The Australian National University is so ashamed of our own cultural heritage that they have refused to offer a degree in Western Civilisation. But don’t worry, in its place, they still provide the following: A Centre for Islamic Studies, Indigenous Studies, Asian Studies, as well as promoting boutique courses such as ‘Gender in German Culture: From Goethe to Trans’.
In what could well have been the set text for a course exploring enlightenment values—especially in relation to the founding of this country—Dr Stuart Piggin and Dr Robert D. Linder have just released their magnum opus, The Fountain of Public Prosperity (Monash University, 2018).
More than thirty years in the making, Piggin and Linder argue that Australia has especially benefited in the first hundred years of European settlement from the unique contribution made by evangelical Christians. What follows is a summary of ten of the most significant observations:
- Social Reform. Contrary to popular academic opinion, Botany Bay was not just to be a dumping ground for convicts, nor merely a strategic commercial port or a colony established for the purpose of creating a new commercial base. Rather, there is strong historical evidence to suggest that the philosophical rationale behind establishing the penal colony was a well-planned and ambitious reform experiment consistent with the values of the ‘Evangelical-humanitarian confluence’.
- Freedom and Responsibility. The panoply of freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, freedom of association, freedom of worship, freedom of conscience and the right of private judgment all flowed out of a decidedly Judaeo-Christian framework.
- Advancement of the Pacific Islands. The evangelical religious movement used NSW as a strategic base from which to proselytise the peoples of the South Pacific leading to many social and economic benefits. Even the agnostic Charles Darwin exclaimed after visiting islands: ‘The march of improvement, consequent on the introduction of Christianity, through the South Seas, probably stands by itself on the records of the world.’
- Social Action. Evangelicals were integral in the establishment of orphanages and especially organisations such as The Benevolent Society which were created to help the poor and destitute. Indeed, as of 2006, approximately twenty-one of the top twenty-five charities—in terms of income—are affiliated with Christianity, which is unique in the Western world.
- Ethical commerce. There developed in Australia the impetus for an ‘ethical commerce’, which was a major contributor to the energising and civilising of capitalism in colonial economies. The positive correlation between religion and the rise of capitalism was famously argued by the sociologist, Max Weber. His thesis received little contradiction from the history of Australia, as they tended to embrace two gospels; the Gospel of salvation and the gospel of free trade.
- Church and State. Rather than a hard and fast separation, evangelical Christianity, in particular, strove for a ‘complementarity’ between the two institutions. Complementarity was the practice and set the pattern for much of Australia’s history. This also meant that people of religious faith never identified themselves with only one particular branch of politics. Instead, they were committed to a variety of political convictions, ranging from establishment conservatism to republican radicalism.
- The Media. Historically, many of Australia’s newspapers were owned and edited by men of religious faith. Piggin and Linder contend that most stood for universal elementary education, were earnest in moral tone, and were all defenders of the Christian religion.
- Public Education. Most churches were instrumental in providing education for children. Protestant evangelicals, in particular though, were at the forefront of establishing public secular education, with many seeing the secular Education Act as their most important achievement. This ensured that Christian values were taught in all public schools, contributing to the creation of virtuous and altruistic communities, a situation which prevailed until the early 1960s
- Federation and a ‘commonwealth’. It was the settled contention that the federation should take the divinely-ordained shape of a ‘commonwealth’. Its God-given responsibility was not only to defend freedom and justice, but also to promote morality and social righteousness, and to provide for the care of the needy, especially children.
- A Shared Worldview. Piggin and Linder conclude: ‘The great majority of Australians were not only formed in Christian morality and values, but they were aware of the essential truths of the Gospel…Evangelical religion was not counter-cultural as it is today. It was in the nineteenth century part of popular culture. And it helped to make it an admirable culture, inculcating the discipline essential to achieve private prosperity, the altruism critical to public prosperity, and the spirituality which nurtured the quest for ‘enduring prosperity’.
Australia is an excellent example of the fruit of Christian faith and endeavour. As our society drifts, further and further away from the ‘root’ of what made Western Civilisation what it is, we are increasingly in danger of being ignorant as to what made this nation as great as it is. Piggin and Linder make a persuasive case that we are not so much in danger of losing our Christian heritage as never finding it. Now that ANU has decided to not offer a degree in Western Civilisation, tapping into the undiscovered resources mined in this book is the safest route to reimagining Australia’s future.
Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.
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