Ten years ago, religion barely featured at all in daily public life or discussion. In a country where over 60 per cent of us claim a religious affiliation, there was a general acceptance that religion was a person’s private matter.
How times have changed. Since then, religion has barely been out of the news. We’ve argued about the right of Muslim women to wear a headscarf or face covering. We’ve argued about faith-based exemptions to the new law permitting same-sex marriage. And now, during an election campaign, we’re arguing about an individual’s right to state their beliefs in public.
For the most part, the religious beliefs of our political leaders have always been considered a private matter.
Yes, Tony Abbott was comfortable with people knowing about his Roman Catholicism as Prime Minister. And when Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister, he regularly used the church steps to showcase the religious principles of his government.
But whether a Prime Minister was a Protestant or Catholic – or an agnostic or atheist – was held to have little bearing on how the electorate judged his or her suitability to lead a government.
However, in the late days of the 2019 election campaign, one party leader attempted deliberately to make the religious beliefs of another party leader a matter of political contention.
By declaring that Scott Morrison’s religious beliefs made him unfit to be a “prime minister for all people”, Bill Shorten deliberately flouted one of our key Aussie principles of fair play and decency.
The question concerns, of course, Christian teaching about homosexuality – and we know enough now to see that Christians, themselves, are divided about whether the Bible is pro-gay or anti-gay.
But we also know that what someone believes about God cannot – and must not – have any bearing on their suitability to serve as prime minister of Australia.
Section 116 of our Constitution states explicitly that there is to be no religious test imposed as a qualification for public office under the Commonwealth. But Mr Shorten’s remark imposed just such a test.
He decried the “madness of division and toxicity” that he thinks is “eating” the nation. And many Australians have, indeed, become concerned about the tenor of recent political debate.
But by questioning Mr Morrison’s suitability for office on the basis of his Christian faith – and thereby flouting the Constitution – the Opposition leader is stoking, rather than dampening, that madness.
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