Concerned to say a word in favour of religious freedom, Allan Chapple took the opportunity to write to the Prime Minister’s Expert Panel currently tasked to consider the intersections between the enjoyment of the freedom of religion and other human rights in Australia. Here is the case he put.
Allan Chapple is Senior Lecturer in New Testament at Trinity Theological College, Perth, WA
I believe it is crucial to be clear about the issue that is at the heart of the review you have been asked to conduct. In my opinion, the fundamental issue is not whether—and if so, how—religious freedoms are to be protected; it is whether—and if so, how—Australia is to remain a genuinely democratic society.
What are the defining characteristics of ‘democracy’? While this is not the whole answer, I believe that the most essential feature of democracy is the protection of certain fundamental freedoms. And the clearest indicator of a nation's commitment to democracy is how well those basic freedoms are preserved when there are powerful reasons for disallowing any of them, at least for a limited period. So when we are at war, and must quickly build up military forces capable of defending us, conscription of able-bodied citizens is an obvious strategy. But when we are truly democratic, we have made provision for conscientious objectors, even when many believe that our national interest should over-ride their freedom of conscience.
That is what I believe is the most basic and important question we are now facing as a nation: are the freedoms that lie at the heart of democracy, and which have long been taken for granted in our country (even though they may not have been legislated appropriately), to be upheld? The freedom that is most at stake here is what has been known traditionally as ‘freedom of conscience.’ As in the case of the ‘conscientious objector’, the committed pacifist, this is not just a matter of holding private opinions; it is about living by one's fundamental convictions about what is good and right, even when doing so brings me into conflict with institutions and groupings in society and with key aspects of the national agenda. The majority of my fellow-citizens may disagree strongly with my convictions, and may well be very unhappy about the problems I cause by living by them-but in a democracy, my right to hold and live by my convictions is acknowledged and protected. [I understand, of course, that work needs to be done to distinguish genuinely held and proper convictions from fantasies and delusions, immoral dogmas and obsessions, and so on-but the big question is whether we do believe that this fundamental freedom must be granted and protected, even if it isn't always easy to work out the best way of doing so.]
Seen from this perspective, the key issue is not freedom of religion, for that could be understood as permitting people with religious beliefs to meet together: to go to the mosque or synagogue or church, and so on. But if that is all that this freedom involves, it necessarily defines religious belief as only private opinions to be expressed only in private gatherings and personal rituals. While some religious beliefs might be of this kind, the major religions in Australia have in common the fact that the convictions their followers hold are meant to be lived out, not only at home or at the mosque/church/and so on, but also in the public domain.
As a result, this matter has real personal consequences for me. I write as someone whose family was not religious, who became a Christian by conviction during my teenage years, and who still holds strongly, even passionately, to those convictions more than five decades later. Because of what lies at its heart, if I were to accept that Christian commitment is a merely private matter I would effectively be abandoning that commitment — and that I cannot do. So the question you have been asked to consider can be stated like this: will I be allowed to live out my Christian convictions, even when this means being a conscientious objector, out of step with majority beliefs and practices?
I thank you for the opportunity to put my views.
28 January 2018
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