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:
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!).