Christian Values & Australian Citizenship

March 01, 2006

Christian Values & Australian Citizenship

With the recent release of the Australian government discussion paper on a possible citizenship test, questions are being asked about what it means to have Australian values. What would be the content of such a test, and in particular how would its requirements concerning values relate to a person’s religion?

Almost certainly, there would be no suggestion of religious restriction in such a test. And yet questions will have to be asked—will all religious believers be able to pass it?

Which comes first: religious freedom or common values?

The Prime Minister has made his position clear on this many times, notably last year in a radio interview before a summit with muslim leaders, where he stated his intentions:

I will be reminding them [Muslim leaders], as I remind all Australians, our common values as Australians transcend any other allegiances or commitments.[1]

I am hard-pressed to think of any serious religious believer—Jewish, muslim, Christian, or otherwise—who would be satisfied with this comment.

In recent times, the word ‘values’ has found acceptance by authorities as the term for elevation or transcendence that keeps religion out of the story. It seems not too difficult to identify a cluster of values that most people agree are Australian. But move beyond slogans and cuteness (“I like beetroot on my hamburger”), and we start to see glimpses of the religious undercoat to the values debate. Some of the values suggested sound classical—respect for all the gods, decency; others are drawn more from Jewish or Christian sources—treating men and women equally, working diligently, compassion for the poor. These are not universal values that all people everywhere have always held; rather, they spring from specific moral and spiritual wells.

Some values simply aren’t common to all. For instance, cows are less valued in Australia than they are in India—for religious reasons. And some of the things that matter most to people—the things they most value—are very specific to their religion, such as the veneration of the physical presence of the Koran for muslims.

Christians value forgiveness—but do Australians?

Christians value sacrificial love for your neighbour—but do Australians?

Christians value being honest, even when no-one is watching—but do Australians?

When we start to talk about specific beliefs and the values that flow from them, the question of what values we share gets harder to answer.

The only way I can see to answer the question, “Are Australian values Christian values” is to say, “Some are, some aren’t”.

This moderate response steers a sensible path between the remote poles of theocracy and separatism. It admits that there is a Christian story in the background of much of Australian life—for instance, in our approaches to work, law and education (“tools, rules and schools”). It also recognizes that Australia is far from “a Christian nation”—that title should be reserved purely for the Christian church, those followers of Christ whom theologians teach have become the “people of God” and who see the awaited “new heavens and new earth” on view in the biblical Book of Relevation, chapters 21-22, as their true home.

Some Australian values are Christian values. And some aren’t.

I propose, then, a series of “Some’ statements to guide Christians as they think about their involvement in the national values debate, and to guide others who are interested in sorting out how the Christian faith limits and directs a Christian’s political priorities.

  1. “Some Australian values are things Christians admire”.

We might include here a version of ‘mateship’, calling it ‘lovingkindness’ or ‘brotherliness/sisterliness’ instead. Other contenders include an idea of fairness, respect for individual freedom and individual responsibility, and pursuing peace.

  1. “Some Australian values can be traced back to Christian ideas”. Here I am thinking particularly of caring for those in desperate need, a concept that in Australian welfare history springs directly from the words of Jesus in the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 25:35, where Jesus says if you did something for the ‘least’, you did it for him).
  1. “Some Australian values are not Christian values”. Just think of the flipside of the examples in our first two statements. One example is sticking with your mates, regardless of the cost to your actual sister/wife/children. What goes on tour stays on tour. Another is ignoring those in desperate need, as appears to have been the case with Delmae Barton up at Griffith University, lying for six hours in a bus stop after a stroke, without a helping hand being raised. When Australians act in this way—Christians or not—the Christians have a tiny, underused word that summarises the behaviour: ‘sin’.
  1. “Some non-Christian values are not Australian values”. Despite the awkward double negative, this statement is important. There are aspects of non-Christian value systems that most of us would call un-Australian. For example again, feeding a cow instead of a disabled child is not in keeping with the way Australians value cattle or children. There will certainly be some values held strongly in non-Christian religious worldviews that are not compatible with broad Australian values (just as some Christian values seem incompatible with Australian values in statement 3 above).
  1. “Some Australian values are common to many religious and secular faiths”

Here is where most politicians wish to locate the national discussion about values. There are plenty of values on which many religions agree; there is a lot of common ground.

But to make this statement our leading statement, our guiding idea, as John Howard seemed to suggest in his radio interview quoted earlier, we must ignore the insights in our first four points. We may lose a lot of significant input from specific religious traditions, too, and find ourselves flailing about for a new kind of religion without a creed, just values. As one commentator has said, “A policy based only on values eventually becomes a crusade.”[2]

At heart, it is beliefs, not values, that drive people’s behaviour. And beliefs cannot be legislated for or signed as a pledge. They only come from genuine heartfelt, brain-satisfying convictions about reality. Christians are concerned with nothing less.


[2] Kate Legge, Just Keep Walking”, The Weekend Australian magazine, 1-2 July 2006, pp.16-20.

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