Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Was Australia a Christian country - and what comes now

Neil had an interesting post asking whether the US was a Christian country. His answer was no, except in the most general sense.

So I asked myself was Australian a Christian country? I think that the answer has to be yes.

To the evangelical Christians, Australia with its secular and perceived evil ways was clearly not and never has been a Christian country. At official level, a very clear separation between church and state was made early on with the decision not to make the Church of England the official established church. This separation has been maintained to the present day.

Yet beyond this, Australia and Christianity were closely entwined at every level. The great bulk of the population classified themselves as Christian. The first official buildings built in new settlements after police stations and pubs were churches. The rituals of the Christian Church marked every significant event at personal and, to a lesser degree, official level.

Beyond this, the fabric of a culture imported from Europe and especially the British Isles permeated everything from language to history.

Yet in all this we never developed some of the political trappings of Christianity seen in other countries. Christianity was both a personal thing and to a lesser degree an official thing. But it always remained a backdrop to official and political life.

There were, I think, two reasons for this. The first was simply the universality of the Christian faith. The second and perhaps more important was the presence of the great sectarian divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants, a divide that became inextricably mixed in politics. Keep religion out of it was a fairly universal and practical view.

That world has gone, swept away in the changes that became strong during the 1970s tip decade. As it went, so did many of the previous underpinning of Australian society.

This is not an argument about right or wrong, simply an observation on trends as I see them. The thing that interests me now is just what is coming in their place. My answer here is that I simply do not know.

All dominant groups assume that their views are self-evidently right.

If you had told me as a child that my favourite playground equipment would be banned, I would have thought you a very silly adult. If you had told me at university that within twenty years men would no longer be allowed to have exclusively men's clubs but must admit women, I would have regarded this as outrageous discrimination. If you had told me that sporting stars must submit to mandatory drug testing for drugs that had nothing to do with sport, I would have thought this outrageous.

And if you had told me that within my lifetime I would live in a society marked by constant visual surveillance combined with sophisticated computer tracking systems I would have been horrified. After all, this was the intermediate step in so many SF stories towards the establishment of a corrupt, all powerful and controlling authoritarian state.

Part of my point in all this is that none of us can assume that the values we hold dear will survive. They have to be fought for, to be constantly refreshed.

I am out of time. As so often happens, practical domestic realities like the need to cook tea interfere!

Early next morning

I see that Neil has responded with a long and quite interesting post. I don't want to respond to it here in any detail because this will take me into a different line of argument and I want to wrap this post up. However, I will make a couple of points that I think are germane to the argument in this post.

We always see the past through a prism set by current concerns and attitudes. This affects the questions we ask about the past. It can also affect the way we interpret the evidence.

Wearing my historian hat, I see the first as right and proper, although I do get upset from time to time at the way in which whole slabs of our past have been lost from sight.

Still wearing my historian hat, at times I see the second as pernicious and a-historical. To me, a key element in the discipline of history - part of its rigour - lies in the attempt to break through the veil set by the present, recognising that we must always fail.

This, by the way, is not a shot at Neil nor his post. Far from it. Neil is putting forward argument with some supporting material, not attempting to write a definitive historical piece.

Unlike the US, Australia has never been an especially religious society. When I argue that Australia was a Christian country I am talking about the overall frame in which society, including those secularists who railed against religious cant, operated.

Modern secular Australia has put aside that past frame and now struggles to deal with faith based issues. Note the words "faith based". This modern jargon is itself a sign of the change in frame. Past Australian societies would, I think, have struggled to place meaning in the words.

We live at an intensely interesting time. The previous institutional pillars that formed part of the Australian fabric have been discredited. Many in modern secular Australia are a-religious, even anti-religious. Christianity itself has become just another faith, if still the one acknowledged by a majority of Australians, especially older Australians.

Yet when we drop down, we find some interesting trends.

In the Australia of the past with its dominant Christian heritage, there was no such thing as a Christian view. Society could be both secular and Christian, religious and anti-religious. Individual churches were just that, individual churches. Putting things very simplistically, they could be told to butt out.

Things are a little different now at several levels. These are the differences that fascinate me as an observer.

During the election campaign, Mr Howard made a point of attending both Chinese and Korean Christian churches in his electorate. No-one really commented, it was just another campaign move, other than to look at the reactions of some of the attendees. Yet that attendance was a sign of profound change.

The modern secular view of Australian society is, I think, strongest in certain groups - essentially urban, generally educated in Australia or in another Western country, mainly second or more generation Australian. Things change when we move outside these groups.

I am presently working within an ethnically diverse group. The modern secular view is represented in the European segment including, for these purposes, me. Then the group has included at different times two Christians, both Chinese, plus three Muslims from three different ethnic groups.

My point here is two fold.

There is, I think, still an equation in people's minds between Christianity and being in some way European or even Anglo-Celtic when the reality is increasingly different. There is also, I think, a more complicated and implicit assumption that our new migrants will in some way accept, adopt, the secular view. Again, I think that the reality is a little different.

I do not have time to further pursue these issues now and, in any case, this post is becoming far too long. I will continue at a later point.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, Jim. Yes, "Sunday Christianity" -- or sending the kids at least -- plus births, deaths and marriages usually churched affairs: that was the pattern in my extended family at least, but in practice most of them were agnostics until a few went evangelical post Billy Graham. Catholics were different. But back in the 19th century we had the odd Unitarian in the family tree.

Most of my family -- in the broad sense -- distrusted any church that was too zealous or too demanding. The church was there to be used, basically, and otherwise to mind its own business. That was widely spread enough to be very frustrating for your actual holy rollers.

Bible-bashing in the American fashion was just beyond the pale.

There was also (in the society at large) a very strong thread of secularism; witness the way in which the education system in NSW was established, often taking schools away from church or semi-church control. (Shellharbour Public School -- where my father went and my mother's father was Principal in the 1930s -- is a case in point, founded as semi-church in 1859 and becoming a free, compulsory and secular institution from the 1880s Education Act on.)

There was in the squattocracy, perhaps, a different perspective -- high church Anglican and nostalgic for the English upper classes, indeed sending their offspring Home very often to complete an education. But, colleges aside, there was nothing religious, except in attenuated symbolism, about the foundation of the University of Sydney.

I think you could argue that secularism was the dominant mode of thinking, whether intellectually or merely practically, for most Australians in the past 150 years -- Catholics perhaps excluded.

So I don't think Australia is a Christian country at all, except that its culture derives from Western Europe, but especially England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Theonly difference today to our boyhoods is that people are less concerned to write some denomination on census forms.

Jim Belshaw said...

While I agree with many of your points, Neil, I also disagree with the tenor of your argument. Let me try to explain why.

To begin with, in any discusion about social trends you have to try to disentangle elements as they appear over time. You also have to be able to apportion them to particular social groups.

I have no doubt that there was a strong secular trend in Australia. But that trend existed against a backdrop of other views.Part of Australian history is the tension and interaction between the secular and religious views.

Without bogging down too much in detail, religion in Australia was partly a matter of state control.One of the first things that the convicts did after landing was to attend a church service.

Religion was also a matter of class and clan. There were groups who were intensely religious, others less so.

Take the Roman Catholics. You cannot understand the history of Australia without understanding the history of the Catholic Chuch and the Irish influence.

In similar vein, the differences in voting patterns between Monaro, Riverina and many parts of New England even today date back to religious differences. Roman Catholic chain migration in the south, Scots Presbyterian in the north.

If you look at political and social change, the secularists were important in intellectual life and especially in the left political movements. But, as I see it, most of the key social changes came from the Christian side.

If you look at education, the firs Government support for education was for religious schools, including a Jewish school.

The support for broader public education, an area where Australia was miles in front of the UK, came from many areas including our democratic spirit. The secular form owed much to the need to bridge the secular divide.

Once the system was established, the thing that was to kill universal public education came from the decision of the Roman Catholic Church to establish its own school system because )among other things) it distrusted secular education. this ultimately flowed on to state aid and from that to universal support for the church school system.

In all this, I have left out broader social and cultutal questions including our previous intellectual frame just to make the point that religions was central.

Of course other things came into play.But it was still central.

For my part, I grew up in a world where one grandfather was a primitive methodist home missionary, the second a methodist and presbyterian lay preacher. This was a world in which protestant traditions including the political and social reform movements were strong, including the creation of the UK Labour Party.

I went to an anglican squatter school, a differnt tradition. Then to a university that was at the time the most religious in Australia.

In all this, it was the christians not the secularists who brought about real social change.

Scotland is different in part because of its religious tradition.The Scot's influence including love of education is powerful in Australia's intellectual tradition.

In England, look at the Quakers. Or John Wesley. The English working class who broke out of the social trap first were methodists, dissenters. The Roman Catholocs lagged, the Anglicans most of all.

The idea of the christian socialist, the social reform movements in Australia and New Zealand, were strongly Christian influenced.

Australian and New Zealand history falls solidly in the imperial tradition. There is, as best I can work out, no real connection with the US at all. Recently, to our detriment, we appear to have imported some US ideas and, worse, models. To apply those models to our past is just wrong.

I am not suggesting that you do this. You point to differences. But you fail, I would suggest, to recognise the special features of the Australian tradition and the way that this fits into our historical heritage.

Stroppy, I may be, but I think that i have a point.

Not sure how many spelling mistakes that there will be in all this.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating topic, Jim. It has led to one of my longer, but not necessarily authoritative, posts: Is Australia a Christian country?.

Lexcen said...

Jim, I think we miss the point when we confuse "church" and "Christianity". The values of Christianity permeate our social values and are reflected in our legal system. When we discuss the influence of the "church" in a political sense then that is a different matter. As a society we accept "Christian" values as the norm. In contrast, if we were a Muslim society, the political system would indeed by subservient to the religious values of Islam. If we were a Buddhist society then we might consider the values of Buddhism and how they permeate the legal and political system.

Jim Belshaw said...

I would agree with your points here, Lexcen.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting supplement, Jim. I have moved that post to Wednesday rather than Tuesday, so its is now here.

BTW, I found your previous post (the Dylan Thomas one) very moving.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the comment on the Dylan post Neil. I almost deleted it because it was just too revealing. thnks, to, for recognising the value in Lexcen's comment.

I enjoy our discussion because of the way we seem to be able to disentangle issues even where we disagree. I mention this because I am about to try to your patience very severely with a post suggesting that, for the first time in my life, I am considering voting Liberal!

Anonymous said...

Well Jim, you are, at present, actually allowed to vote for whoever you choose. Sad, really, that John Howard and his subdued cohorts are locked into the Roman Empire (christian) ideas of "might is right".

Give 'em another term in office and they may well believe that they have the "mandate" to use the army for political purposes.

Jim Belshaw said...

I do not think, Davo, that might is right is just a Roman (christian) thing. I do wonder wwhat we have to do to get rid of war.

Long live the ballot box. In terms of your point re the use of the army, there is a serious point here in the way that all states use various levers of power to enforce their will internally as well as externally.

Put aside the more extreme cases,there seems to be a tendency among all Governments for a creeping use of power.

Anonymous said...

During the election campaign, Mr Howard made a point of attending both Chinese and Korean Christian churches in his electorate. No-one really commented, it was just another campaign move, other than to look at the reactions of some of the attendees. Yet that attendance was a sign of profound change.

Certainly reflects the changes in the Eastwood area. On the other hand, these churches -- especially the Korean ones -- would I suspect tend to be pro-Howard. The Korean church is quite conservative, most often deriving from Presbyterian missionary effort which was very successful in Korea, and (a bit like the old "captive nations") would understandably be anti-communist/socialist. In that sense change and not change. ;)

My, that blog scraper that locked into you (I checked the trackbacks) is an odd one!

sundar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hari said...

That is Really Intresting.it made me to read whole story.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, redeemed.