On Friday, 13 April, Insights attended an interfaith panel discussion, held at a Uniting Church school, Newington College, on the subject of ‘Critical Thinking in the Age of Social Media.’
The panel addressed a wide range of ethical topics including religion’s place in public life, war, and the environment. Questions were submitted by audience members ahead of time.
Separation of Church and State
One question asked whether or not religion should generally stay out of politics.
The Reverend Dr. Gordon Preece is Director of the Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society. He suggested that the original question about the separation of church and state never sought to exclude religion from public life entirely.
Commenting on the United States context, Rev. Dr. Preece said that when the US Constitution adopted the separation of church and state, it was something of a given that most participants in public life had some form of religious faith. The separation was not intended to exclude, religion altogether, he said.
“No denomination could be (in charge)” Rev. Dr. Preece said.
Jesuit Fr. Aloysious Mowe was in broad agreement.
Addressing the wording of the question, he said, “I don’t want to say yes or no.”
“The question should be whether or not religious people had the right to ‘interfere,’” Fr. Mowe said.
“I want the right to wave my arm around, as long as I don’t hit anyone.”
Relating his comments to the ongoing debate about religious freedom and whether or not a baker could refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, Fr. Mowe said that refusal to do so was “where you wave your arm around and smash someone in the face.”
In expressing this view, Fr. Mowe appeared to disagree with the likes of University of Notre Dame Professor Iain Benson, who has argued that Christian bakers should not have to ‘celebrate’ same-sex weddings by providing their services.
Amna Karra-Hassan works for the Australian Federal Police in the Reform, Culture and Standards portfolio. Ms Karra-Hassan said that she wondered if complete separation of church and state would mean that people would stop talking about Muslims.
“Can we get people to stop talking about me?” she said.
Ms Karra-Hassan said that, growing up in a post-9/11 context meant that she had witnessed ongoing debate about her as a Muslim.
“Everyone has something to say about whether I should wear my scarf,” she said.
“Welcome to political discourse, where everyone has a say.”
“Realistically, are we ever going to be able to (completely separate religion from politics)? I think not.”
A subsequent question asked the panel whether or not war was ethical. The question came in the context of the US-led attack on the Assad regime.
In response, Ms Karra-Hassan said that the legacy of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima showed that the consequences of war were experienced by future generations.
Fr. Mowe suggested that the mainstream Christian response, just war theory, meant that leaders needed to consider whether more evil would come as the result of an attack on Syria.
“The Christian tradition has (sometimes) said that just war is possible,” Fr. Mowe said.
However, he added that conditions were stringent and that a war could only be declared if it did not kill any non combatants.
“I don’t know whether that’s the case in Syria”
Fr. Mowe recalled that many Christians had opposed the Iraq war in 2003 based on the same reasons.
“It’s unclear, so be cautious,” he said.
The panel was convened by veteran ABC broadcaster John Cleary.
Quickly addressing a question about the environment, Mr Cleary said that the environmental crisis was one topic on which the church could potentially re-enter civil society.
Professor Peter Greste will speak at Newington College’s next Religion and Ethics event, a lecture called ‘The War on Journalism.’ This takes place on Wednesday 16 May at 6:30pm.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor