Spiritual and cultural Christians – indeed such people of all faiths – need to consider allying together with those who identify as belonging to “no religion.” It is the fundamentalist authoritarians who would divide and constrain us all that need exposing as the small minority they truly are. We must make them as powerless as their numbers, goals and hypocrisies merit.
At the first Secular Australia conference in Sydney on Saturday, people gathered to hear presentations on maintaining the line between church and state in Australia. Jane Caro ably ran proceedings and Michael Kirby launched them, drawing attention to the fact that as of the 2021 census, 39% of Australians declared themselves to be of “no religion.” Professor Luke Beck outlined how Australia’s constitution dictates that we are a country where the separation between church and state is established, illustrating the historical battles between denominations that ended up shaping the structures we function within.
David Shoebridge of the federal Greens spoke about the work in federal parliament, noting in particular the “Basic Religious Charity Exemption” robs Australians of considerable wealth from businesses associated with charities and churches such as Sanitarium, as well as removing supervision of how almost $25 billion of public money is spent in these bodies. NSW Green Abigail Boyd described the struggle against entrenched and unaccountable religious conservatism in that state parliament. Rationalist Fiona Patten and South Australian Labor’s Chris Schacht celebrated secularism’s value. Victor Franco described his efforts at Boroondara Council to prove that privileging Christian prayer in such bodies is likely illegal, within Victoria at least.
Our public schools are established to be “free, secular and compulsory.” Alison Courtice and Ron Williams spoke about the secularists’ efforts in Queensland and NSW to constrain the controversial chaplaincy and religious instruction programs in their state schools. Federal governments of both stripes have spent almost $1.5 billion to place inappropriate figures in schools. Not only is this a profit stream for Pentecostal movements, but also a mission field. The ALP’s “secular” option is being embraced by these groups with new “wellbeing” companies set up to place more Pentecostal figures in primary schools.
Collin Acton spoke about his brave stand to make sure secular “chaplains” serve in our navy as first resort pastoral care providers (as well as, or instead of, the old system where chaplains bring a theology degree and a minimum of two years’ work in a civilian community). The Religious Advisory Committee to the Services, some of whom also treat the ADF as a mission field, ought to be replaced with a secular expert panel to ensure our service people are best protected from psychological distress.
One of the most important aspects of the day’s discussion, however, was affirming respect for people of private and virtuous faith. We must stand against the mere 12% of Christians who belong to fundamentalist movements that see the rest of us as an impediment to their goals.
Chrys Stevenson delivered the day’s most important presentation explaining the risk to our democratic project posed by the Christian Nationalist Right. She illustrated that Christian Nationalists believe that End Times are close requiring the purification of every person and nation on the planet to allow Christ’s return to rule. Purification entails constraining all lives: no reproductive rights and no sex outside sacred, heterosexual marriage. This allows no LGBTQIA+ existence at all. Women, they argue, should be returned to the domestic space.
Their Seven Mountains Mandate means all aspects of human society will be controlled by Pentecostal figures: education, religion, family, business, government/military, arts/entertainment and media. There is no obligation to be honest with the secular world about this intent or the methods used to achieve it. Everything is literal spiritual warfare. The secular world, including Christians who are not of their movement but most particularly Catholics, is often depicted as demonic. The movement is deeply antagonistic to First People’s cultures, and often segregationist in race terms.
Stevenson used UTS academic Jeremy Walker’s research into the Atlas Network and its affiliate “think” tanks in Australia where anti-climate action work is accompanied by culture war battles that amplify splits in society. The Atlas model of division was at work in the Voice referendum campaign, not least because the fossil fuel sector that funds so much of these “think” tanks’ work fears the alliance of First People with environmental campaigns.
Stevenson’s speech built on Leslie Cannold’s depiction, in the preceding presentation, of how polarised Australian society is becoming. We are following the American route towards hyperpolarisation which cannot sustain the democratic experiment.
Van Badham spoke with passion, and some trepidation, about her adult embrace of Catholicism. She depicted her faith as integral to her commitment to social justice and her wellbeing. Badham described secularism as a vital bulwark against the authoritarian Christians who pervert her faith, damaging believers as much as people of no religion.
The scandal emerging from Florida in recent days is indicative of the forces at work in the Christofascist right. Christian Ziegler is the state chair of the Republican Party and a staunch ally in Governor Ron DeSantis’s war on “woke,” with constant assaults on both straight women’s and LGBTQIA+ safety within the state. His wife Bridget Ziegler was a co-founder of the hate group Moms for Liberty that has bedevilled American schools and libraries with anti-LGBTQIA+ aggression.
The fact that the Zieglers have been in an open marriage with another woman, including allegedly lesbian activity by Bridget, followed by an accusation of rape and battery of that third party by Christian, exposes the rot at the heart of this kind of politics. Families and individuals are leaving Florida and similar states for their own safety. People have been driven to suicide. Others are living with the mental distress of being targeted for outsider status by this neofascist crusade. The hypocrisy, however, is standard.
True Christians and people of other faiths who live inspired by their belief and its moral code are utterly different from these vindictive neofascists. Our freedom of religion is protected by minimising the power of the radicals. Our freedom of conscience is just as important.
We must work together for mutual protection.