The Lord's prayer is essentially inoffensive even to non-believers, but serves a useful reminder to us all that we owe obligations of justice to each other.
I think I know where I stand on Senator Richard Di Natale's proposal that Parliament scrap the reading of the Lord's Prayer before opening its sessions. I can see his point, whether about it being an anachronism or, perhaps, an offence to non-Christians and non-believers. On the other hand, Parliament and parliamentarians - even Senator Di Natale - need all the prayers they can get.
The Lord's Prayer is, in essence, inoffensive even to non-believers, and serves a useful reminder to all that we owe obligations of justice to each other, not least if we expect our society to provide justice to us. I expect a good many politicians intone or listen to the prayer without much thought of what it says or means, but even those who have parsed it word by word, and mean every one of them, are hard-pressed to point to any dogmatic or excludingly Christian part of its sentiment.
The prayer's author, Jesus of Nazareth, was an observant, if not strict, Jew, and the prayer comes from the Jewish tradition. Indeed, every phrase of it can be found in the Old Testament, and its ideas are reflected by the great faiths of the book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It is quite true Jews and Muslims may respect, even revere, its sentiments while resenting that it is a specifically Christian prayer, reflecting that Australia is one of any number of Western civilisation works-in-progress that have come out of the religious, social and military mores of Christianity around Mediterranean Europe. Of course, that religion was founded in Semitic, Greek and Roman culture and traditions and, of course, it also acquired different characters according to the localities and the populations where it extended.
Yet the prayer has many universal and readily recognisable characteristics - even among groups that talk rather than practise Christianity - that are immediately obvious to anyone who comes from a different cultural tradition.
However, atheists feel entitled to resent the invocation of an activist God, and adherents of other religions or none resent the assumption that Australian society's default setting is Christian. All the more so, they might say, since the Australian constitution forbids the establishment of any religion, or the imposition of any sort of religious test for any government office, other than, implicitly, our royal head of state, who is not allowed to be Catholic.
All the more so, they might argue, because fewer and fewer Australians - even among those who originate from nations once regarded as Christian - profess Christianity, or practise it in any organised way, and more and more explicitly say they have no religion at all, and more and more of our citizens originate in countries where the faiths are Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.
For some of those who feel strongly about this, the impetus comes not so much from a desire to repudiate the nation's history as a country emanating from Protestant Britain and its political and cultural traditions, or from any desire to reshape the national soul using any other philosophy or religion. Instead, it comes from the fact that some, or most, Christian groups or sects regard homosexuality or abortion or other things as immoral and wrong - views to which the secular state no longer subscribes.
There was a time when there were other objections. It is sometimes forgotten that countries that have constitutions forbidding the establishment of religions did so not to protect right-thinking people from being forced to be Hindus or Christians, but to protect people from being forced to adhere to subgroups within religions.
For example, most of the early American settlers believed themselves to have fled there to escape persecution in Britain or Europe, particularly from mainstream Anglicans. Puritans, Quakers and other non-conformist gatherings (so called because they would not conform to the legal requirements imposed by the Anglican Church) gathered in America so they could be free to worship as they liked.
But it soon turned out they were as intolerant and intolerable towards each other as others had been to them. This was because they came to persecute (and sometimes kill) each other for mild deviations from their own firm beliefs of how one ought to live. American writer Garrison Keillor said his ancestors arrived on the Mayflower to persecute people in ways that had not been possible in Europe.
Almost all these groups and sects, however, were united (even with the Anglicans) in regarding Catholics as beyond the pale, and hardly even Christians at all. There was certainly no rule against persecuting Catholics, and they were virtually unanimous in thinking any sort of Catholic immigration should be discouraged. However, by the time Catholics arrived in the US in any numbers, from the 1870s, a good many aspects of the American political culture had become fairly settled. In Australia, the first act of settlement involved a public oath, by newly arrived governor Captain Arthur Phillip, that he did not believe in transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The phrasing was such that no Catholic could swear it in good conscience.
As it happened, he and later governors did not establish Anglicanism, or any other denomination, in Australia. But there were continual tensions, particularly with Catholics, arising from the assumption of all right-thinking (and thus implicitly Protestant) folk that a good deal of Protestant ritual was part of the national fabric.
Catholics responded, in part, by barring their participation at a host of ostensibly secular functions where Protestant clergymen officiated. That included the formal establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia, though that was complicated by the fact that Cardinal Patrick Moran was miffed because an Anglican archbishop was given precedence over him. He, after all, was a cardinal by rank and stood high above mere archbishops, let alone Protestant ones.
The rancour was the greater because there was little ecumenical spirit, and a good deal of the set preaching of both Catholics and Protestants consisted of denouncing the other. It was aggravated by the state school debate, and the establishment of a separate Catholic schools system, as well as the intensely sectarian nature of recruitment during World War I. Though Catholics enlisted in numbers proportionate to their population (about 25 per cent), they were continually denounced as being of dubious loyalty to the Crown, and of being infected by Fenian sentiment.
Catholics were not even allowed by their archbishops to take part in Anzac Day ceremonies if Anglican clergy played any role in the ceremonies. Indeed, some archbishops were loudly and vehemently opposed to any war memorial ''shrines'', fearing they would become, in effect, pagan temples. It was not until 1938 that the Returned Services League - dominated by the (implicitly Anglican) officer class and usually professional, rather than civilian, soldiers - agreed to withdraw parsons and prayers from ceremonies at cenotaphs, shrines and other such places.
An Anglican general, Harry Chauvel formerly of the Light Horse Brigade, resigned from the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance Trust in protest, but Archbishop Daniel Mannix was not contrite, saying, as he had so insultingly done during the war, that ''Australian soldiers often had to go over the top without a leader''.
For Mannix, according to James Griffin in his biography, ''The cult of Anzac repelled Mannix: prelate and Gael reacted as one. 'The Shrine' was not even a temple or cenotaph; it evoked the pagan voids of Athens and Halicarnassus. Spires were different, piercing the firmament, triumphant but contrite. Catholicism was transcendent, not just a civic religion; it was sublimely more than anything that a parthenon or a mausoleum represented.''
It is with some such feelings that the triumphalism and liturgicisation of the Anzac story, being plotted by Brendan Nelson at the Australian War Memorial, is jousting. It is ironic that Nelson is of Catholic background; indeed, he was once a seminarian.
Mannix was never one to forgive his enemies. It is for just that sort of reason that everyone else, even atheists, should be reminded it is a good idea.