Religion, freedom and a secular media

What’s the next big thing we face in this nation as a challenge that must be met by Christians and the Church? According to Anthony McLellan and Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) it is the way our religious freedom is under attack in this country. It is serious and we need to combat it wisely on all fronts.

The ACL 2012 Conference was held in Canberra last weekend under the title “Building a Nation of Character: Religious freedom in a Secular Democracy”. Dennis Shanahan, Politics Editor for The Australian set the scene at the Dinner on Friday night when he drew out the change of attitude of the press toward religion over the last few decades. It wasn’t all that long ago that The Sydney Morning Herald was carrying a weekly Monday morning feature called ‘From the Pulpit’. Churches were seen as part of the establishment and would be reported as such. Over the years there has been an increasingly anti-church sentiment in our social make-up and the Media has both shaped and been shaped by that mood.

Shanahan also noted that we need a secular society but the problem is that atheism is presenting itself as such secularism. He said that the press is rightly secular but it has been allowed to create and maintain a disdain toward religion. In this way it influences society but we must not give it too much credit. There have been some major instances where the Media has not been able to sway public opinion in ways it would like to. The case of Australia’s vote against becoming a Republic was given as a prominent example.

This set the mood for a Saturday filled with presentations on religious freedom. Professor Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, pointed out that there are three identifiable wars regarding religion in Australian culture. The first was the war between religions, especially between Catholics and Protestants. That war is hardly worth a mention today. The second was the war within religions, especially between conservatives and liberals. Although this conflict still raises its head from time to time it does not have the same prominence of days past. Now, the current war is the war on religion, stating that religion in and of itself is bad. This is coming from forces such as secularism and atheism and the many movements that flow form these approaches to life.

After discussing some of the laws in this area, Craven concluded that there is not massive constitutional protection for freedom of religion in Australia although there are many laws that have the potential to protect rights for religion. The problem is that almost all human rights arguments become arguments of my rights against your rights and so it becomes a matter of whose rights take priority.

Craven further stated that the greatest protection we have for religious freedom is the basic political and cultural belief that religion is important for the culture. It is this belief that is most under attack by secular and atheistic forces today. This is the essence of the third war.

There was much more to be said on these issues. Kevin Andrews, the Federal Member for Menzies in Victoria and the Shadow Minister for families, Housing and Human Services believes that toleration is not to be seen as a dirty word and that it needs to be applied equally and comprehensively within the limits of the Law. Consequently, freedom of religion and freedom of speech in the public square must be protected. If these freedoms are denied then freedom itself will be undone.

He was followed later in the afternoon by Robert McClelland, Federal member for Barton in NSW and a former Attorney General in the Howard Government. He lamented the loss of dignity in public discourse in Australia. He referred to Aristotle’s three rules for public debate, namely ethos (character of the debater), logos (logic of the debater), and pathos (passion of the debater) and the loss of ethos in modern discourse as speakers attacked person rather than issue, playing the man rather than the ball. He stated that the way debate is carried out will affect the way politicians are perceived publicly and undermine the public’s trust in the political process. This in turn will be deeply damaging to democracy. The debate about freedom of religion must not devolve into personal attack but must be intelligent and reasonable discourse about the things that really matter.

In his opening remarks the ACL Chairman, Anthony McLellan, stated that Australia is calling out for leaders who are Statesmen, people of integrity to lead us into change. The speakers at this Conference would concur. We heard from Politicians and Lobbyists and Students and Media Personnel and Academics and they agreed that Freedom of Religion is under attack and that we need some strong leaders with integrity and respect to give us direction over the coming years.

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