Religion and politics – the 2 topics that apparently don’t mix at a dinner party, or at least in Australian politics, according to former WA premier Carmen Lawrence. Bouncing off the predictable example of infidelity by Governor Sanford (a Christian Republican) from South Carolina, Lawrence had this to say about religion in politics in The Age:

….Australian politicians, unlike their American counterparts, have worn their religious beliefs lightly, eschewing ostentatious displays of their faith or the use of religious precepts to justify or shape their policy positions. While religion has not been entirely absent from Australian political debate (it did, after all lead to a split in the ALP), by and large politicians have preferred to justify their values and decisions by reference to their political philosophies, rather than their religious beliefs. Australians, in any case, seem wary of appeals to religious authority; research shows they are increasingly unlikely to claim Christian religious affiliation or to engage in religious practices.

But a recent study by Melbourne political scientist Anna Crabb provides some confirmation for the idea that this deliberate separation of religion and politics may be dissolving — at least among MPs. (02 July 2009)

Carmen LawrenceShe seems very concerned about this, as Crabb’s research indicates a growth in the number of religious references in MPs’ speeches, particularly since 9/11. Why is Lawrence (left) so disturbed by this? Because “…there is a risk that religious reasoning, not subject to the usual rational challenges, may grow in significance.” Note the qualifications risk and may grow. This piece is scaremongering. Lawrence purports to be sounding the warning bell against religion in politics, but really she’s just building up a pretty rickety straw man and setting it alight. What are her actual concerns? What is her evidence, apart from references in speeches, that Australia’s robustly secular political culture is falling prey to religious fanaticism?

Parliament has prayers. On every sitting day, 2 prayers are said. Most people don’t attend these prayers because they happen before any real business happens. But on Tuesdays, everyone is meant to be in the House, and the prayers are said with all present (as far as I can tell, the House of Representatives sits on 18 Tuesdays in the year. So, out of 365 days, 18 of them have prayers at which MPs must attend). Carmen and her heathen mates boycott the prayers. The other concerns are….well, there aren’t any other particular concerns.

Not sure of the problem – parliamentary prayers are an anachronism, I agree, because they hark back to a time that we are no longer in – one when we could assume that all Australian citizens believed that God was guiding our political decision-makers. That assumption, granted, is a dead horse being whipped by only a hopeful few. But if that’s Lawrence’s only concern, then I don’t understand why she writes an opinion piece warning of the mix of religion and politics, except to use religion as a whipping-boy. This suspicion is confirmed by her final paragraph, which dog-whistles to the inbuilt bullshit detector in Anglo-Australians:

The sharp contrast between the pious words and the behaviour of MPs both towards one another and to the vulnerable in the community didn’t go unnoticed either. This was at a time when hateful things were being said about Muslims and queue jumpers and other “outsiders”. Often the very same people who bowed their heads in prayer, were the ones who appeared least constrained by Christian charity. There’s the rub.

But is Lawrence suggesting that if politicians were more constrained by Christian charity that she would be happy for prayers to stay? I doubt it. This generalised smearing is just the kind of behaviour that she deplores in the MPs’ comments about Muslims and ‘queue jumpers’.

Lawrence is basically claiming that political secularists have no worldview to guide their actions – that they are guided by the shining light of rationality. Whereas the religionists have little claim to rationality because they are motivated by untestable views about a God who is invisible. This claim to rationality is bogus, because it refuses to admit its own assumptions – that rationality is the highest way, an assumption which is itself questionable. Australian democracy is in no danger of being overwhelmed by unthinking religion, at least not of the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or any other historic type. Australia has no established church (as the UK does) and if Australians don’t like the way their politicians declare their various worldviews and ideologies, they can vote them out.