The Separation of Church and State
David has a Graduate Certificate in Applied Ministry, as well as extensive political experience in state and federal campaigns with major and minor parties.
Australia is not a Christian nation – at least, not technically speaking.
Australia has no state religion, but is instead pluralistic. Pluralism is when unlimited religious, ethnic, racial, and political groups are permitted in a single society (as long as they keep our laws).
So if any religion is allowed, where does the phrase “separation of Church & State” come from, and why do some people believe religion should be kept out of public life and politics?
When we talk about what kind of nation Australia is, we have to be sure we’re talking about the same thing when we say “nation”. Do we mean the legal aspects: constitution, legislation and judges’ rulings? Or do we mean the heritage, legacy and history?
If we’re talking about our legal identity and intention – no, we’re not a Christian nation.
But if we’re talking about our cultural identity, defined by our settlers, explorers, pioneers, and founding fathers – yes, we are a Christian nation. We certainly have a strong Christian history and heritage. A majority of citizens still identify as Christian. Our legal system is founded upon Christian morality and principles that far precede even our nation’s settlement.
When the average person mentions the phrase “separation of Church & State” they are alluding to the First Amendment of the USA’s Constitution. Although the phrase isn’t mentioned specifically in it, the intention is, and that’s what matters most. It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Where the specific phrase has been quoted from is a letter Thomas Jefferson later wrote to the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut. Jefferson in part wrote, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
There’s a great deal of misconception about what this still means though. When this was written, it was in a context that helps us understand why it was written. America was settled by people fleeing religious persecution. The freedom to worship Who & how they wanted was a significant incentive to find the New World. And when they threw off the tyrannical chains of Britain, America’s founding fathers were acutely aware of how evil government overreach was. They wanted above all else to keep government in its proper place – not the Church. It was the government that they feared again growing to the point that illegitimate power was exerted over people’s opinions. And so they said, and I paraphrase, “Government – stay out of religion.”
They did not say, “Church – stay out of government.”
When they wrote the Declaration of Independence, they asserted the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”. They acknowledged “their Creator”, and appealed “to the Supreme Judge of the world”. They acknowledged “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence”. These are not the words of men who believed religion had no place in government, or that faith had no place in politics.
Thomas Jefferson, third President of the USA, wrote the words of the Declaration of Independence. Although he coined the phrase “separation of Church & State”, he also said, “The Bible is the cornerstone of liberty. Students’ perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands.” It is abundantly clear that he had no intention of removing God, faith, or religion from government, politicians, or America – as it makes us better citizens.
Patrick Henry, a famous leader of the American Revolution famously quoted as writing, “Give me liberty or give me death”, also said, “It cannot be emphasised too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here.”
James Madison was the main author of the USA’s constitution, and he also acknowledged that, “We have staked the whole future of our new nation not upon the power of government; far from it. We have staked the future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.”
There is copious amounts of evidence that the people who wrote and approved the First Amendment had absolutely no hesitation fully involving God, His Word, and faith in their personal lives, their political lives, or the life of their nation. In that objective historical context, we can be absolutely confident the intended purpose of the First Amendment, if the words aren’t plain enough in themselves, is that Government must be controlled – not religion.
We don’t have the First Amendment in Australia, nor do we consider the American Constitution, Amendments, or Bill of Rights in any legal proceedings. Yet many people cling to the popular misconception of keeping religion out of politics here as well and quote Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “Separation of Church & State”.
Our constitution does reflect the same intention though in Section 116, titled, “Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion.”
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.
Section 116 stops the Commonwealth making laws
- “for establishing any religion”
- “for imposing any religious observance” or
- “for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion”
It also prevents the Commonwealth from imposing any religious test as a qualification for any Commonwealth office or public trust.
Similarly to America, our Founding Fathers had a common faith in God, sometimes called “Divine Providence”. Although we are pluralistic (all worldviews are welcome) and secular (no state religion), our Constitution begins with humble faith in the Christian God.
“WHEREAS the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established…”
Likewise, every day that the House of Representatives (Lower House) sits in Parliament, these prayers are prayed by the Speaker before commencing every day’s debate and deliberation in Australia’s House of Representatives.
“Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to vouchsafe Thy special blessing upon this Parliament, and that Thou wouldst be pleased to direct and prosper the work of Thy servants to the advancement of Thy glory, and to the true welfare of the people of Australia.
Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
How anyone can interpret Section 116 as intending religion not being welcome in Australian society or government is truly beyond comprehension.
The topics I'll be addressing in this blog will be practical teaching designed to resource believers and church leaders in better understanding how politics works in Australia, and how the Church works in politics (and vice versa). These will include:
- Separation of Church & State
- Australia's Christian Heritage
- Prolific Politics in the Bible
- Lessons from the Good Samaritan
- Lessons from Nehemiah
- The Australian Political System
- How Jesus Would Vote
- The Importance of Prayer