Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In defence of the Lord's Prayer in the Australian Parliament

The King James version of the bible (there are a number of versions of the bible) is one of the literary masterpieces of the English language. Within that bible, the Lord's Prayer has been one of the best known and most loved poems for Australians over many generations.

The prayer begins:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

I think that few people of any religious faith would seriously object to these words because they express a view of a supreme being. The exact form of the being or beings may vary, but the words do capture a common human belief.

The prayer continues:

Give us this day our daily bread.

Who could argue? We live in a world, including Australia, where many people are worried about having enough to eat. Then we have:

And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.

This one is much harder. We live in a world where the idea of trespasses, of the need for consequent punishment, seems to expand all the time. Yet, or so I feel, if we want to be forgiven our trespasses. if we want to forgive ourselves for our own mistakes, we must extend this to others.

The prayer then says:

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

Again we have the dichotomy, the need for us as individuals to avoid temptation, the desire that we should be protected from the evil delivered by others. There may be debate about the meanings of temptation and evil, but I think that most of us would accept the central meaning.

The payer concludes:

For thine is the kingdom,
and the power,
and the glory,
for ever and ever.

Again, I think that few people of any religious faith would disagree with the spirit in these words.

It has been a long standing tradition for each session of the Federal Parliament to open with a recital of the Lord's Prayer. This tradition, while recently re-affirmed, has come under sustained attack. Those attacking the tradition appear to belong to two schools.

The first school, here for example, seems to regard religious expression as arrant nonsense, superstition, that should have no place in the public sphere.

The second school, here and here for example, suggest that the prayer is no longer appropriate in a modern secular Australia with multiple beliefs, that it might perhaps be replaced by another ceremony, a welcome to country.

I cannot share their views.

Like it or not, Australia comes from a Christian tradition. Yes, we are a secular society that has welcomed people from many different parts of the world, but that does not mean that we should as a consequence reject our own traditions.

Further, the majority of Australians do believe in some form of supreme being or external power. The forms of belief vary greatly, from the religions of the book to Hinduism or Buddhism to new age believers. This group has no objection to prayers to a supreme being.

The words of the Lord's Prayer itself, while Christian, are to my mind sufficiently general to capture core concepts relevant to most faiths. They also express aspirations that many of us would dearly like to see embedded in political life.

The fact that politics, politicians and Governments do not live up to the simple values in the prayer is not a reason for discarding it. Rather, it is a reminder of things that they should aspire too.

I find it puzzling that this issue - the use of the prayer - should be of such recurring importance. It seems to have become one of those symbolic things in the continuing discussion on what Australia was, is or should be.

I also feel that this is a very dangerous thing to raise to symbolic class because, as a symbol, it has the capacity to deeply divide the Australian community over matters of faith. This is the key reason why our political leaders on both sides of politics will not change the status quo. There is little to gain from a change, much to lose.

20 comments:

Neil said...

First, I am all in favour of dignity, tradition, and a degree of pomp and circumstance in parliament: these things have a real value which I appreciate and endorse. I am also totally in favour of seeing the continuity of our Westminster system with that of Great Britain, even if as people like Norman Davies remind us that too is more fraught than convention has taught us.

On one aspect of the Lord's Prayer issue I have commented on my note on this entry in Google Reader. It may seem odd to us, but using The Lord's Prayer -- which of course I do love -- may itself be in itself divisive. I strongly suspect The Lord did not intend it to be used in the service of Caesar either, if you see what I mean. It's purpose in the context of Matthew and Luke (where there are two different versions) is as an example of how to pray, not as something to be memorised and parroted on all occasions -- in fact almost the opposite was the point of the prayer. What we do with it is rather more like those Jesus was criticising, in fact!

Another odd bit of theological trivia is that "For thine is the kingdom..." etc are not part of the original prayer, and are not to this day used by Catholics. You will see many amazing versions of the prayer on that site, and here some uplifting music.

My point is that a dignified beginning to the parliamentary day is a good idea, but our assumption that The Lord's Prayer is a necessary part of that is questionable, and often brings baggage with it which, as a Christian, I find worrying.

I guess we just differ... Gently, of course,

Neil said...

Of course I want you to HEAR music, not HERE it! Oh dear!

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting points, Neil. Part of the problem is that there is little in human history that does not carry baggage of one type or another - like the Reformation and the history of different versions of the bible.

I stick by my two core points.

First, if you look at the wording of the prayer as a prayer, it is hard to regard it as offensive.

Second,the attempt to remove it offers little in the way of gain,much in the way of risk.

I don't think that this is an area that I have much to worry about in practice, beyond any knock-on effects of the discussion. No sensible main stream politician would really touch the issue.

On a broader note, one of the features of Australian society is the growing divide between the secular and the religious. This is concealed to some degree by the Christian/non-Christian dichotomy, but keeps on peeping out.

I have alluded to this several times in past posts because of its future implications for attitudes on a variety of issues, including some that are important to you.

I have tried to be very careful as to what I say here because of the risk of being mis-interpreted. However, to put the point very plainly, in tearing down parts of our past we have created a vacuum. I, for one, make no assumptions as to what will come to fill that vacuum.

Joel said...

"I think that few people of any religious faith would seriously object to these words"

However there are those of us who are non believers. Parliament being a secular institution, it seems (to me at least) inappropriate use a Christian tradition.

Would you be similarly supportive of a buddhist, hindu, koranic or aethiest recitation to kick off preceedings expressing similarly non-offensive sentiments?

Not suggesting that you would have a problem with any of these traditions, however it is a big leap of faith (sorry) to imagine we can all remove all Christian sentiment from an article of Christian literature.

For people to have faith in the structures of Government, there must be the appearance of equity. If Parliament singles out, or appears to single out, one culture with a special nod towards it's traditions, then the trust in equity is diminished.

Jim Belshaw said...

I understand but do not accept your point, Joel.

If we were to decide today to introduce the Lord's Prayer into Parliament, then that would raise a whole set of issues including views of other faiths and of non-believers.

I would argue that to take something away, to change something, that has been in place for a long while raises a different set of issues.

AV said...

I'm sorry, Jim, but the entirety of your case in favour of retaining the Lord's Prayer boils down to two fallacies: the appeal to tradition, and the appeal to popularity.

You also misrepresent my views on this issue (another fallacy, btw--strawman) when you attribute to me the following sentiment: "The first school, here for example, seems to regard religious expression as arrant nonsense, superstition, that should have no place in the public sphere."

I do regard religious expression as superstition, and in many cases, arrant nonsense. I don't argue that it has no place in the public sphere, if by public sphere you mean that "area in social life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action" (Wikipedia's definition). I do, on the other hand, as an advocate of liberal democracy, strongly advocate the separation of church and state.

The Lord's Prayer, however liberally you wish to interpret it, is a Christian prayer, and its presence at the head of the daily parliamentary schedule violates the neutrality of the state with regard to religion.

You argue that Australia (excluding its indigenous peoples) comes from a Christian tradition. So what? In what way is that historical fact a justification for opening parliament with the Lord's Prayer? Australia has a Christian past. The Australian Constitution is a secular document. The contemporary Australian populace canvasses a wide spectrum of religion and non-religion. For many Australians, Christianity is not "our" tradition--it's "theirs."

I also feel that this is a very dangerous thing to raise to symbolic class because, as a symbol, it has the capacity to deeply divide the Australian community over matters of faith.

Which simply means that a lot of believers are parochial about their belief-system retaining its Most Favoured Religion status, seeing (as for example the Australian Christian Lobby do) a simple choice between their religion and moral anarchy. I for one see no reason why their parochialism should be pandered to--though if there is little chance that the Lord's Prayer will be removed it suggests that many politicians do deem it expedient to pander to the ACL and their ilk.

I also don't see why the removal of the Lord's Prayer should have any adverse impact on believing Australians, unless it can be demonstrated that their ability to practice their religion, and perhaps the strength of their belief itself, is contingent upon the Lord's Prayer remaining in the parliamentary programme.

Lexcen said...

I have a personal distaste for mixing religion with politics be it prayer or any reference to God. Reason is this, which is the higher authority? Is it God or the government? Do the two exist in tandem? Not very practical. It is inevitable that other religions will cry "bias" in that their God isn't included in the reference. God might appear a generic term to you but other groups might prefer a more specific reference, for example, Allah. Do you realize that in the UK there is pressure to allow for Sharia law to exist in tandem with civil law? It would be wiser to take out any reference to God than attempt to include a reference to God.

rummuser said...

I am a Vedantin. Popularly knows as a Hindu. I learnt this prayer in a school run by Christian Missionaries in India. I find absolutely nothing wrong with the contents of the prayer and will readily join a believing Christian in prayer using this prayer.

My comment here is on the use of the word "Secular". This should mean that the State and Religion are completely separate. In practice however this has not been possible to implement in toto any where in the world.

Let me take India as an example, during the emergency under Indira Gandhi, the word "Secular" was introduced into our constitution. This was done with total cynicism to placate a vote bank which had been alienated. In practice, however, secularism has meant that the majority Hindus have to be secular, their religious institutions and funds brought under state control, and the rest need to be mollycoddled.

Unless you are serious about being secular, which will mean you will treat every single citizen or visitor to your country equally using secular laws, and more importantly not accept any religious conviction that can be contrary to your secular laws, you might as well call yourself officially as a Christian nation, and move a constitutional amendment to that effect. Saying a prayer or not saying it is unimportant. If however you do become sincerely secular, a prayer of any kind will not be required at all will it?

Jim Belshaw said...

I will come back with responses to comments a little later. I wanted to put up a post first on the constitutional and historical context.

Maybe I am being too cautious, but with this subject area and an international audience, there is a fair bit of risk of misinterpretation.

In this context, Ramana sent me an email containing an apparent report on a statement by John Howard that has been circulating around India.

The statement is in fact a bit of pastiche, a distortion. Had Mr Howard actually made this statement in Australia in the way phrased and had it been picked up,there would have been outrage especially at media level. Yet the report was apparently attracting considerable support in India.

I suppose my point is that we (I) need to be careful in understanding that others may not understand the very specific Australian nuanaces attached to what we write or say.

Mike said...

I stick by my two core points.

First, if you look at the wording of the prayer as a prayer, it is hard to regard it as offensive.

Second,the attempt to remove it offers little in the way of gain,much in the way of risk.


Jim - forgive me if I've missed it, but what exactly is the "risk" of ceasing to recite the Lord's prayer prior to each parliamentary session?

Jim Belshaw said...

Mike, the way you phrased your question as a neutral request for infomation deserves a whole post in its own right!

To answer it, and I stand to be corrected.

The Lord's Prayer has become a symbolic issue. Symbolic issues are very important because of the way symbols attract sometimes very strong emotions. Reason cannot be used to discuss symbolic issues without first understanding the emotion.

Australia has undergone enormous change over the last fifty years. Many in our society feel very alienated because the views that they held that they saw a central Australian views have become peripheral.

At one level, the question of the Lord's Prayer is a very small issue. However, as it develops as a symbolic issue it attracts emotion.

There are those who really do not want Australia to change. There are those who are prepared to accept change, but who want the process slowed. There are those who believe that the process of change has gone in the wrong direction.

I feel that the issue of the Lord's Prayer is one of those issues that has the potential to attract a whole series of different groups round a common flag.

Those concerned about the process of change may see it as a symbolic step too far. Those who really believe that Australia is and should be a Christian society may see it as yet another rejection.

Australia will continue to change. We have no choice. We have to manage that change.

Australia has never had an ethnic party, nor have we seen right wing parties like those in Europe. Some may disagree, referring to One Nation. But One Nation was a very pale (no pun intended) version, one tempered through the Australian experience.

At best, the abolition of the Lord's Prayer may provide minor satisfaction to some. At worst, and this is what I mean at risk, it may provide a flash-point around those who are disaffected may gather.

I stand to be corrected, but I do not accept that our past ability to weather huge change means that we will easily be able to do so in the future.

The emergence of a real right wing Australia First party is not the only risk we face. The emergence of a new, very socially conservative, alliance combining poeople across religious and current political divides is a far greater risk.

As I said, I stand to be corrected.

AV said...

The emergence of a real right wing Australia First party is not the only risk we face. The emergence of a new, very socially conservative, alliance combining poeople across religious and current political divides is a far greater risk.

If I understand you correctly, you're saying that removing the Lord's Prayer from the parliamentary programme could open a Pandora's box . . . in that it could lead to the rise of a new, socially conservative force (a Religious Right?) in Australian politics.

First, of all the issues that may--and indeed have--encouraged religious and social conservatives to become politically active and organised (albeit to a lesser extent in Australia than in the US): gay rights, women's rights, abortion, etc. . . . . on what grounds can it be claimed that this one issue is going to be the clincher?

Second, assuming that it would be the clincher (or even significant), I don't see why the need to pander to the bigotry of social and religious conservatives is any kind of justification for retaining the Lord's Prayer. I disagree with the proposition that bigotry needs to be pandered to, whether we're discussing liberal democracy (via the separation of church and state), or gay rights, or the right to choose whether to have an abortion.

Mike said...

Cheers Jim. For the record, I fully intended for my earlier question (what you call my "neutral request for information") to convey my scepticism! Passive-agressive maybe, but not neutral.

To respond more directly: I don't agree that removing the recital of the Lord's Prayer will have any dire consequences - be it the creation of a moral vacumn, or the catalyst for the emergence of a new religous right movement. I do agree, though, that no mainstream pollie will touch this with a 10 foot pole!

Perhaps we should consider Pastafarians in this debate. (I know this is more a rebuttal to the teaching of intelligent design as science, but still funny.)

rummuser said...

I have read your latest post about the historical and constitutional context of this discussion. If anything the clarification reinforces my argument that there should be no prayer at all!

Jim Belshaw said...

Mike, I did not mean that you were neutral, just the way you phrased the question! I knew what your views were.

We (my group) taught conversational and negotiation skills using an approach called microskills. The way you phrased the question was actually an example of this. I have written about this in a professional sense, but will do a post on this blog because the skills are useful.

As an opening remark, I want to go back to an earlier conversation between AV and myself on gay marriage. I wrote a very careful post here suggesting the need for caution but was correctly pinged on my language. My argument was not about gay marriage as such, but about the need for caution in pushing for change to avoid risking past and future gains. So it was all about tactics rather than strategy.

My position on the Lord's Prayer is a little different because I am in fact personally opposed to any change at this point. I do not accept the arguments on the other side.

If you look at the arguments that I have put forward, they fall into two classes. One group is simple opposition, the reasons why the proposed change is wrong as I see it. The second is different, the dangers posed by the change.

Obviously since I am opposed to a change, the second can be seen as special pleading to support my opposition to change. I am sure that there is some truth in this, although for professional reasons (I do try to write as a professional)I have tried to stand back in making judgements.

If you look at Arthur's arguments there are at least two separate streams.

He supports public debate, including the right of religious people to organise. However, this is constrained by the second stream, the separation of church and state. I think, and I stand to be corrected, that Arthur would argue that should religious views succeed in imposing their postions on the state, that would be wrong in principle even if they were to be in the majority or to gain majority support. That is, Arthur has a dividing line in his position.

I think that this is a fairly common view in Australia and it's an interesting dichotomy, one that I am not immune to myself because active involvement of churches and church groups on certain issues makes me uncomfortable. I feel that churches as churches should stick to their knitting, so to speak.

Ramana referred to the Indian position, suggesting that the secular state had disadvantaged the Hindu majority because of the need to mollycoddle various minorities.

Many Australians feel that too, that they as the majority group have had to make too many concessions. Our public school system has been one of the tension points.

Focusing just on the Lord's Prayer issue, I am clearly in a minority of one in terms of this discssion at least. I am left wondering what it is about changing Australia that makes this issue so important.

This is a different question from arguments for and against any change because it bears upon the reasons why those arguments are put forward. I wonder what the drivers are?

This is not meant to be a tendentious question. I have changed hats, so to speak, to social analyst role.

AV said...

He supports public debate, including the right of religious people to organise. However, this is constrained by the second stream, the separation of church and state. I think, and I stand to be corrected, that Arthur would argue that should religious views succeed in imposing their postions on the state, that would be wrong in principle even if they were to be in the majority or to gain majority support. That is, Arthur has a dividing line in his position.

It's a dividing line inherent, unfortunately, in the very concept of liberal democracy--the problem of how to strike a balance between democracy and protecting the interests of individuals and minorities (even religious minorities--which is what, in Australia, each Christian denomination is) from the tyranny of the majority.

It's true that I don't believe religious doctrines qua religious doctrines should be enshrined in law. Nobody should be forced to observe religious laws. I oppose blasphemy laws on these grounds. I also oppose what in the United States they call "blue laws": laws designed to coerce people to observe religious moral codes. If for religious reasons you don't wish to buy or sell alcohol on a Sunday, then don't do it: the state has no business forcing you to observe the Sabbath.

However, I wouldn't describe a law that happens to be consonant with a religious doctrine, but can also be justified on rational and secular grounds, as wrong in principle.

WhimAndAPrayer said...

I'm in favour of removing the Lord's Prayer from the Aussie Parliament. The Parliament is the heart of our diverse representative democracy whereas the Prayer is exclusive and misrepresents the Australian people as a whole.

Jim Belshaw said...

I understand your position, WhimAndAPrayer. I think that the related groups on your facebook page make this clear.

For the benefit of visitors, the discussion triggered by this post also continued in:
* Thursday, October 30, 2008
Freedom of religion in Australia - a historical note - http://belshaw.blogspot.com/2008/10/freedom-of-religion-in-australia.html
* Friday, 31 October 2008
The Lord's Prayer and the Australian Parliament - hints about the changing ways Australians think - http://historyofaustralianthought.blogspot.com/2008/10/lord-prayer-and-australian-parliament.html
* Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Religion, values and democracy - http://belshaw.blogspot.com/2008/11/arthur-made-thoughtful-response-in-now.html

If you look at the comment thread in the last post, you will see that I actually withdrew from discussion because I found that it was affecting my own arguments and views. I wanted to turn from a discussion of the issues to a quite strong and partisan defence of the status quo.

I had not realised until I started writing just how much this one has become a touchstone issue linking a series of very different debates.

To illustrate what I mean, as a social commentator, I was quite tempted on reading your post to start a facebook group in defence of the lord's prayer just to test responses on the other side. I am sure that I could write the introduction in a particular way to attract attention.

I suspect that this would be a very unwise thing to do because it risks bringing out a range of divisions within Australian society.

So while I understand your position, I think that I will continue to let my own involvment in the discussion rest for the present.

OldKev said...

To all Jim's Detractors I have the following observations

Apart from anything else, this country, Modern Australia that is, was founded on Christian Principles following the traditions of the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that we have, over the years, accepted people from so many other countries, ethnic and religious groups, we still have that original foundation as a Christian country. Therefore, Christian prayers in Parliament are not out of place.

Granted that many people who have come to this country are of different backgrounds, we are still a Christian country. Many of these people have come here because of the liberal attitude Christian countries adopt toward other faiths. We do NOT see immigration in any great volume to non Christian countries do we? I wonder why not?
I would suggest that in countries with backgrounds in other religions, there would be no question of changing parliamentary procedure to satisfy people of other religions or those without religion.

Christian countries are the only countries, as far as I can tell, which accept immigrants from ALL other faiths and ethnic groups without let or hindrance and allow those people to set up their own religious institutions - Schools - churches - mosques - synagogues and so without much fuss. ( Local objections aside).

Further, without the Christian faith taking up so much of the care of Elderly, Sick, Homeless, Disadvantaged, Dispossessed, Mentally ill, and so on, the government would be at a grave disadvantage financially.
Which of the other religious - Ethnic groups take on so much of this responsibility? You tell me!

In times of disaster, this small (Population) country steps forward with incredible speed and with funds or material of significant volume to assist ethnic and religious groups in other countries without any thought of self interest. This also applies to other Christian countries like USA UK France Canada and so on. Although non Christian countries do come forward they do not seem to offer the same degree of help that Christian countries do.

I realise that the Lord's Prayer in parliament is a tradition and I would like to see it preserved as a reminder that this is a Christian based country with values which have helped all people who have come to this country, Christian or not..

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for your comments, OldKev. I think that the other commenters woul have some problems with your arguments in the way that they had with mine.