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Power and Religion in a Modern State: Desecularisation in Australian History


  • Stuart Piggin

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    • Associate Professor Stuart Piggin is Director, Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience, Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University, New South Wales 2109, Australia.


Secularisation is a concept with many meanings making it difficult to analyse historically. Yet it is the default master narrative in much Australian historiography. Secular historians typically criticise the role of religion in history as being either too unengaged or, if engaged, too intrusive and negative in its impact. This article challenges both assumptions, taking five “nodal points” in Australian history and arguing that they are better given a “Christian” than a secular interpretation. Australia's first European settlement was a high-minded reform experiment, based partly on a humanitarian Christian vision. The Church Acts gave the population ready access to Christian influence, resulting in a highly “Christianised” nation. When federated, that nation refused to give ascendancy to any one Christian denomination, but largely assumed that its polity was that of a “Christian commonwealth.” Out of its Christian commitment, in the middle of the twentieth century, it withstood control by atheistic communists of its industrial and political life. In the first decade of the present century, a surprising number of politicians have sought to define its national identity largely in terms of its Christian heritage rooted in the Classical/Christian tradition.