Putting the Sunday back in schools

I banged on earlier in the week about what a big issue the separation of church and state is in American politics. Well, imagine my surprise when the same issue, which is usually not on the table in more secular Australia, cropped up in the news this week in the guise of a push to introduce chaplains into state schools, currently a religion-free zone except for the odd visit of scripture teachers that always used to mark the period when my friends and I opted for the non-scripture lifestyle, and gambled on poker instead.

Given the weight of liberal principle against states endorsing or sponsoring religion, I can’t believe this is being seriously suggested – and with state funding to boot. Even more astonishing is Labor’s meek capitulation. Latham burnt the party so badly that it simply won’t take a stance on anything – other than WorkChoices, of course, because of the trade union influence. They’re so utterly terrified of being voted against that they seem never to entirely oppose anything.

And while Jenny Macklin’s tenure as Deputy Opposition Leader has hardly been a glorious one – which is probably why she hasn’t been mentioned in both leadership spills that occurred during it – I cannot remember a more insipid performance from her than giving in on the point, and expressing limp concerns about religious diversity. Labor once split over religious school funding issues, and it seems that the modern party has forgotten the principles behind it.

This chaplain proposal is extremely radical because it ultimately diverts public funds for the purposes of religious indoctrination and allows approved religions to infiltrate state schools. If parents want to expose their children to their religion, there are ample opportunities through religious schools, all of which extensive receive state funding, and many of which are inexpensive. Every church also runs youth programmes.

But not only do I disagree with the plan on principle, I think it’s completely unworkable in modern, pluralist Australia. Let’s start with the most obvious problem. Which denomination will supply the chaplain? There is no dominant denomination in Australia to make this easy. Do we go with Catholic, Anglican, Uniting Church, Charismatic, Seventh Day Adventist or Mormon? Let’s not forget that all these groups distrust one another’s theology, so the presence of, say, an Anglican chaplain as a “mentor” would probably make Catholic parents uneasy, or vice versa. I would expect devout Christian parents in one denomination to prefer to have no chaplain than one who might establish a strong bond with their children and influence them to join a different denomination.

And let’s not baldy assert, as John Howard does when he wants to win votes by bashing gays over marriage, that Australia’s founded on identifiable “Christian values”, so we should just have Christian chaplains. This doesn’t excuse those in favour of this crackpot scheme from having to specify which brand of Christianity they wants to promote.

Really, how will consensus on this ever be reached? Even the members within one denomination – the Anglicans – can’t agree over values issues like women priests. Sydney’s Anglicans are forever at odds with the rest of the country’s Anglicans, and threatening to splinter off into their own group.

By contrast, the Uniting Church includes not only female priests, but some gay ones. So can we have lesbian chaplains? Or have they got to be men? Celibate men? How on earth can these decisions be made?

Presumably the four Liberal MPs who are sponsoring the bill are mainly in promoting the ideas of their own particular group/s – because, of course, every denomination takes the view that believing in one of the others might wind you up in hell. And this won’t be much of a mentoring programme if it condemns kids to eternal fire and brimstone, will it?

Even those four might not agree. One of the bill’s proponents, Louise Markus, is a member – and former employee – of Hillsong, a rapidly growing church that’s often criticised by other denominations. Is controversial Hillsong to provide chaplains?

That’s just the Christians. A far bigger problem is the existence, as much as some politicians may wish to ignore it, of multiple religions. What are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Scientologist, Satanist and every other fringe religious group’s parents supposed to do? And why should they not have publicly-funded recruiters in our schools as well? Of course, at $70k per chaplain, having multiple chaplains would be even more of a hideous waste of public funds than having one.

Christians such as Victorian MP Greg Hunt says that current state schools are “anti-religion”, because Christians often like to assert that secularism is just as much a religion as their own. But it isn’t, because unlike virtually all religions, it promotes the idea that multiple religions can be valid, but that religions ares not a question for secular institutions like state schools to decide. Even if they are anti-religion, it’s still better to have schools that render pupils overwhelmingly secular, and thereby free to make up their own minds, than have them promote one religion over another to vulnerable children..

Fortunately, there’s an easy way parents can give children access to chaplains who support the precise flavour of religion that mum and dad do. It’s called sending them to religious schools. State schools, by contrast, should be equally open to all children, and provide an environment that doesn’t comment on religion in any way, or privilege one kind of lifestyle over another, allowing parents to raise their children however they want.

Providing chaplains in state schools not only violates a fundamental principle within a tolerant liberal society – that the state should not privilege one religion over another – but has so many practical problems that it could not possibly be implemented to the satisfaction of anyone. Thank God.

Dominic Knight

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