One of the most ominous things I’ve read in a while is a recent speech by former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon.
He spoke on the topic of ‘Religious ‘Toleration’ In Modern Australia: The Tyranny of Relativism’, at the Australian Catholic University in Adelaide last Tuesday.
In his speech, Heydon describes the scorn many modern secular elites have toward Christianity. He doesn’t pull any punches.
As I read it, I felt like I had entered into the office of a medical specialist, to discuss a challenging diagnosis I had earlier received. ‘I know it’s not good’ – I say. To which he replies: ‘it’s actually much worse than you think’.
And so his speech isn’t for the fainthearted.
But before we write him off as alarmist, remember that if anyone knows secular elite culture and how they think, it’s Heydon. Rhodes Scholar. Dean of the Sydney University Law School (one of the youngest they’ve ever had). High Court Judge. He’s spent his life immersed in the world of secular elites.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we unthinkingly accept everything he says, but it does mean we should listen carefully. Especially if we’re to understand the challenges Christians – and others – face in the near future.
While his whole speech is worth a readhere are 5 points that grabbed my attention:
1) Modern Secular Elites Want To Exclude Religion (especially Christianity) From The Public Square
They currently do this through intimidation and bullying.
This doesn’t come as a big surprise, but it’s worth hearing Heydon say it:
[The] desire of modern elites [is] to exclude any role for religion in Australian public discussion – and perhaps any role for religion at all in any sphere, public or private.’
Later on he says:
Liberalism endeavoured to create governmental structures which protected a private sphere of individual freedom. In that sphere, religious belief could survive. But some members of modern elites depart from their own origins in secular liberalism. By preventing any public expression of religious thought through ridicule and bullying, they tend to cause religion to wither away even in the private sphere.’
And then this:
Until recently the approach of modern elites to religion was one of indifference [due to their comfort and wealth]…But members of modern elites are moving away from mere indifference. They are embracing a fanatical anti-clericalism. Some want to destroy faith itself.’
It’s not a rosy picture.
But there’s no lack of evidence of the ‘ridicule and bullying’ religious believers receive at the hands of (some of) the media, growing numbers of corporations, and many political leaders, for merely holding to a Christian view of marriage and sexuality.
Who can forget the deluge of disrespect lumped on Peter Jensen when he appeared on ABC’s QandA a couple of years ago? As I write this, his successor, Archbishop Glenn Davies is due to appear on tonight’s QandA to defend the Christian view of marriage. May God help him – but I’m not expecting his opponents to respect him.
2) Modern Elites Are Relativists
This makes them intolerant of religious points of view.
Speaking of the silence of much of the media elite toward the recent vandalism of Churches in Melbourne (which included graffiti calling for Christians to be crucified), Heydon says:
These phenomena highlight an aspect of modern elites – the relativism of their beliefs and their conduct. It is all right for one element of public opinion to call for the physical destruction of places of worship and the death of those who worship in them. That is treated as merely routine, apparently fit to pass without comment.’
But it is not seen as all right for those who worship to state publicly the beliefs they hold, and to argue, whether on narrowly religious, or ethical or utilitarian grounds for or against particular policy positions under general debate.’
It is all right for the elite to support a particular point of view, but intolerable for anyone else to oppose it. That is what modern elites call “tolerance”.
One thinks of the way many secular elites frame the SSM debate. They’re on the side of ‘tolerance’, but opponents are on the side of ‘bigotry’ and ‘hate’.
3) Modern Elites Pay Lip Service to Freedom of Religion, but Don’t Value It
In some of the strongest words in his speech, Heydon says:
The modern elites are tyrants of tolerance. They say: “You must listen to what I am going to say. Then you must either praise my virtue or shut up. Because if you try to say you disagree and why, you deserve to be, and you will be, hounded out of all decent society.” Thus the tyrants of tolerance pay lip-service, but only lip-service, to freedom of religion as a fundamental human right.’
4) Modern Elites Aren’t After Tolerance – They’re After Unconditional Surrender
They’re not interested in mere disagreement.
[M]odern elites do not demand tolerance. They demand unconditional surrender. They want absolute victory for an uncontestable dogma which is unchallengeable – or at all events is not to be exposed to the risk of challenge.’
Again, one can’t help but think of the way SSM is pushed by many of the elites in the public square. There’s little if any interest in respectful dialogue – rather the narrative is that people need to accept the elite’s views, or else.
5) Thus Far, the Law Hasn’t Been the Biggest Threat to Religious Freedom
But that’s likely to change.
We saw the backlash that occurred against Cooper’s Brewery earlier this year. It ‘only’ involved social media shaming. And while that’s likely to continue, Heydon thinks it will step over into legal coercion:
The most immediate threat is from the conduct of the elites using methods other than the force of law itself. But a threat to religious institutions may not stop there. It may eventually come from the law itself. If it does, it may begin a trend which is likely to extend to many other institutions whom the elites and the State which they tend to dominate come to dislike.’
While he sees the threats as real, he stops short of equating such threats with persecution faced in other times:
Australian law now prevents any repetition of the fate of St Ignatius of Antioch. But perhaps [there’ll be] once again some persecution – less brutal physically, but just as real.’
It’s a confronting diagnosis of the future facing Christians (and others of faith).
And so what Should Christians make of Heydon’s speech?
While Christians may quibble over Heydon’s assessment of the extent of the hostility of the modern elites towards Christians (I do wonder if his diagnosis is as bleak as he says), most would agree that many elites are suspicious, and at times hostile, toward Christianity. It’s hard to deny that claim, particularly in a post-Coopers Australia.
In light of such suspicion, here are some things Christians should keep in mind:
First, we shouldn’t be surprised that the cultural opinion makers think little of Christianity. It was so in the first century world (see 1 Cor 1:18, 22-25), and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s like that now.
Second, we should expect to suffer for our faith – that’s normal. It’s what Jesus explicitly told us to expect (John 15:18-21). We’ve just had a longish centuries-long reprieve in the western world.
Third, regardless of how the elites or anyone else sees us, we’re to keep living such good lives among them, that even though they accuse us of doing wrong, they might see our good deeds and glorify God on the day he returns (1 Peter 2:12).
May God help us to do just that.