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Minority Report: Grappling with a post-Christian Era

Friday, 18 June 2010  | Angus McLeay

In a witness statement in support of a Christian relationships counsellor who was appealing his dismissal over his refusal to counsel gay and lesbian couples, Carey stated:

“Recent decisions of the Courts have illuminated insensitivity to the interests and needs of the Christian community and represent disturbing Judgments. The effect of these decisions is to undermine the religious liberties that have existed in the United Kingdom for centuries.... The fact that senior clerics of the Church of England and other faiths feel compelled to intervene directly in judicial decisions and cases is illuminative of a future civil unrest.”

He went on to call for a separate tribunal to be set up for religiously-related cases, with judges appointed who are sympathetic to religious sensitivities.

UK society, like ours, is transitioning into a post-Christian era. The scope of the change here can be gleaned from a 2009 report by the Christian Research Association. Consider these statistical vignettes from Australia’s second largest city:

· More than 4 in 5 people have only occasional or no contact with church
· Ten times as many people aged 75 years (or over) attend church compared to those aged 15-24 (30% versus 3%)
· Those of “no religion” are the second largest ‘faith’ group - after Catholics
· Within 15 years, less than 5% of the population will be attending church on a Sunday

One response to this alarming picture is to point to the significant place of Christian institutions such as schools and welfare agencies. While there is no doubt that these are entrenched, we should not infer that Christian values and identity necessarily follow. Of those who identified as Christians in 2006, a quarter disbelieve (or are at least unsure) that a “higher power / force” exists. Less than a third of young people believe in a personal God. Specifically Christian views are already, and increasingly, in the minority (a reality Carey’s statement bears witness to regarding the UK).

Given these trends, it is curious that the recent debate about human rights was led by Christians arguing for less check and balance in our system. Evangelical leaders campaigned against a Charter of Rights in order to preserve religious freedom. But no Charter means that raw political force faces less review or redress. This approach is fine when the political chips fall our way: the current crop of federal MPs over-represents Christian views compared with the community at large. But this could easily change and is likely to do so. Review of political decisions – of the kind a Charter of Rights would have offered – would give (some) reassurance for minority views and communities facing sheer majoritarianism or the tactics of lobbyists.

Human rights set out principles which protect minorities, which must be applied equally and fairly to all. In a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, whatever Christians call for must be equally applicable to those of no faith and other faiths. If we call for separate courts for one group we set a precedent for others to seek their own ‘sympathetic’ tribunals. Each group may complain that the courts are insensitive to their particular views. Those without access to ‘special’ courts might well feel aggrieved. Perhaps this is why the judge presiding at the case in which Carey made his statement described the proposal as “divisive, capricious and arbitrary”. (The judgment can be found at: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2010/B1.html)
Minorities often feel vulnerable and threatened, and many in the Church feel like this. But there is no use pursuing special exemptions or provisions to which every other group can lay claim. Instead, our vulnerability is an opportunity to show leadership by pursuing policies and politics which respect minorities at the same time as the needs of the community as a whole.

Angus McLeay is an Anglican minister who recently started a small business in the hospitality industry. Last year he formed an organisation to educate on human rights within the Church, IsaiahOne, following the Federal Government's national consultation on human rights.


Conrad Parsons
June 18, 2010, 2:32PM
If we acknowledge the general population rejects the authority of the Bible, and then champion a Charter of Rights (providing a possible future benefit of preventing persecution of minorities) will we possibly cloud or muddy engagement between the Bible and our society? That is, will our resources be focused more on moderating pluralism with justice than engaging our communities with stories of the life of Jesus? If a Charter is established, then what?
Mark Durie
June 18, 2010, 3:16PM
I think the Carey's call for separate courts is unworkable and counterproductive. Angus is right on this. Everyone should be equal before the law.

But some of Angus' comments are unhelpful. E.g. "... it is curious that the recent debate about human rights was led by Christians arguing for less check and balance in our system." Of course many who opposed a charter were not Christians. Also it was not that they wanted 'less checks and balances', but rather they believed the checks and balances we have are adequate, and introducing a whole new layer of ADDITIONAL instruments would only create problems.

Second, the claim that "Human rights set out principles which protect minorities, which must be applied equally and fairly to all." is misleading. It is not that they MUST be applied, but that they SHOULD be applied. Whether they are in practice depends upon how the human rights regime is implemented, and how the principles are interpreted. In practice this depends upon the religion, culture and world view of the whole community. Afghanistan has religious freedom written into its Constitution, but this does not prevent its parliamentarians from calling for Christians to be publicly executed.

Finally the claim "whatever Christians call for must be equally applicable to those of no faith and other faiths" is more problematic than it might appear. Some religious practices are illegal in Australia (e.g. female circumcision, human sacrifice). They should remain so. If something is true and right, we should stand up for it: to argue that we are only allowed to put forward our views, or engage in political activity on the basis of arguments grounded in secularist ideology is quite mistaken. We should call for lots of things which don't apply equally to all faiths.
Angus McLeay
June 18, 2010, 6:39PM
Mark's responses deserve some clarifying comments. (thank you for raising these points, Mark)
Mark is correct to say that by and large Church opposition to a Charter expressed satisfaction with the existing system's ability to protect human rights. Others argued (and the Consultation Report concluded) that a Charter would encourage response on human rights oversights by politicians and public servants in two new ways: (1) open the former to dialogue with courts and (2) require public servants to observe the international rights we've already signed up to- but using domestic law. (Australia is already a signatory to all 7 international human rights treaties.) By "less check and balance" I meant that absent a domestic law on human rights our system lacks these distinct motivators. (nb. "layer" is only a metaphor and might unhelpfully carry connotations of an overweight bureaucracy.)
Second, I agree that human rights aren't always applied as they "should" be. My meaning with "must" was that as a matter of principle they are to be applied universally. Human rights are subject to human sinfulness like democracy, capitalism and religion.
Lastly, Mark has me suggesting something about using "secularist ideology". My point was simply that in the public domain Christians should be consistent with principles of public policy, law and so on. Otherwise we risk favouritism, even hypocrisy (James 2, 3; in fact the only preferment we can entertain is for the needs of others).
Angus McLeay
June 18, 2010, 7:09PM
To Conrad's questions: My article is not addressing what we devote resources to and nor do I think that public engagement / biblical preaching need be an either / or. It is about how we engage with society.
"Pluralism" has several meanings 1. philosophical; 2. political a) what does exist b) what ought to exist. I'm not sure which one you're using.
If we got a Charter, then what? If they do in fact assist the vulnerable they might interest Christians who work with such groups. If they do help protect minorities, we who are increasingly a minority should take a closer look. Mark's example of Afghanistan is a case in point. Words in a Constitution do not guarantee anything in practice. But the US State Department's International Religious Freedom Report (set up after evangelical lobbying) uses such statements to exert moral pressure on a state for greater religious freedom. The 2009 report states, "The government responded positively to international approaches on human rights, including religious freedom." (full report here, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127362.htm)
Tom Mayne
June 19, 2010, 10:13AM
In the recent debate in Australia, the Christian Lobby universally opposed a Bill of Rights. The sole reason seemed to be to protect the Church's interests - such as, for example, being able to oppose the appointment of a homosexual teacher to a Christian school. Such a concern is of course unerstandable although some of the rhetoric was probably over the top. However, what was totally absent in the debate was the interests of marginalized groups such as Aborigines. Only being a 'bush lawyer' I can only speculate, but might the outcome for Aborigines been dfferent - assuming we had a BoRs - for Native Title holders who, following Howard's amendments, removed their right to negoriate (not veto) over certain mining interests. Might there have been a different outcome over the NT intervention where even persons and families who have no gambling, alcohol or other dysfunctional behavours have 50% of their welfare payments quarantined so that they can spend their money only on and where the government dictates?
Elizabeth Hindmarsh
June 22, 2010, 3:42PM
The Northern Territory Intervention removed the Human Rights of Aboriginal People and allowed the National Government to make changes with no consultation with the people and a repeal of the law possible. The current evidence in the Australian Medical Journal shows that the control of welfare payments has not made the changes the Government claims.
Mark Brett
June 23, 2010, 3:42PM
The Native Title Act (1993) suggests that where the Crown has over-ridden native title rights then compensation should be payable, at least according to the ‘just terms’ required by the Australian Constitution of 1901. Three of the High Court judges in the Mabo case contemplated compensation from 1901, but the final judgment resolved that it should be payable from the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975). To date, Australian courts have delivered no such compensation, which means that Indigenous rights have been ignored in this regard.

Whether we consider the dispossession from traditional land, the forced removal of Aboriginal children, or the withholding of wages, the outcomes are roughly the same: racial discrimination before 1975 was endemic, and it is still legally sanctioned.

The recent NT Intervention required the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, which the federal parliament is free to do, in part because human rights are not securely entrenched in Australian law.

This legal history illustrates that Indigenous rights can be easily over-ridden by democratic processes, and historic injustices will not be addressed until we have higher legal hurdles for parliaments to jump over.

A Charter of Human Rights would, of course, be just a hurdle, and not a brick wall; the Victorian parliament, e.g., can still over-ride its own Charter if it chooses to do so. But at least the provision of a federal Charter would make our democratic processes more accountable to human rights considerations.

If, as a consequence, the church has to "empty itself" of some worldly power, then that might just be a call that resonates with our deepest vocation.
Doug Hynd
June 23, 2010, 9:35PM
I just want to respond to one of the points that Angus was making relating to a residual attitude of unquestioning privilege by the churches in the Australian context.

We really need to get over that Christendom mentality and find creative ungrudging ways to develop a truly open pluralist society that lives out a desacralisation of the social order and the state.

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