CHRISTIANS AND THE PROPOSED AMENDMENTS TO THE COMMONWEALTH RACIAL DISCRIMNINATION ACT. By Peter Corney
(Proposed repeal of section 18C)
Christians feel strongly about this issue but are also conflicted. On the one hand we believe strongly in the equality and dignity of all people before God but we also know that to maintain these values in a modern democratic society requires the opportunity and ability to defend them vigorously and that requires a degree of freedom of speech that some people and groups may find uncomfortable.
We believe we are made in the image of God and therefore every person is infinitely precious and must be treated with dignity and respect. We believe in the OT vision that one day all the nations will come together in peace, harmony and unity in The Kingdom of God, the reign that is ushered in by Jesus its king.[i] We believe that the Church, the community of Jesus, is to be a present example of and signpost to that future reality. We believe that, as the NT expresses it; in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[ii] We also confess to our failures and disobedience in regard to these truths at times in our history, such as our past discrimination against the Jewish people and the participation of parts of the Church in racism and apartheid in South Africa. Therefore it is with humility that we oppose racial and religious discrimination.
But we also know that Christians who have retained their true Biblical faith have often led the charge for basic human rights and the fight against racism. People like William Wilberforce, Anthony Benezet, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, to name just a few. In fact in the history of the development of a charter of Universal Human Rights Christians have played a significant role. The philosopher A .C. Grayling, no special friend of Christianity, makes this point very clearly in his history of the struggle for liberty and rights, “Towards the Light”. [iii] Many of the ‘liberal values’ of the modern democratic state have their origins not just in the ‘Enlightenment’ but in the Western Christian heritage.
We believe that to maintain the values enshrined in declarations of human rights, the right of freedom of speech is a key essential. Of course freedom of speech must have its limits and vigorous debate must be conducted with respect and civility. Defamation, abuse, lies and untruths must be excluded along with incitement to racial and religious hatred and violence. A critical question is how we define and set the limits. This is partly what the current debate is about.
It was Thomas Hobbs the 17th C. English Christian political philosopher who developed the very influential idea of the “social contract” where the citizen gives up or limits certain personal rights to the state in return for the protection by the state of their rights. This “contract” involves a tension between control and freedom and the balance between these shifts from one cultural period to another. Currently in Western democracies we are in a confused cultural state and therefore confused about how to manage the tension between control and freedom in this matter. [iv] On the one hand we are in a time of hyper individualism and a preoccupation with personal freedom of choice at the expense of the common good; on the other hand we have democratic governments passing all sorts of laws attempting to enforce morality on their citizens in the form of political correctness of various kinds by legislation. In our good intention we easily forget that virtues may be protected by legislation but they cannot be created by them.
There are other current cultural factors that also complicate our situation like the significant migration of people from pre-modern, authoritarian and traditional cultures into Western post Enlightenment ones. People from such cultures have a different view of what may and may not be debated in the public square. For at least 300 years Christians in Western society have had to adjust to increasingly aggressive public critique and scrutiny of their beliefs and their primary documents and frequently to be exposed to ridicule and mockery. We have had to accept that this is the price of living in an open society where freedom of speech and freedom of belief and religious choice is valued. We no longer have or enforce particular blasphemy laws as we have come to accept that they are not consistent with the modern pluralist democratic society. If Christians wish to have freedom of belief and religion they must also grant it to others. But immigrants from theocratic and authoritarian states do not understand this. They will use our well-intended, but sometimes badly drafted anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws to avoid genuine critique and debate about their beliefs and practices on the grounds of offense or blasphemy or vilification. This stifles open debate and shuts down freedom of speech because those who wish to disagree or critique others beliefs are constantly under the threat of expensive litigation by individuals or by government Commissions of Human Rights and the subsequent penalties that might ensue. The irony of this position is that many of the very views and practices unintentionally being protected from scrutiny by our anti – vilification laws are inconsistent with our common liberal democratic principles!
We have now suffered the unhappy result of such laws in the state of Victoria. The European Union and Canada have had similar and even more extreme experiences. As a result the Canadians, who have a similar Act to ours and have experienced overreaching government Commissions of Human Rights and a raft of heavy fines and expensive law suits, have now repealed a similar section in their act and sought to reign in their Commissions. This is a significant lesson for Australia as the two countries have a similar history, culture and liberal democracy and a successful multicultural experience. One of the pioneers and champions of Canada’s human rights laws, Alan Borovoy, has in recent years become a critic of the way the Canadian Commissions have overreached and has publicly supported the changes in their law. He has made the point that too much ambiguity arises from legislation that uses words like “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate.” From the Canadian experience he says: “You wind up losing more than your trying to nail” – exactly! [v]
Because of the doctrine of the separation of Church and State we do not have a ‘Sacred Public Square’ with a state established religion, nor do we have an entirely ‘Neutral or Secular Public Square’, we have a ‘Civil Public Square’ in which all views and beliefs have a right to speak. But the right to participate in debate in the ‘Civil Public Square’ requires everyone to submit to the right of others to respectfully and rigorously question and critique your ideas, beliefs , values and practices without pleading ‘offense’, ‘insult’, ‘intimidation’, or ‘blasphemy’ and resorting to litigation to escape scrutiny and transparency. The same point could be made about the debate over gender and identity politics where it is so easy to silence differing views with clichéd labels that demonise those with different views and values. The way the current law is framed makes critique and open discussion very vulnerable to legal challenge and so limits freedom of speech.
Because religion, race and culture are so often connected the issue of ‘cultural relativism’ [vi] is also very important in this debate. ‘Cultural relativism’ is the commonly held view that different values and behaviours are simply relative to different cultures and that no one should judge anyone else or any other cultures values and practices. This sounds reasonable and tolerant at first but it excludes the idea of any objective or universal set of values like those in declarations of Human Rights. It leads directly to the tolerance of evils such as the oppression of woman, cast systems, slavery, abuse of children, exploitation of labour, minority and religious persecution, etc. Of course there are no pure and consistent cultural relativists everyone draws the line somewhere in relation to the practices and beliefs of other cultures. There is a fog of fuzzie thinking in this area. It is important to remember that the right to believe anything does not lead to the conclusion that anything anyone believes is right!
The atmosphere of Post Modern thought with its rejection of any objective truth, value or meaning and its reduction of every issue to a question of power means that in the end there is no contest of ideas only a contest of power. This freedom from the “oppression of absolutes”, including God, that Post Modernity craves, will of course in the end lead to the most terrible loss and oppression of all – the loss of freedom to the absolute oppression of naked power. Usually this appears in the form of oppressive and violent political powers whose first actions are always to slowly strip away our rights especially our right to openly contest the truth of ideas.
Migration of different people groups from vastly different cultures and worldviews into the cities of the West has led to the development of a degree of cultural pluralism that is new in the breadth of its diversity to our past experience. The doctrine of “multiculturalism” has been developed as a way to maintain harmony and social cohesion in this context and countries like Australia and Canada with their Christian heritage have been very successful in this experiment. It could be argued that this dream of intercultural and ethnic harmony is an echo of the ultimate Christian vision of the peace and harmony in the Kingdom of God. [vii] But we also believe that this dream will only be completely achieved in the fully realised Kingdom. Till then we have to work within a fallen world of imperfect people and imperfect societies and imperfect political instruments. This fact is the weakness that all human political utopianism stumbles on. The task of a democratic society and the role of Christians within it is to try and realise the dream as substantially as we can within the limits of fallen human nature. One of the vital instruments to achieve this is freedom of speech and the ability to speak truth to power, whatever that power might be. That is why this debate is so important.
We also need to constantly be reminded that the virtues of respect for others and respect for truth may be protected by law but they cannot be created in people’s hearts by legislation or fear. It can only be taught and caught by example and precept in our most fundamental institutions of families, faith communities, schools and universities – the basic foundations of a ‘Civil Society’.
[i] Micha 4:1-4. Isaiah 2:1-5, 25:6-8. Mark 1:14-15. Luke 4:16-20. Revelation 7:9-10.
ii Galatians 3:26
[iii] “Towards the Light” A.C Grayling, Bloomsbury 2007
[iv] See Philip Rieff “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”, etc. He put forward the view that over time societies go through a cycle of ‘release and control’. In the West the 60’s and 70’s were at time of ‘release’, we may now be moving into a cycle of control.
[v] The Australian p11 April 9th 2014 article “One voice on Free Speech”
[vi] See the article on “Cultural Relativism” at <petercorney .com>
[vii] Revelation 7:9-10. Isaiah 2:1-5