Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

A Secular State? Reason, religion and the Australian polity

28 Feb 2018

By ACC&C Communication Officer Katherine Spackman

Three historians have argued that the emergence and evolution of Australia’s secular state is not so much about a repudiation of religion but the channeling of Christianity in a new form.

This was the argument Professor John Gascoigne, Dr Steve Chavura and Dr Ian Tregenza presented at a seminar held at the Australian Centre for Christianity on Friday February 23, 2018.

They presented some findings of their ARC-funded research which looked at the inter-relationship of the secular and religion within the Australian polity from 1788 to the present.

University of New South Wales Emeritus Professor John Gascoigne presented research on the church, state and the early Colonial period showing that until 1836, the Church of England functioned as an established church in New South Wales.

He noted in 1836 Governor Richard Bourke introduce the Church Act of 1836 which gave support to other Christian denominations which was very much an expression of a liberal attitude in Britain at the time.

Dr Steve Chavura from Macquarie University spoke about how a concept of the secular started to emerge in the 1840s as there was a debate about Bourke’s plural establishment.

“The question was never whether the state should be concerned for the welfare of religion, but whether the welfare of religion was best facilitated by state aid or voluntaryism,” he said.

Dr Chavura referred to quotes from Victorian Joseph Taylor in 1856 showing that secular was understood as being concerned with the temporal or this-worldly and still very much in accordance with Christianity and religion.

In the years to follow–as there were debates about religion in Victorian education–Dr Chavura noted a concept of secular began to emerge which was ambiguous in meaning but in most cases open to general religion.

Dr Ian Tregenza from Macquarie University spoke about an understanding of citizenship which emerged in late nineteenth-century liberalism which was very much connected to liberal Christianity.

C.H. Pearson was a member of Victorian Parliament during this time and Dr Tregenza highlighted how his faith in citizenship has been seen as a ‘sacralization of the secular’.

In a way it was like a ‘migration of the holy’–to borrow historian John Bossy’s term–where they were smuggling in a new form of Christian worship.

This idea, Dr Tregenza argued, was important to note during the crafting of the constitution where the making of the nation was considered a sacred act.

The research will be presented in a monograph entitled, A Secular State? Reason, Religion, and the Australian Polity which is expected to be published by Routledge in 2019.

For a more detailed account of some of the topic from the seminar see Stephen Chavura and Ian Tregenza’s chapter titled ‘A Political History of the Secular in Australia, 1788-1945’ in Religion after Secularization in Australia which is edited by Timothy Stanley and published by Palgrave Macmillan 2015.