The more religious interests seek to protect the prejudicial and ridiculous, the quicker Australian religious identity will slip into a quaint niche minority.
Australia is a reasonably harmonious multi-cultural, multifaith society. We have not always been this way. We began as a white supremacist society heaping terrible prejudice and suffering on an ancient culture and its people, with consequences that remain unresolved. This was done out of arrogance, wilful ignorance and all too often abetted by religious small mindedness .
It is true that our inclusiveness has nurtured a culture of political correctness that lessens our capacity to celebrate difference. Signs that encourage the public to choose the bathroom that best suits their understanding of gender, and discouragement of language and symbol that define seasons such as Christmas are examples. But misplaced pc aside, what discrimination do people of faith need to be protected from?
It is useful to start with a distinction between faith and religion. They are not the same. Religion is a framework in which faith is nurtured. Religion is not the real thing – faith is. I am a Christian and a cradle Anglican. I am profoundly grateful for my Anglican home which has nourished me for nearly eight decades. I am the first to recognise that this home has strong cultural affinities, grounding me in literary, liturgical and historical roots that provide a deep sense of identity. If you like, Anglicanism is my ancestral home. But it also links me into a Christian community which is inclusive of other cultural identities, be they Ethiopian Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Arminian Catholic, or Scottish Presbyterianism.
Like all other human institutions, all religions are fallible. Terrible errors and mistakes have been and continue to be made. Charlatans abound. All human beings are flawed, the flaws of some are more obvious, or made more public than is the case with others.
Almost all religions rely upon sacred writings to ground their authority. For Christians this authority is the Bible, for Jews it is the Talmud and for Muslims, the Koran. These texts, not to mention Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian writings, hold some common themes as well as irreconcilable differences. To impose values from one or more of these texts on those outside that adherence, should be unthinkable – unless it can be shown that those values have become foundational to common human identity. An example might be the ten commandments, the last six of which have long been accepted as a necessary moral framework. Another would be “do unto other as you have them do to you” (Mtt 7:12), a variation of which is seen to be particularly Australian. Jewish sabbatical requirements, Islamic requirements of dress and eating, or a Christian understanding that a tenth of all income should be charitably given away cannot be imposed.
Great religious leaders have the capacity to speak to common humanity. Pope Francis and Archbishop Tutu have this capacity as does the Dalai Lama. Popes in the immediate past have lacked this capacity. When these men, or those of far less wisdom, speak to an issue specifically out of their distinctive tradition, then authority beyond the boundary of that tradition disappears. Difference arises because text offers difference in interpretation. It is not just that Protestants might read scripture differently to Catholics, it is that members of the same religious group can and do read text differently to each other. It does not help when some protest that text is infallible and therefore there is no room for interpretation. Spoken word, let alone written word, is open to interpretation. Some biblical texts stand in direct literal contradiction to others. The best way of checking meaning within the Bible is to read a specific text in the context of all other texts.
Religious freedom cannot mean a person has the right to quote religious text as if it is authoritative for the general public, especially when it is disputed by the speaker’s own adherents. This is plain nonsense. In relation to the Folau case, Mr Folau, was not even properly quoting text, he was reciting his version of a text. Religious freedom should not allow an adherent of any religion to speak or act in a prejudicial manner towards another Australian who enjoys protection under Australian law and custom Any text that implies or justifies discrimination against the LGBTQI is in this category.
Those promoting religious freedom protection look as if they are wishing to preserve perceived rights of discrimination in publicly funded institutions. (Within their own walls there is no restriction on saying or doing whatever they wish). These demands are in direct conflict with the obligation of the state to ensure that public monies are expended in a context where the rights of citizens according to Australian law and custom are upheld. An institution which refuses to enrol or admit a member of the LGBTQI community should cease all public funding. Similarly, an institution which provides health care and refuses treatment that would otherwise be available under law, should not be registered as a publicly funded institution. I would go further and say that an institution that teaches nonsense, like a short history of the world, or that children should not be vaccinated, or that there is an alternative to climate science, should be deregistered on the basis that these teachings are dangerously detrimental for all humanity.
Religious freedom must not entrench freedom to discriminate.
On the other hand, faith, that personal kernel and inspiration of life is not capable of being discriminated against. There are more than ample examples of those who have been imprisoned for their faith, suffered persecution for their faith, who have found strength even an enlargement of their spirit through such persecution. Nothing in Australian law or custom discriminates against my faith. I can worship where I choose. I can assemble as I please. As long as it is not defamatory, I can argue and write as my conscience directs. I can protest. I can march.
As I wander in God’s natural cathedral, the created order, there is no imposition that can restrict my sense of awe and wonder. If I want to stand on a soapbox in the city mall and express my voice, I can. Most important of all, nothing can restrict my personal times of prayer reading and thought. As faith grows stronger with years, but confidence in religious institutions declines, I see nothing that needs protecting, indeed, I can only see discriminatory protection of religious institutions being ultimately detrimental to their longevity. Religious institutions should rely on God’s grace and their own integrity as the only necessary protection.