Church and State

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
25th June 2007

Tagged: church government secularism

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The separation of Church and State has once more become an issue in public debate. It threatens to be a major issue for Christians for the foreseeable future. This time the issue has arisen because of George Pell's intervention into the present parliamentary debate on embryonic stem cell research.

The relationship between State and Church is a simple but messy principle. By this separation the State is protected from Church. It also means that the Church is protected from the State. But it is a messy principle. It is made more confusing by poor definitions and political posturing.

The word ‘Church’ refers to any religious organization. It includes the synagogue and the mosque. The issue is not referring to any one particular religion. It is the separation from the state of all religions.

The word ‘State’ refers to Government. It does not refer to the nation. The nation is more than its government. The nation includes everything that happens in Australia. It includes all the families, activities, history, geography, economy and culture of our people. Much of this has little or nothing to do with government.

The State or Government has coercive power. It, therefore, has very great restrictions placed upon it. It must not use its power to restrict, or promote any religious viewpoint.

Consequently, the Government is limited to matters that are considered ‘secular’—that is, the things of this world. There is much in our nation that is religious but is not the concern of Government.

Australia has a secular Government. But we are not a secular nation. The nation has a deep religious history and culture. There are many people regularly engaged in a variety of religious activities. We are a religious nation—with amongst other things a secular Government.

The whole matter is akin to the separation of State and Football. The Government has no mandate or role in controlling, promoting or restricting any football code. It does not to favour one form of football against another e.g. rugby against soccer. Nor is the Government in the business of promoting or restricting football in opposition to cricket, stamp collecting or tiddlywinks.

However the separation of State and Church is messy because it is neither absolute, nor total.

Religion inevitably affects the State. The religion of our historical culture framed our constitution. The very idea of separation of Church and State is a particular religious idea. The religion of the present population also influences policies and decisions. Many policies of the State are influenced by religious viewpoints e.g. polygamy.

Similarly the State inevitably affects the church. Religious organizations own property and have bank accounts. These secular arrangements of the church operate under State laws. The State has a duty to prosecute any criminal activities that occur within a church. Furthermore, the State may decide that some of religious activities benefit community welfare. Thus the State may sponsor or protect those activities. They do this without promoting any one religion. For example, they provide chaplains in defence forces, or use ‘faith-based’ social welfare agencies.

To refer again to the football illustration, the Government may consider that promoting football of whatever code is advantageous for the health of the whole nation. So similarly it may consider that promoting religious activity without reference to which religion or any particular religion is good for the social cohesion of the nation.

However, in this messy principle of the separation of Church and State there are several flash points of conflict.

One flash point is when the State gets involved in issues of religious conscience. Religious ‘conscience’ is not concerned with matters of opinion but matters over which people would choose to die rather than offend. Discussions of life and death issues such as cloning and embryonic stem cell research bring religious conscience into the legislature.

Another flash point is where the Government feels under religious coercion. The Cardinal pointing out the religious consequences of those parliamentarians who choose to be Roman Catholics aroused just this feeling.

Some of the confusion on the issue of Church and State comes from people who complain only when they are not getting their way. When the Church speaks out in support of their views they congratulate the Church for its moral courage. When the Church speaks out against their viewpoint, the same people condemn the Church as interfering and failing to maintain the separation. This hypocrisy is appalling.

But most confusion comes from the Secularists who use the separation of Church and State to marginalise and eliminate the Church. The Secularists religion is atheism. They believe that there is nothing more to life than the material existence. The similarity of their name with the word 'secular' is an intentional spin. Their aim is to lead society away from all religious belief other than atheism. They wish to use the secular Government to create a secularist nation. They talk of the separation of Church and State but they mean the elimination of the Church not only from the State but also from the nation.