it’s time to decouple the public from the political

The imposing Durham Cathedral - seat of Northern England's Prince-Bishops (stick that in your secularist pipe and smoke it!)

I’ve found myself chatting with more and more self-confessed secularists lately.

One of the things I keep wanting to say (but can never quite find the right words for) is that not everything is political — at least not in the sense that most secularists seem to be worried about when they crow about the separation of Church and State.

You see, I’m yet to be convinced that church-sponsored school chaplaincy, for example, is quite the erosion of Church-State separation that some people feel it is.

And that’s because I believe what James Davison Hunter says about there being a wider realm of public engagement than politics.

In fact, I suspect that initiatives like school chaplaincy programmes are the very things that might help us decouple the public from the political in the way Hunter recommends (To Change The World, page 186):

To decouple the public from the political will open up other options for engaging the world and addressing its problems in ways that do not require the state, the law, or a political party. There are innumerable opportunities not only in art, education, the care for the environment, and the provision of relief for the widow, orphaned, and sick, but in the market itself to engage the world for the better.

If the churches sponsoring chaplaincy programmes were running a particular, narrowly political agenda — recruiting members for Very Young Labor or something — then the secularists might have a reason to be worried.

But as I understand them (and I may be imperfectly informed on this), the church-sponsored chaplaincy programmes in Australian public schools are operating more like a charity or like private education.

Charities and private schools offer services that the government wants to offer (or that its constituency says it wants offered) — e.g., emergency relief or universal education — but can’t, especially not on its own.

That’s why the government contributes money to those organisations that are involved in delivering them.

It’s perfectly legitimate.

And I don’t see why school chaplaincy programmes should be any different.

Of course, the government (rightly in my view) attaches strings to tax-payer money invested in these ways. It requires certain reporting standards to be met. It may set targets and goals for that funding.

It will certainly reserve the right to sanction any organisations that do things like take government money and pour it into campaign funding for partisan interests (a rival political party, a terrorist group, etc).

So the key question initiatives like school chaplaincy programmes (and the churches involved in them) need to answer is: Does it serve the public good? Or is it just about us and our interests (growing our church, etc)?


  1. I read something from a journalist recently that feeds into the kind of distinction you want to make here. He talked about a politician giving a press conference: the Polly represents the People, but the Press represent the Public. I could go digging in the memory banks if you like.

    1. Sounds really interesting, Alan — particularly because I’m not sure what to make of a distinction between the people and the public. Perhaps that will be the downfall of my attempt to disentangle politics from the public sphere (at least to some extent)…

  2. Some digging has failed to uncover the exact reference. It may have been Jay Rosen, who I found linked to by Annabel Crabb on her recent US thinking tour. Or it may not have been.

    I think there were distinctions underlying it: between us as individual voters and as a public collective; us as iterative triennial voters and as durative residents who have to live here in between elections; the rightness of majority rule and the rightness of minortiy recognition; that there are public events which involve no politics (or else why do we hate it when Tony Abbot makes partisan comments when he and Julia welcome visitors to Parliament?).

    1. Thanks Alan. Helpful clarification — and great example of where we intuitive feel that there must be some distinction between the public and the political. Mind if I use it? It’s a keeper!

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