By Clementine Ford | 4 May 2015
According to the adage, one should never discuss religion or politics when in polite company. But this is print media, and that means we can take the liberty of discussing both. Both the machinations and implications of politics are inseparable from all of the world’s major religions, with Christianity being equally as culpable in the state-sanctioned oppression of citizens as its more vocally condemned sibling, Islam. A nation that strives for equality and self-determination for all its citizens cannot collude with the revered figures of organised religion – so how can we reconcile its influence in a society that should be striving to be both secular and progressive?
The simple answer, as former United States president Jimmy Carter famously concluded in a stirring polemic, is that it can’t. In a 2009 op-ed, Carter wrote about his decision to leave the Southern Baptist Convention after more than six decades. His exit was prompted after it became impossible for him to ignore the continued oppression and marginalisation of women in the church. A stalwart supporter of equal rights, Carter’s faith remained intact but he could no longer support a structure of intolerance that prioritised the leadership and moral superiority of men over that of women.
The first amendment to the United States constitution calls for a separation of church and state. It’s a nice theory but the essential liberty of it seems to be rarely enforced in a country whose invocation of the constitution is selective at best. A recent sketch by American stand-up comic Amy Schumer highlighted this hypocrisy while parodying an advertisement for birth-control medication. An increasingly frustrated Schumer is advised to ask her doctor about birth control – and then her employer, a man on the street, her stepfather, a small boy playing chess, and finally the Supreme Court. When she eventually files the script, she’s told that she’ll have to go through the same rigmarole each month. Meanwhile, a small boy asks the chemist for a gun. The chemist hands it to him with a grin, saying, “It’s your right!”
There is irony in a government system that claims to be about liberty, but that remains in bed with both the free-wheelin’ gun lobby and the far-right religious fanatics determined to criminalise the behaviour of everyone who isn’t a wealthy white man of God.
This is just one of the reasons why religion – at least in its organised, dictatorial incarnation – is incompatible with a society that claims to value equality in its citizenry. We are often told that gender equality has long since been achieved and any references to it now are either unnecessary or deliberate attempts to install women as the superior beings. Yet even the relatively secular government of Australia acquiesces far too often to the kind of religious doctrine that relies on discrimination to flourish.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition was recently reported to be pushing for a binding caucus vote on the issue of same-sex marriage. Tanya Plibersek wants the upcoming ALP National Conference to scrap a 2011 policy that allowed MPs to apply a conscience vote to attempts to legalise marriage equality.
The move has prompted a backlash among certain sectors of the Labor Party, with one unnamed member already declaring they would “cross the floor if they were forced to support same-sex marriage”. Union heavyweight and Labor powerbroker Joe de Bruyn has labelled the push “foolish”, arguing that it would cause too much “internal grief” within the party.
A staunch Catholic, de Bruyn has for almost 40 years held the powerful position of national secretary of the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association, the largest trade union in Australia. The influence of the SDA in determining ALP policy cannot be understated. It was de Bruyn who publicly backed John Howard’s calls to amend the Sex Discrimination Act in 2000 in an attempt to stop lesbians and single women from accessing IVF. At the time, de Bruyn stated, “I just think that leadership needs to be given to those people who do believe that the family is the fundamental institution in society and that what we ought to do is to promote and enhance the family unit, not pass laws which have the effect of tearing it down.”
Nor can the influence of Catholicism be underestimated here, both within the Labor Right and in the policy decisions of our own Prime Minister. Tony Abbott (whose recruitment into politics coincided with an invitation from de Bruyn to attend a “peace and freedom weekend”) has found it extraordinarily difficult to separate his hardline religious views from his political decision-making, with just one example being the use of his ministerial veto in 2004 to prevent the Therapeutic Goods Administration from importing the abortifacient drug RU486.
The question is, who suffers most when policy is passed according to the conservative doctrines of the Catholic Church? One need only look at the structure of that institution to understand that it is women and LGBTQI communities. The Catholic Church has no qualms in expressing the view that men are the only earthly conduits for God, nor in applying oppressive global policies that deny comprehensive reproductive and sexual healthcare options to the people who most need them.
And once again, we see the unnecessary influence of religion in Australian government decision-making. The insistence that marriage equality be approached as a matter of “conscience” gives worrying legitimacy to the idea that equality for same-sex attracted people is negotiable. Further, the belief that marriage should remain “between a man and woman” relies on the traditional notions of gender within partnerships that position wives as secondary and husbands as heads of households. In the traditional model, women are expected to exit the workforce to bear children while men are supported to be breadwinners, a role that carries with it an enormous amount of power. Same-sex marriage (not to mention parenting) confuses and challenges a system whose power hinges on inequality between the sexes.
Carter hailed concern for equality as the reason he walked away from the Southern Baptists. If Australia wants to be a truly secular state invested in the equality of all its citizens, its political leaders would do well to follow his example. We may have moved past the days when it was frowned upon to discuss religion and politics, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept them as a package deal.
Clementine Ford is an Age columnist.
The Four Horseman – Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, Harris 
The challenges facing atheists in the U.S.
Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook