When I was a kid my sisters and I spent years being chucked out of Religious Instruction in primary school because my father had firm views on the subject and had instructed the school, probably in colourful language, that his children were not to be exposed to such a thing. I can't remember when this eventually let up; my mother probably intervened, not because she was any more Christian than he was (except in her values; he's more your rugged individualist), but because she didn't want to expose us to the humiliations of being thus singled out, especially in such a small town.
Not that I cared; it meant I got to sit under the pepper-tree, reading my book of choice, rather than listening to the tedious dronings-on of the RI teacher. If we'd had a good teacher who concentrated on the music and the stories, it might have been a different matter.
It is to this singular childhood that I attribute a paradoxical respect for other people's religious practices and beliefs, though not for the organisations to which they belong. And when I say other people I mean all other people, all over the world. Growing up secular means growing up with no barrow to push and no bone to pick about any religion over any other. Some of my best friends really are Christians, not to mention the Buddhists. And, unlike various other friends I've discussed this with, I have no problem with the concepts of the numinous, the spiritual and the sacred. It's organised religion I have a problem with, and even then I can tolerate it as long as it leaves me alone under my pepper-tree.
If the Assemblies of God, for example, want to turn up the lights and turn on the giant closed-circuit screens when they pass around the money buckets (one for each row) so that everyone including the pastors on the stage can see exactly how much money you're putting in the bucket, then it is the devotees' choice and the devotees' right to be thus manipulated, surveilled and conned. And if parents want to send their kids off to be sexually abused by priests, then nobody can say these days that they haven't had fair warning and it's no business of mine.
But in the spirit of 'Your right to swing your arm ends where it meets my eye', I draw the line where religion starts to influence politics. And as far as Australia is concerned, it's not too much of a stretch to say that John Howard's term as Prime Minister -- not his own colourless, constipated Methodism, but his vote-grabbing open collusion with religious loonies and his barely-concealed hatred of other cultures -- opened up a space in which Kevin Rudd's own much-publicised Christianity became far more acceptable to Australian voters than it might otherwise have been. We're living in a country where the doctrine of the separation of church and state is no longer, even in theory, a given. Naturally the cultural domination of the US has had a lot to do with this, although those who remember anything about the history of the DLP in Australia will know it's not new here.
Now, I've been unduly preoccupied over the last few days with Sarah Palin because the silly woman has invaded my darkest nightmares. I think she is more terrifying than anything the Americans have so far come up with, and that is saying a great deal. If they don't dump her, and the Republicans win the election, and then McCain drops dead of a heart attack that night from the strain, the most powerful person in the world will be someone who is not only dumb enough to believe that the war in Eye-rack is 'God's plan' and that fighting in it is 'a task that is from God', but is also dumb enough to say so in public. Not even Dubya, to my knowledge, has ever gone quite so far.
Yesterday I was mulling these things over in the supermarket carpark, as you do, when I heard a loud female voice behind me. 'PRAISE THE LORDJESUSCHRIST, THE SUNNAGOD!'
Turning to see where this exhortation might be coming from, I saw a large blonde woman in a strange and exotic assortment of clothing. She seemed quite mad, and was glaring straight at me. Why, no thank you, ma'am, I don't believe I will, I muttered -- well below the audibility line, for engaging with the mad in a public place is even more foolish than engaging with them online. But it shook me up a bit. Maybe she wasn't mad at all. Maybe this kind of stuff has just made its way across the Pacific and is infesting the suburban car parks of small Australian cities, and in five years we'll all be doing it.
If we're still here in five years.