Australia is one of the world’s least religious countries. Many of us don’t believe in God or a divine power, many more don’t really give it much thought.
Despite this, we’re pretty laid back about those who do believe. I’m reminded of my Dad’s assessment of his new Seventh Day Adventist neighbour: “He’s got some funny ideas, but he’s a good bloke.” The neighbour soon passed the ‘Dad’ test and was duly dubbed ‘my mate Kev’. Dad wasn’t religious, but he didn’t really care what you believed, as long as you didn’t try to convert him or mess with his kids. Just so, while 92 per cent of Australians don’t bother going to church most Sundays we don’t have any quibble with those who do – at least they’re not waking us up mowing their lawns!
Australians are a tolerant bunch. Sometimes we’re criticized for being so tolerant we’re apathetic. In truth, we just want to get on with our own lives and let others get on with theirs. But we’re not doormats. There’s a point at which the normal, laid-back Aussie puts down the TV remote, gets off the recliner, stands up and shouts, “I’ve had e-bloody-nough of this!” And then the fur starts to fly. That’s what happened when the Access Ministries ‘religion in schools’ scandal, broke.
When it was revealed the organisation which supplies chaplains and scripture teachers to Victorian state schools saw their privileged access to children as a God-given opportunity to recruit disciples for Jesus, all hell broke loose. Indeed, the news was met with the deafening sound of ordinary Australian mums, dads, grandparents, teachers, religious leaders and theologians shouting enough is enough!
There’s been a rising disquiet about the intrusion of fundamentalist religion into Australian politics, education, health and welfare for some time – and not just amongst the atheist fringe. In 2005, academic and theologian, Marion Maddox warned about the growing political influence of those with extremist Christian views in her book, God Under Howard. Her revelations and a change of government in 2007 didn’t stop Kevin Rudd and, now, Julia Gillard pandering to the shrill demands of the same zealous minority for more money, more exemptions, more access and more influence over their fellow Australians’ lives.
The same concerns motivated Warren Bonett to compile The Australian Book of Atheism (Scribe, 2010) to which I contributed last year. Far from being a sustained atheistic rant against religion, the 30 authors, (many whose names will be familiar to the general public), provide what theologian, Peter Kirkwood, described as “Reasonable people politely showing God the door.”
A large proportion of Australians who don’t go to church – and many who do – will be unaware that fundamentalists aspire to reclaim our nation for Christ and create God’s Kingdom here in Terra Australis – with or without your consent. This is what’s known in the US as Christian nationalism – the idea that public institutions should operate according to (the fundamentalist interpretation of) Biblical law. And it’s not just all talk.
According to David Yates, the Australian Christian Lobby launched Compass Australia in 2007 to identify ‘future influencers for Christ in society’, nurture their paths through university and beyond, and help them infiltrate Australian media, education, politics and law. The agenda-driven aim is to exert a ‘disproportionate impact’ for the Gospel on Australian culture and society. Compass, Yates explains, is thinking, “about 15 to 20 years down the track … These fields, to us, are the strategic areas.”
The recruitment starts in schools. But, with religious affiliation and church attendance plummeting, there’s an alarming shortage of potential conscripts. That’s where organisations like Access step in. “There is an enormous amount of Christian ministry going on in our schools,” says CEO Evonne Paddison, “but we must ask how much of that ministry is actually resulting in Christian conversion and discipleship growing and resulting in church growth?”
Ms Paddison is touchingly grateful for the ‘access all areas’ pass her organisation has been given – at taxpayers’ expense.
“In Australia we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples … I believe that this is the greatest mission field we have in Australia: our children and our students. Our greatest field for disciple making.”
Importantly, the instruction to bring state school children into the fundamentalist fold is directly in breach of Access Ministries’ promise not to proselytise in state schools. Nor is this just a Victorian issue. In Queensland, Scripture Union provides a similar service under the same kind of restrictions. That doesn’t stop CEO, Tim Mander (potentially Queensland’s next Education Minister), gloating at the captive audience a vote-buying government and an apathetic public have delivered into his lap: “Here is the church’s opportunity to make a connection with the one place through which every young person must attend: our schools.”
My Dad was a typical, laid-back Aussie. He didn’t have much time for religion but he taught us that double-dealing, breaking promises, and taking money under false pretences were wrong. He believed in giving anyone a fair go but he wouldn’t have let us kids within a ‘bulls roar’ of the manipulative missionaries whose strategy to ‘access all areas’ starts in our state schools and ends with our government.