Indigenous Issues: Religion and Social Policy

Professor Mark G. Brett gave the following address at the launch of the Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy | Collins Street Baptist Church | 8 December 2016.


I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet tonight, the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people, their elders and families past and present. I have particularly fond memories of an event held in this church a decade ago when Aunty Marg Gardiner (Wurundjeri) and Aunty Carolyn Briggs (Boon Wurrung) led a dialogue on “Spiritual Pathways to Reconciliation.” I was very pleased to hear recently from Aunty Carolyn that she is working on a research degree. I hope she inspires other Aboriginal people to pursue a higher degree ­– even in theology.

Also about a decade ago now, one of the leading political philosophers in Europe, Jürgen Habermas, identified the need for a “post-secular” conversation within which religious and secular contributions can learn from each other and forge fresh solidarities.[1] Habermas was responding to a spate of terrorist incidents, but the recent political developments in Europe and North America have only served to reinforce the pressing questions that concerned him. It would seem to be a good time to be launching a new Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy.

            When it comes to Indigenous issues, however, the current climate seems to be even less favourable than in previous decades. Habermas himself acknowledged, for example, that although the rise of fundamentalism in some parts of the world may reflect certain “failures in decolonization,”[2] his own proposals in political philosophy may not be readily applicable in settler colonial contexts.[3]

One of the problems that besets the modern world, and settler colonial states in particular, is our assumption that “religion” is clearly distinguished from the everyday experience of politics and economics.[4]  This neat separation of religion or spirituality into a separable sphere of life is manifestly unworkable in relation to Indigenous cultures. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people regularly express their frustrations, for example, with the discrete legislative regimes in Australia that govern land, natural resources, cultural heritage, and so on, all of which are integrated within traditional spirituality. Our legal system exemplifies the fragmentation and specialization of the modern life world, and the invention of a special category called “religion” is simply one illustration of the incommensurability between traditional Indigenous law and democratic arrangements.

A key question now arising for public policy in Australia  – especially since the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) – is how the human rights tradition can be expanded to embody collective rights. Habermas has himself has begun this this task, in one respect, by exploring the conditions under which multiple cultures can flourish through differentiated concepts of citizenship, which may be constituted democratically within a nation state.[5] While he does not attribute rights to cultures as such, he does contemplate the ways in which the bearers of a culture might enjoy collective or corporate rights within a multicultural democracy.

For the purposes of our present discussion, it may be fruitful to contemplate an analogy between cultural and religious traditions, at least to the extent that they present similar kinds of problems of access into public discourse. We might even want to think of a religious tradition as a kind of sub-culture. With this analogy in mind, I’d like to adapt one of the ecumenical arguments in Habermas’ essay “Religion in the Public Sphere,” replacing the term “religious” with the word “Indigenous”:

 The liberal state has an interest in unleashing religious [or Indigenous] voices in the political public sphere, and in the political participation of religious organizations as well. It must not discourage religious persons and communities [or Indigenous persons and communities] from also expressing themselves politically as such, for it cannot know whether secular society would not otherwise cut itself off from key resources for the creation of meaning and identity. Secular citizens or those of other religious persuasions can under certain circumstances learn something from religious contributions; this is, for example, the case if they recognize in the normative truth content of a religious utterance hidden intuitions of their own.[6]


The argument rightly suggests that a tradition which appears to be merely sectarian could in fact have something to share more widely when it is translated into accessible language. Habermas freely acknowledges that this has happened in Western democracies, but he is clearly uncomfortable with the suggestion that something similar might apply to Indigenous cultures.

He acknowledges, for example, that the human rights tradition was in part inspired by the claim in Genesis 1 that humans are made in the “image of God,” a claim that has been secularized with redemptive effects.[7] And he accordingly acknowledges in this connection the enormous contribution of Martin Luther King Jr, who could translate the specific cadences of black Baptist preaching into a generalized advocacy of civil rights.[8]

However, the civil rights movements in the USA, South Africa and Australia illustrate a remarkable irony: the religious tradition that was woven into the colonial racism in all these countries was the very same tradition that joined cause with Martin Luther King, Bishop Tutu, and the Christian Aboriginal leader in Australia, Douglas Nicholls, to address the colonial traumas of the past. These cases illustrate the memorable definition of a tradition proposed by Alasdair MacIntyre: “a living tradition is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.”[9] The catalogue of complaints that can be brought against colonial Christianity is so impressive one might wonder why it is still the majority religion of many countries in Africa, Latin America and Oceania.[10]  Precisely this catalogue of trauma affirms the necessity for detailed critique of Christian tradition, and we can expect that Indigenous leaders will be full participants in the making of postcolonial Christianity.[11]


The historic injustices of colonialism have often been overlooked in the dominant public discourses of Australian politics, even in the versions of public policy that that have rested on distributive notions of social justice or aspirations for equality.[12] Although each concept of justice may have its own validity in particular contexts of application, in settler colonial contexts we need to develop practices of restorative justice that pay attention to the tensions and contradictions that may be generated with other concepts of justice. More importantly, I would also argue that an explicit engagement with the variety of religious traditions in Australia will be important in any substantial practice of reconciliation, and I hope that our new Centre for Religion and Public Policy will foster a diversity of inter-religious dialogues with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.[13]

Of course, a secular objection immediately springs to mind: religious warrants for public policy would only be relevant for those portions of Australian society who continue to find such arguments in some sense edifying. The strongest form of this objection would suggest that public debates are not an appropriate context for citing religious arguments, even if their central purpose is to undermine the ethnocentrism of the dominant culture or to address historic injustices. I want to make two main points in response to this kind of secular objection.

First, if the last census figures are anything to go by, more than half our population might find specifically Christian arguments relevant for thinking about the task of reconciliation. No doubt many of the people behind these statistics are travelling “with light metaphysical baggage,” as Habermas puts it,[14] but that does not exclude the possibility that arguments for restorative justice may be drawn from religious sources. Indeed, that is precisely the point of Habermas’ recent attempt to promote post-secular discourse.

Secondly, it should go without saying that a properly inclusive secularity cannot be exclusively Christian, whether in theory or in practice (at least, I thought that this would go without saying until I consulted the One Nation party’s policy on Islam[15]). While it is of great interest to me personally to see how Christian tradition can be reinterpreted, public policy necessarily engages with a much broader variety of traditions. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with the pragmatic approach taken by Amartya Sen in his work on The Idea of Justice, namely, that human rights instruments can travel with light metaphysical baggage if an overlapping consensus actually helps to make the world less unjust than it currently is.[16]

Writing in response to the Bringing them Home report of 1997, the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma affirmed that “Spirituality is largely outside the dominant paradigm of policy makers and funding bodies in Australia, yet it is an intrinsic part of healing.”[17] To my mind, this statement constitutes an invitation to conversation to which the Christian churches have barely begun to respond. Beyond the world of the churches, I would also want to argue for a new kind of inter-religious engagement in the formation of Indigenous policy which pays attention to the major religious traditions, while giving prominence to the practical applications of Aboriginal spirituality across the full range of public policy: law, education, community services, management of natural resources, and the development of culturally appropriate economic strategies.[18]

In short, I am arguing that democratic discourse is not best served by a thinning of public norms in search of a unified public culture, but rather, by a thickening of dialogue between religious and non-religious traditions in the pursuit of more inclusive democracies.[19] To that end, I hope that our Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy will be re-examining some of the classic religious defences of multicultural societies, especially where we find clear acknowledgment of Indigenous rights.

The example set by Roger Williams in the settlement of Rhode Island would worthy of theological and political reflection, as Martha Nussbaum has shown in her book, Liberty of Conscience.[20] Even the Aborigines Protection Society in the 1830s and ’40s argued that the First Nations do indeed have special rights beyond those endowed by citizenship, or by models of distributive justice. In the early nineteenth century, the Christian tradition was able to see this special status underpinned by “natural rights,” but by the end of the nineteenth century this discourse of rights had fallen into disrepute – due in part, no doubt, to the influence of Jeremy Bentham’s brand of utilitarianism. In recent years, Christian leaders in Australia have once again shown a lack of capacity to deal with the legal discourse of human rights. Such recent examples of shallow disregard for human rights instruments should provoke a stronger determination on the part of researchers to re-engage with our traditions in more constructive ways. Above all, I hope that our research agenda can include fresh accounts of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from the point of view of each of the major religious traditions represented in Australian society.[21]


Read more from Mark Brett

Reconciliation and Indigenous Rights: What Churches can learn from Roger Williams

Space for Justice after Mabo: Theological Critiques of Sovereignty

Asylum seekers and universal human rights: Does the Bible still matter?


[1] Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” European Journal of Philosophy 14 (2006): 1-25. Reprinted with minimal revisions in Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, trans. C. Cronin (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 114–147. See also the recent discussion in Péter Losonczi and Aakash Sing, eds, Discovering the Post-Secular: Essays on the Habermasian Post-Secular Turn (Vienna: Lit Verlag, 2010).

[2] Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” 1.

[3] Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, 304–305.

[4] See, for example, Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘the mystic East’ (London: Routledge, 1999); Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), and Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: The History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[5] See Habermas’ chapter on “The Equal Treatment of Cultures and the Limits of Postmodern Liberalism,” Between Naturalism and Religion, 271–311.

[6] Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” 10.

[7] Habermas, “On the Relation between the Secular Liberal State and Religion,” in The Frankfurt School on Religion, ed. E. Mendieta (New York: Routledge, 2004), 337–46, 346; idem., Between Naturalism and Religion, 309. cf. Jeremy Waldron, “The Image of God: Rights, Reason and Order,” in Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction, ed. John Witte Jr. and Frank S. Alexander (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 216–35.

[8] Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, 124.

[9] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 207.

[10] Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

[11] Cf. Steve Bevis, “New Songs and Old Songlines: Aboriginal Christianity and post-mission Australia,” in Religion and Non-Religion among Australian Aboriginal Peoples, ed. J.L. Cox and A. Possamai (New York: Routledge, 2016), 129–156.

[12] Cf. Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, trans. Joel Golb and Christiane Wilke (London: Verso, 2003).

[13] See further, Daniel Philpott, Just and Unjust Peace: A Political Ethic of Reconciliation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Mark G. Brett, Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

[14] Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, 262, 309.


[16] Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (London: Allen Lane, 2009).

[17] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2008 (Sydney: Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008):147–98, 152; cf. Gregory Philips, “Healing and Public Policy,” in Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia, ed. Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson (Melbourne: Arena, 2007), 141­–150.

[18] See, e.g., See especially Jon Altman, “What future for remote Indigenous Australia? Economic Hybridity and Neo-liberal turn”, in Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson, eds, Culture Crisis: Anthropology and Politics in Aboriginal Australia (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010), 259–80.

[19] Luke Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), especially 76–110, “Reimagining the Secular: Interfaith Relations as a Civic Practice”.

[20] Martha C. Nussbaum, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of American’s Tradition of Religious Equality (New York: Basic Books, 2008); cf. Curtis W. Freeman, “Roger Williams, American Democracy, and the Baptists,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 3 (2007): 267–86.

[21] See for example Steve Heinrichs, ed., Wrongs to Rights: How Churches can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Winnepeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016); Cheryl Woelk and Steve Heinrichs, eds, Yours, Mine, Ours: Unravelling the Doctrine of Discovery (Winnepeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016); Hans Küng and Jürgen Moltmann, eds., The Ethics of World Religions and Human Rights (London: SCM, 1990); Joseph Runzo, Nancy M. Martin, and Arvind Sharma, Human Rights and Responsibilities in the World Religions (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003); Asmi Wood, “Indigenous Spiritual Light: Reconsidering the Negative Stereotypes on Indigenous Spirituality,” in Muslim Identity Formation in Religiously Diverse Societies, ed. Derya Iner and Salih Yucel (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 266–89.