Welcome to the second post from our newest columnist John Safran. If you missed last week's episode, John will dropping by to answer questions on race, religion and ethics. This week, he gives Australia a religious audit of sorts. The question of the day is:
“Is Australia a Christian nation?”
I stumbled into a snapshot of Australia and religion last week. I’d been barista on the giant coffee machine float in the Melbourne Moomba festival. (Long story, will tell you some other time, but check out the pic).
Parade’s over, I leap from the float. Semi-hallucinating from the heat and for no particular reason I stroll up the grass to the nearby Shrine of Remembrance: marble columns, brass statues, flower beds. A temple to our war dead, my first visit. Church rules inside. Not only must you be quiet, you must remove your hat. A returned serviceman in a strawberry jacket takes tours, other men with wrinkly heads and medalled chests stand about.
Awkward energy. For a generation of soldiers the Japanese are the enemy who never said sorry. And here is a perpetual stream of Japanese tourists, only here because it’s on a map before they hit Swanston Street for opals. Adding to the servicemen’s mindfuck, the Japanese kids are well behaved and instinctively reverential, while the Aussie tykes have to be told to shut up and take off their Peter Brock baseball caps.
The man in the strawberry jacket directs us to The Stone of Remembrance for the fallen soldiers, a black rock sunk below the floor. “This is as sacred to us as a crucifix in a church. It’s beneath the surface so you are forced to bow your head”.
Hang on. Isn’t that blasphemy to compare something to the cross? And isn’t it idol worship to get us to bow? Or am I overthinking things? I remember a Sunday School class about Pharoah trying to trick the Hebrews to bow and how God wanted us to submit to death before doing it.
I unbow my head and scan around. For some reason I thought this place was churchy – it does sell itself as a shrine - but on second glance there’s no crosses or Jesuses here.
Time to move on. It’s down the crypt, up the roof and a circle of the gardens. Most everything is neoclassical, done up to look like an ancient Greek temple but banged together by Aussies around 1930. I have my second hang on moment. Weren’t all those temples built to worship pagan gods?
Back home I do some reading– I’m not mad and I’m not overreaching. When the architects unrolled the Shrine blueprints in the 1920s the Church was furious. General Sir John Monash was attacked by Christians. Where are the crosses? Or symbols of other faiths for that matter? And while we’re at it, why’s this shrine done up like a pagan temple?
The architects had nicked much of their design from a temple to the goddess Athena. Even touches like the Eternal Flame are seen as idolatrous. (When the Olympic torch came up my street in 2000, a rabbi wrote to the local Jewish paper complaining the town had fallen into the hands of heathens).
Monash, who lead the soldiers during the war, didn’t care. He doubled down. He further infuriated the Christians by personally rewording one of the main inscriptions, “Let All Men Know That This Is Holy Ground…” avoiding all religious references.
The Global Atheists Convention is in Melbourne next month. Richard Dawkins and his heathens can rant and blaspheme all they like but they should look to the Shrine and realise, to strangle a catchphrase, the Simpson’s donkey people already did it.
Was Monash an anomaly? Is flailing about like a pagan really un-Australian?
White America was founded by finger-wagging Christians too Christian for Europe, but that isn’t our story at all.
A few years back I was in the car park outside Reverend Bob Larson’s exorcism centre in Arizona. Explaining why Aussies were particularly prone to demonic possession he outlined our origins story.
“Australia’s very Godless. Look at your heritage, all due respects. How did you people get started? Talk about ancestral issues. You were the dumping ground for the rejects of society. That’s not to put you down but that’s history”.
Perhaps stranger than being asked by the Lord Mayor’s office to captain a giant coffee machine float, I once received a letter from Blinky Bill’s people. Blinky is the famous 1930s children’s book koala. The copyright holders wanted me for a brainstorm meeting, to reboot Blinky for a new generation.
I read through all of Blinky’s 1930s bush adventures. There is a scene involving koala Reverend Fluffy Ears “with a white collar made from bark of the paper tree. He also held in his paws a book of gum leaves”. The Reverend is attempting to baptise Blinky and the forest of native wildlife is laughing its furry and feathered heads off.
“Silence! roared the Reverend Fluffy Ears. But it was useless, they took no notice”.
A 1930s children’s book telling the kids it’s ok to laugh at religion.
So, in answer to your question, Australia isn’t a Christian nation.
After my big Moomba day I walk to the train station. As always goths and metalheads are gathered under the Flinders Street Station clocks. The squares can cluck their tongues all they want and the kids can feel rebellious. But no matter how many pentagrams they stick in their ears or how many Slayer patches they sew on their arms, they won’t be able to out-pagan, out-heresy and out-blaspheme the Shrine of Remembrance up the road, the holiest place in the State.
Previously on Peace Be Upon You: Are Greeks White?
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnSafran