Democracy

From the Dean

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

Originally Published:
19th June 2006

Tagged: church and state democracy secular secularism

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In a sinful world democracy is the best form of Government. It allows for a regular peaceful transition of power. It holds rulers accountable. It prevents the corrupting effect of absolute power.

Yet democracy can be an immoral tyranny. It can be the tyranny of the majority. It can be the expression of human immorality.

Those of us who live in “blue ribbon” electorates know only too well the tyranny of the majority. We know the feeling that our vote does not count. The majority around us will have their way whether or not we vote - so what is the point.

Those of us in a minority group within the nation as a whole can feel permanently disenfranchised. The minority group we are in may be ethnic, cultural, religious or political. But if the majority always has its way, then we can rightly feel that our point of view is undervalued, powerless, marginalised and unimportant.

Some people feel this very personally. Because their group is disenfranchised they personally feel undervalued and unwanted. It is amongst such people that either depression or violence can easily spread. The revolutionary spirit of terrorism is usually found in the hopelessly disenfranchised.

But not only does democracy tend to the tyranny of the majority, it also has no inherent morality.

As we look at history we stand amazed at the immorality of people in other ages to our own. How could they have entered into the slave trade or put little children into long hours of factory labour? The fact that the majority in one age saw nothing wrong in such practices should warn us not to trust the majority as the guardians of morality.

Democracy only works in certain cultural settings. It works best in a mono-cultural setting. Where there is agreement about the basics of life. Where there is an agreed culture, national interest, and morality. Then the majority elected government only deals with the details of how to put into effect the values of the society.

However, when the basis of the cultural setting is undermined, democracy becomes tyranny, and morality becomes the power of majority.

Here is the tension for Christians in Australia today. The cultural setting of our democracy has been our Christian heritage. We have not adopted the Secularists option of a bill of rights to provide a moral context to protect minorities. We have relied upon our Christian culture inherited from our British roots.

We have not felt the need to have “Christian” political parties because the mainstream parties have all expressed the common Christian culture. The Governments (State, Federal and Local) have been working on the details of how to put into effect the values of our broadly Christian society. Christians have been at work serving the community in all the political parties.

However as the cultural basis of our Australian democracy comes under continued attack, it becomes harder for Christianity to keep out of the political process. Life and death issues of bio-ethics like euthanasia, abortion, or of fundamental family issues life like polygamy and homosexuality - change the very nature of our social morality and agreed cultural consensus.

Because of the Christian value of tolerance a great variety of behaviour is permitted. Tolerance stops Christian society from being tyrannical. But if what is “permitted” is also to be taught in public education and subsidised by community resources - then it is no longer tolerated and permitted but approved and promoted. It is one thing to decriminalise adultery it is another thing to see it taught positively within public media and education.

Whenever Christians object we are warned off on the argument that we are a secular nation. But that reflects the widespread confusion in modern commentators between two sets of words: ‘nation’ and ‘government’; and ‘secular’, ‘secularist’ and ‘sectarian’.

We are not, and never have been a secular nation. The history of white settlement and the establishment of our society has been imbued with Christianity. To this day, the vast majority of people believe in God, the calendar of public life includes Christmas and Easter holidays, the institutions of society from schools and hospitals to cemeteries and retirement villages express religious belief and usually have religious foundations. Our cultural morality has always expressed Christian values. The intertwining of religion and people is far too great to see this as a society without any reference to God.

The confusion between ‘nation’ (‘country’ or ‘society’) and ‘government’ is frequent in political journalists. They are fixated on power and politics. They confuse the government with the people. Australia is more than what is done in parliament. Parliament and government is one aspect of our nation. It is an important but not definitive part of our nation. That we have a secular Government does not mean that we have a secular nation. It just means that the Government is limited to secular concerns.

To say that it is a secular government is not the same as saying it is a secularist government. A ‘secular’ government is concerned for the things of this world; a ‘secularist’ government is for the promotion of atheism and the denial of anything to do with the supernatural.

Our Government has never been secularist. The preamble of our Constitution refers to “humbly relying upon Almighty God”. The old national anthem commenced “God save …”. Parliament commences with the Lord’s Prayer. Oaths are taken on the Bible. Our justice system, based in British law, assumes a Christian morality.

But our Government has always been non-Sectarian - that is “not restricted to members of one religious denomination, but open to all”. We must not confuse non-sectarian with secularist. Non-sectarian refers to not favouring one denomination over another while secularist is the denial of all religion.

Some have even tried to create a new moral category called Australian or un-Australian. It is a code of fair play, mateship and anything else that the popularist politician wants to promote. It is brainless nationalist jingoism pretending to be morality. It is trying to create a new monoculture beneath our multiculturalism.

Democratic government is a precious form for us to protect. To undermine our culture, in the name of separation of church and state, or being a secular nation, is to undermine the very basis upon which our democracy is kept from tyranny and immorality.