Turning the World Upside Down, Down Under
Image: Flickr / Corey Leopold

Australia is one of the most secular countries in the world. While 60 percent of the population identifies as Christian, only 15 percent are connected to a church, and probably even fewer attend a church with any regularity. Australia has more Buddhists than Baptists, and 22 percent of its people claim “no religion.”

What is more, Australia has never had a glorious Christian heritage. Except perhaps for Billy Graham’s 1959 visit, which did lead to a temporary spike in church affiliation, the country has no great tradition of revival. It helps to remember that Australia was originally founded as a British penal colony, not settled by English Puritans or French Huguenots looking for religious liberty.

Since federation in 1901, Australia has also been self-consciously secular, not wanting to import the Protestant-Catholic divide of the British Isles. The universities of Sydney and Melbourne were founded with explicit rules against teaching theology, and clergy were forbidden to hold academic positions. Australian secularism has been a key element in fashioning Australia’s unique multi-cultural and multi-faith identity.

On the other hand, Australian churches have always been very important in the education and welfare sectors, operating schools, hospitals, orphanages, and hospices with government support. Australian charities like the Salvation Army are well regarded by the public, and the federal government continues to provide partial funding to faith-based schools.

Soft Persecution

Australia, like most Western nations, has experienced intense divisions and heated debates over legalizing same-sex marriage. (Australia does not yet recognize same sex marriage.) The debates have largely pitted religious conservatives against social progressives, and they frequently turn vitriolic. In the last two years, emboldened progressives have sought to use legal processes and social media frenzy to harass churches for their opposition to same-sex marriage. This had led to what Australian journalist Angela Shanahan has called a “soft persecution” of Christians who speak out against progressive ideologies.

There are many examples of this soft persecution in action. First, in 2015, the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous, issued a pamphlet to the parents of children in Catholic schools explaining the Catholic church’s position on same-sex marriage. The pamphlet was very pastoral and lacked anything incendiary. Yet a Greens political candidate and transgender activist, Martine Delaney, lodged a complaint with the state’s anti-discrimination commissioner, and the commissioner agreed that the archbishop had a case to answer. With a federal election looming, the complaint was withdrawn, but it was concerning to find a Catholic bishop facing prosecution for disseminating Catholic beliefs to Catholics.

Second, in 2016, the Victorian state government, led by Daniel Andrews, proposed legislation removing the rights of faith-based organizations (including houses of worship, school, and charities) to use religious criteria in making hiring decisions. (The goal was to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual identity, and religion.) The legislation was narrowly defeated, but it would have been an unprecedented intervention in the hiring practices of faith communities.

Third, in 2017, less than a week after police thwarted a plot by jihadists to attack St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, The Age’s Chris Johnston complained, with the horror of a housewife discovering a rat in the pantry, that not only are the city’s eastern suburbs infested with Christians, but many of them even hold office in local councils. Johnston particularly attacked Casey Council’s Coptic Christian Mayor Sam Aziz and even identified the Christian school that his children attended. Johnston’s article was not a piece of investigative journalism benignly describing the religious demographics of eastern Melbourne. His obvious intention was to prejudice his readers, manufacturing outrage that Coptic Christians are holding political office.

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Turning the World Upside Down, Down Under