Us and the US
[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’. That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings. That format will be followed in the précis. The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Patriotism; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword. Each chapter is about 1400 words.]
The English Bill of Rights bans anyone from holding the Crown of England who is ‘…reconciled to, or shall hold communion with…the…Church of Rome…or shall marry a papist’. The English Bill of Rights is still part of the laws of each state of Australia. The English Act of Settlement of 1701 forbids the holder of the crown to marry ‘a papist’ and says that anyone who shall ‘come into possession of the Crown shall join in communion with the Church of England’.
The Queen of Australia must ‘join in communion with the Church of England.’ Her successor may marry someone of another faith – say a Muslim sister of Osama bin Laden – and Australia might ask the English Crown to approve of the appointment of a Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or Infidel Governor-General, but the English crown – the Australian crown – is denied religious freedom or tolerance. It is, and must remain, Anglican. Well, why shouldn’t the English have what they want?
Section 116 of the Australian Constitution provides: ‘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’. On the issue of an established church, and imposing religious observance, the Australian Constitution therefore provides for the direct opposite of the constitution of the United Kingdom. Australia is schizophrenic at its ecclesiastical summit.
There does not look to have been much chance of some pious and ambitious types trying to set up an established church in Australia, but the Commonwealth of Australia is left in the anomalous position of being a country that cannot have an established church taking its monarch from a nation that must have an established church as a result of ancient British laws that Australians cannot change, but that are entirely repugnant to the laws of Australia as a whole.
Putting that quirk to one side, Australians have not had much trouble with religion, but such troubles as they have had did religion no good. It is very much an ebbing force in communal life in Australia.
Religious conflict in Australia was mainly imported. That is hardly surprising in a migrant nation. Geoffrey Blainey has this comment: ‘Between 1929 and 1949, Irish Australians, three of whom were Catholics and one a lapsed Catholic, held the post of Prime Minister in every year but two. One of the Catholics, Joe Lyons, dramatically left the Labor Party and headed a conservative government from 1932 to 1939.’ This was a bad premonition of an even worse split in the Labor Party, one that would disenfranchise a generation.
The issue of Church and State flickered on about state aid to church schools, but the disasters of about sixty years of religious fuelling of political debate meant that anyone trying that kind of thing could expect to be under a large bucket of something quite malodorous. The churches as a whole now have very little influence in politics, and proponents of some worthy causes might be inclined to pray that the princes of the church just stay out of the fray. However, on issues that are said to be moral like abortion and euthanasia, a small number of religious people can make enough noise to frighten off politicians who are by nature timid. In 2017, that would be said of the dispute about equality.
The international abuse scandal is seen by those opposed to the churches as confirming all their fears, and when it broke, the church found no reservoir of goodwill or even sympathy.
The First Amendment to the U S Constitution provides: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances’. So, the Australian model had followed the American on setting up rather more than Chinese Walls between Church and State by banning an established church and by guaranteeing freedom of religion.
The picture on the ground in England and in the U S looks to be the reverse of what it is on paper. The English queen is the head of a state religion, but religion has a minimal effect on English politics; you could make much the same observation for Australia; in the U S, there is no established church, but de facto the president has to go through the motions of being a professed Christian, and religion has a continuing and significant effect on U S politics, an effect that is not widely admired outside of the U S.
For the most part, the early presidents were products of the Enlightenment who were at best not enthused about a personal God. Lincoln was clearly nowhere near being a practising Christian. There is not much point speculating which presidents may have been communicant Christians. One American historian spoke of ‘The assumption that the United States is morally superior to other nations, the assertion that it must redeem the world by spreading popular government’, and ‘faith in the nation’s divinely ordained destiny to fulfil this mission.’ The ‘rhetoric of empire’ is a lot worse than the Napoleon complex – that cost more than five million lives in European wars fought so that Europe might know the blessing of French republican liberty – Napoleon did not claim to be sent by God.
This kind of talk is terrifying to those outside America. It is not just that the U S has an appalling record of getting into bed for its own purposes with corrupt, repressive, and wicked rulers who are sponsored to stand over and hold down their people in the name of freedom and democracy – the more serious problem is that this is being done because the Americans, like the Hebrews, Romans, and English before them have been chosen by Providence for just that mission. That is something that no-one outside America believes, and hopefully something that very, very few sane Americans believe.
Then, even putting to one side that two presidents in the lifetime of the author suffered from a manic incapacity to hold their pants up, and an equally manic drive to abuse the power of their high office and trust, and putting to one side TV evangelists, there is the spell-binding hypocrisy of it all. Here we have Uncle Sam bringing truth, justice, freedom, and the American way to the oppressed peoples of the world – in the name of and on a mission from Almighty God – even to those poor souls not yet blessed with a revelation of God’s plan for them – in faraway and dangerous places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Then the problem of hypocrisy went into orbit with the election of Donald Trump.
A few years ago Australia saw its first female Prime Minister. One day the U S might chance its arm on a woman, but there is little or no chance on present form that the first U S woman president will be a professed atheist living in sin. Neither that PM, nor any other Australian has claimed that Australians have a mission to the world for which they have been chosen by God.