The peril in wedding religion and politics

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FORMER High Court judge Michael Kirby is just as busy after retirement as before, and one of the projects he’s devoting his formidable energies to is bothering the ‘‘God-botherers’’.

Kirby himself has no hesitation about declaring himself an Anglican but, he told the ABC’s Andrew West last month, he wasn’t a botherer of God.

‘‘Lately we’ve been going on about religion all the time in politics, and that’s something new in Australia,’’ he said.

The retired judge pointed out that our constitution is firmly secular. Section 116 states: ‘‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’’

Kirby says that’s a protection for religions and their adherents. ‘‘It essentially says that we have our religions, they’re a private matter and the state can’t intrude into them and we keep it a separate realm.’’

Historically, it’s a realm Australia’s politicians have steered clear of, so much so that political scientist John Warhurst found it hard to establish the beliefs of several prime ministers when he was commissioned to write a book on the topic.

He theorises that this was partly because of lingering bitterness from the 1940s. Memories of Labor’s split over the Communist Party, with sectarian suspicion haunting Catholic MPs, made religion a subject to be avoided.

But since federation, Australians have politically defined faith in terms of Christianity. Parliamentary sessions still open with a Christian prayer, even if, as one politician observed, it’s ‘‘the Muslims, Jews and atheists standing around while the Christians do their thing’’.

It’s part of the background, which makes it difficult to pinpoint when politics spills over into morality – would the outrage have been as vocal if Craig Thomson had been accused of spending union money on science fiction books or academic journal subscriptions?

Complicating matters is that the past decade has given the country a string of political leaders more overtly aligned religiously than since the days when ‘‘Christian’’ was the default setting.

John Howard leaned heavily on the ‘‘religion’’ button. Kevin Rudd gladly explained how his religious beliefs motivated his political actions, often doing his regular media briefings from the steps of his Canberra church (which showed him to be one of the mere 7per cent of Australians who attend a religious service regularly).

Following that pair came Julia Gillard, atheist, and the devout Catholic, ex-seminarian Tony Abbott. All of which might have meant very little to most Australians, who are statistically ‘‘apatheist’’— just plain not interested – and on past performance prefer their politics to stay secular.

But issues keep spilling over from one sphere to the other, and the recurrent, headline-grabbing one is gay marriage.

Non-religious Australians easily treat the matter as one of simple regulation: the government making laws about citizens’ relationships to prevent a group being disadvantaged.

Yet some Christian Australians, growing up within what they regard as a Christian country, aren’t impressed even though their churches aren’t being asked to perform weddings.

The point that hurts is that the government is making any laws on a matter that is, in their view, a question of doctrine.

It’s scarcely surprising that Justice Kirby, who has been in a relationship with his male partner for 43 years, notices such discussions and believes they are increasing.

He lived through a time when homosexuality was criminal, and was the target of false accusations.

The issue is regularly on the front pages – the upper house of the NSW Parliament voted 22 to 16 in favour last week – even though parties in compulsory-voting Australia don’t need to use religion to galvanise bloc votes.

The NSW vote suggests that this particular form of God-bothering is on the way to be sorted. But another religious controversy lurks in the wings.

Symantec, international makers of anti-virus software, report that religious sites are being hacked more often than porn sites.

These were once the most dangerous part of the internet because of the viruses that hackers attached to them. Then porn sites put in better security, making religious sites the new target of choice.

Now add the National Broadband Network to the mix.

God-bothering or government-bothering, the sport is headed for Olympic gold.

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