Australia, like most countries do, holds a census every so often to figure out how their population is changing over time. One of their census questions asks about respondents’ religious affiliation. And that is the beginning of a story that seems too weird to be true–a story that tells us one reason why the concept of church and state separation is so important.
A Jake of Jedi.
A few years ago, a small-but-growing number of Australians began marking their religion as “Jedi” on their country’s census form, making a tongue-in-cheek joke about how they felt about religion generally, like how Americans sometimes claim to be Pastafarians.
That joke has now gotten the attention of the Australian government as well as one of the country’s atheist organizations, who both want their country’s citizens to know that answering the question like that will accidentally code them as being religiously-affiliated. They’re asking folks who aren’t religious to mark “no religion” on the census because claiming Jediism, as fun as it is, makes their government think there are way more religious people in the country than there truly are.
The matter isn’t just academic.
Australia steers public funds and services toward religious groups based on what it perceives as need. If the government is wrong about the number of religious people, then suddenly Australians end up with a lot more money going to religious stuff than might otherwise be going there. A jake of Jedi just messes everything up–unless they’re actually serious about it, as some indeed appear to be:
In 2008, 23-year-old Daniel Jones founded the Church of Jediism with his brother Barney, believing that the 2001 UK census recognised Jediism as a religion, and that there were “more Jedi than Scientologists in Britain”. In 2009, Jones was removed from a Tesco supermarket in Bangor, North Wales, for refusing to remove his hood on a religious basis. The owner justified Jones’s ejection by saying, “He hasn’t been banned. Jedis are very welcome to shop in our stores although we would ask them to remove their hoods. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Luke Skywalker all appeared hoodless without ever going over to the Dark Side and we are only aware of the Emperor as one who never removed his hood.”
Most self-professed Jedi don’t take it that far, obviously. (Though we must award serious bonus points to the supermarket owner for a truly spectacular response!)
The idea of marking one’s religion as “Jedi” started as a silly chain-email forward that caught on. In 2011, more than 64,000 Australians marked themselves as Jedi, up from 58,000 in 2006. This, by the way, made “Jedi” more numerous than Mormons or Seventh-Day Adventists and almost as numerous as Sikhs in that country.
A Wall People Actually Do Want.
A majority of Australians want church and state in their country to be separate like America is supposed to do it, rather than giving billions of dollars of their tax money to religious organizations even though most of their citizens are now non-religious. Just like many Americans are, they’re deeply concerned that their government is basically helping religious groups proselytize schoolchildren and waste government dollars on overtly religious functions. Despite both countries having laws about church-state separation, Australia’s high courts decided a few decades ago that giving taxpayer money to religious groups was A-OK. Since then, their government has been granting money to religious groups in public schools, hospitals, public TV and radio, and other venues.
If a dwindling number of citizens are actually religious, then this funding is a waste of money. And because this money doesn’t benefit all citizens, but is instead targeted toward specific faith groups and specifically religious goals, Australians are not getting a good return on their money even if they are religious to some extent. (Related: this hilarious takedown.)
I feel their pain. The United States census doesn’t even ask about religion on its own mandatory questionnaire, though we used to collect some religious information in other ways. And officially, our government keeps its pert little nose out of religion.
Unofficially, Christians in America have managed to swing funding for their religious activities with the help of Christian-pandering politicians by calling themselves faith-based organizations (FBO)s and pretending–falsely–to be all about helping people. This funding was supposed to come with serious rules about who got money, how that money would be distributed, and under what circumstances it’d be used. When Congress balked at making those rules even looser and even more poorly-enforced than they already were, President Dubya issued executive orders establishing those new provisions anyway.
As one might expect, Christian groups saw all the cash on offer and began slobbering. Americans United reports that politicians are now trying harder and harder to give religious groups taxpayer monies, to the point where right-wing Christian lawmakers react with sincere shock and outrage whenever the rules they’ve warped to grab power and money for Christianity turn out to also benefit the religions they don’t like. (Satanists are having a grand time exploiting the hell out of this exact situation—to devastating (and awesome) effect.)
At present, one of the most egregious examples of fudging in church-state separation is Ken Ham’s Creationist pretend-museum–a monument to pseudoscience if ever there was one. He’s been squabbling with the government about exactly how much taxpayer money he’ll get (if any at all) since his group, Answers in Genesis, announced plans to build a fundagelical theme park and propaganda mill in Kentuckistan. The park finally opened this summer thanks to very generous tax credits, even though many of the state’s taxpayers aren’t even allowed to work at this blatantly evangelistic religious enterprise–and if sales predictions are any indication, most of Kentucky’s citizens won’t be visiting the religious site anyway.
Something much more important to them than honesty, integrity, fair play, and simple consideration for their fellow citizens is going on here.
Why It’s Happening.
As religions find themselves losing members, they are also experiencing unprecedented losses in both donations and manpower. And their “outreach” efforts, political maneuvering, and proselytization attempts require both in steady supply–a supply that is dwindling rapidly. Like many of us discover ourselves, once Christians get used to a certain level of material comfort, it’s really hard to move down to a lower standard of living.
They’re trying to make up the difference in funding however they can, from whatever source they can wangle, whether it’s strictly legal and ethical or not. By now, they’ve got to be aware that the product they are selling–Christianity–isn’t enough on its own to induce consumers to purchase it (and more importantly to keep purchasing it).
Their survival is at stake here, and they know it.
Australia’s Jedi-declared citizens are throwing some major wrenches into the public-funding equation by falsely declaring themselves members of a religion–and, in doing so, are showing how limited and ridiculous the system is.
Both Australia and America are experiencing some seismic shifts in their religious makeup. Sooner or later, both countries’ politicians will figure out that there are a lot more Nones and Dones than there are right-wing fundagelicals (hence, why it’s so important for Americans especially to vote–even if that vote seems useless because the voter lives in an area that is definitely going to elect “the other guy”). In the absence of census information, American politicians must get this necessary intelligence from voting records, surveys, and other sources, because our government officially doesn’t (and can’t) ask for the information directly–but politicians need to know regardless so they can adjust their messaging to fit the audience that’ll be most likely to get them what they want.
And what politicians want most of all is to get elected again and stay in power. No matter how totally Loony Toons Fundagelical Wackadoodle one of them sounds, what we’re usually hearing is the sound of a desperate, flailing politician trying to secure a core base of support so they can stay in the job for as long as possible. Even politicians who seem like they simply don’t care if they’re reelected care very enormously. Reelection is how they stay in power.
Right-wing Christians know better than anybody else what it means to lack power. Little wonder that despite making a big deal out of being persecuted underdogs who are totally not-of-this-world, they’re obsessed with gaining and keeping power in this world!
Chasing the Dragon.
The only way to deal with theocracy-minded fanatics is to refuse to give them a single inch. They are, in this respect, almost like Terminators: You can’t bargain with them. You can’t reason with them. They don’t feel pity or remorse. That said, they are different from Terminators in one important respect: they do feel a whole lot of fear. And in great part because of their fear, they absolutely will not stop, ever, until they control everything in sight.
But the terrible truth is that there is no point at which they will breathe easy, no point at which they control everyone else so completely that they will finally feel totally safe. Control is a dragon that they will chase till they are exhausted. They’ll always be sure that they just need to own this much more to feel secure: that this little bit more of our liberties negotiated away will be enough to soothe them. But even if they get what they say they want, they’ll still feel unsafe–and think that they need a little more control and power to do the trick. There’s no stopping that need to control. There is only capitulating to it, or defying it. Inches become miles, grabbed bit by bit by power-hungry zealots who pretend they’re just trying to help.
Separation of church and state ensures that toxic Christians never get even a nibble of the control that they crave. Guarding that separation jealously is what keeps free countries from turning into theocracies. Australians are discovering this truth, as their current system is considered by some to be “a miserable failure.”
Australia’s citizens may well force their government to get more serious about guarding that wall of separation–with a little unexpected and indirect help from “some old religious men in robes.”
Who’d have thunk?
I just hope Americans figure out before it’s too late that religion and politics don’t mix.