Church and State Should be Separate

Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name.

This week, in a rare moment of bi-partisanship, the Federal Government and Opposition joined forces to reject Speaker Harry Jenkins’s call for a debate on whether the Lord’s Prayer should continue to be said at the start of each parliamentary day.

Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

We all know it. Hell, I’m Jewish and can recite it backwards. Anyone raised in a Christian-dominated culture like the US or Australia could. While opponents of a debate on the prayer claim this makes it “universal,” unless they mean “ecumenical,” they are mistaken. While several billion Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians come together at Easter to chant the prayer, it is doubtful that followers of any of the other world’s religions join in. Not to mention the silence of the growing army of atheists.

Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

Its defenders tell us that the Lord’s Prayer has begun Parliament since 1901. As part of our history and tradition, it must continue to do so. “Our nation was founded on faith in the Bible and on prayer,” said a letter-writer to The Canberra Times. “It’s appropriate that we open parliaments with the Lord’s Prayer for its cultural and historic relevance,” agreed the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace.

Ritual and tradition express our most profound beliefs and values. They risk irrelevance, even ridicule, if they fail to change with the times. In 1901 neither Aborigines nor the majority of Australian women had the right to vote or to stand for a seat in the new commonwealth parliament. If parliament began each day with an ode to the political supremacy of white men, would anyone cite “tradition” as a good reason to preserve it? Opponents of a debate about the Lord’s Prayer must explain why its continued recitation is in line with the values and aspirations of contemporary Australia, not those of yesteryear.

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Don’t believe in sin? Have little truck with evil? Opponents of a debate have the answer for you: just say silent when the prayer is read. They say that surely with the world economy turning molten, there are far more important matters to discussion.

Ah, deflection and trivialisation-the last argumentative refuge of scoundrels. It reminds me of how men used to guillotine feminists by accusing them of lacking a sense of humour.

Those objecting to the Lord’s Prayer do so on principle. The principle is that in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society like Australia, church and state should be separate.

Christians defend their right to question and even refuse to follow laws that conflict with their principles. In response, they are rarely told to take a deep breath and get over themselves. This may be because we tend to assume that those motivated to act from their Christian faith are moral agents who, agree with them or not, deserve to be taken seriously.

Well, I say that non-Christians also have consciences that drive them to stand up for what they believe. They too deserve a hearing and to have their moral concerns treated with respect.

If Christian concerns were enough to spark a Senate inquiry into Medicare funding of abortions necessary to save a woman’s life, surely non-Christian ones should be enough to allow discussion of the ongoing relevance of the Lord’s Prayer.


Publication history

Church and State Should be Separate  Sun-Herald (Sydney)