Religion and Political Thought: Introduction

Religion and Political Thought

Over the last few years, we have been engaged in an Australian project called ‘Religion and Political Thought’ – itself part of an international project known as ‘Religion and Radicalism’. Funded by the Australian Research Council, it seeks to do nothing less than kick-start an Australian tradition of political philosophy in relation to religion and theology. Our aims may be high, but we realise that it is very much a small beginning to what we hope will foster further debate and research.

Over the last few years, we have been engaged in an Australian project called ‘Religion and Political Thought’ – itself part of an international project known as ‘Religion and Radicalism’. Funded by the Australian Research Council, it seeks to do nothing less than kick-start an Australian tradition of political philosophy in relation to religion and theology. Our aims may be high, but we realise that it is very much a small beginning to what we hope will foster further debate and research.

The aims of the project are as follows:

1. Analysing significant but contradictory data regarding religion and politics in Australia, specifically the contradiction between the overt religiosity of political leaders – and overtly religious policies endorsed even by avowedly atheistic leaders – and an increasingly secular society.

2. Demonstrating that secular politics is not indifferent to religion but produces particular understandings of religion and appropriate religious behaviour in a secular state, e.g., overt expressions of Christianity in the case of Australia as a response to and product of secular institutions.

3. Creating theoretical models that provide impetus to a distinctive Australian tradition of political theory – since the situation noted above largely goes unanalysed due to the lack of such a tradition.

The incentives for the project include the following. First, as fewer and fewer Australians identify with a religious tradition, politicians have become more overtly religious. This may take the form of political leaders openly expressing the religious basis of their motivation for political involvement – a feature noticeably absent from earlier leaders. It may also take the form of avowedly atheistic politicians fostering religious programs through the structures of the state. This is particularly noticeable in the out-sourcing of welfare functions – relationship counselling, job-seeking, education, aged care, and so on – to religious bodies. However, rather than reducing the role of the neoliberal state, this outsourcing has the real effect of extending what is already a large state.

Second, the distinctness of Australian history renders international models less than adequate for dealing with an Australian context. For instance, here the Christian Churches were the ones who urged that tertiary education should be secular, since they preferred that no one church should dominate such educational institutions. Further, the distinction between church and state has always been less than clear, with continuing arrangements in which church and state come up with curious compromises. The latest instances of this include state funding for religiously-oriented colleges.

Third, the assumption that Australia is a ‘Western’ country has been up for debate for some time. Historically, it has the oldest continuous culture in the world – going back more than 40,000 years. Overlying that culture is the very new development of immigration from every inhabited continent on the globe. This tension-filled relation of the very old and the very new creates a situation with its own unique features. Geographically, Australia is between the Pacific and Asia. Demographically, the majority of Australians do not come from Western Europe. Culturally, the nature of Australia has changed dramatically over the last sixty years, so that its European connections have become muted indeed and its Asian and Pacific connections have become more and more more noticeable. Yet this reality has not yet filtered through to political philosophy, where inadequate theories from the Atlantic circle have been applied without great success.

Over the next four weeks, contributions from this project will be posted on Political Theology Today. Each of the contributors brings a different perspective, from religious studies, politics, philosophy, and Marxism. These pieces are short versions of much longer contributions that will appear in a co-authored book called Religion and Political Thought. The contributions are:

Marion Maddox: ‘The Cloister and the Chamber: In search of Australian political philosophy’.

Geoffrey Boucher: ‘Critical Theory of Public Religion in Australia’

Matthew Sharpe: ‘O Lord Won’t You buy Me a Mercedes Benz?  Thought on Prosperity and the ‘Financialisation’ of Christianity?’

Roland Boer: ‘Religion and Civil Society: From Alienation to Constitutive Resistance’.

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