If anybody used the term ‘religious freedom’ during my childhood, I would have assumed it referred to the times at my Catholic primary school when we escaped the drudgery of normal lessons by being marched into the church next door to practise singing hymns with all the other students.
The freedom didn’t stop there. My ratbag mates and I used to sing each line half a beat behind everybody else, which our teachers attributed to us being musically retarded until we couldn’t stifle the sniggers any longer.
Far less serious misdeeds in the classroom or playground earned us ‘six of the best’ from Brother Joseph, the headmaster, but there was something irrational – if that is the correct word – about punishing us for religious insolence. If religious instruction meant anything, then surely whatever was the going rate for taking the piss in a church was God’s call, and He would mete it out in His own good time. (Whatever it is, Old Son, let’s agree you found us mildly amusing and call it even, huh?) The reverse also applied. Any attempt to mitigate the number of whacks from Brother Jo’s cane for fighting in the schoolyard by claiming that God was going to eventually punish me for it anyway would have had the opposite effect.
Thus I was taught that there was a demarcation between God’s rules and society’s, and that it was possible to live a functional life adhering to both. In more academic circles, this was once called the separation of powers. Later in life I also discovered the ultimate ‘religious freedom’: to abandon the more superstitious aspects of one’s upbringing while nevertheless retaining whatever moral and philosophical lessons one had learned, which in my generation’s case were many.
The rise of multiculturalism has not only altered the meaning of ‘religious freedom’ but also encouraged the term’s more frequent use. Now religion is a lifestyle choice, alongside one’s sexuality, preferred personal pronouns, dietary requirements and whatever other identity group soys your latte. ‘Religious freedom’ now implies the freedom to practise one’s devotion without regard for the rights of others. For those of you, like me, at the back of the classroom, we arrived at this dangerous impasse after the legalisation of gay marriage. Gay marriage presented Australia’s busybodies with a dilemma: should priests be allowed to refuse requests to conduct gay marriages? This soon grew to also include religious adherence in private schools: should they be allowed to preach the idea that marriage is only between a man and a woman? Even more provocatively, could they turn away gay teachers and students?
A committee, led by former Liberal minister Philip Ruddock, was formed to determine, or perhaps dictate, the moral and legal guidelines we plebs should follow. The irony that the committee was performing the role once filled by churches seems to have been lost on all involved. When the committee finally descended from Capital Hill, Canberra, to deliver its Twenty Recommendations (Twenty! Take that, Moses!) to the Australites, its message was not very clear, but did say that people could continue to discriminate against gays if it meant not compromising their religious beliefs. This had previously been legalised by Julia Gillard in 2013. The gay lobby didn’t resist it then, but is rousing to do so now that it has been endorsed by Ruddock and delivered to a Coalition government.
In anticipation, the government has said it wants a Religious Discrimination Bill, which would protect some religious rights over some gay ones, in parliament before the next election. The debate over such a bill would be an unedifying start to an election year, the two sides of politics going head to head over what is essentially none of their damn business. But more of that later. What neither side seems willing to admit is that adherence to religion is not an argument. In other words, if there are legitimate reasons to reject homosexuals, let those who advocate them do so on rational grounds, not religious ones. (That popping sound you can hear is the heads of social justice warriors exploding after deducing that I am advocating bigotry. Sorry about that.)
This approach has worked wonderfully in the past. In his brilliant new book, The Land of Dreams: How Australians Won Their Freedom, academic and former federal Liberal minister David Kemp says an ‘alternative reality’ was gaining popularity in Europe in the early 18th century, before the First Fleet set sail for Australia. It was the idea that society was not governed by God’s rules but by the citizens. In such conditions, ‘people would strive to create their own orders,’ Kemp says. These orders would take the form of ‘unwritten rules that stated the rights and wrongs of social behaviour, paving the way for a reduction in the role of organised religion in society.’
Kemp is referring to the writings of John Locke and other liberal philosophers of the time who thought the ‘unwritten rules’ developed organically and informally between people could be superior to those imposed from above. These rules have not always been perfect but by the late 20th century they had progressed – to borrow a term from leftists – to a point Locke and his peers could not have imagined. They would have been delighted – and proud – to see that Australia has developed not just a widespread acceptance of people regardless of sexuality, gender or race but also an abhorrence for those who discriminate on such grounds.
They would also be horrified by the hamfisted way politicians get in on the action by codifying these ‘unwritten rules’. In the age of opinion polls, politicians routinely introduce legislation not according to principle but in response to changes their research has detected in the electorate. But legislation is absolute; it is difficult to repeal and tends to grow like a blob, as the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 did when it acquired section 18C in 1995. Social mores develop by consensus as society changes.
Legislation is also self-defeating. Even decent people can become less decent when forced to behave in certain ways. This is happening in Australia already. The increasing acrimony in our society is not the result of innate bigotry – which exists mostly only in the minds of self-loathing white leftists – but is stoked by officialdom’s attempts to dictate morality to the citizenry.
This debate is a beat-up by a media and political industry designed to hound the citizenry into submission, regardless of the outcome. They should shut the hell up and leave us alone to get along on our own terms. We are sensible enough to know a bigot when we see one, and how to react when we do.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free