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Church & State

By ReligionJanuary, 2012December 21st, 20235 min read

On these pages, Rachel Sacks-Davis accused the Orthodox Rabbinate of acting more like evangelical Christians when it came to responding to the gay marriage debate.

The so-called “separation between church and state” is enshrined in section 116 of our constitution, which 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. While this seems to be loosely based on the first amendment to the US constitution, the highest courts in the US have tested the separation to a far greater extent than have we.

In any case, this section makes it very clear that we are a democracy, and not a theocracy. Marriage is an institution enshrined in (secular) legislation. Anything the Church or the Rabbinate say about an issue like gay marriage carries no weight. So why do religious groups comment, and what do they seek to achieve by getting involved in such a debate?

Let’s take a step back and consider the extent of the separation between religion and state in Australia. As indicated earlier, it’s far less so than in the US. We continue to debate the issue of religious instruction in public schools, and there is plenty of government support for religious schools and institutions. The Secular Party of Australia would like a far greater separation than we already have, including teaching of “secular values” in schools, the removal of any religious references. They feel that while separation is enshrined in the constitution, Australia is practically more of a pluralistic theocracy, where the state supports many religions.

To understand this, we have to look beyond religion (in the way that it relates to the state) and instead to the values that underpin our western democratic society. These are commonly referred to as Judeo-Christian values, because their source is biblical, and because while the founders of modern western societies like Australia and the US were themselves Christian, they sought to create states that embodied their values, and balanced them with the principles such as equality for all, and freedom of religion for their citizens.

The slogan of the Secular Party is “Freedom of religion and freedom from religion”. What they seek to do is break with the religious values that underpin our society so that it no longer “weighs down” secularism with its absolutism and old-fashioned dependence on that archaic Bible. It seems to me that in fact they are actually mandating the pseudo-religion of “secularism” to replace the support for any other religions that we have now.

Much of the objection to gay marriage takes the form of a slippery slope argument. That is, we are against X not on the grounds that X itself is bad, but rather because if we allow X, then it will lead to Y and Z, which are things we definitely don’t want. Interestingly, this is similar to the principle in Pirkei Avot 1:1 of making a ‘fence’ around the Torah (beware of anything that could lead to dancing).

While the defence against this argument is usually that the chain of logical implication is not established, with the likelihood of gay marriage being legalized here, the polyamory community has jumped on the bandwagon, and sees this as an important step in allowing their relationships to be legally recognized. This style of argument is also used by the right against euthanasia and genetic engineering. However, those on the left rely on similar arguments against such technologies as genetically modified crops.

Uriya Shavit writes a great piece in Azure about the Muslim Brotherhood’s idea of democracy. Strange as it may seem, their ideal society borrows much from democratic values, yet maintains Islamic law above all. It’s not quite the theocracy that operates in Iran or Saudi Arabia.

The common factor in all these examples is the growing chasm between the historical values of a society, often absolute and based on religion, and their contemporary ones, which are relative and fluid.

What sort of society do we have? What sort of society do we want in the future? What are the values of a truly Godless, secular society? Is it one where PETA and Peter Singer elevate the rights of animals at the expense of humans and we euthanize those people who are too great a burden for us to maintain? These shifts happen over decades, not months, which is why the slippery slope argument often raises its head in debates like this.

I venture that the argument of religious groups against gay marriage are a reflection of their discomfort with the moral relativism in society today. The family unit is one of the building blocks of society, and an essential element in intergenerational cultural transmission. Seeing it being tampered with is a signal that the divergence between traditional religious values and contemporary values has clicked another notch. They see the values of our society as a house, with Judeo-Christian values as the foundation. Chip away too much at the foundation, and the whole house comes crumbling down.

This article originally appeared on Galus Australis, and the article image is taken from there.

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