The Symbolic Significance of God in the Australian Constitution

Dr. Alex Deagon is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the Queensland University of Technology

The preamble of the Australian Constitution states that the people of the six self-governing colonies agree to federate into a Commonwealth while ‘humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God.’ While the post in this series by Nicholas Aroney discusses some of the history behind and legal implications of this recognition of God in the preamble, my post will focus on the symbolic significance of recognizing God in the preamble of a liberal, democratic constitution [1].

The Shared Heritage and Continuing Relevance of Religion

Early advocates for the inclusion of God in the preamble viewed constitutional recognition as an appropriate acknowledgement of religious heritage and tradition. In this way, religious recognition has been accepted as legitimate in a secular state because it is part of heritage and tradition, part of an expressive idiom that characterizes the state. The legal recognition of God acknowledges the higher principles which undergirded the federation process and expressed the desire for a mutually beneficial connection between religion and the state. Thus, recognizing the name of God in a constitution is part of a larger exercise in civic recognition that religious people and groups exist as part of the democratic state. The purpose and effect of such recognition are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent. The recognition respects the religious nature of citizens and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. If the state fails to cooperate with religion and accommodate religion, it would demonstrate an anti-democratic and callous indifference to religious groups.

Recognition of God in the preamble not only articulated the hopes and aspirations of the Australian Commonwealth, constituting a statement of spiritual identity for the fledgling nation but occurred in response to overwhelming public support. Therefore, the preamble exemplifies the nation’s religious, and specifically Christian, heritage, and the Judeo-Christian values strongly embedded in the community. The accepted version of recognition expressed a universal sentiment as a pledge of religious toleration; it was a religious reference that acknowledged the important role played by religion in fortifying social bonds that all political communities need to be held together. It was an expression of solidarity and social cohesion [2].

As part of their extensive study, Chavura, Gascoigne, and Tregenza conclude that constitutional recognition of God in the Australian context means that “the state should not be godless, and yet that it should not privilege one Christian church over others, particularly in a way that inhibits religious liberties” [3]. In other words, the purpose of including an acknowledgement of God in the preamble was to recognize the religious tradition and heritage of the community, and concordantly, the valuable place of religion in creating social cohesion and political solidarity as part of the democratic mechanisms of the state—but without imposing specific beliefs and practices. As Domingo argues, “The most important consequence of recognizing God… is that God cannot be arbitrarily excluded from political communities” [4].

Enhancing Democracy through Deeper Meaning and Virtue

Religion is also important for the secular, liberal state because it enhances democracy by promoting political engagement in a context of deeper meaning and the development of virtue. The presence of God recognizes that religious virtues inform the individual conscience, which subsequently works itself out in public contexts to constitute community virtues. The idea of God strengthens the commitment to respecting the human person, dignity, equality, moral freedom and responsibility, solidarity, subsidiarity, and human rights. For example, the acknowledgement of God strengthens the respect between and centrality of human beings because they are in a special and unique relationship with the divine. It strengthens the dignity and equality of human people because of their creation in the image and likeness of God, and because of the human capacity to co-operate with God by assuming some responsibility for the development and care of the created order. It is a transcendental ground for the ontological status of the human as a pre-political bearer of rights and duties which are to be protected by law. The framework of human rights, therefore, needs religion to mobilize religious adherents in support of universal rights in principle, and the secular state needs religion to provide a widely accepted source of moral guidance for the political community, as well as to help satisfy and discipline the non-political needs of believers within that community.

These bonds of mutual obligation grounded in transcendent principles of human dignity facilitate human action which reflects this reality. In this sense, religion can help motivate people to act virtuously, and this cultivation of higher virtues by reference to religion enhances the democratic process through consideration of the welfare of a citizen both as a unique and dignified individual, and as a valuable member of a community. As Koppelman observes, religious beliefs entail a set of deeply held values and motivate socially valuable conduct. Few religious groups seek to undemocratically undermine fundamental rights or install oppressive governments [5].

So acknowledgement of God enhances genuine democracy by promoting the individual and communal good. In the Australian context, Glynn contended that acknowledgement of the divine “elevated the human spirit” and “the institutions of men,” “helping their higher aims” [6]. Recognition of a higher plane will “inspire statesmen” to look to both the temporal and eternal welfare of their fellow citizens [7]. Acknowledgement of God consequently has political implications. Just as God desired to share the good with creatures by creating the universe, human solidarity entails the sharing of spiritual and material goods, promoting natural interdependence as a source of political collaboration and social fraternity. By recognizing God as the provider of all things, it assists humans to feel responsible to one another, increasing individual awareness and collective responsibility.

The Transcendent Foundations of Citizenship

Finally, as well expressed by Böckenförde: “the liberal, secularized state is nourished by presuppositions that it cannot itself guarantee” [8]. There is no truly autonomous, secular reason that can ground the constitutional state which protects human rights from the state’s arbitrariness as a function of human dignity. This amounts to two claims. First, there is no truly autonomous, secular reason. The existence of reason presupposes faith in an infinite reason, that our reasons have an absolute ontological foundation, and can comprehend reality. Second, reason itself is limited and has religious aspects. Even Kantian ethics has religious aspects to it; Kant himself recognized the limits of reason, and his reason-based founding of human dignity, in fact, contains religious elements and so is not a purely secular basis for human dignity. No purely secular justification for the proposition of ‘equal worth’ between humans exists. The proposition was formerly based on religious premises (all humans are ‘made in the image of God’) and is now treated as axiomatic [9].

Pure, autonomous reason, therefore, has limits as the basis for a modern constitutional state and must be supplemented by the transcendence which characterizes religion. Reference to the name of God in a constitution is one way to provide this supplement. After all, the removal of sacrality from political legitimacy did not encourage the growth of liberal constitutions as an “expression of the insight that human arrangements are but fragile and artificial, still less that humans have been abandoned by God to govern their own worldly affairs with the use of unaided reason. On the contrary, this constitution-making power was most of all encouraged within, or under the aegis of, the spiritual power itself” as part of the divine government of creation [10].


Thus, recognition of God in the constitution of a modern liberal democracy actually enhances democracy. Acknowledgement of God strengthens meaning and solidarity in democracy by providing a transcendent foundation for the ontological status of the human as involved in the creation and care of a community. The intrinsic value and necessary contribution of each citizen, in turn, motivates each member of the community to act virtuously by being aware of, responsible for, and generous towards every other member. Acknowledgement of God further exacerbates these benefits by recognizing the religious heritage and tradition of the democratic community, reminding us that religious groups and citizens are a valued part of the democratic process. Hence, constitutional recognition of God is a blessing to democracy because it facilitates the consideration of a higher meaning and political solidarity, which helps democratic states pursue the good for all members of the community.

[1] I expand on these points in Alex Deagon. (2019). “The Name of God in a Constitution: Meaning, Democracy and Political Solidarity”. 8(3) Oxford Journal of Law and Religion473-492.

[2] See Nicholas Aroney, Peter Gerangelos, Sarah Murray and James Stellios. (2015). The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia: History, Principle and Interpretation(Cambridge University Press) 7, 339.

[3] Stephen Chavura, John Gascoigne and Ian Tregenza. (2019). Reason, Religion and the Australian Polity: A Secular State? (Routledge) 126.

[4] Rafael Domingo. (2016).God and the Secular Legal System (Cambridge University Press) 44.

[5] Andrew Koppelman. (2018). “What kind of human right is religious liberty?” in Rex Ahdar (ed.), Research Handbook on Law and Religion (Edward Elgar) 119.

[6] Cited in Chavura et al, A Secular State, 127-128.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ernst Wolfgang Böckenförde. (1991). State, Society, and Liberty: Studies in Political Theory and Constitutional Law (Berg) 45.

[9] I provide detailed arguments in Alex Deagon. (2017). From Violence to Peace: Theology, Law and Community (Hart) 38-41, 166-169. See also Christopher McCrudden. (2018). Litigating Religions: An Essay on Human Rights, Courts, and Beliefs (Oxford University Press) 111-112; Steven Smith. (2018). “Equality, Religion and Nihilism” in Rex Ahdar (ed.), Research Handbook on Law and Religion (Edward Elgar) 41-44.

[10] See John Milbank. (2013). Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Blackwell) 216-217.

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