Melbourne, Australia, is truly one of the world’s most pleasant and beautiful cities. It is livable, lively, and a vibrant crossroads between the Pacific, Asia, the Global North and the Global South. It has been a wonderful place to land near the end of an energetic year that featured extended stays in Ghana and Brazil for field research and teaching. I’ve had wonderfully helpful conversations with colleagues here about my learnings from the year.
Australia was not to have been a research site for me. I’ve mostly spend my time reading, talking, and reflecting on my year. But, I haven’t been able to avoid noticing religion in the media here. Australia presents as a secular and even irreligious country. It shares much with the U.S. culturally and in its colonial history. Anyone who’s made the twelve-to-fourteen-hour flight would be amused by the way this affinity is marked in a prominent museum display in Sydney: “Australia and America: United by an Ocean.” One thing they do not share, however, is religiosity. There could be many reasons for this, not least the important colonial difference that Australia had no history of settlement by religious refugees.
Whatever the cause, Australia’s religiosity—or lack of it—is publicly expressed through religious skepticism seemingly at every turn. At least historically. That history is changing, though.
Since I’ve been here, two explicitly religious issues (and one implicitly religious one) have dominated Australian news. First, is the Catholic sexual-abuse scandal, which is sadly as present here as everywhere else we’ve been this year. The second is the issue of Islam and what appears to be a vibrant (but not dominant) Islamophobia that can be seen explicitly and implicitly in a great deal of media discourse.
I’ve seen each of these in a wide range of programs, from news, to entertainment, to public affairs. But each of these fit into a persistent Australian belief about the U.S.—that we are an irrationally religious culture, and that the sexual-abuse scandal and the threat of political Islam are evidence of how dangerous religion can be—and it logically follows that educated, sophisticated, and modern industrial nations such as the U.S. would be well to realize this fact abut religion.
This of course, is a stereotype of the Australian attitude on this matter. But it is a stereotype that is reinforced by gestures such as the headline that appeared in today’s The Age, Melbourne’s leading non-Murdoch broadsheet. The story is about the Obama Administration’s surveillance program and the fact that Congress has been regularly briefed. The story details how little confidence the public has in Congress. Here is the headline:
In God They Trust, but Not Congress.
There is no mention of God, of religion, or of religious politics, in the story. It could be in part a reference to the phrase “In God We Trust” on the U.S. currency. But it is only really meaningful if it is also a reference to America’s religiosity glut.
A small matter, but also a gratuitous reinforcement of a stereotype—by what should be an example of Australia’s “quality press.”