The Democrats are asking for the opinions of Australians on the issue of church and state in an online poll.

The God and Government poll canvases people's thoughts on a wide range of issues, from whether intelligent design should be taught in schools as an alternative to evolution to whether hospitals which receive government funding should be obliged to provide abortion services, and whether political leaders in Australia have used religion for their own political purposes.

GOD AND GOVERNMENT? The Democrats want to know Australian's views on religion and politics. PICTURE: Phil Ragen (www.sxc.hu)

 

"(T)he majority of Australians profess to be Christians as opposed to other religions," says Senator Lynn Allison. "But in fact some of them are surprised to know that there is nothing in our constitution which safeguards that separation of church and state unlike other countries.”

Leader of the Democrats, Victorian Senator Lyn Allison, says the poll reflects the recent increase of the involvement of religion in politics. 

Senator Allison says it's her view that the Prime Minister, John Howard, has "exploited religion" and introduced some very significant changes in the relationship between church and state through actions such as funding religious organisations to conduct Government services, allowing the growth of church schools under more generous funding arrangements, and courting "conservative religious groups" such as Hillsong.

“We’ve also seen this Government criticise traditional churches and tell them to keep out of issues like refugees and industrial relations and so on," she says.

"So I think it’s a very interesting debate. What we know from surveys done by others is that the majority of Australians think that we have a secular society and understand that, of course, Christianity is our roots and that the majority of Australians profess to be Christians as opposed to other religions. But, in fact, some of them are surprised to know that there is nothing in our constitution which safeguards that separation of church and state unlike other countries.”

Claiming that it was the Government themselves which started the Christian-secular debate, Senator Allison says while churches should have a role in influencing government, that role should be “open and transparent”. 

“I would argue that in recent years we’ve had a disproportionate number of parliamentarians who profess...the sorts of views which are not representative of the general community, if I can put it that way, in the same numbers, and I think the RU486 debate made that quite clear,” she says, in a reference to the federal parliamentary debate that took place earlier this year before politicians voted to remove the health minister's ability to veto approval for prescribing the abortion pill and hand responsibility to the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

“So the fact that abortion is legal in this country; the fact that any survey that’s done shows the overwhelming majority of people believe women should have access to safe termination, in the parliament - particularly the male vote - (it was) indicated that at least half of our parliamentarians were prepared to vote against RU486 and one can only conclude that this is because of their views on abortion. I think it’s important to draw attention to any disproportionate attitude, if you like, among parliamentarians. I always believe that the parliament should fairly closely represent the various views of the community on a range of issues...”

Senator Allison says people need to know where politicians are coming from when approaching issues.

“(T)hat’s why I think it’s important we have a discussion about this,” she says. “Particularly if you have some of the more conservative or fundamentalist churches making a real pitch to get people into the parliament - and I would put Family First in this category - then we need to be quite clear where these people are coming from and let people make a judgement on that basis.”

The stance of the Democrats on the issue of church and state has drawn criticism from some Christian groups.

Jim Wallace, executive chairman of the Australian Christian Lobby, says his position on the issue of God and politics is encapsulated in one of the questions in the survey - should politicians be allowed to bring their religious beliefs to bear on their decisions in parliament?

GOD AND GOVERNMENT?

The Democrat's 22 question poll includes:

• Should religious education be part of the school curriculum?

• Should intelligent design be taught in schools as an alternative to evolution?

• Should taxpayers money be used to fund school chaplains?

• Should hospitals that receive government funding be obliged to provide abortion services?

• Do you think that religious leaders/churches/houses of worship should try to influence government decisions on issues?

Source: www.democrats.org.au

“These people can’t have it both ways,” he says. “On the one hand, they want to see every belief system treated as a religion so that religion has no preference anywhere so for instance, at law, even unbelief is treated as a religion. If that’s the case at law, then I’m afraid that’s the case. We know people go into parliament with all sorts of philosophies and if it’s going to be defined as their religion within the law, then everyone who holds a traditional religious view has equal right to bring their philosophy to bear, their beliefs to bear. Whatever we call our religion, it nonetheless forms our value system.”

He says that whether politicians acknowledge it or not, they draw on their own value systems when making decisions and it should be no different for Christian politicians.

“The same argument goes for the public...Why shouldn’t people vote from a faith perspective? Are you going to disenfranchise a great proportion of the Australian electorate because they happen to be voting from a faith perspective? It’s just ridiculous. We don’t disenfranchise anybody else or suggest we disenfranchise anybody else because of their particular views, no matter how whacky (they are).”

Wallace says the ACL will continue to work “very hard” to ensure that the whole Christian constituency stands up at election time.

“We have no doubt at all that the values that are shared by that constituency are also shared by the great majority of the Australian population," he says. "They are after all Australian values.”

Wallace says the ACL did not believe, however, in duplicating the situation in the US where the church is often generally perceived as being aligned with the Republican or conservative side of politics.

“We don’t believe that’s healthy. We don’t believe that the Christian faith is naturally aligned with one side of politics. We believe there is a moral Gospel and there is a social Gospel and it’s our responsibility to pursue both...”

~ The poll can be found at www.democrats.org.au/survey2/survey/GodGovt_v2/