Let's have a real debate

Sunday 29 May 2011 9:00 PM

The recent publication of Lindsay Tanner's "Sideshow" has in some sense given us all permission to question the health of politics in Australia, and especially of political coverage by media outlets. Tanner's very valid concerns have a much wider application, however, than politics itself. The age of instant global communications - with it's doorstop interviews, sound bites, tweets, banal slogans, character attacks and spin, is fast altering the complexion of public discourse on all manner of subjects. It's largely not for the better, and intelligent debate is one major casualty.

The present assault on religious education and chaplaincy in state schools is but one example, and part of a wider media phenomenon. In a free, democratic and diverse society it's only to be expected that the place of religious belief in public life will be debated. This is as it should be, and neither Christians nor other faith believers should fear such engagement in the public square. However in the interests of balanced and informed dialogue a bit of common wisdom in how the debate is conducted might go a long way, if it is to merit the term "debate". The basics of constructive debate include inter alia caution with hearsay, resisting conspiracy theories, attention to the meaning of language peculiar to certain groups, and great care when quoting phrases without a context. What is frustrating about much of the coverage thus far in the print media generally, and The Age in particular, is the singular lack of attention to such values, even by seasoned commentators. It shows in some of the alarmist and polarised language now being used by columnists and taken up by some among their consumers. The subject is too important, however, to be reduced to trite sloganeering or half-baked analysis. 

Recent reporting, for instance, has rendered famous the use of the phrase "make disciples" in connection with the work of Access Ministries in Victorian state schools. Fuelled apparently by apocalyptic visions of defenceless children before an invading force, armed to the teeth with black bibles, handcuffs and mobile pulpits, angst rages through letters columns and talkback radio segments. Digital space is all abuzz with lines like "Lie to kids", "Out to convert" and "Caught lying again." Not so very different from the political headlines we see these days, and hardly more sophisticated. What's also in common is the creeping replacement of thoughtful social analysis with sound bites targeting people and denigrating characters, but yielding little actual insight. Like any organisation or professional circle, the Christian community uses peculiar sets of words, phrases, images and metaphors, some drawn from the Bible itself, others from a variety of contexts in Christian history. Just as it would be unwise for a layman to draw conclusions from language used in a medical conference, a constitutional debate or a sci-fi chatroom (among an endless list), so it serves none of us well to lift an evocative phrase from a very specific faith context, and broadcast it in the public domain without the most careful of research. Doing so may make for arresting headlines, but it too rarely serves the cause of truth. Without truth, trust diminishes and constructive debate becomes impossible. 

Slogans commonly represent a rejection of historical context as something that matters for current application. If a phrase is deemed useful as an ideological mantra, then no one wants to know where it came from or how closely the new usage resembles the original. If one wants to rid the world of the scourge of religion in the quest for some global atheist Utopia, then “secular” makes a great mantra, especially when combined with the words “education” and “free”. It doesn’t matter that the drafters of Victoria’s model for state education had neither faith nor ‘un-faith’ in mind when they envisioned a system “free and secular”. What matters rather is the usefulness of “secularism” to the cause of messianic atheism. Atheism per se is politically naked; secularism, which essentially means plain boring impartiality, provides it a fine respectable suit of clothes to wear to the public square. Nor is the religion in schools “debate” the only context in which today’s beloved sloganeering style of journalism puts a damper on intelligent dialogue about religion. 

The phrase that’s really had the fourth estate all agog in the past decade is “separation of church and state”. It’s become as irresistible to crusading social commentators as a solitary bush dunny to a swarm of blowflies. It’s so exquisitely utilitarian to the pursuit of blessedly God-free public discourse. Pertinent facts include: (1) that no such phrase appears in the Australian Constitution which in fact protects religious expression;1 and (2) that it’s US origins have to do with keeping the government and any religious group organically distinct from eachother, particularly in contrast with the British model of an ‘established’ church. None of this is any challenge at all, however, to members of today’s commentariat for whom the only history that isn’t all ‘crap’ anyway is the convenient kind. 

The socio-political landscape of today's Australia is perhaps more complex than it has ever been, and this will hardly diminish with time. In the interests of harmony and cohesion, we all need and deserve the kind of public discourse that arises more naturally from even-handed research and careful scrutiny, than from two-second quotes and endless tweets. Only then can we have public dialogue with substance. Let's have the real debate we need about religion in schools specifically, and public institutions generally. One thing's for sure. When words like "preacher" start to be applied to the Grade 1 religious education class at the local primary school, it's time we all asked questions.

  1. The Constitution enshrines a "principle of state neutrality" as distinct from "separation of church and state". Reference: Ch 5 § 116 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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separation_of_church_and_state#Australia

Published today at onlineopinion.com.au