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.