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Review: Turn the Tide: Reclaiming Religious Freedom in Australia

Thursday, 21 June 2018  | Gordon Preece

Turn the Tide: Reclaiming Religious Freedom in Australia

(McLean, VA: Barnabas Fund, 2018)

This is a timely booklet that came out a mere two months before the Federal Government received the Ruddock Report on Religious Freedom in Australia. Within the span of a bare fifty pages it summarises well the history and present contested reality of this fraught issue as seen by conservative Evangelicals.

Barnabas Fund is an Evangelical agency dedicated to resourcing the persecuted church globally through aid and research. The booklet is written to support Barnabas Fund’s petition for a new Act of Parliament to safeguard fundamental aspects of freedom of religion. It sees these freedoms, protected for the past half a millennium by English Common Law, the Australian Constitution and UN international treaties, as now under threat.

From the Magna Carta’s ringing call that ‘the English Church shall be free’ through to the Australian Constitution with its provisions against establishment of religion, imposition of religious practices, prohibition of free religious exercise and religious tests for public service, the booklet argues that, analogously to the Church of England, God’s hand has been upon our nation. But now the nation has abandoned God’s ways and stands in danger of having its ‘lampstand’ removed (Rev 2:5). The booklet argues that we must therefore be alert and responsive to every attack, as in Nehemiah 4, drawing a direct line to God’s Old Testament people. And we must repent and re-connect to God’s vision if we are to see our land restored and healed (2 Chronicles 7:14).

I support the excellent work Barnabas Fund (BF) does for persecuted Christians and believe many Christians do not take their plight seriously enough. We often tend to identify with those with whom we share something politically rather than our poor, persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. But this booklet draws far too direct a line from God’s Old Testament people, living in their own land, via the English established church model to today, in ways that take no account of us no longer being in the promised land, and of us being on stolen or conquered indigenous land, ignoring the great persecuted people of this country. This is something the doyen of conservative theologians in Australia, Peter Adam, has recognised, drawing an analogy between Australian land theft from Aboriginals with Queen Jezebel and King Ahab’s stealing both Naboth’s vineyard and his life (1 Kings 21).

Whether persecution is an appropriate word for the situation of the Australian church compared with that of the majority world church is open to debate, as Robyn Whitaker notes recently in The Conversation. My preference is to keep the word for direct threats to life and livelihood to the majority world Christians on which BF rightly spends most of its efforts. Other forms of unfair political and media opposition might be better described as discrimination, not persecution. This is not to trivialise them but to keep a sense of proportion.

Further, BF’s unjustified shift from the lampstands of Asia Minor churches of Revelation 2 to the nation of Australia is a fundamentally flawed one that undermines their argument for religious freedom by confusing church and state, in a characteristic American way, à la most recently George W. Bush who portrayed the U.S. as chosen carriers of the biblical light.

The BF language, with its established church echoes, contradicts the quotations from the Constitution against establishment that they are keen to cite.

Establishment of particular denominations by the State was the great perceived threat to religious freedom at the time of the 1900 Constitution, which BF recognises was the reason European Christians fled to the US centuries before, and fewer but still some also fled to Australia (especially South Australia).

Like many conservative Christian groups, BF stakes much on The 1900 Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, which states: ‘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’ (Section 116). But this was used at the time by Catholic and Free Church Christians to protect against State established religion, especially the Church of England.

This limited provision of religious freedom worked for a hundred years but now is running out of steam, in BF’s view. State constitutions have patchy and inconsistent provisions for religious freedom, as the early settlers expected that they would be protected by half a millennium of English common law.

BF argues that freedom of religion is now being undermined in Australia, citing many examples. In 2015, a Gold Coast street preacher was arrested for citing a series of scriptural sins, as were Sunshine Coast Christians handing out tracts. The prosecutions didn’t proceed, as in the case of Presbyterian Pastor Campbell Markham in Hobart. The BF booklet is concerned that the fundamental freedom to preach and persuade others in public is now under threat in Australia. We might add the examples in NSW and Victoria of recent legislation against Christians counselling people outside abortion clinics, though this is obviously a particularly sensitive example.

Interestingly, several of the examples cited come from areas of considerable cultural change, where perhaps more conservative Christians and newly ‘enlightened’ elites of the cities clash. The same sorts of clashes have occurred in other rapidly secularising, formerly strictly and traditionally religious areas like Quebec and Ireland.

Another concern raised in the booklet arises from the emergence of deep religious multiculturalism and incommensurate religious beliefs about basic freedoms, and the intimidation felt by legislatures and law enforcement bodies. Examples in Asia include trumped-up blasphemy charges or in Australia the threat to the basic freedom to choose or change your religion or belief. Former Muslims in Australia suffer threats of violence or even death. Hizb ut-Tahrir clearly upholds its belief in executing Muslim apostates (in line with sharia law) and has neither been prosecuted nor banned.

BF also raises the issue of recent NSW and Victorian law courts ruling on what is or is not a Christian doctrine in cases of alleged discrimination against an LGBTI support group wanting to use a Christian Brethren campsite. They also cite apparent attempts in Victoria in the famous Two Dannies case to use hate speech laws to muzzle Christians criticising other religions, particularly Islam. Certainly the Victorian examples each illustrate the dangers of the State acting as arbiter of what is and is not religious doctrine according to so-called court appointed experts. This contrasts with the Roman Governor Felix, somewhat corrupt, but who knew enough about the Christians (Acts 25:22-27) to know what he didn’t know, i.e., how to decide on a doctrinal dispute Paul had cleverly triggered between himself and the Pharisees, who believed in the bodily resurrection and the Sadducees, who didn’t.

BF aims through its pamphlet and a letter-writing campaign to uphold seven basic freedoms of religion:

  • Freedom of worship.
  • Freedom to read Scriptures in public.
  • Freedom to interpret the Scriptures without government interference.
  • Freedom to choose or change your faith or belief.
  • Freedom to preach and try to convince others of the truth of your beliefs.
  • Freedom to establish places of worship.
  • Freedom from being required to affirm a particular worldview or belief in order to hold a public sector job (except where there is a genuine occupational requirement such as chaplaincy posts), stand for election, work in professions such as teaching and law, or study at university.

Surprisingly, though, they don’t emphasise the critical control over hiring and firing policies in Christian schools in order to maintain their Christian ethos. This is a big blind spot. Nonetheless the booklet raises important issues in a succinct way, though it sometimes succumbs to over-simplification in interpretation of Scripture and the Constitution. It is available free of charge from the Barnabas Fund.

Gordon Preece
is Zadok Commissioning Editor and Director of the Centre for Research in Religion & Social Policy, University of Divinity.

This article will appear in the forthcoming Religious Liberty issue of Zadok Perspectives, No. 139, Winter 2018. You can subscribe to Zadok Perspectives, Ethos’ quarterly print magazine, here.


Graffiti inciting violence against Christians scrawled on Waverley Baptist church in Wheelers Hill, Victoria, 16 October 20176.

(Source: Turn the Tide: Reclaiming Religious Freedom in Australia, Barnabas Fund. Used with permission.)

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