SOCIETY by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Christianity the cornerstone of democratic values
, May 9, 2015
In his Easter message, British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that Britain was a Christian country and that “the Church is not just a collection of beautiful old buildings. It is a living, active force across our country.”
He went on to argue that all schools must teach what it means to be British, which is not surprising given last year’s “Trojan Horse” affair, where some Muslim schools in Birmingham were considered in danger of advocating extreme Islamic values.
Cameron described British values as “freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility and respect for British institutions. Those are the sorts of things I would hope would be inculcated into the curriculum in any school in Britain.”
The argument that Christianity is central to British culture, especially its political and legal systems, is also argued by 22 Christian leaders in a document entitled Values: The Characteristics of Our British National Identity.
Like Cameron, the values document highlights the importance of liberal democratic values such as the rule of law, the sanctity of human life, a commitment to the common good and “freedom of speech, debate, conscience and religion”. The argument is also put that such values are “derived from our Judeo-Christian foundations” and are “fundamental to the health of our national life”.
Cameron, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is on record as warning that multiculturalism has failed as a government policy and that the alternative must be “muscular liberalism”.
If Islamic youth are not taught clear and firm values about what it means to be British and why such a way of life is worth defending, then, Cameron argues, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they are attracted to “extremist ide-logy”. Neither should it surprise anyone that in Australia — a former British colony, with the same political and legal systems — liberal, democratic values and Christianity are central to our way of life, too.
As detailed by Murdoch Univer-ity’s Augusto Zimmermann, Christianity plays a significant role in the history of common law. In an essay entitled A Law above the Law: Christian Roots of the English Common Law, Zimmermann argues that common law “has an incredibly rich Christian heritage”.
He goes on to observe that “England’s most celebrated jurists — including the likes of Blackstone, Coke and Fortescue — often drew heavily from their Christian faith when expounding and developing what are now well-established principles and doctrines”.
While the figure is now about 62 per cent, at Federation about 90 per cent of the Australian population professed the Christian faith. Our parliaments begin with the Lord’s Prayer and the constitution’s preamble includes the words “Almighty God”.
As shown by the national day of mourning in response to the tragedy of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, with the loss of 28 Australian lives, it is still customary to turn to religion, especially Christianity, to help deal with loss, grief and pain.
As in Britain, Christian organisations in Australia such as the Salvation Army, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the St Vincent de Paul Society and Caritas Australia work tirelessly to alleviate poverty and suffering, here and overseas.
Catholic schools enroll 20 per cent of students around Australia, saving taxpayers and governments millions of dollars, and if Christian hospitals and aged-care facilities did not exist, Australia’s health and welfare systems would collapse. Democratic concepts associated with the Westminster parliamentary system — such as one person, one vote; separation of powers; governments being formed in the people’s house; and free and open elections — evolved over hundreds of years and ensure our freedom.
Legal concepts such as innocent until proven guilty, the right to a free and timely trial, habeas corpus and the right to be judged by one’s peers are also distinctive.
Such rights are denied in totalitarian regimes, leading to a situation, as noted by English judge Lord Denning, where “the rulers are not under God and the law. They are a law unto themselves. All law, all courts, are simply part of the state machine. The freedom of the individual, as we know it, no longer exists.”
The reality is that millions around the world — in Africa, South America, the Middle East, Indochina and the former Soviet Union — are denied rights we take for granted. It is also true that extreme interpretations of Islam are hostile to democratic beliefs and values. As noted by US-based watchdog Freedom House, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran are oppressive regimes in which women, in particular, are denied basic rights.
The barbaric and evil acts committed by Islamic State in the name of religion, such as beheading 21 Christians, also provides a chilling example of what happens when individuals and groups turn their backs on civilised values.
In the same way that 22 Christian leaders are arguing that Judeo-Christianity is central to British identity, there are Australian religious organisations arguing, in the context of last year’s review of the Australian national curriculum, of which I was co-chairman, that religion is central to our way of life.
The Catholic Education Commission of Victoria’s submission to the review states that Judeo-Christian beliefs and values are “the foundations of our liberal democracy”. The Anglican Education Commission argues: “Our justice, government, education, health and general welfare systems are all established on the Judeo-Christian foundation of this civilisation.”
Another submission received, with 1647 signatures, states that students in government and non-government schools should learn about Christianity “in a way that is fair and balanced”.
Those critical of Judeo-Christianity often argue that Australia is a secular society as the constitution states that the commonwealth “shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance”.
While true, such a statement does not mean that religion should be banished from the public square or ignored by the curriculum.
To attempt to do so not only misinterprets the constitution, it also weakens and undermines the liberal, democratic institutions and values that ensure Australia, compared with many countries, is such a peaceful, prosperous and just society.
Worse still, by denying that this country has a strong and viable narrative worth advocating and protecting, as argued by Cameron about his own country, we vacate the field and allow extremist and violent ideologies to influence our young.
Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University. He co-chaired last year’s national curriculum review.
This article appeared in The Weekend Australian on Saturday April 18, 2015.