Religious Diversity and Social Policy: An Australian Dilemma

Article excerpt

Introduction

Not only have religions not disappeared, they are back with energy and renewed determination to realise their images of the ideal society (Thomas 2005). Far from being held in private the contestation among religions and between them, as well as with those who hold secularist views, is playing out in highly public debates about humans rights, the provision of social services, equal marriage rights, the design of education and a host of other issues. At the same time, governments seeking to promote inclusion in order to lessen social conflict and reduce the threat of terror can be seen to be making religions the object of social policy. All of this is made more complex by the claims of religious groups to freedom of religion and belief as a legitimate ground to be exempted from anti-discrimination legislation, while also receiving government funds for the provision of social, educational and health services. This article first presents a framework for considering religion and social policy issues, drawing on recent research conducted among religious groups and comparative work in other countries. The article then describes the increasing religious diversity within Australia to demonstrate the importance of being alert to the specificities of the social and cultural context for discussion of social policy and religion. Finally specific issues raised by the research regarding how the demands for freedom of religion and belief intersect with the formation and implementation of social policy are reported.

The role of religion in social policy formulation and implementation has been under-examined by social scientists. A review of the literature revealed one edited book (Nesbit 2001) and fewer than a dozen articles, none of which were systematic treatments of the topic. One social policy text (Baldock et al. 2011: 79) was found to have a one-page section on the topic focusing on religious issues in health and education policy, whilst another (Karger & Kindle 2006) presents a history of churches and social welfare in the United States. Given the prominence of religious voices in policy debates and the move to channel high proportions of health, welfare and education funding through faith-based organisations, it is appropriate to set out a framework for the analysis of the ways religions interact with social policy and then describe the socio-demographic context of religion and social policy debates in Australia. This framework grows out of decades of involvement in and research examining the role of religion in policy discussions.

A framework for the analysis of religions and social policy

The several ways religions relate to social policy can be distinguished and it clarifies discussion to keep them separate in analyses. Each relationship is framed within its own discourse. Being cleat" about which of these relationships is being considered helps to focus discussions about religions and social policy. Religions can be the object of policy, the source of policy, the critics of social policy and the implementers of policy. Each will be considered in turn, with examples provided.

Religions as objects of social policy

Religions become the objects of social policy; many societies have rules about which religions are permitted to be practised or seek to regulate religion in other ways (Richardson 2004; Beckford et al. 2005; Bouma et al. 2010; Pew 2012). For example, China permits 10 religions, counting Protestants and Catholics as separate religions because they use different words for God. Some societies try to ban particular religions. France has tried to limit the practice of Scientology and Russia seeks to limit Jehovah's Witnesses (Beckford 1985). China represses the Falun Gong. Australia by comparison has no laws limiting the practice of religion; following a High Court decision in the early 1980s Australia has a very inclusive definition of religion which is used to include rather than exclude religious groups. …