I come from a military family.
My brother served in both the Australian navy and the airforce.
My cousin and his father served in the airforce.
My father served in the AIF in Morotai.
My uncles served in the Middle East, including one who was in the Rats of Tobruk
Both my grandfathers served in France in World War I.
My grandmother was a military nurse.
My grandfather, Harold Robert Norman Stevenson was the recipient of a Military Medal.
And yet, as the descendant of this military family, I am effectively excluded from attending Anzac Day commemorations because of the overt religiosity (often tinged with right-wing, religious fundamentalism) of the current commemorations. I am sure I am not alone.
I am an atheist. My father, whose service cost him his mental health, was an atheist – although he preferred to call himself a ‘Jumping Calathumpian’. Yet I cannot attend a commemoration without being assaulted with religious, prayers, sermons and a sanitised version of Anzacs as god-fearing, saintly heroes that would both amuse and horrify them.
It’s time the RSL took religion out of Anzac services and made them secular. People of all religions and none, including Indigenous soldiers, served at Gallipoli and in other campaigns across time and place. We cannot continue to commemorate them in a way that distorts and dishonours this reality.
Australian defence personnel were not religious in the past, nor are they now. A report from Colonel Philip Hoglin of the Australian Army reminds us of the:
“… overlooked reality that the largest ‘religious’ grouping in the ADF no longer subscribes to, or is affiliated with, a religion.”
In 2015, over 47 per cent of ADF personnel had no religion. It is also likely that many of the remaining 53 per cent are only nominally Christian – do not attend church, believe in the power of prayer, or even believe in a supernatural deity.
Religious ANZAC Day services certainly don’t represent the contemporary ADF. But, what of the Anzacs?
As a group, the Anzacs were not religious. After the war, Australians were profoundly uncomfortable as the church worked assiduously to co-opt the commemorations.
Last year, Ann-Therese King shared a letter from her grandfather’s French fiancée to his mother, describing her impression of the Australian soldiers who defended her homeland in World War I:
“… they are big, hard men, men, who live hard, fight hard, and think less of death than any other body of men I have ever met. They seem to be very irreligious, and sometimes uncouth, but they are brave and large-hearted, and though naturally we have men of all kinds with us, I think their code of honour is the most admirable, that is to be found.” (My emphasis)
This is confirmed by Australian anthropologist, Bruce Kapferer in his book, Legends of People, Myths of State. He says:
“Many of the soldiers … were irreligious virtually by intention. Christian religion was part of the disciplinary framework of the military and the officers of religion were part of that structure of domination which denied to the men a self-determining autonomy valued in egalitarian thought.” (My emphasis)
Similarly, in his book, Inventing Anzac, professor of folklore at Curtin University, Graham Seal, says:
“… the expression and observance of religious belief was discouraged within digger culture.”
What these historians are saying, is that religion is not just irrelevant, but antithetical to the Anzac tradition.
Kapferer is clear: Religion was not just absent from Anzac culture – irreligion was ‘valorised’. In fact, the essence of Anzac, part of what became the ‘religion’ of Anzac was this irreligiosity.
Historian, Michael Belcher, refers to the padres who accompanied the Anzacs as ‘poorly appreciated’. The Anzacs, themselves, referred to them as “Cook’s Tourists”. As World War I veteran, Major Frank Valentine Weir wrote in his letter diary on 31 December 1916:
“Note all you say re Parson Rogers Chaplains have a great time 1 in bed every night & only 1 parade a week Church – carry the rank of an officer & no responsibility – the free lancer every where they go & recognize no C.O.”
After the war, says Belcher, most Australian clergy were reluctant to participate formally in Anzac Day commemorations because they did not want to glorify WWI as a ‘Holy War’.
Indeed, as Carl M F Fischer wrote to the Courier-Mail in 1914:
“If these fighting nations were Christian nations they would obey Christ whose directions are, ‘If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.’”
After the war, the Protestant church worked hard to co-opt the Anzac Day ceremonies but there was a huge backlash from diggers and families of other religions and of none.
By 1938, the Victorian RSL announced:
“An Anzac Day service without prayers which, it Is hoped, will be acceptable to all Churches …”
Their plan did not totally excise religion:
“The proposed new form does not Include spoken prayers or the Benediction, but the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ will be included. An opportunity for those attending the service to recite the Lord’s prayer will be provided.”
The Moderator of the Victorian Presbyterian Assembly (the Right Rev. F. W.Rolland) responded positively to this mostly secular plan:
“Personally, I realise that the Returned Soldiers’ League desires to have everyone attend the gathering at the Shrine. It is almost Impossible to arrange a service that will suit everyone,and the question seems to resolve itself into securing the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Surely the RSL and the church, today, could be equally as magnanimous?
The extreme religiosity of many Anzac services is disrespectful to the memory and tradition of the Anzacs, to many of their family members and to many of those currently serving in the ADF. The conservative, right wing dog-whistling that takes place in some sermons (see, for example, my “Perverting Anzac Day for Jesus“, 2016) is exploitative and excludes many of us who would like to participate.
Few would begrudge the opportunity for the faith community to agree upon an ecumenical prayer or observance, but, beyond that, Anzac commemorations must be secular so as not to exclude anyone, including the Anzacs who would not recognise themselves in the sanitised saintly soldiers who are honoured, today, in their stead.