The 'War on Christmas' myth (Part Two): 'Australia is a Christian country'

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Poster from the Disabled Men's Association of Australia, circa 1920 (via State Library of Queensland / Flickr)

Stephen Keim SC uses a few of his forensic courtroom skills to dismantle arguments often seen in the media about the "killing of Christmas".

[Read Part One: The 'War on Christmas' and other  myths: Returning to a tabloid near you]

THE ANNUAL ACCUSATIONS that Christmas is being killed show a strange kind of defensiveness by those who purport to defend it.

They use the phrase, “political correctness”, but one feels that it is the Christmas warrior who is seeking to impose a political value upon others. There, I have exposed myself by accepting the challenge and argued the matter in the killing of Christmas framing.

I now wish to look, a little more closely, at the arguments made by those who claim that others are inserting a knife into poor Christmas’s nether regions.

The "Australia is a Christian country" myth

After the attack on the straw opponent (“the PC fun police”), the next line often is "Australia is a Christian country". The point of this catch phrase is that the killers of Christmas are in a tiny majority who want to prevent the rest of us (Christians) from having our well-earned Christmas fun. Which raises the question as to the extent to which Australia is a Christian country. The answer appears to be about 10% less Christian in numbers than those who voted “Yes” to same sex marriage. According to the 2016 Census, the answer is 52%. This outnumbers those who say they have no religion (30%) and those who are unspecified (9.3%). Buddhists (2.4%), Muslims (2.6%) and Hindus (1.9%) constitute quite small numbers, especially, when one considers how much angst they (and, particularly, Muslims), generate among some politicians.

Interestingly, the corollary of the proportion of Christians being less than the number of “Yes” voters is that the proportion of non-Christians is nearly 10% greater than the proportion of the voting public who expressed opposition to same sex marriage. If consistency was at all valued, then non-Christians should be entitled to the same respect over Christian festivals than those very well-respected “No” voters. Indeed, the face of the "No" campaign, Karina Okotel, who is one of those demanding respect (by which she means the right to discriminate against gay people in the provision of services) cites human rights conventions, democratic conventions and a pluralist society. Ironically, there is not much respect for pluralism when the Christmas warriors launch their attacks on those who would be cautious and restrained about always saying Merry Christmas.

The "Christian values" myth

The enriched version of we are a Christian country is Peta Credlin’s 'this is a country built on ... Christian values'. Two questions arise. Whose values? And which Christian values?

The latter question is difficult, of course, because Christian values cover such a broad field. Some of my best friends are Catholic social justice advocates who promote and act upon values with which I feel very comfortable. Indeed, the Jesus who said “blessed are the poor” expressed values with which I would happily have us, as a nation, identify. And, indeed, the social gospel movement which is credited by Earl Shorris with inspiring FDR’s New Deal applies the values of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Plain to public policy.

On the other hand, many of the Christmas warriors espouse the Christian values of the Religious Right, which include opposition to a woman’s control of her own body, to any form of gay rights and to feminism. These values are not the values on which Australia was built and, if I am wrong on that, Australia should renovate. Even more so, if Christian values involve the racism associated with opposition to segregation and modern policies of voter suppression. And I continue to be surprised that small government and fiscal conservatism is a value on which Australia was built, especially, when we consider all those government built railway lines that opened the country up for European domination in the 19th Century.

These are only the Christian values that are openly being advocated, today. Christian values of the past are even more doubtful candidates for being the values on which Australia was built.

Sticking with treatment of gay people as our sampling methodology, Christian emperors, Constantius II and Constans decreed the death penalty for homosexual acts in 342 CE. Constantius II was also a little religiously intolerant, requiring the death penalty for anyone carrying out pagan sacrifices. Fifty years later, more Christian emperors – Valentinian II, Theodosius I and Arcadius – required male homosexuals to be publicly burned.    

The history of Europe is marked, in one respect, by clerical condemnation of same sex sexuality and the hideous persecution of gay people by the state. In societies that, for over a thousand years, could correctly be called Christian societies, the teachings of the church and the law of the state were linked. This was true of the castration and public anal rape using red hot irons of 15-year-old Giovanni di Giovanni in Florence on 13 May 1365.  It was also true of the execution by hanging of James Pratt and John Smith outside London’s Newgate Prison on 27 November 1835 for a consensual sexual act.

Whether we are talking of the present, the long past, or anywhere in between, Christian values are a smorgasbord of values of which some of the dishes are healthy and inspiring and some are dangerous and diseased.

In considering on whose values Australia was built, I am prepared to give Ms Credlin the benefit of the doubt. I will assume that she is not referring to the values of which we are, no longer, proud such as the values of the settlers who believed in an Australian version of manifest destiny — namely, that they and the land were made for each other; the values of the missionaries who believed that Indigenous peoples were little heathens, who deserved, at almost any cost, to be Christianised; or the doctrine of the law that Australia was devoid of culture or law and, thereby, vindicated the settlers in their land grabbing.

Rather, I assume that Ms Credlin is thinking of the values of which we are proud and seek to fulfil such as democracy; the protection of human rights; the rule of law and equality before the law; and, channelling Ms Okotel, pluralism and, perhaps, even multi-culturalism. The question becomes whether these values of which we can, indeed, be proud are, peculiarly, Christian values.

Christianity and democracy

The history of democracy and democratic values is so complex that no one creed can lay claim to having been present at its birth. Even ignoring the early Greek democracies and democratic institutions in complex societies in Mesopotamia and India, we can say, without hesitation, that such institutions pre-dated the establishment of the Christian religion. Both Sparta’s rather totalitarian democracy and the famous efforts of Athens predated even proto-Christianity by hundreds of years. The Roman Republic also predated Christianity. The birth of the Empire which destroyed the Republic (except in name) was in place by the time of the accession of Augustus in 27 BCE.

By the time Christianity was adopted by the emperor, Constantine the Great, and became the State religion under Theodosius in 380 CE, democratic principles were not in vogue in any part of the empire. Christianity was not a source of democratic principles during the middle ages. As the only recognised religion in Europe, the Church dominated the lives of the peasants and the nobility and, itself, became very rich.     

Neither the Crusades nor the Inquisitions were democratic movements. They were, nonetheless, definitively Christian.

That is not to say that Christians have not been involved in steps taken towards the institution of democracy. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 is seen by many as a major step away from absolute monarchy and the commencement of constitutional monarchy. It also involved whether England would be predominantly Catholic or predominantly Anglican. The resulting Bill of Rights of 1689 protected the power of the Parliament, the independence of the courts, the right to trial by jury and freedom from illegal taxation, and brought to an end Church courts,.  

Another important event in the development of democratic ideals was the revolt of Great Britain’s North American colonies and the Declaration of Independence of 1776, which accompanied this revolt. The colonisation of what became the United States of America may be seen as the product of one group of Christians escaping persecution from other Christians because of the composition of the group of settlers (Protestant separatists) who travelled in the Mayflower and settled in 1620 at Plymouth on Cape Cod and the Puritans who dominated the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers from 1628 onwards.

The Declaration, adopted by the Continental Congress, consisting of 13 American colonies on 4 July 1776, sets out a justification for the colonies’ decision to break, unilaterally, their ties to Great Britain. In the beautiful language of the principal author, Thomas Jefferson, certain “self-evident truths”, a complete philosophical justification of democracy, are set out: all people are created equally; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; these include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; governments obtain their powers and their validity from the consent of the governed; governments that betray the people may be overthrown with just cause; and the new government should apply principles and organise the allocation of authority in a way that is calculated to ensure the happiness and safety of the people. These are, indeed, democratic ideas.

Despite the reference to a creator, the Declaration is not seen as a religiously inspired document, but rather an expression of Enlightenment ideas. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that emphasised reliance on human reason and involved a reaction against ecclesiastical tyranny. Enlightenment thought is attributed with causing a decline of the church, the growth of secular humanism and political liberalism, and the rapid development of science. The Enlightenment challenged both the dictates of an authoritarian Christianity and of the authoritarian state. An example of the moral case and need for a response against ecclesiastical tyranny was prosecution and sentencing to imprisonment for heresy, 130 years prior to the adoption of the Declaration, of Galilei Galileo, whose scientific contribution revolutionised our understanding of cosmology. His prosecution was carried out by and part of the Inquisition in Italy. His alleged crime was suggesting that the Earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa.

Jefferson was influenced by John Locke, an Enlightenment philosopher, and regarded Jesus as providing a sublime and benevolent code of ethics. Jefferson was also the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, espousing the principle of religious freedom as another natural right. Jefferson coined the famous phrase 'wall of separation between Church and State' — the key principle of secular government and a principle under attack from certain religious warriors and rightwing politicians. Indeed, the attacking Christmas myth can be seen as a strategy to advance the attack on the idea that there should be a clear separation between church and state.

It can be seen from this very short survey of the origins of democracy and democratic values that Christianity and democracy have never been synonyms, and that while some followers of Christ have definitely been there at those moments when society turned towards democracy, Christianity has, more often, been the agent of values alien to those with which we identify as part of our own modern Australian democracy.

Read the final part of this series, Part Three, of The 'War on Christmas' myth: Happy Saturnalia!

You can follow Stephen Keim on Twitter @StephenKeim1.

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