A- A A+

Constitutionally Australia is a religious country

Kevin Donnelly |  02 November 2014

Protesters upholding freedoms

What is the place of religion, especially Christianity, in a supposedly secular society? Courier Mail opinion writer Margaret Wenham argues that Australia should follow the French Government’s example in banning religion from the public square.

After recommending the French Government’s 15 point charter on secularism that includes a ban on religious apparel from the classroom, she asks: 'Could that be taken further, expanding it to all schools that receive government funding and, then, eventually to wider society, where we would put our citizenship first and personal religious beliefs firmly second?'

I have to disagree. The reality is that liberal, Western democracies like Australia owe as much to Christianity as they do to historical movements like the Enlightenment and British institutions like the Westminster system of government and the common law.

That’s why parliaments around Australia begin with the Lord’s Prayer and the Australian Constitution’s preamble includes the words 'Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God'.

Australia’s legal system and institutions, while being secular in nature, also draw heavily on Christian ethics and morality, best illustrated by the ten commandments and the fact that, for years, it was customary for those involved in trials to swear on the Bible.

Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, in addition to being an essential part of Australian democracy, are also embodied in international rights and conventions. 

When choosing a school, for example, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantees the right of parents to select a school that provides a religious and moral education 'in conformity with their own convictions'.

As such, and notwithstanding the Biblical admonition to 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s', citizens have the right to express and live by their religious beliefs.

In Victoria, for example, even though the legislation is criticised for curtailing religious freedom, it does at least allow doctors to refuse to undertake an abortion if such a medical practice is against their religious beliefs.

It’s also true that the various state based anti-discrimination laws, as they currently operate, allow exemptions for faith-based schools in relation to who they employ. Such exemptions are based on the argument that faith-based schools have a strong religious commitment that entails discriminating against some types of personal relationships.

To argue that religion should be restricted to the home and places of worship, instead of being expressed in the broader society, is also inherently undemocratic. 

Freedom of religion, like freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, is a basic tenet of Western style democracies that differentiate us from totalitarian regimes where the state is omniscient and all-powerful.

Given the sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants that was especially strong in Australia for much of the early colonial period it is understandable why many religious critics define secularism as the division between church and state.

The only problem is that such a definition is simplistic and misleading. Those responsible for writing the Australian Constitution, for example, while arguing that governments should not privilege one religion over another or unfairly discriminate, still accepted the place of religion in the broader society.

Hence the reference to Almighty God in the Constitution’s Preamble. It should also be noted that the US Declaration of Independence acknowledges the central importance of religion when it states:

'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

It’s also true, in relation to government schools hosting religious instruction classes, that state and territory legislation allows such classes to operate in education systems that are free, compulsory and secular.

As great figures like Martin Luther King, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer demonstrate, it is also the case that mixing religion and politics provides a powerful and convincing narrative for the cause of liberty, justice and freedom.

Andrew Hamilton

Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of the Educational Standards Institute and a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.



Kevin Donnelly

Recent articles by this author


Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

The Australian parliament "Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God"? Maybe religious in intention, but not in practice.

AURELIUS 31 October 2014

The preamble is not PART of the Australian Constitution. It is merely a prefatory remark on the Act of the *UK Parliament* that constituted Australia. It is not legally binding in any sense. It is legislative window dressing. By contrast, S116 is an actual constitutional law and speaks to the separation of church and state.

Secular Nation 31 October 2014

clealry you have never read s 116 of the constitution

michael cope 31 October 2014

Merely as a caveat! Be wary of atheist states. Eastern Europe provides a bloodied epitaph of atheistic anti religious domains[not forgetting Albania's now rescinded decree banning God and religion-'Lest we forget! Though even Stalin garnered religion against operation Barbarossa in a moment of 'weakness'.[the opportunistic lapse was quietly revoked upon patriotic victory]

Father John George 02 November 2014

Excellent article. Australia's model in providing for religious diversity is not the same as France's. http://revdocbob.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/religious-diversity-in-democratic.html

Bob Faser 03 November 2014

the argument that liberal democracies "owe" something to religion is ironic when contrasted with Michael Mullins' article here today - the government "owe" me for my ownership of Medibank. As for your final sentence about religion and politics providing help to "liberty, justice and freedom", have you never heard of IS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc etc?

Frank 03 November 2014

When the premable to the Australian Consitution was written, Australia was more religious than today. Now, we are much more multicultural, more secular and less bound by convention. Religion should always have a place in the public square but the separation of church and state is very important.

Pam 03 November 2014

Religion - any sane, balanced, pluralistic, tolerant form of it, particularly when it enlightens individual consciences - is a thoroughly good thing. It can cheerfully live with atheism or agnosticism, both of which, strangely enough, can take on a militantly "religious" form. The clash I fear is of ignorant, bigoted, manipulative, "political" religion against its opposite number. May Almighty God save us from both religious and antireligious nutters and controllers! Pam and others are right: let's keep Church and State separate. Amen.

Edward Fido 03 November 2014

Ironically a most secular atheist state viz former USSR baulked at complete separation of Church and State. KGB General & defector Oleg Kalugin noted:“the KGB’s nearly total control of the Russian Orthodox church, both at home and abroad, is one of the most sordid and little known chapters in the history of our organization”
In fact the Church building became just another state department.

Father John George 03 November 2014

In practice France is not quite as secular as often thought. Many of the public holidays are religious - the most recent being 1 November - All Saints Day. One of the world's great organs - in the church with a great musical tradition, St Eustache - is being restored over several months with all expenses being covered by the City of Paris. This is but one instance of the extensive co-operation between Church and State in France.

John Nicholson 03 November 2014

"What is the place of religion, especially Christianity, in a supposedly secular society?".. Why especially Christianity? Just because the "Invaders" had embraced one form of Christianity, and ignored the religions of the original inhabitants?? According to Acts, Christianity began as a Jewish sect known as 'Followers of the Way' and showed no sign of wanting to break with Judaism, and worshipping daily in the Temple, until the were persecuted by the Jewish Establishment. Whereupon they fled and embraced the Greeks, and later the Romans, mutating at each change, and embracing traditions of their new hosts. In a pluralistic society, should we impose Religious Commemorations and Holidays on all citizens? We seem to have wiped Sunday as a day of rest for commercial reasons, not for tolerance of other beliefs. It was imposed by Constantine not for Christian devotion, but to honour Mithra, the Sun God, of whom he was a follower until almost the end of his life, when he was baptised as an Arian.

Robert Liddy 03 November 2014

I think Margaret Wenham might be disappointed that her deliberately controversial article in The Courier Mail attracted only 12 comments, the same number as Dr Donnelly's rebuttal of her defence of France's secularism and its applicability to Australia. There might be some point in Australia having the equivalent of France's 15 Points of Secularism posted in all Australian schools. But I fear after a month or two most students wouldn't take any notice of them and would get on with their studies, whether religious or secular.

Uncle Pat 03 November 2014

I agree with Kevin Donnelly. There is no compulsion for pupils to attend secular school religion classes, so there can be no valid reason for any objections. Objecting students, or their parents, can simply opt out of these classes. The positive effects of an authenic religious education, followed by its practice in future life, is attested to by the example of people like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Bonhoeffer, and the Dalai Lahma. The benefits to society from these religious leaders give the lie to the opposing opinions of journalists like Ms Margaret Wenham. Our individual "free-will" is able to be exercised freely, in matters of religion classes and in later public religious practice (to attend or not) in democracies like Australia, largely because, as in USA, the Australian constitution was also founded by the application of sound Christian principles.

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q 03 November 2014

Dr Donnelly is correct in stating that Western democracies owe as much to Christianity as they do to the Enlightenment or the Westminster system. All the US Founding Fathers recognized that their Constitution was only workable for a virtuous people. Benjamin Franklin wrote that, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” And John Adams wrote “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Our Section 116 of the Commonwealth Constitution prevents the Commonwealth from establishing any religion while at the same time guaranteeing the principle of religious freedom. Yet many secularists will not be happy until all religion is banned from the public square. Peter Singer can advocate a right to kill babies and be awarded Australia’s highest honour in 2012, and his opponents are regarded as Christian fanatics. A recent report from the US found that many college students support post-birth abortion with some even suggesting children up to 4 or 5 can be killed because they are not “self-aware”. We seem to be heading for a new Dark Age.

Ross Howard 04 November 2014

I know people around here use a lot of fancy words to pass simple points across, just to look extravagant but anyways: Atheists ??? Wherever I go these days everyone seems to be an Atheist who wants a secular country. Funny, I asked them what they believed in and they told me "FACTS". I asked which facts and was told "scientific facts". So, in other words, they believe/follow "Science/Facts". So, they follow a book as well in a way, hmmm. Interesting!!. I would be very inclined to say "Welcome the new religion called SCIENCE and their books that contain facts" :) They say they don't believe in anything, yet they believe in science. They call religion fictitious, yet scientific facts/discoveries are disproved every second month and re written to adapt. Very ironic in a way, don't you think ?:)

Maximus 04 November 2014

Maximus, I disagree with you. No, the broad scientific concepts the underpin our current understanding of the world remain firm and rational. Small "facts" may be disproven but nothing that would revolutionise out thinking. And also there is nothing in science that disproves the existence of God so there's no reason rational scientific and theological facts/beliefs cannot co-exist.

AURELIUS 04 November 2014

Your article argues for the place of religion in the public square. Can't argue with that. However, you avoid mentioning that the religion promulgated in state schools is overwhelmingly Christian, and works against the rights of those who choose other religions, or none, for their children. Let's teach our own children our faith, and respect the rights of other parents to do the same. The state has no right to be involved in religious education except to guard these rights.

Joan Seymour 04 November 2014

Come come France a secular country? Of the fifteen apparitions of the Virgin Mary officially confirmed by the Holy See through the world, fully one third have occurred in France. The history of Marian apparitions in France begins in 1208. http://youtu.be/xiOc2dpRmmc

Father John George 04 November 2014

See my article; “What is the ‘separation of church and state’ “ AD2000 27 (10), 10

FRANK MOBBS 05 November 2014

Joan Seymour's comment seems to suggest state schools impose Christianity on pupils. Where religious instruction is provided by Christian (and e.g.Muslim volunteers), it is not obligatory for any pupil to attend and sometimes Ethics classes are an alternative. N.S.W. public schools, I think, were founded as free, compulsory, and non-denominational (rather than secular) and at one time did provide general religious instruction for all students in the form of Bible stories. I think in our world today, some basic study of major religions should be almost obligatory, not only an HSC subject. And reading of some classical Biblical passages (from the Authorized Version and from the modernized spelling of Tyndale from which much of the AV comes - both more accessible than much of Shakespeare) should be possible in the study of English literature. Indeed I think Australians can hardly be called properly educated without some knowledge of the great Biblical stories that for better (and sometimes for worse) have so greatly influenced western civilization.

John Bunyan 07 November 2014

The Declaration of Independence of the United States does not determine US law as the Constitution does. "Nature's God" as mentioned in that declaration does not refer to the Abrahamic God. It refers to a god expressed in and identical to nature. The founding fathers of the US were more influenced by Epicurus and Spinoza than they were by the Bible. Read "Nature's God" by Matthew Stuart for details. The US Constitution which is the basic law of the land mentions neither God nor Jesus. All the references to religion in the Federalist Papers which express the philosophy of the US Constitution refer to religion as a divisive force. The Queensland Education Act specified education be free, compulsory and secular. Lobbying by the Queensland Bible society succeeded in getting the word, secular, omitted in 1910, and it has not been restored. Religious indoctrination is incompatible with a secular education.

David Fisher 07 November 2014

Mr Bunyan include on your bibliography the dialogic Compendium Catechism of the Catholic Church. http://www.vatican.va/archive/compendium_ccc/documents/archive_2005_compendium-ccc_en.html#INTRODUCTION Perhaps bypassing Bunyan's"The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream" is a Christian allegory written by John Bunyan and published in February, 1678. It is regarded as one of the most significant works of religious English literature, has been translated into more than 200 languages, and has never been out of print.

Father John George 07 November 2014

Thanks for this article, Dr Donnelly. You write that "Australia’s legal system and institutions, while being secular in nature, also draw heavily on Christian ethics and morality, best illustrated by the ten commandments". I'm not too sure about the role of the first four commandments in Australia's laws, or about the last. That leaves 5 to 9, about honouring parents, not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing and not lying - which are matched by the following personal commitments. I undertake to not kill. I undertake to not steal. I undertake to not lie. I undertake to not engage in sexual misconduct. Now, that's four of the five Precepts of Buddhism, not noted as part of the Western canon (something of an oversight, perhaps, that could be corrected by a review of the schools curriculum?). The Fifth Precept? I undertake to not over-indulge in intoxicating substances. After all, maIntaining a clear head might just allow me to engage in the sort of critical thinking, perhaps emulating what we might expect from our intellectual leaders?

David Arthur 11 November 2014


What I wish to ask is why, here in our own country, are we unable to mention our religion and celebrate Christmas, easter and such. Why cant Australia be a true multicultural country and celebrate all religious events and not have Christianity outlawed and yet other religions have their religious events celebrated by the shops and shopping centres?
Woolies had signs up a while ago saying happy Rammadam (cant spell it) but by law in the ACT they cannot say merry Christmas.
Lets celebrate all religious events, not banning one or the other.
I feel very strong about this. The reason I have been given is the Muslim faith finds any mention of Jesus Christ as being abhorrent to them.
It almost seems that us Christians have to hide our faith and worship in the dark. This is not multiculturalism at all.
I am a respecter of all persons and faiths. I have no bias against anyone but this does concern me. What do you think?
Our kids grow up not knowing the real meaning behind Christian events unless we tell them and yet they get taught the Koran at school so they understand other religions. What next?

Michael Holt 17 May 2015

Similar articles

Pope warns punishment is not a way to peace

Andrew Hamilton | 27 October 2014

Pope FrancisPope Francis warns perceptively that the urge to create peace by punishment leads to the search for more targets. The best way to peace and security is not to wage war on people but to be curious about them – what leads them to criminal acts, and how we can intervene to help them make good connections with society.

Buddhism's challenge to Christian churches

Jenny Stewart | 27 October 2014

Christianity is a warm, people-centred faith. Buddhism is cool and cerebral. Christianity offers narrative and prophecy of human failing and human glory. The Buddhist sutras are impenetrable discourses on the absolute. Yet Christianity in Australia seems to be fading.

Catholic Church returns to pluriformity of Vatican II

Neil Ormerod | 20 October 2014

Session at Synod on the FamilyConservative elements were quick to criticise the interim 'relatio' of the Synod that opened the door to gay and other estranged Catholics. Undoubtedly there will be pushback, but the Catholic Church is going through something not experienced since Vatican II – a Church willing to debate topics once felt long settled, without fear or favour.

National Curriculum a step forward

Chris Middleton | 16 October 2014

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has supported a national curriculum, while some observers have cautioned that it is not the panacea for improving educational standards that many may hope for. The Federal Review report released in the past week addresses many of the concerns, and on the whole their recommendations seem appropriate and constructive.  

Iraq intervention meets just war conditions

Chris Middleton | 15 October 2014

Crucifixion victimThe theory of just war has evolved as a way of laying out the conditions under which a war may be justified morally. The case against ISIS in terms of it being an aggressive force inflicting lasting, grave and certain damage is compelling. Millions of Iraqis and Syrians have been displaced and there is widespread hunger.