John Howard on opposing 'woke culture': schools need to be able to teach the faith and hire believers

Religious freedom means schools should have the right to teach the principles of their faith and not “employ somebody who is barracking for the other side” says former PM John Howard. He was addressing a webinar organised by Family Voice Australia, a Christian campaigning organisation for “family, faith and freedom.”

Answering a question from Greg Bondar who heads up Family Voice in NSW, Howard said, “There is a woke culture, I accept that. The way it has to be fought is for people in authority to take it on. There is a tendency, occasionally, when something is absurd. You get a section of the public service circulating a memorandum saying how you have to describe family relationships in the future …  Any suggestion that you have to drop off the use of words like mother or father is ridiculous … I would like someone in authority to bang it on the head every time that arises, because the reality, Greg, is that the great bulk of the Australian community thinks it is nonsense. They have a common sense appreciation of what is genuine tolerance and what is an attempt to alter society.”

Howard specified that he thought that his description reflects the view of 80 per cent of the Australian community.

“They believe in the sort of society we have. We have just demonstrated to the world that we can handle a common challenge as well as any other society. There can’t be a lot wrong with a country that can do that. I don’t make that as a political comment, because people of all shapes of political opinion have contributed to its success.”

In his talk Howard described his disappointment at the result of the marriage plebiscite, saying “but it is now the law.” He sees real concern for whether religious freedom would be respected in the aftermath of that debate.

However “many people I have spoken to, many adherents or churchgoers, strong believers say to me ‘look I don’t feel that my freedom of religion and therefore my freedom of speech is under threat. I don’t feel that at all and I think that people who run around saying it is under threat are exaggerating the situation’.”

Howard disagrees.

“I understand that point of view and I am not saying on the surface that they are wrong. But I think there are two things that came out of that debate on same sex marriage that need to be addressed.

“I am hopeful that when the government finally produces its legislative formula to deal with this issue, that [it is] the absolute right of faith-based schools, whether Catholic, Protest, Jewish, Islamic or the like … to teach the precepts of the faith which guides that school and guides the institutions that run those schools.

“I think it is quite reasonable for the schools to seek of those employed by the school that they give ‘general assent’ … to the precepts.”

“What that means is that I think it is quite reasonable for the schools to seek of those employed by the school that they give ‘general assent’ – to use a wonderful expression of the Anglican Church about the 39 articles [a statement of faith] – to the precepts.

“It does not mean in the case of a Catholic school that the school has a right to require a certain level of mass attendance, or this or that form of religious adherence. But it it does entitle the school to say that ‘you have come to work for a Catholic school where parents send their children to a Catholic School to be educated in that framework, and we are not going to have you criticising that framework, undermining the fundamental beliefs.’

Howard notes there is an “infinite number” of discussions about what constitutes “undermining” or “general assent” but he regards what he is saying as common sense.

Political parties are largely exempt from anti-discrimination legislation as regards employment. He uses the example of Victoria where it is expressly said in the anti discrimination law that parties don’t have to employ people who “are barracking for the other side.”

“Well if you accept the common sense of that, why can’t you accept the common sense that religious schools are entitled to require a ‘general assent’ to the beliefs of the particular religion that inspires the teaching of that school…?”

“They should not be about to impose unreasonable demands. But schools should be able to say that if you work with us, you need to support the flavour of the team. I think that is common sense.”

A second related area, the former PM raised was the right of parents when a school teaches against their moral code. “They have a right not only to object to it but to take action to prevent or occurring.”

“Those are the two ares that I believe need attention in the wake of the debate on same sex marriage. The general right of people to preach the Christian gospel in churches or schools – I don’t think that is under threat. Some people listening to me might disagree, but I don’t think it is.”

In the Q and A session he reiterated this point, in arguing for a targeted legislative solution to the issues he raised.

“I think it is not credible to say there is a frontal attack on religious freedom. That runs the risk of losing credibility.”

Rather, he notes, “There is a creeping intolerance in society towards faith-based schools, and attempts will be made to put restrictions on them. I think they should be resisted.”

There’s a “general attempt to diminish the impact of Christianity in our society – what I might call the Western Canon” the former PM believes. “It is intimately tied up with the Christian religion because Christianity has been at the heart of the development of Western society.”

Howard is the chair of the Ramsey Centre for Civilisation which promotes studying the impact of Christianity, both the Reformation and the Catholic church, as well as Rome and Greece.

In attempting to get Ramsey courses adopted he found “there is no doubt that in our universities there is a growing movement … – in certain universities – to censor dissent.” He cites the Ridd case which involves “an unfashionable view” on climate change.

“In the end you can’t legislate each individual case, you have to have a climate in our society that respects individual opinion, that honours the traditions of our society and a proper understanding of where we came from.”

The former PM argued that freedom of speech and the other fundamental freedoms are essential to Christianity.

“It’s important to understand when talking about freedom,” Howard told the webinar, “in this country – indeed any country – the fundamental link between freedom of speech and individual freedom and the Christian Religion.

“The essence of Christianity is, of course, the direct link between the individual and God. … People’s faith and their religious affiliation and denomination is a very personal thing, and is not the sort of thing that can be determined by the state. It can be determined by a family, it can be determined by a community organisation. In that sense Christianity is quite distinctive.”

Howard says that this means freedom is essential for Christianity to flourish, alongside the case that can be made made for freedom on a secular secular basis.

“When I think of freedom of speech – and of course it exists – the fact that it exists does not mean it is not under threat. There are many things in our society that exist under threat and we can imagine only too readily what they are.

“I think particularly of two remarkable and pithy expressions. One of them is the famous one of Voltaire ‘I don’t agree with what he says but I will defend to the death his right to say it.’ Now that is a very direct, very simple, very lucid and enduring definition of what freedom of speech is all about.

“How often have you found yourself in vigorous disagreement with even a close friend or close relative and at the end of the discussion [someone says] ‘I don’t agree with you, but you have a perfect right to say it’? Now that tells us how fundamental freedom of speech is to our society.”

There is a creeping intolerance in society towards faith-based schools, and attempts will be made to put restrictions on them.

Howard also cited American jurist Oliver Wendall Holmes’ famous warning against shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. This means freedom of speech is a privilege that needs to be “carefully used”. It is capable of abuse.

“Now I have a view about a free society that not everybody, even in my own political party and my side of politics, believes. Not those who want to write everything down. I think that the things that guarantee  – as much as any political arrangement can guarantee free speech and freedom in a society – rests on three things.

“Firstly, you do need, for all its flaws, a vigorous and robust parliamentary system. You need a contest of ideas. The political combat in our society is fundamentally a contest of ideas. It is not a public relations beauty contest, it is a contest of ideas. Once political parties lose sight of that fact, they get into trouble.

“The second thing we need very importantly in our society – and we have it … and once again, for all its flaws – is an incorruptible judicial system. Our judges are not biddable.  They by and large do the right thing. They make mistakes, but we have a court structure that means mistakes made at a lower level can be corrected at a higher level. I won’t go into the details of a prominent example of that, that occurred early recently.

“The final thing we have – which we should remind ourselves of repeatedly – is a free media. A free media can be very aggravating to politicians. There were many occasions when I was in politics when I was irked by what was said in the media. But in the end, it will find its balance.

“Those three things, if you have them, can guarantee freedoms and freedom of speech in particular.”

Citing the constitutions of the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union, Howard points out that “writing down words” (as in a charter of rights) do not  guarantee that freedoms exist. “What does guarantee that they exist are the institutions of society which allow for a vigorous exchange of ideas and a vigorous prosecution of contesting points of view.

Howard described the “danger of protecting certain groups” from offensive language causing others to be prevented from expressing their points of view.

“I think there might balance to be found in this area in that language which is designed to incite violence, to incite wrongdoing against others, should be sanctioned by the law. But language which merely expresses opinion – often in a vigorous, often colourful, often very offensive way – is not something that should be sanctioned by law. ”

The former PM said that he had problems with section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act because it would allow prosecution for speech people found offensive, but that it was a difficult balance to strike.