University campuses are an open forum for free, and sometimes passionate, debate over ideas and culture, right? Not so at Australia’s Sydney University, at least if you are a Christian.
During the last few weeks the university student union, the Sydney University Union (USU) has threatened the registration of the Evangelical Union (EU) because of a provision in the EU’s rules that members sign a profession of faith in Christ.
The EU has been active at the university since the 1930s and currently has around 600 members according to a report in the April 3 edition of the Catholic Weekly newspaper.
A few months ago the USU changed the rules for university clubs, prohibiting them from excluding members based on “race, gender, age, sexuality, ability, religious beliefs or cultural background.”
“So unversed are today’s student radicals in the history of freedom that they think a group of like-minded people getting together to share their beliefs is a foul form of separatism when actually it’s a little thing we like to call freedom of association,” noted Brendan O’Neill in his March 26 article on the issue for the Australian newspaper.
Sydney University’s Catholic Society is also under threat. After almost 90 years of activity on campus it is facing the threat of deregulation by the USU because it requires people holding executive positions to be Catholics.
“We have been told we are discriminating against people because you have to be Catholic to be on the executive,” said society president Francis Tamer, according to an April 2 report in the Australian newspaper. “Of course you do – we are the Catholic-Society” he added.
Former president of the student union, and Australia’s ex-prime minister, Tony Abbott, told the newspaper that the threat “seems like a hell of a double standard” given that Sydney University has long offered both a “women’s room” and a Koori Centre for indigenous students.
In spite of the adverse publicity the situation at Sydney University is still under debate and the fate of the EU and the Catholic Society is unresolved.
The USU is by no means alone in its hostility to Christians. Just in time for Easter, Sydney’s Bondi Public School announced that the word “Easter” was to be banned from its Easter Hat Parade.
“As we are an inclusive community which celebrates our diverse range of cultures and beliefs, I have not called it an Easter Hat parade,” school principal Michael Jones wrote in the school’s latest newsletter, according to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, April 4.
“On Easter Sunday it’s worth noting that Christians are the only cultural group in society it’s OK to vilify,” commented Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine in her column that day. “And the people doing the most vilifying are those who demand the most tolerance for themselves,” she added for good measure.
“In the name of inclusivism the union wants to exclude the executives of a religious society because they based their group on a shared religious membership,” commented Angela Shanahan in the April 9 edition of the Australian newspaper, referring back to the situation at Sydney University.
“None of these societies excludes anyone of any or no religious persuasion from coming to talks, events, liturgical celebration whatever,” she pointed out.
Her observations bring to mind some of the points made by philosopher Roger Scruton in his recent book, “Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left,” (Bloomsbury Publishing).
Value and price
Scruton cogently analysed the limitations and failings of many of the left-wing philosophers and thinkers who are often held up as heroes in universities, despite the damage their ideas have caused.
In the context of this discussion and in particular about how these ideas influence society Scruton paused to consider the role played by clubs, societies, and the many private organizations and cultural initiatives that exist.
“Such institutions stand between the citizen and the state, offering discipline and order without the punitive sanctions through which the state exerts its sovereignty. “ Scruton went on to deplore how modern day socialists and left-wing ideology in general does not tolerate such free association.
He argued for an alternative vision based on free association and the protection of individuals by autonomous bodies, “under whose auspices people can flourish according to their social nature, acquiring the manners and aspirations that endow their lives with meaning.”
Our longing, indeed the religious need implanted in our being, for membership can more easily be recruited “by the abstract god of equality than be any concrete form of social compromise,” Scruton warned.
This longing for equality, which once expressed itself in the revolutionary language of class warfare and left-wing ideology, is now waged in a predominantly cultural and social conflict, of which the recent events in Sydney are a good example.
The threat, as Scruton described it, is “a society from which all that makes society possible – law, property, custom, hierarchy, family, negotiation, government, institutions – has been removed.”
The situation facing not only Sydney University but also many other institutions is one where the seemingly attractive goal of not causing offense to others ends up imposing an absolutist conception of tolerance and inclusion. This runs the risk of a society reduced to the lowest common denominator of a bland nothingness where the only virtue is that of being “nice” to each other.