Australian people form a society undergoing profound religious change.

Topic: Critical Analysis of Marion Maddox, “’With Hope in God’ – Religion, the Preamble Debate and Public Values in Australia”, Australian Religious Studies Review 13/2 (2000) 5-22.

This essay will show that in her article, (2002) ’With Hope in God’ – Religion, the Preamble Debate and Public Values in Australia, Ms. Marilyn Maddox began with the presupposition that Australia is a secular society.  This assumption resulted in a skewed representation of the Australian people.  There were also a number of omissions and misleading statements made by Maddox.  In reality, the Australian people form a society undergoing profound religious change.

The 1998 Constitutional Convention had two main agenda items: firstly, to put to a referendum a republican model, and, secondly, to review the constitutional Preamble.  The convention recommended that there should be a new Preamble, containing, inter alia, ‘reference to “Almighty God”’.  In the introduction to her discussion, Maddox uses such terms as ‘negligible interest’, ‘lack of public debate’ and ‘near-silence’ by which the proposed ‘Almighty God’ reference was greeted.  The result was that Maddox considered that the debate at the Constitutional Convention provided ‘perplexing evidence’ about the esteem religion is held in turn-of-the-century Australia (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 5).

However, rather than showing ‘perplexing evidence’ or ‘negligible interest’, the transcripts Maddox’ presented in her article show healthy debate and a conscious responsibility from all delegates.  For example, ‘Reverend Tim Costello detected ‘quite a lot of debate’.  Ms. Karin Sowada pointed out ‘The Constitutional Centenary Foundation had debated “it” and decided to delete “it”.  This was not carried out ‘behind the scenes’ as claimed by Maddox.  Indeed, previously, Maddox contradicts herself by confirming that ‘delegates lined up to declare their enthusiasm for God’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 6).

Maddox, in her opening statement, said that ‘an observer of secular Australia might expect that the mention of God in the Preamble would be a significant contributing factor to its rejection’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 6).  This assertion of Australia as being secular set the tone for Maddox’ reader audience. Another misleading feature was the evident discrimination exhibited by Maddox. This bias becomes more obvious when the viewpoints of representatives of religions other than Christian were not included in Maddox’ article.

A recent census quoted by Maddox showed that 70%-75% of the Australian population confessed belief in God (RELS: 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 7).  However, this statistic cannot be entirely relied upon.  ‘There are individuals in modern societies who do not exhibit conventional religious activity’ (Livingstone, 1989: 40).  Furthermore, Maddox failed to perceive the widespread interest shown by other delegates who were not a part of the ‘Christian delegates’.  These people might be likened to Livingstone’s observation cited above.  However, rather than discuss ‘Almighty God’, they were quick to ensure Australia, as a nation, fulfil its moral obligations.

These discussions took the form of eradicating injustice on the part of Australia’s Aboriginal people. The other concern was to ensure that justice was carried out on behalf of returned service personnel (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 5).  Other delegates, identified as non-Christian, wanted to ensure that the nations ‘spiritual wealth and citizen’s rights’ be not overlooked (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 7).

Such qualities reflect outward moral and ethical participation. These characteristics spring from inward moral laws, albeit by people who may or may not confess to ‘Almighty God’.  Indeed it could be argued that these delegates showed attributes generally considered to be Christian. As a moral concern their purpose was to empower those who may suffer marginalisation. Thereby the community’s conscience was addressed. These non-Christian delegates had the nations best interests at heart, a point missed by Maddox.

Secondly, Maddox’s choice of transcripts of various delegates tends to lead the reader astray. This is seen given the interaction concerning ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘pluralistic society’ from the various delegates.  However, people from religious backgrounds other than Christian were not represented in Maddox’ review of the debate. The reader is left to wonder if people of other faiths were left out of the debate. This omission is also reflected back in the various delegate’s speeches. They are shown as second-guessing people of other faiths.

The following transcripts in Maddox’ article reveal this biased omission by the Christian delegates. Ms. Janet Holmes a Court, ‘as a Christian … I do not have difficulty with the words … but I wonder how Buddhists, Muslims. Aboriginal people and so on feel about having that?’  Ms. Moira Rayner, Real Republican delegate, said her group ‘did not adopt the language … because we thought there should be more discussion … of wider language to include those of other faiths entitled to equal respect in a nation which respects freedom of conscience religious beliefs and expression’. This was clarified further by her, in that ‘we have a spiritual commitment we reflect in many different ways’, and acknowledge it rather as ‘the nation’s spiritual wealth’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 7).  However, there is no mention by Maddox of those of ‘other faiths’ being invited to enter the discussion.  Reverend Hollingsworth agreed that Australia is a ‘multicultural and multi-religious society’ whose residents have brought with them their faith traditions, and they have ‘immeasurably strengthened the basic faith of this country’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 7, 8).

Maddox’ omission leaves the reader wondering if people of other faiths attended the conference.  Nevertheless, Maddox does see Prime Minister Mr. John Howard ‘at pains to point out the greater multicultural inclusiveness of their convention’.  In his opening address, Mr. Howard mentions Indigenous Australians, women, those who are non-Anglo Celtic by name and under the age of 25 as ‘a wonderfully diverse group of Australians’ and as representative of all Australians (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 17, 18).  However great the ‘concern for multicultural inclusiveness’ pervading Preamble debates, actual representation of religious people other than Christian, non-Christian and ‘committed atheist’, is non-existent in Maddox article.  Therefore, although Maddox made clear there was ‘only one self described member of non-Christian religious tradition’ ((RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 18), Maddox failed to make it an issue.  Nevertheless, Maddox claimed that the ‘Preamble became an opportunity for Australians to demonstrate their openness to one another’s values’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 20).

Only one speaker, Mr. Alasdair Webster, offered any evidence of face-to-face evaluation of non-Christian religious reactions.  Mr. Webster quoted inter-faith reactions he had gained as representative of people of different faiths.  He spoke of ‘the Dalai Lama’ as representative of all Buddhists; of a ‘very strict Muslim’ – a drycleaner named ‘Bill’, – and offered the following to the delegates from this exchange – ‘so I am here to say that the members of the Islamic faith, I am sure, do not have any problems with the whole concept of Almighty God’.  Of the Aboriginal population, Mr. Webster again assured the conference that he had conversed on the subject with some (unnamed) Aboriginal leaders, ‘they too equate with … in some varying degrees of measure, I suppose, with the Christian concept of Almighty God’.  Finally, Mr Webster assures the conference ‘the Jewish people expressed their view’, albeit in the 1890’s debate (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 19).

Dr. Pat O’Shane, a self-confessed “committed atheist”, joined the deliberation.  In so doing she faced “procedural heckling to the effect that she should not be allowed to make a ‘statement of belief’.  Although Maddox does not say, one can presume heckling of this nature was from the Christian vanguard.  In the face of this O’Shane said she ‘respected the spiritual and religious beliefs of my fellow Australians’.  ‘I personally do not have any objection to the words (Almighty God) being retained’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 11).  By O’Shane not wanting to omit the reference to ‘Almighty Go resulted in showing up the attitude of her hecklers.  Maddox overlooked this discriminatory attitude on the part of the hecklers.

Maddox in her summation claimed that the debate showed ‘generic theology devoid of content beyond a vague nationalism’.  However, rather than devoid of content, each delegate’s contribution revealed their attitude as empathetic to the Australian people.  It also showed the delegates willingness to undertake serious theological debate.  This theological debate shows up specifically on the subject of the term ‘generic God’.  The first time the expression is mentioned in the review is by Ms. Christine Milne.  ‘Some people might not see [God] as a generic term, but, rather, something specifically Christian’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 10).  Milne interpreted this as ‘the divine, the spiritual dimension’.

Next, Dr. Pat O’Shane saw the term ‘generic God’ as reflecting ‘spiritual and religious beliefs’.  In this O’Shane was agreeing with Reverend Hollingsworth’s explanation, ‘however they define their understanding of God – if they can’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 11).  Reverend Hollingsworth concluded on the use of the ‘generic God’.  He said, ‘there is a broad inclusive sense in which we can embrace and be embraced’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 11).  He added, ‘the word “God” is to be understood in the generic sense as every man, women and child understands him/her to be according to their own particular experience’ (RELS 304: Study Guide and Unit Notes, 2002: 12).

In conclusion, first of all, Maddox’ statement about Australia being a secular state clouded the reader’s view at the outset of her article.  Secondly, this bias showed up when Maddox presumably omitted including the actual transcripts of delegates of a diversity of faiths other than Christian.  Thirdly, the depth of theological debate surrounding the ‘generic God’ was missed entirely by Maddox.  Had Maddox not brought to the article her presupposition of Australia as being a secular society, her conclusion would have been very different.  That is, that rather, than secular, Australia is undergoing profound change in its religious identity.