With new leadership changes in Australia, one of the first casualties may be the Christian invocation prayer that opens up sessions of Parliament, at least if new Senate President Sue Lines gets her way. And thank goodness for that.
The elections in May saw a rebuke of a conservative coalition led by the extremely religious Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Not only did Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese become the new PM, fellow party member Lines was soon voted President of the Senate, making her only the second woman to hold that position.
Her initial push to get rid of a meaningless tradition is already creating a stir.
Late last week, Lines said she’d like to stop the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer to open Parliamentary sessions, a tradition that’s been taking place since 1901.
“On the one hand we’ve had almost every parliamentary leader applaud the diversity of the Parliament and so if we are genuine about the diversity of the Parliament we cannot continue to say a Christian prayer to open the day,” Senator Lines told The Australian.
“Personally, I would like to see the prayers gone. I’m an atheist. I don’t want to say the prayers. If others want to say the prayers they’re open to do that.
“Personally I would like to see them gone but again it’s not something I can decree. It’s a view of the Senate.”
Everything she said there is perfectly sensible. You can’t celebrate the diversity of elected officials, then turn around and celebrate a Christian tradition in the government as if one religion represents the entire nation. Hell, just last month, Australia’s Bureau of Statistics revealed that 38.9% of citizens have no religious affiliation at all, compared to 43.9% who are Christians. (The latter group keeps getting smaller while the “Nones” continue growing.)
Like Lines said, though, she doesn’t have the power to unilaterally end the tradition. For now, she says she’ll raise the issue with the Senate Standing Committee on Procedure. There’s a long way to go before the silly tradition is ditched for good.
But that didn’t stop political conservatives from whining about the possibility that performative prayers in government might one day become private:
Kennedy MP Bob Katter responded to Senator Lines’ calls to get rid of the Lord’s Prayer with immediate criticism.
“Is it an unreasonable thing to quote from a book that more than half the population is committed to? In Australia it is,” he said.
Yes. It’s extremely unreasonable. Also, Katter is lying: More than half of the population is not Christian, and even if they were, that still wouldn’t give the government the right to treat one religious group’s beliefs as the default faith for all of Parliament.
Right-wing commentator Joe Hildebrand also acted like getting rid of the prayer would be some sort of national tragedy:
The argument to get rid of the prayer ‘represents the worst and most nauseating aspects of the upper-middle-class left‘, commentator Joe Hildebrand told Seven’s Sunrise program.
Joe Hildebrand has labelled the Senate president’s moves to ditch the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each sitting day as ‘idiotic’ and ‘silly’
‘This is an example of the odiousness and ridiculousness and the preoccupation of people who are overprivileged and oversensitive with issues that do not in the slightest impact the lives of ordinary Australians,’ he said.
‘But obviously for an atheist she has a bit of Crusader zeal about her,’ he remarked.
It’s very telling that a call for secularism by a leader in Australian’s government is perceived by a conservative TV personality as part of some atheist Crusade, while an inherent advertisement for Christianity is just the way it is. As I’ve said before, when you’re so used to Christian privilege, religious neutrality can be perceived as oppression. A bad tradition needs to end, not continue just because so many people are used to it.
We’ve had the same debate in the U.S., by the way. There have been multiple attempts to end the almost-always Christian invocations that open up sessions of Congress. Between 2000 and 2015, 96.7% of the invocations were Christian, and 99.8% of them promoted one of the Abrahamic religions. When an atheist applied to deliver the invocation years ago, he got nowhere despite being sponsored by an elected member of Congress. A lawsuit was also unsuccessful. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that “the House does not violate the Establishment Clause by limiting its opening prayer to religious prayer.”
So if Australia has the opportunity to get rid of its own Christian tradition, it should do it immediately. There’s no good reason for Parliament to promote one faith when it ought to be welcoming to all faiths, and the best way to accomplish that is by elevating no faiths. If members of Parliament want to waste their time praying, they can do it in private (unless they want to admit God doesn’t listen to private prayers, which would be a fascinating admission).
As for the argument that there are more pressing issues to address, of course there are. All the more reason to dispense with religion at the beginning of Parliamentary sessions and get to work faster. This is a problem that could theoretically be solved within a matter of minutes. It’s the defenders of Christian tradition who are turning this into a controversy, not Lines. Like this pathetic conservative writer who called Lines’ sensible statements about the prayer an “unwelcome, uninvited and unhinged belch into our national narrative.”
There’s no defense for the government of Australia to continue pushing Christianity on everybody else, but because it’s been going on for over 120 years, a bunch of oblivious pundits and politicians are eager to defend it to the death. By doing so, they’re sending a clear message to the ever-growing number of non-religious Australians that their beliefs are to be ignored at the highest levels.
It’s only going to push more people away from the Christian faith.