Chaplains, values and Australia's providential destiny


Chaplains, values and Australia's providential destinyAustralians don’t talk much about providence in national life. So a recent remark by John Howard was striking. In discussing the Stern report on the environment, he said that he was "not willing to lead Australia into an agreement that is going to betray the interests of the working men and women of this country, and destroy the natural advantage that providence gave us".

When Australians have spoken about national providence, they associate it with a sense of mission. Before Federation, some saw Australia’s providential role in Virgilian terms, as to civilise surrounding peoples. In his long poem, Captain Quiros, James McAuley saw Australia’s providential place to lie in its pure Christianity.

Mission and providence belong together. Providence is a theological concept which implies a beneficent and foreseeing God. When used by Christians, it presupposes a God of universal love. If God shows partiality to a nation, its gift and blessing must be for other nations. A God who played favourites would be subdivine. So God’s blessing must be given for all.

By these standards, Mr Howard’s reference to providence is certainly inconsistent with Christian belief. It supposes that a wise God would endow one group of people with special advantages, in order that they could hoard them against others who are less blessed. It supposes also that a wise God would bless the lives of this generation of Australians, in order that they could ruin the lives of the next generations.

In fact, Mr Howard would have done better to have attributed Australia’s good fortune to luck or chance. These carry no moral consequences. But it does seem to be lacking in gravity to say, "We’ve got lucky with coal and agricultural land. So let’s enjoy them now, and stuff our children and the rest of the world." Providence sounds altogether more judicious.

This may be to make too much of the choice of a word. But the reference to providence is consistent with the current attempt of politicians to co-opt religious people. Words that echo moral values or faith are in vogue. The infelicities of Mr Howard’s phrase suggest that religious people should not only suspect the hidden hook, but smell the bait to make sure it has not turned rancid.

Mr Howard’s language suggests, too, that religious people should reflect in particular on another current exercise in co-optation, the proposal to fund chaplains in schools. The idea of appointing people to schools specifically to exercise pastoral care is a good one. But it is hard to see why such people should be called chaplains. The name creates difficulties for many of the government schools, most of which need ancillary staff. It also creates difficulties for churches and religious bodies. The advantage of the word for government is that it allows them to appear to be concerned about values and to support institutions that have traditionally carried values in society.

If chaplains are funded by governments who have the right of veto, and they are appointed for all students and staff in a school, we may ask to whom, and to what, they are accountable. As chaplains, they are presumably representatives of particular religious groups, whose faith and whose way of life they share. As representatives of these groups, we should expect that they will not hide the judgments which they, as committed members of their churches, make on matters of faith and life.

What then are Christian chaplains to say when they read remarks, like those of Mr Howard, that they must see as incompatible with Christian faith? Do they criticise these remarks freely in the name of their churches? Or do they keep silent because their remit in schools is to represent only civic values? If they keep silent, it is difficult to see why they would accept the position, and why churches would be happy to be associated with it. But if they represent the stance of their churches on issues of public morality, like the Iraq war and industrial relations, will their reappointment be vetoed?



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you Andrew for highlighting in a measured way the inconsistency in this use of "providence". Whether of not it is a consciously done, the (ab)-use of language and ideas demonstrated by Mr Howard in this instance comes with the territory when one opts for a political career. The notion of "chaplains" in schools is just one other idea that might look useful at a superficial level, but the concept has clearly not been developed in any depth, has not been developed in consultation with those most concerned (eg, parents and educators), and has not been presented with any clear rationale. Is this how policy is developed at highest levels in our country? Or is there something a bit more sinister and zenophobic lurking behind the notion of chaplains?
Anne Benjamin | 07 November 2006

I am very pleased this issue is causing debate, whether it is about religion or not, we are facing serious problems socially with various issues within the community and I see it as crucial that young people have someone relatively impartial they can go to if there is a problem, concern or question that isn't answered within the family or classroom. Chaplains will require additional training in counselling in the future IF this promise is kept by the Government. Thanks for reading my submission. Rosemary K.
Rosemary Keenan | 08 November 2006

The whole proposition that government fund chaplains in schools, public or private, seems likely to produce doubtful outcomes. But if schools, or churches (synagogues etc?) decline the offer, Howard can still maintain his position on the high ground--he is concerned about "values", we are refusing to become involved in their support.
Lenore Crocker | 12 November 2006

This is a christian nation, and our PM John Howard is lead of God for the decisions he makes. Chaplains in schools is long overdue, and this generation needs christian values, more than previous generations. Being a voluntry option to use chaplains, is no different to your local church on the street corner, you can go if you want to. Children should also have that option if not offered to them in the home enviroment.I'm all for it, might even do some voluntry work myself. I say bring it on, God has his way you know.He Loves His children!!!!!
Sue Hoad | 15 November 2006

In response to Sue Hoad: Sorry Sue, this is not a 'Christian nation' and I hope it never will be. Whilst individual Australians may be Christian, Buddist, Muslim or Atheist, the Nation is, or should be, secular. The present character of our secular nation owes much - both good and bad - to Christian influences. The future character of our nation will inevitably be modified by the influence, both good and bad, of other faiths and of no faith. Hopefully, we will be able to discern more of the good than the bad in all those traditions, and buld a better, but still secular, nation.

Warwick Dilley | 22 November 2006

I disagree with the conclusions drawn in this article.

Andrew Hamilton writes "If God shows partiality to a nation, its gift and blessing must be for other nations. A God who played favourites would be subdivine. So God’s blessing must be given for all."

If having abundant natural resources is being partial and showing favouritism, then he obviously does show partiallity and favouritism regarding the distribution of natural resources.

If God does not show partiallity (reagarding the distribution of natural resources), then having such abundant resources is not a display of favouritism.

Indeed, having what we do have, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of those resources, including to the people of Australia to whom they have been entrusted.

God definitely blesses his people, and is within the Character of a holy god to be partial with his blessing, while at the same time, blessing both godly & ungodly (eg. rain.)

The bible says that God does not have fovourites in relation to his gift of salvation: it is for Jew and Gentile alike. But God does bless his children. Seeing as God created the world, and Australia has such natural reaources as fossil fuels (if you will), then they must be providential. To draw another conculsion surely only reveals a non-belief in God as soverign creator.

Also, to object to this statement would most likely reveal a non-belief in God!
Michael O'Brien | 02 December 2006

IN response to Warwick Dilley: Sorry Warwick, this is a Christion nation. It is founded on Christian principles, it's legal system is derived from judeo-Christian principles, and our Prime-Minister has stated in speeches, "we are a Christian nation."

Your comments are only a reflection of you beliefs. Fortunately for you, you live in a Christian nation who allows you to express your opinion.
Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien | 02 December 2006

To Michael: How can you say that this nation was 'founded on Christian principles'? Was European settlement via the First Fleet driven by 'Christian principles'? Was Federation and its first act - the White Australia Policy - based on 'Christian principles'? And in what way is our legal system, which allows supected illegal immigrants to be incarcerated through executive action without recourse to the courts derived from 'Judeo-Christian principles'? If the PM really did say that 'we are a Christian nation', remember also that he said that Iraq had WMDs and that refugees were throwing their children overboard.

Yes, we are fortunate enough to live in a country where we can (still) express our opinions, but what has that to do with it supposedly being a Christian nation? Do Christians have a monopoly on justice and freedom?

Warwick Dilley | 13 December 2006

Thank you for highlighting the limited scope of our PM's mind.

It was his refusal to acknowledge the suffering of Indigenous Australian families that were forever torn asunder by administrative diversion into Australia's church-run "bush Gulag" that made me realise just how limited his intellect is; he has refused to learn anything about the world since his confirmation as an Anglican to marry Janette; as such he retains the social Darwinism and Fascistic triumphalism typical of his generation in this right-wing nation (my father was born within a year of Mr Howard).
David Arthur | 25 December 2006


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up