Passing Bull 114 – Bull about a Christian nation


From time to time, you hear chatter about whether Australia may be called a Christian nation.

There is a problem with the question.  Religion involves faith.  Can an impersonal thing have faith? The word ‘nation’ is a form of abstraction, or a label, for a ‘distinct race or people, characterised by common descent, language or history, usually organised as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory’.  It may make sense to speak of a small body of people having feelings, but a body of 25 million?  How does a nation profess its faith?  Would it make any sense to ask whether BHP or the Melbourne City Council was a Christian corporation?

As I see it, the answer to those questions is no.  The inquiry presumably then becomes whether the number of people somehow or other professing their faith in Christianity entails that the nation might fairly be described as Christian – even if those who are not of that faith may be a little put out by the suggestion.

I suppose that nations like Iraq and Indonesia are loosely characterised as Muslim nations because a very large majority of their peoples actively practise the religion of Islam and their governments seek to apply its teaching.  Indeed, one of the things that makes people here fear Islam is a perceived threat that Muslims will seek to introduce Sharia Law among peoples not considered to be Muslim.

Well, then, let’s put to one side the question of how many Australians actually practise the religion of Christianity, do Australian governments seek to apply the teaching of Christianity?

A key statement of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is in the Sermon on the Mount.  Here are some parts of it as found in the fifth chapter of the gospel of St Matthew in the Bible.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy…..

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you that you resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn him the other also.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you…..

It would be absurd to suggest that any government in our history has ever sought to give effect to that teaching in government.  It would be seriously offensive, even to a lapsed member of the faith like me, to claim that the Commonwealth government, in any current manifestation, is adhering to the Sermon on the Mount in its dealings with refugees.

The reason is simple enough.  There is an unstated premise in government across the West – the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to governments.  Governing is hard enough as it is without worrying about high moral teaching about turning the other cheek.  I have never learned where this dispensation comes from, but you won’t find it in the bits in red.

It’s a fair bet that Donald Trump, who defames all Christians by claiming to adhere to their religion, would not know the difference between a beatitude and a Siamese kitten.  God only knows how he might react if Mr Bannon whispered in his ear that in the course of their Leninist destruction of Washington DC, the meek would inherit the earth.  There could be a Twitter meltdown.  And imagine what might be the reaction if you told a Queensland rozzer – say Peter Dutton – to turn the other cheek!

The Marquess of Salisbury (Robert Cecil) was the definitive Tory.  Andrew Roberts said he believed ‘in the politics of prestige and vengeance’ – a comprehensive repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount.

No one dreams of conducting national affairs with the principles which are prescribed to individuals.  The meek and poor spirited among nations are not to be blessed, and the common sense of Christendom has always prescribed for national policy principles diametrically opposed to those that are laid down in the Sermon on the Mount.

Elsewhere he said: ‘Christianity forced its way up from being the religion of slaves and outcasts, to become the religion of the powerful and the rich; but somehow it seems to have lost the power to force its way down again.’ We don’t speak so plainly about the first proposition now, but it is an inarticulate premise of our view of government

On those grounds, I suspect that people who claim Australia as a Christian nation are talking bullshit.  And, after all, why bother?  What’s the point?  Will anyone feel or act any better in the unlikely event that they see some merit in the proposition?  Who wants to make some Australians feel left out of it?

Who else might qualify?  All of both Americas, Western Europe, and the UK.  There would have to be exceptions.  The Germans know better than to label an entire nation.  The French have firmly locked religion out of politics since 1789.  And in my view the US are disqualified on three counts – their gun laws, their health care laws, and the election and adulation of an absurd graven image.  You would also have a problem with Ireland for the reason I am coming to.

May I now make a technical point?  The word ‘Christian’ has only come into vogue here in the last generation or so.  Prior to that, people identified their denomination, or their lack of it.  And for least some purposes, you still have to do so.   If you called yourself a Christian in Ireland, you would at best get a funny look.  It’s not good enough for our head of state to claim to be a Christian.  Because of the provisions of a foreign constitution, over which we have no control, our sovereign must be in communion with the Church of England.  Because of this relic of the Reformation, it’s not just Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or good God-fearing doubters like me who need not apply – Catholics are banned too, and all those the English called Dissenters.  How, as a matter of either form or substance, you square that barrier with our being a Christian nation is a matter that may have diverted the Medieval Schoolmen.

But to finish on a point of substance, haven’t we done enough to besmirch the teaching of the man Einstein called ‘the luminous Nazarene’ without applying his name to a crude political label?  The people who want to make this argument tend to have a reactionary caste of thought, and invoking the name of the Lord to make some political point, with an exclusionary tendency, looks to me go infringe the spirit if not the text of another biblical injunction.  Indeed, the whole discussion leaves a bad taste in the mouth – and partly for reasons that might fairly be called religious – even in an old apostate like me.

Poet of the month: Walt Whitman

O Captain!my Captain!

(In memory of Robyn Williams)

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills;

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths–for you the shores a-crowding;

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head;

It is some dream that on the deck, You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;

From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells! But I, with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

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