Sunday, 10 January 2010

Back in the Bible Belt

Well, having spent a Biblical 'three years' serving God's Lutheran people in the beautiful village of Tarrington in the state of Victoria, family circumstances mean I am now back in the 'Bible Belt' of Australia; Toowoomba, south-east Queensland, to be more precise, which could fairly be labelled the capital of the Bible Belt, which stretches from the southern suburbs of Brisbane out along the Warrego Hwy to Toowoomba and beyond. For American readers, this would be somewhat parallel to going from New England to the South.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you, this is very much home territory for me; I feel comfortable here, and it is something of a consolation in difficult times to know that there are a significant number of fellow believers active in one's community. Most of Australia, especially its great cities, is secularised and ultra-moderne (i.e. post-modern), but Queenslanders have never been keen to march to the tunes played 'down south', a term which has both geographical and cultural references, i.e. somewhat akin to 'up north' in American terms, remembering that everything is reversed in this strange, antipodean world.

And Queensland has always been a little bit more strange and different than the other Australian states - more socially conservative, less urbanised, less well-educated, more de-centralised, more religious, more prone to outbreaks of fundamentalist sectarianism, revivalism and even schismatic movements in 'mainstream' church bodies - if there is an ultra-conservative, anti-modernist branch of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, or Lutheranism, you will be sure to find it significantly represented in, if not led from, Queensland. Which all makes for a very stimulating environment in which to live and reflect on faith and theology and their intersection with post-modernity.

But Queensland is changing too, not least due to the influx of folk from interstate seeking a new start in life and a lower cost of living than that which prevails in their home states, which have been run disastrously over recent decades. Not to mention the constant stream of superannuated retirees seeking out the sunshine and relaxed lifestyle the Queensland climate offers. This population growth has meant that Queensland has become a 'boom state', in stark contrast to the sleepy, slow, backwater state that I have fond memories of growing up in, whose capital city didn't even have a sewerage system until 1967.

Whether it is connected to these changes or not, since my return I have noticed that there is a strong move against 'religious education' (i.e. teaching the Christian faith) in state schools, apparently on the grounds that such schools are meant to be 'secular', which is interpreted to mean having no place for religious instruction.
This public campaign is being conducted by a bunch of 'new atheists' who have organised themselves as a lobby group, and they apparently mean business.

Here is their manifesto in video format:

It's a weak argument, but if anyone requests I will be happy to provide a rebuttal.

Meantime, here's an example of their propaganda:

And another:

Now, it is one of the paradoxes of Australian life that while we are a much more secularised nation than the US, the Christian faith receives more public, official acknowledgement here than in the US, where a strict separation of church and state prevails. Here, although most Australians do not attend church regularly, Christian prayers are still said at the opening of parliamentary sessions, the judiciary still annually attend special church services (Anglican, of course) where they are prayed for, and until relatively recently, instruction in the Christian faith was still offerred to school children attending publicly funded schools in all states. Agnostics, atheists and secularists have long derided these practices as a survival of an Establishment that in fact never really existed.

From the beginning of Australia's settlement, there has been a struggle over the soul of the nation (and remember, Australia was founded as a colony at the height of the Enlightenment, 1788, not to mention that Queensland was gazetted as a separate colony under Queen Victoria's government in the very year that Darwin's 'Origin of Species' was published, 1859). The hope for an Anglican Establishment along British lines here was scuttled early in the piece - although it has been a long time dying in Anglican hearts - but that the nation would be Christian, and largely Protestant, in character and not just confession was the de facto position of colonial authorities and is a notion that is still dearly held by many Anglo-Australians. But decline in the practice of the Christian faith, not to mention high levels of Roman Catholic immigration in the past and currently high levels of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh immigration, have placed that ideal under threat. Queensland may its 'last bastion', and is thus where the battle rages most violently, at the moment over the issue of teaching the Christian faith in state schools.

What do I make of all this? I have no doubt that the church would survive the event of the expulsion of its religious education teachers from state schools, and even the banishment to the private sphere of all expressions of the Christian faith, if it came to that. But I am not sure that the nation would survive. Thinking for the moment in purely this-worldy terms, I am yet to be convinced that a people who are interested in nothing else but hedonism and material prosperity can aspire to be a noble, just and truly liberal society. If the Christian faith is no longer to have a favoured position as a shaper of the Australian ethos, then, at the very least, an American-style republican ethos which inculcates virtue and civic-mindedness in the minds and hearts of the young would be necessary (and let it be an ethos that also remains open to the positive benefits of religion to society). Failing that, the state must assume ever greater power to coerce its citizens to do the right thing, as determined by the majority view, i.e. socialism, whose dead hand will inevitably throw the funeral pall over all that is genuinely alive and vibrant under God's Heaven. Nay, better to die on one's feet than live half alive on one's knees!

So, I fear that the 'fringe benefits', so to speak, that our Christiant heritage has bequeathed to this nation - a reasonable amount of liberty, prosperity, the rule of law, democracy, and so on, cannot continue to be enjoyed without the confession of faith that has historically produced them being held by a majority of the people. A government, then, that fails to afford a measure of protection to the Christian faith as the majority religion of the Australian people and a significant force which has historically shaped the life and culture of this people in a positive way, neglects the health of the body politic.
Which, I suppose, is exactly what one who grew up in the Bible Belt would be expected to say.
It's good to be home!

Queensland is correctly pronounced 'Kweens-lund', but is usually more colloqiually expressed as 'Kweens-laaand' (eh!).


matthias said...

Pastor remember that the North of Australia is closer to the Deep South. and also remember to speak slower and end with" hey " sorry that's New Zealand. I agree with your comments re the church surviving- anglican,lutheran ,catholic,orthodox etc-but i hold deep reservations for the future for a country that is wanting personal peace and affluence,hedonism
materialism and a form of private new age spirituality. i also believe that we will as a nation be judged for this.
However i think of the christians of the former Iron Curtain whose numbers plus those of China's and Africa's far outnumber those of us in the First World.It was the RCC that was the soul of anticommunist resistance in Poland and Czechoslavkia;the Lutherans helped in East germany and the Orthodox in Russia. Yes religion may become relegated to the private-or what the new atheists think is private. But Christians should set up alternatives such as religious education classes for children of unchurched parents;becoming active in community organisations,invluding public schools and kindergartens and showing Christian example .The example i think of is in Amish country in Pennsylvania ,where the members of the volunteer fire brigades include many Amishmen; where teams of mennonites and Amish go to assist in disaster might be that one day on the not so distant future we will be hauled before courts because we have made a stand. I pray that God will give me the strength to endure. Perhaps it is time to start building some semblance of alternatives to what the State/s can provide

acroamaticus said...


Yes, QLD is closer to the Old South both geographically and culturally. Why, cotton is even a major crop around these parts!

Seriously, it seems we are witnessing the death of the old ideal of Australia and the birth of something new. That's to be expected, as time does not stand still, but you're right, we need to start exporing alternate models for organising and propagating the Christian faith, based on the assumption that what is coming will be less friendly to us than what previous arrangements.

this is all somewhat parallel to what is happening in England. Do you read Archbishop Cranmer's blog? I don't always agree with him, but he has his finger on the pulse of the mother country.

Schutz said...

the judiciary still annually attend special church services (Anglican, of course) where they are prayed for,

Here in Melbourne there is an annual "Red Mass" for the Catholic Judiciary and legal profession.

(coincidentally, the verification code for this entry is "judge"!)

Matthias said...

Can you giveme the link please pASTOR for +Cranmer. Thank you and glad you gotto the Capital of the Darling Downs safely.

acroamaticus said...

Ha! Very Jungian! Synchronicity and all that.

Thanks for pointing that out re Catholic judges in Victoria, David. I'll have to look into it up here, but in the past the official service has always been hald at St John's Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane. It may well be that Catholic judges also have their own Mass.
I find these survivals of the old de facto Anglican Establishment fascinating. There are also, or used to be in Queensland at any rate, regimental services for the armed forces and a special service for the police each year, and the police chaplain always used to be Anglican.

acroamaticus said...


It's mostly commentary on British politics from a Conservative viewpoint, but with a vital interest in religion too. Enjoy!

Melanchthon said...

Good to see you posting again and blessings in your new call.

Thank you for a fascinating and informative article about life "down under."

FWIW, my father served many years as a US Naval officer and had joint operations with both the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy, and he always felt more comfortable with the Aussies. We all speak the same language and have much of the same culture, but the Australians were "more like us."

I enjoy your posts.

acroamaticus said...

Thanks Jon for your encouraging comments. Interesting about your dad, did he ever visit Australia? US naval ships have been regular visitors to our ports since Civil War times (well, I think that was a Confederate ship, actually!) and Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, was General Douglas MacArthur's HQ after he left the Phillipines the first time. My grandfather fought in the army in the Pacific theatre, which means Mac Arthur was his commander. In regard to similarities and differences between Aussies and Yanks I might post on that in the future. As it happens, I'm reading paul Johnson's 'History of the American People' at the moment - great reading!

Matthias said...

It was the CSS SHENANDOAH that visited Melbourne and one if its cannons is in the garden of Churchill Island homestead just off Philip Island.
My father in law was in the British commonwealth Occupation force in japan-1946 -47 as a captain and he was company commander in a unit attached to General Omar Bradley's HQ.One day Dad passed in the corridors shortish older American officer and nodded to him and said "good morning Yank nice day" . The next day he gets a phone call from the BCOF Commanding Officer-a Pom- saying that the General's adjuntant was wondering if next time the Australian captain passed the General could he please remember to salute him-as well as give a pleasant greeting

acroamaticus said...

So it was a Confederate ship, then.

Great story about your dad, Wayne, and good to see that Bradley didn't blow his top - can't imagine MacArthur reacting that way!

Now, here's an interesting one for you, why have so many great generals been short?

Matthias said...

Blamey was short and I think he was not a great leader of the Australian army in WW2 .A friend of ours was at the end of the Kokoda Campaign and Blamey said if you run like rabbits you will fight like them. Just remember these blokes fought the japanese to a standstill. What did they do -10,000 of them booed him.
Monash was short and a great general.Some think his strategy won the breakthroughs on the Western front in WW1

acroamaticus said...

I agree re Blamey & Monash, the latter being a truly great Australian. I don't know the answer to my question, it just strikes me as notable - T.E. Lawrence was also short, though not a general, but obviously a great leader of men; and don't forget Napoleon - I think it may be something to do with having to prove oneself, or that tall lieutenants present too big a target and don't make it beyond captian!

Anonymous said...

As a non-Lutheran who went to a Lutheran College - Concordia actually - I have to say that Queens-Lund appears to be the Lutheran pronounciation. Apart from my pastors and teachers at Concordia, the only other person I have heard pronounce the 'a' in Queensland as a 'u' was Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen - also a Lutheran. Queenslaaand is the pronounciation everywhere else.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Interesting observation, Anonymous. But where's the consistency? I don't hear those non-Lutherans saying "Englaaaand", "Scotlaaaand" and "Irelaaaaand"? :0)