JERRY ROBERTS. Church and State again

Dec 19, 2019

Having withdrawn its religious discrimination legislation, the Government has acted with the speed of an Olympic athlete to bring it back to the public. Perhaps the Prime Minister and Attorney are inspired by the sporting heroes who have stirred up this spurious debate.

The union-bashing thwarted by Pauline Hanson and the nightmare of religious discrimination draft legislation rejected by the business world are cynical manoeuvres by our Government to create and inflame divisions in Australian society. The practice of “wedging” opponents is now the standard fare of our politics. It is an inexcusably disgusting waste of precious time that damages both parties — the “wedger” and the “wedgee.” It takes two to tango. The Government wants to wedge but the Opposition does not have to be wedged.

The three cheerleaders in this embarrassing pseudo-religious farce are Israel Folau, Margaret Court and the ultra-conservative Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies. Are there Christians out there in 21st century Australia who can read and write who want to see their religion defined by this trio? Surely our country is not that backward.

We easy-going Aussies adopt an attitude of tolerant amusement to Bible-bashers. They can worship their God as long as they don’t get too aggro when they try to push him down our throats. The general objection to Bible-bashers is their inability to mind their own business. When they stick their noses into other people’s business, particularly their sexual business, they become obnoxious.

I will stick to the Christians here because they are causing most of the problems. The Jews are not looking for converts. The Muslims are consumed by their internal feud between Sunni and Shia. The Buddhists are more grown-up than the monotheists.

There are seven references to homosexuality in the Bible. Four are in the Old Testament books of Genesis, Judges and Leviticus. The three New Testament references are in the letters of Saint Paul, including the passage quoted by Israel Folau in his Facebook warning to the ungodly. Christ had nothing to say on the subject.

Saint Paul, writing 2,000 years ago, was addressing the Roman vices of male prostitution and paedophilia, which have not changed much in the intervening millennia. There are 250 references in the Bible to the abuses of wealth and 300 references about duties to the poor. These bare statistics should make quite clear to Christians where their priority lies. Christ threw the money-lenders out of the temple.

English philosopher John Gray writes that a common mistake among secular people is to assume that religious observance is about belief (or faith). Religion is primarily about practice. This came home to me when I gave a lecture to our local Anglican congregation in Perth on the Nicene Creed, that most perfectly-composed document known to mankind. I analysed the Creed in detail, line by line, clause by clause, word by word, in the Latin, because the Creed is about structure and Latin is a heavily-structured language.

The lecture was successful. People stayed awake and they were interested but it was obvious that they had not given the content of the Creed much thought, although they have recited it every week all their long lives. “I believe in one God … Credo in unum deum.” They are not in Church to talk to their God. They are there to be part of a community.

At a meeting where we heard lengthy analysis of the first religious discrimination draft, which was horrendously complicated, I spoke to a lawyer active in the Anglican Church who is in favour of legislation on this subject I told her that a harmonious society cannot be legislated into existence. It needs congenial give and take, the sort of thing we Australians like to think we are good at. The entry of government into religion is like a bad dream.

The recent legal fight between Israel Folau and Rugby Australia was not about religion. It was about the law of contract, which, I dare say, is just as complicated as the religious discrimination field we are now entering. The issue was Folau’s contract. Presumably, his former employer was advised that there was a big enough grey area to keep teams of lawyers arguing in the courts for weeks at huge expense. In those circumstances it was fair enough to settle out of court.

That is where religion is heading. There will be so much litigation that legal firms will create whole new divisions. We will have to build new court houses. At least that will provide jobs for building trades.

A Sydney academic has remarked on Scott Morrison’s “disconnect” from Australilan reality as he rushes to religion at a time when the country is on fire, the national economy is stagnant and world affairs among the superpowers are a balancing act that looks awfully close to crashing. The critic compared the Prime Minister’s religious distraction to Tony Abbot’s honouring of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Tony’s rush of blood only damaged Tony, who was able to laugh at himself. Scott Morrison, Christian Porter and the holy-rolling trio of Israel, Margaret and Glenn are damaging our society. The Senate showed what it can do with the Government’s union-bashing. When the time comes it should give the Bible-bashing the same treatment.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter and a member of the ALP

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