I have a lot of time for Prime Minister Scott Morrison. I appreciate his openness about his Christian faith. I’m heartened by his stand on religious freedom. And as someone who hails from the western suburbs of Sydney, I appreciate his ‘fair dinkum’ down to earth nature.

But on Monday our PM wrote a column in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, parts of which made me wonder. The column itself was a straightforward manifesto of sorts, outlining what he stood for—most of it uncontroversial. But it also contained these words:

‘As for religion, it’s our own personal business. What you believe is up to you, and no-one should give you a hard time about it. Just don’t tell us what to believe, or use your religion as an excuse to not obey our laws.’

I appreciate the PM saying ‘no-one should give you a hard time about [your religion]’—especially in our day when religious freedom is under pressure. But what I found jarring was the sentence that followed:

‘Just don’t tell us what to believe, or use your religion as an excuse to not obey our laws’.

At first blush these words may sound reasonable enough: after all, who enjoys being told what to believe? And shouldn’t religious people obey the law like everyone else?

But on reflection, these words risk sowing confusion about religion, and its place in society.

At first blush his words sound reasonable enough. But on reflection, they risk sowing confusion about religion’s place in society.

Now, let’s give our PM the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think his intent was anti-religious in any way. Perhaps it was a throw-away line intended to affirm a ‘live and let live’ Australian tolerance of religion.

But regardless of his intent, millions of Aussies have read those words. And many would have taken them at face value. Namely, that we shouldn’t try and persuade others of our religion, nor should any religious person seek any exemption from otherwise applicable law.

If these words were merely comments from your Atheist friend on facebook, you might roll your eyes and keep scrolling.

But these were words from our PM, in a widely read paper. They have power to shape public views about religion: views that are gaining traction across much of society.  And so, it’s worth examining why a ‘face-value’ understanding of his words are problematic:

1) We All Regularly  ‘Tell Others What to Believe’

Including about contested moral, ethical and religious issues.

Asking people ‘not to tell others what to believe’ ignores the fact that all of us regularly tell others what to believe.

That is, in our free multi-cultural society, there is much worldview and religious diversity. We have different views on issues such as morality, sexuality, and abortion. And because we are human beings, who live in a free society, we talk. We discuss. And when these issues come up in discussion, we don’t merely explain our views: we often question other people’s views. We try and persuade them to adopt our views—whether we’re by the water cooler in the office, on the sidelines at our child’s soccer game, or on social media.

(As I write this, I’m at the tail end of a fascinating discussion with an Atheist. He was questioning my views, implicitly ‘telling me what to believe’. And I was doing the same.)

In other words, to some degree or another, we’re ‘telling people what to believe’. Of course, we could this obnoxiously, or respectfully. But we do it regularly.

And then we have the Mainstream Media, where commentators of all stripes ‘tell us what to believe’ about any number of topics, including moral issues (remember the same-sex marriage debate?). These moral issues have religious implications. Thus trying to persuade us, ‘telling us what to believe’—even on religious issues—is what the media does.

We all try and persuade others, because that’s what human beings do.

(And dare I mention politicians: don’t they tell us what to believe, especially around election time?)

And so, we persuade others because that’s what human beings do. We’re wired to ‘tell other people what to believe’—about any other issue we think important, including religion.

Your Atheist commentator or LGBTI activist happily tells religious people what to believe about Christianity, or Christian views on sexuality. But discouraging religious people from doing the same – an increasingly popular position –  is not only unjust, it suppresses a key part of religious people’s humanity.


2) The View of ‘Don’t Tell People What To Believe’ is Anti-Evangelistic

Evangelism is explicitly about ‘telling people what to believe’.

The view of ‘don’t tell us what [religion] to believe’ throws evangelism under the bus. Evangelism—whether in Christianity, (or other religions such as Islam)—involves ‘telling people what to believe’. Jesus explicitly commands his disciples to go out into the world, ‘teaching people to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Christians can’t help but be evangelistic—if we want to be faithful to Jesus.

And so, such a message coming from a Prime Minister doesn’t send encouraging signals to people of faith. And it encourages those who would restrict evangelism—even by legal means.

(Indeed, one state government has proposed such anti-evangelism policies for their public school students.)

3) The PM’s Words Portray Religious Freedom in a Negative Light

Finally, saying ‘[Just don’t] use your religion as an excuse to not obey our laws’ over-simplifies a complex (and contested) issue.

No, we don’t want to give carte-blanche freedom to radical Islamists to disobey our laws. Of course we want all people—religious or otherwise—to respect and obey our foundational laws (particularly laws around public wellbeing).

But do we, as a free society, respect each individual’s dignity and conscience, such that we restrain government from unnecessary burdens on religious freedom (unless there is a compelling societal interest to do so)?

Do we, as a free society, respect each individual’s dignity and conscience?

Do we really need Christian nurses to carry out abortions against their conscience?

Or Muslim bakers to bake wedding cakes for same-sex weddings? Isn’t that taking away people’s basic liberty to speak up and live out their faith—something provided for in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Australia is a signatory)?

Yes, the right to religious freedom needs to be balanced against other rights. But this needs to be done with nuance and care. Blanket statements such as those of the PM’s (unintentionally) promote a culture of suspicion  toward religious people, and belittle the right to religious freedom.

The Unintended Consequence of Words

I like much of what the Prime Minister said in his article. And I know he is a staunch supporter of religious freedom. But I wish he would have been more careful with his words. As it stands, his words risk sowing confusion among Australians about the place of religion in our society. Not to mention perpetuating secular misunderstandings of religion, and religious freedom. Unfortunately, that’s not what we need in our cultural moment.