like these last lines:

Pastors and church members are adamant that they should be allowed to serve food under their licence to operate as a church, because feeding the needy is part of a religious service.

Seven-year-member Colin Rowecliffe says: “We are a church, and inherent in that is the approval to be a church and act like a church.”

We want to be a church that is community minded, that not only has bible studies and prayers but also does things in the community”.

“We don’t just try to do talk about what Jesus does, we try to do what Jesus did.”

Also, in the comments, RodeoClown shared a response that Scarborough Baptist issued after that first article. It’s worth a read in full… but some highlights:

“Peter Morrison’s comments regarding Scarborough Baptist Church gives the wrong impression that the church is being deliberately intransigent and seeks to put itself above the law. Up to now the church has had no evidence presented to us to indicate that we have breached any by-laws of the City of Stirling or laws of the state. Mr. Morrison refers to complaints about late night activities by the church. Our Sunday evening meal finishes at 8pm. with all the people dispersed by 8.15pm. at the latest. Once or twice a year we may have a meeting up to ten at night – which hardly constitute ‘late nights’. The complaints can thus not refer to the church’s activities and should have been dismissed.”…

…We have always sought permission for activities conducted outside our church buildings that may impact on the community. Furthermore, officials of the City of Stirling trained us on how to provide meals in line with health regulations at our Sunday fellowship and outreach services.

My Facebook newsfeed is jammed full of articles, cause invites and petitions suggesting that the Christian sky will fall down if I don’t voice my support for the government funding of school chaplains.

For some background – the Australian government provides some funding for schools to employ chaplains (after consultation with the P&C and support from the local community (which means churches). This funding is generous and has allowed for many chaplains to be hired around the country. In Queensland these services are generally provided through Scripture Union (SU) who are an umbrella body, and a Christian organisation. Chaplains roles are limited because they offer services to people of all faiths, beliefs, lack of faiths, etc. An atheist from Toowoomba doesn’t like that government money is going to what is arguably a religious service, that arguably enshrines Christianity as a state religion (though the legislation is all very clear that chaplains don’t have to be Christian). This is the website for the High Court Challenge. Here’s a few paragraphs from a news story from September last year:

“Mr Williams said that while the rules of the program prohibited chaplains from proselytising, the Queensland provider, the biblical literalist Scripture Union, has as its aim ”to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer”.

”It’s absolutely, totally out of control here. You can’t prevent your children being exposed to chaplaincy,” Mr Williams said.

In Victoria, state school chaplains are employed by ACCESS Ministries, the same group that provides non-compulsory religious education. Chaplains in Victoria are better qualified than in other states, and are required to have at least one degree in teaching, theology or counselling, as well as further training in another of those fields.”

I won’t be joining said causes, signing said petitions, (though I will read the articles).

I think government funding for chaplains is actually borderline a bad thing, for a number of reasons. I wrote something along these lines back in 2006 when federal funding was first announced, and nothing I have seen since has changed my mind.

In case you’re sitting there thinking “oh no, all the chaplains I know are lovely people, and should totally keep their jobs” – I agree. Entirely. One of my best friends really is a chaplain, several other close friends are too. Chaplains, on the whole, have had an incredibly positive impact on the lives of children at school – and somebody in the school community should be doing the job they’re doing, I’m glad the people currently doing the job are Christians. I really am.

I have a couple of problems with the scaremongering going on around this issue.

1. There’s an assumption that government funding of chaplains is a good thing.
2. There’s an assumption that this money is free.
3. There’s an assumption that chaplains would disappear if the funding was pulled.
4. There’s an assumption that chaplaincy, in its present form, is good for the spread of the gospel.

I’d challenge the first three, and suggest that in the case of the third this is no axiom, but reflects the exception, not the rule (indeed, I’d say for chaplains to be spreading the gospel they’d have to be putting their federal funding and positions in danger).

It’s this kind of approach to the interaction with church and state that I think characterises much of what is wrong with the church – we assume we have some sort of entitlement to special access.

Around the same time in 2006 that I wrote that post linked above, I wrote another post, suggesting that because of Christianity’s place in Australia’s heritage we do have a place in the educational spectrum. Particularly in modern history. And I think RE is appropriate – because all students have equal access to religious instruction, and religion is a huge part of life outside of school, and I recognise that there is a spiritual aspect to one’s development as a person that is rightly addressed in an RE program.

But chaplains aren’t even allowed to teach RE. What’s the point of having a Christian voice in a school if they’re not allowed to teach Christian things?

“While exercising their roles from within a Christian framework and promoting positive Christian values, SU Qld Chaplains will be sensitive to and respectful of people who hold beliefs and values different from their own. SU Qld Chaplains will be available to all students, staff and parents within their schools, regardless of religious affiliation.” – From the SU Chaplaincy site

The Queensland Government’s position on Religious Education in schools is quite clearly articulated here.

As is their position on what chaplains can do as part of their role

Whilst personally modeling and owning their own faith positions or belief, chaplains avoid any implications that any one religion, denomination or other set of beliefs is advantageous or superior to any other denomination, religion or belief.

Chaplaincy programs are compatible with policies and practices that apply to delivery of any service in a multi-faith and multicultural state school community. A chaplaincy program is inclusive of and shows respect for all religious and non-religious beliefs and other stances represented in the school community. All activities and events provided within a chaplaincy program are non-discriminatory and equitably available to students of all beliefs who choose to participate.

That earlier link spells this out a little further when it comes to the subject of teaching RE…

Teachers and chaplains are not to teach religious instruction. It is not part of their work duties. However, if a chaplain or a teacher works part-time, they may choose to teach religious instruction in their own time, outside of work hours.

Accepting government money, in a nation where church and state are separate (which is a good thing), creates a relationship of dependency and shifts the power dynamic in this separation to the person giving the money (I suspect this will eventually become a problem with regards to the tax benefits churches enjoy).

The “Save Our Chaplains” campaign is making this a do or die issue for school chaplaincy (and if you disagree with me, go there and sign the pledge – this post then becomes “awareness raising” so everybody wins). I think we can all acknowledge some truth to this campaign, an overturning of the federal funding may well see a bunch of chaplains out of a job – which is not the outcome we want. But if the church, as a whole, believes chaplains are worth keeping – then we should be paying for them ourselves. It’s great that the government wants to recognise the role that these guys play – but as soon as we take their money, they take control. And suddenly there’s a bunch of truths we can’t speak. Can a chaplain, funded by the government, be known to believe that homosexuality is a sin? Can a chaplain explain to a troubled child that Jesus is the only way to God? Can we make any claim that offends any other taxpayer? I don’t know. I’m not a chaplain – but I’ve been to a couple of SU Supporters nights and noticed that it’s all about “having positive impacts on children’s lives” and “being there” – and there’s almost never a mention of God at these nights at all. I once offered to pay $100 per year for every mention of God at one of these dinners, and it didn’t cost me a cent. And this is when they’re preaching to the converted. It’s not even “Scripture Union” anymore. It’s SU. Which is one of those branding decisions that’s made when you’ve moved away from the core product but want to keep your history… SU’s aims and working principles document is still thoroughly Christian, and commendable.

The guy launching the court action against government funding seems to be a bit of a jerk. But he’s a jerk with principles that are actually based in reality – church and state are separate. And we want them to be. Because we can’t afford to have the government controlling our message – look what happens to state churches in European (especially Scandinavian) countries. For a perspective on the issue from the other side (the atheist side) of the equation read this article – it’s long, and it makes some sound points, and some points from a “religious teaching is child abuse” kind of perspective.

Figuring out how to maintain the distinction between being on school grounds teaching Christianity as part of a religious education program and government funded positions for religious workers who can’t teach religions is tricky. One of the other spin-offs of this court challenge against chaplaincy in schools, and the introduction of ethics classes in NSW, and a host of other campaigns being driven by opponents of the gospel who conflate the two into one issue, is this attack on the teaching of RE in schools, or CRE, or RI, or whatever “scripture lessons” are called in your states. This is a period of time allocated for volunteers to come into a school to preach. There’s a campaign on Facebook that wants to keep RE taught in Victorian schools, which is a cause I’d support (not least because the guy running the Facebook cause is a friend of mine).

I won’t be signing anything to keep chaplaincy in its current guise in schools. I love my chaplain friends dearly. And I’d love to continue financially supporting them in the future so that they can get into schools and preach the gospel to kids without the shackles of government funding tying them down.

That is all.

Oliver O’Donovan was interviewed about the American elections, democracy, and the Christian. He said some good stuff (which you can read here, or summarised here at Between Two Worlds).

The essential political duties we owe to our neighbours are those of living together with them peacefully under the law, and of giving proper support to the institutions of government that uphold the law. It is very unglamorous, and very necessary. To this essential basis a democratic polity has added the specific responsibility of voting in elections. To perform that democratic task well is quite difficult. It means listening carefully to political debates and sifting the true from the false in a self-questioning way, aware of the subtle influences of prejudice upon ourselves as well as upon others. It means to be open to persuasion, ready to change one’s mind. It means achieving a clear sense of the difference between what we can and must decide and what we cannot and should not try to decide.

Then he said this. Which I’m not sure I agree with:

“The “average American in the pew” seems not uncommonly to be told (or so it appears to us as we listen in across the Atlantic Ocean) that she or he has much larger political responsibilities than this: to make the Gospel heard in public life, to bring in the Kingdom of God and to make a better world, and so on.”

These can be problematic if you think making the gospel heard and bringing in the kingdom means stamping Christianity on the forehead of those who aren’t Christians. Which some do. But they do also, to me, sound like a fair summary of our role as Christians living in society (depending on how you think you bring about the Kingdom).

Some of these tasks are indeed tasks of the Church, which all Christians share, but not distinctively political. Some are political, but not tasks of the Church so much as promises of the work of the Spirit of God, for which we must pray and wait—while fulfilling our mission and doing the work that comes to our hand—humbly and without pompous pretensions.

Hang on. What? How are these two statements mutually exclusive in the way he frames them? How are some of those things he lists “political” but not tasks of the church? Or the other way around? How is “doing the work that comes to hand” not the same as making the gospel heard, bringing in the kingdom of God and making a better world? I would have thought that was exactly what the work that comes to our hand was… How are they not both political and the task of the church through the work of the Spirit which we pray and wait for… while also acting.

I might be getting this all wrong, but it often seems that this corrective of the old thinking has chucked out baby and bath water by insisting on the same dichotomy from the other side of the spectrum. People used to say “preach the gospel, preach the gospel, preach the gospel” and good works and loving people kind of got pushed to the side so far as the church is concerned. And that’s bad. But the answer isn’t to say “do good works, do good works, do good works.” Isn’t “do good works while preaching the gospel/preach the gospel while doing good works” a better way forward.

Maybe the real distinction between my thinking and O’Donovan’s here is how the Spirit works – I don’t necessarily think we sit and wait for the spirit to move, I think we move, praying and trusting that the Spirit will work through our actions. I don’t see “doing the work before us” as distinct from waiting on the Spirit.

Finally, he offers some worthwhile thoughts on how to talk about politics from the pulpit, which I’ve summarised below.

Some Don’ts

  1. Don’t act as if you are a well informed pundit with inside knowledge just because you’re a preacher: “Political discernment is not a gift of the Spirit promised to an ordained minister with the laying on of hands. It is more than probable that a congregation will contain some who are better informed and have better judgment than their clergy.
  2. Know what to focus on, and what to ignore: “Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities.”
  3. Don’t buy into the idolatry of modern politics: “The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”
  4. Don’t talk without knowing what the terms you’re using mean in both the Christian and secular political realms: “Few Christian interventions into political debate display any kind of conceptual sophistication. They sound naïve – not in the sense of being too idealistic, but simply by using words without appreciating their meaning. Every political term carries a complex freight: “rights”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “equality”, “the state”, “law”, and so on. Such an elementary blunder as using “democratic” to mean “fair” betrays a level of incompetence that disqualifies the speaker as a guide to others.”
  5. Don’t introduce concepts with baggage without knowing how those concepts relate to others: No preacher can introduce such ideas effectively without a basic sense of their relation to each other and to the Gospel: how does civil freedom relate to evangelical freedom? how do human rights relate to the righteousness of God? Nothing is contributed if the church merely echoes the current buzz-words…
  6. Don’t preach politics like a politician, do it ethically: “One should not go on as though one were a statesman oneself, trying to get a certain decision taken, using every argument in its favour, good or bad, that might appeal to somebody.”
  7. Don’t be partisan: Don’t pick a side just for the sake of picking a side: “The notion that political deliberation is basically about the rival claims of competing parties is one which the church must do everything it can to challenge. Political deliberation is about understanding our situation truthfully.”
  8. Don’t not be partisan: Sometimes the question of truth is an obvious distinction between the parties.
  9. Don’t avoid choosing a position to avoid offending people: there is no reason to be alarmed if, on any occasion, the concern of the church opens into a critical perspective on secular political events. “To convince of sin, righteousness and judgment” is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), which must sometimes, surely, take the form of defining a position in relation to such evils as abortion, nuclear deterrence, unemployment, North-South inequities and so on.
  10. Don’t avoid controversy for the sake of avoiding controversy: We would be less than faithful preachers of the Gospel if we made our minds never to venture onto such terrain. But to do it usefully we have to risk controversy. We will be of little use to the Holy Spirit if we save our denunciations for those evils on which we can be sure there will be little difference of opinion among our hearers.
  11. Don’t be controversial just for the sake of presenting your opinions: “Controversy may be healthy or unhealthy. It will be unhealthy if we announce our conclusions and declare, “Take them or leave them!” It will be healthy if we lead the church through the task of Christian deliberation from first principles, so helping those who differ to find the Christian ground on which they stand and building up the church’s unity in the Gospel.

Some Dos

  1. Rather than pretending you’re a pundit help equip the church to think through what is known about a situation.
  2. Don’t mix messages: The pulpit may only rightly be used for addressing the church’s own concerns. Those concerns are the truth of the Gospel and all that follows from it for Christian action.
  3. Preach politics for the purpose of fostering engaged Christian thinking and action: The justification for preaching on politics is exactly the same as that for preaching on the family or on money or on any secular concern: it assists Christians to bring an evangelical mind to bear on their responsibilities… How one speaks will be determined by what is in view, which is to assist authentic Christian deliberation.
  4. Preach politics understanding why it’s important in a democratic setting: “Political deliberation is a responsibility of the members of the church inasmuch as they participate in a political society.”
  5. Don’t preach to persuade to your point of view, preach to demonstrate the Biblical position on an issue: “…the argument should be a Christian one that commends itself to any Christian conscience. It is less important that those who hear you should concur in your conclusions than that they should respond positively to the principles from which you reason.
  6. Preach Politics from the Bible: When I address political questions I almost always adopt an exegetical form of sermon-structure, follow my text and the argument that arises from it, until it points irresistibly to some theologico-political principle. Then, in the lightest way possible, I give concreteness to the principle by showing how it bears on the public issue in question.
  7. Keep yourself out of it (mostly): “it [your own view] will be evident enough from the argument. If anyone disagrees with me, I hope that person will have been helped to articulate a more authentically Christian response, one which will take seriously the issues of principle I have raised.”
  8. Preach to the Christian conscience: “Everyone needs to come out with a clearer sense of what is unnegotiable for Christian conscience, and what, by contrst, is merely a matter of differing emphasis or differing interpretation of a given situation.”
  9. Aim to present the Gospel of Christ in the context of each political issue: In that way the judgment of the Spirit proves itself authentic, drawing the line between the Gospel and despair, between belief and unbelief, obedience and rebellion, and lighting the way for the confession of Christ in the centre of each new situation

Reading some O’Donovan

Nathan Campbell —  September 18, 2010

Robyn and I are the proud owners of one of the new Amazon Kindles. It is going to keep us company on the plane for our trip. It’s also given me the chance to tackle some Oliver O’Donovan (just so I can be better equipped to argue with Stuart and Mark). The Kindle is exciting and should make blogging book reviews a breeze. You should check out the continuing discussion with Mark on a Christian approach to ethics, politics and gay marriage. We’ve almost written a book.

In the meantime, here are a couple of quotes to ponder from an essay by O’Donovan.

“Democracy and human rights are not identical things, so it is necessary to ask whether they can coexist. It seems that the answer depends on two contingent factors: how the democratic societies conduct themselves, and what rights human beings assert. You cannot champion “democracy and human rights” without quite quickly having to decide which takes precedence between them; and since either of those terms, and not just one of them, may from time to time be used as a cloak for self–interest and tyranny, there is no universally correct answer. That is the underlying problem of coherence in contemporary Western ideology.”

“The legal tradition needs correction. The obligation of the courts to maintain self–consistency makes them reluctant to innovate. But innovation may be required, and that for two causes: first, where tradition has deviated from natural right; secondly, where it is ill–adapted to the practical possibilities within society. These two concerns are often confused, yet they are in principle quite different, moving, as it were, in opposite directions: bringing law closer to the moral norm on the one hand, further from it on the other. Some reforms are idealistic, attempting to correct our vices; some are compromises, making some kind of settlement with them. Either kind of reform may be necessary at one or another juncture, since acts of judgment have to be both truthful and effective. Every change in law aims to squeeze out, as it were, the maximum yield of public truthfulness available within the practical constraints of the times. Sometimes it does it by attempting more, sometimes by attempting less.”

Biblical Sightations

Nathan Campbell —  January 19, 2010

A weapons manufacturer for the U.S military has come under fire for including inscriptions that cite Bible passages on their sights.

A separation of powers spokesperson said the following:

“It allows the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, al Qaeda and the insurrectionists and jihadists to claim they’re being shot by Jesus rifles.”

Jesus did say he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword – although I suspect this misses the figurative sense he was speaking in…

Traffic jam

Nathan Campbell —  October 9, 2009

It seems I’m not alone in being inundated with traffic. Over at City on a Hill Jeff asked if Christians should be defending marriage – ie the traditional definition of marriage. I thought it was an interesting question, so I threw in my two cents and left. Unfortunately I left before the fun started.

Jeff was featured on the WordPress.com homepage and he got quite few comments. They make for interesting reading… one American guy suggested doing away with the separation of church and state.

You should read Jeff’s blog – his posts are bite sized, like meals at a fine restaurant.

Benny on religion

Benny —  August 28, 2009

In these initial posts I thought I would continue the Christian themes that are abundant on this blog, so I thought I would comment not on why/why not I believe certain Christian beliefs, but rather my opinion of religions as a whole.

A little background, I think it would be awesome if there is a God, and it would be almost as awesome if people were born believing in God and this never changed. This would be good as everyone could just live out this life, and then move onto the next one. It would be one big spring break. I also think that this would probably make the world a much less stressful place, and everyone would treat each other better. There would be no need for selfishness, no reason to feel sad if anyone was lost, this world would be only temporary.

However, moving away from the crazy perfect dream, in the actual world it is difficult to tell if religion has more beneficial points than bad points.

Nathan and I have had the discussion of the origin of morals before, which I firmly established my belief that morals aren’t a derivative of the Christian faith. Still, I accept the role of religion in developing many people values, morals and ethics, and I think for the most part Christianity does instil people with a certain standard of goodness. From this perspective, if the Christian faith was more dominant, maybe we would have a better moral grounding, however it is hard to tell. It is possible that morals developed to an extent through general life experience. Maybe religion helps people developed these attributes at a greater rate. This seems likely.

However, what I think is more beneficial to the development of good societal morals and ethics is the community group that religion often fosters. Church groups bring people together, teach the group the expected standards of behaviour, and the younger generations learn how to behave form the older. This almost tribal oversight on the development of younger people I would think would result in them developing better behaviour principles. I would think that belonging to a community group would benefit the morals of people almost as much as being within an organised educational institution and even a strong family unit.

Where clashes occur is across religious boundaries. It seems religions aren’t good at being friends. And some religions aren’t even good at liking their own members if they aren’t religious enough. This is a major mark against religions, and causes divides within the larger community. This concept is one of the prime reasons I do not like any religious divisions in schools. There are enough artificial lines drawn in other areas of society along religious boundaries. I strongly believe that if anything we should be trying to get schools as culturally diverse and free from any types of potentially dividing lines as possible. This means removing all religious-focused educational institutions, and trying to ensure that we preserve this one institution where developing children interact with children from other cultures and religious backgrounds. I understand that many will feel this somewhat impacts on their religious choice and ability to make decisions for their children, however from a whole-of-society standpoint, I think this aids in developing a more inclusive, open society.

Further, religions, relevantly the Christian religions, are not tolerant. Some say they are, but they are not. To some extent I think Nathan has both become less tolerant and more acknowledging of the fact the Christian religion is not tolerant. I think it is important not to get confused between the recognition that different views exist, the tolerance of different views such that there is a willingness to allow those different views to be incorporated into society alongside your own.

This is not the case with many religions, well at least western religions anyway (but I’m not overly familiar with the religions of the world, so I am likely unfairly stereotyping far too many religions into this broad religion umbrella). In the grand scheme of things, it has to be said that rarely do religious ideals greatly impact on non-religious day-to-day choices or lifestyles for the most part.

However, the laws that religion has spurned, as well as the societal stigma’s and opinions in created still remain, and often it is certain minority or misfortunate groups that they have the most impact on. I find it absolutely infuriating at the thought of gay people being beaten or discriminated against on religious basis. Nathan seems to have an issue with same sex marriage due to the potential impacts it could have on family units. There are arguments on either side of this, many difficult to truly validate (such as studies that tells me that traditional families are better/worse than a different family type), but at least if they are approached logically and rationally, I am willing to think through them, and come to a conclusion. I like rational arguments and evidence. What I find more difficult is arguments based on religious grounds. I accept that religious people developed personal values around their religious beliefs and values. However, I find it unfair and unjust to regulate the lives of others based on such groundings.

I am also becoming concerned that Christians have a certain superiority complex that extends further than their belief they have the correct theological choice. As already mentioned, it includes Christian’s belief in their superior moral compass, but I think it also may extend to thoughts that Christians may be just generally more enlightened in all contexts. However, Christians probably make this argument against non-Christians.

There is also a tear within myself to an extent. While I want to preserve everyone’s right to choose and practice their own religion, I also realise that the way in which religions impede upon each other, it is not realistic to believe all these different views could live contently side by side. I think this source of conflict has a negative impact on society.

Finally, I don’t mind being preached to. while I think a lot of non-Christians are bothered by this, I think most of my religious friends understand certain boundaries, and for the most part in Australia it is quite easy for Christian and non-Christian groupings to get along quite easily. In fact, the way smiley puts it, if my Christian friends didn’t try to drag me in once in a while, they are probably not being a good Christian in trying to save their friends. That said, the extent some people have gone to spread the word I think has been somewhat unacceptable. Organisations that organised for missionaries to enter countries where Christianity was not welcome is a grey area I find somewhat difficult to vindicate. They may be heroes of the religion, but again it shows an element of elitism that exists within a group that is willing to do this. It may have been done with the best of intentions, but in the big picture, being so direct may have done more instances of harm than good. And it unlikely caused further tension between already strained international ties.

So to be a true Christian, you seemingly have to take the good attributes with the bad. And, from the requirements of Christianity of spreading the word and living by the bibles teachings, it seems that there is no solution for the incompatibility between the Christian v non-Christian world.

Peter Costello has a piece in the SMH on proposed changes to the discrimination laws, he chooses to focus particularly on the ramifications of changing this legislation for Christian schools.

“At present, discrimination statutes don’t apply to religious bodies and their schools on the grounds of freedom of religion. So a parliamentary committee has recommended options to extend the power of the state over the province of religion. One proposed change is to restrict the freedom of religious schools to choose their employees on the basis of their religious faith.”

I’m not apologist for Christian schools – they can create unhelpful monocultural microcosms that can cause problems for people engaging with the world later in life. On the flipside, they are really helpful institutions where children receive a better than average education at the hands of teachers who actually care about their development…

Forcing religious schools to make employment decisions free from preference to religion sounds equitable – but there’s no way a Christian School would hire an atheist teacher – they’d find other reasons to not hire them. It’s almost impossible to police. So it’s not a concern.

It is dumb though. And it’s the reason that Christians should push for a clear separation of church and state. It cuts both ways.

5 Points about Calvin

Nathan Campbell —  July 13, 2009

Calvin is famous for his slightly misattributed and grossly misunderstood “five points of Calvinism” – I’ve got a reputation for being “not a five point Calvinist” mostly because I don’t like hyper-Calvinism. Calvin was mostly terrific – having done some research though I can’t say I’m fully on board with his philosophy of government.

Here are some things I learned about Calvin this week that I thought were interesting.

  1. Calvin wrote some stuff under a pen name to avoid persecution from the established Catholic church – including Charles d’Es-perville, Martianus Lucanius, Carolus Passelius, Alcuin, Depercan, and Calpurnius – these would be good names to consider for your children or characters in a novel if you’re staunchly, but secretly, reformed.
  2. Calvin was, by nature, incredibly humble – he wanted a life of quiet scholarship. He requested an unmarked grave. He was pastorally sacrificial. He submitted all things to the sovereignty of God. He championed a doctrine that made human agency incredibly small. He instituted a political system in the city whose church he lead removing power and authority from the church and putting it in the hands of the people. The idea of having a theological movement named after him would have been an anathema. It seems to me that this aspect of his character is in stark contrast to the pillars of the “new Calvinism”.
  3. Calvin was, by nature, incredibly arrogant. He was so incredibly confident in his personal views on scripture and Government – and did not particularly like opposition. God seems to prefer to work through guys who are an incredible paradox of confidence and humility – I’m not sure that humility and arrogance are the polar opposites people suggest. They seem to be two separate characteristics with related distinctives.
  4. Calvin was politically savvy enough to know when not to be political. This greatly enhanced his influence on the political sphere.  

    He was expelled from Geneva the first time round because he wouldn’t pander to the rich and powerful (by serving them communion). He was brought back to reform the political structure of the city a few years later. But he didn’t use this as an opportunity to grandstand or point score (at least from the pulpit)… To quote the helpful biography of Calvin I linked to the other day:
     

    When Calvin returned to St. Peter’s Cathedral in 1541, he unceremoniously but symbolically resumed his pulpit activity by expounding the Scriptures at the exact verse where he left off prior to his exile.

    Several days earlier, Calvin had consulted with the Small Council, the real political powerhouse of the day, and encouraged them to make important reforms. They were so willing to help him in the Reformation of Geneva that they not only approved his proposals to revise the protocols for church order, but they also appointed him to a committee to design a constitution for the Republic of Geneva.

  5. Calvin’s post-reformation political realignment of Geneva pioneered the separation of church and state, and the separation of powers. His restructuring of Geneva’s government removed power from the head of the church to a church council, and to a separately elected government in the city. These groups functioned as checks and balances. He separated government of the city from the church to protect the church from the interference of the government and the wealthy – not the other way around.

    He was, however, not a fan of government being “secular” – his philosophy of government, or theology of government, revolved around the government acting in a Christian manner. Again, a couple of insightful quotes from that biography…

    Calvin practiced what he preached. A consistency of ideals, both in church and state, permeated his thought and action. He was prudent enough to realize that the best way to reform the culture was an indirect one, i.e., to first reform the church.

    ”With the publication of the Ordinances, Geneva created a unique Christian commonwealth whereby church and state cooperated in preserving religion as the key to their new identity.”

Political Calvinist

Nathan Campbell —  July 11, 2009

Calvin is best known in Christian circles as the predestination guy. But I think he should perhaps be best recognised as the political guy. He was a champion of the separation of church and state – this came from the church first, not the state… and was big on the separation of powers with a system of checks and balances.

This fascinating biography of Calvin includes some great insights into how he interacted with the (still nominally Christian) government of the day…

“Calvin’s preaching was at times direct, confrontational, and “politically informed.” One 1552 sermon so irritated the Council that they inquired just why it was that he spoke of the Senators and other civil rulers in a particular sermon as “arguing against God,” “mocking him,” “rejecting all the Holy Scriptures [to] vomit forth their blasphemies as supreme decrees,” and as “gargoyle monkeys [who] have become so proud Calvin’s rhetoric was certainly not so academic or technical as to elude his audience.”