Anzac as ‘civil religion’

I wrote this article for the ANZAC Centenary Peace Coalition, and they have graciously given me permission to publish it here as well (I have edited it slightly for this blog post).  To give some context, particularly for international readers, “ANZAC” stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps,” and refers to a group of soldiers in the First World War who have come to hold a defining place in Australian history and identity.  As we approach the centenary of the events in which they participated, many observers are concerned at the way their legacy is being used to promote certain attitudes in our society.  This piece is part of an effort to critique this public discourse.

Anzac has been widely described as Australia’s “civil religion,” providing a secular country with a mythology, set of rituals and memorials which together help to shape a sense of national identity. In religion, it is a well-established principle that the stories we tell ourselves, the rituals in which we participate and the monuments we erect shape our thinking in ways which flow out into our actions. This will happen whether we are conscious of it or not; but becoming conscious of it allows us to be critical, and to choose how we engage with our traditions, in ways which align with our core values and ethics. It is with that aim – of raising consciousness of the influence of Anzac, in order to equip people to be critical and empowered in their engagement with it – that I offer this analysis.

First, some background. The Anzac landing at Gallipoli, on 25th April 1915, was the first action where Australians fought as Australians, from an independent sovereign country, rather than as British colonials. The attempted attack on Turkey was poorly planned and executed, and ultimately unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the Australians drew pride from having done what was asked of them, and blamed their British commanders for the lack of success. From very early after the war, British and Australian views of this action and the behavior of the soldiers differed, and at times sharp historical disagreement has broken out. However, within Australia, a consistent view of the Anzacs and the “Anzac spirit” has become established in the public consciousness.


The mythology of Anzac has a number of strands interwoven in a complex pattern. Former Prime Minister John Howard could describe the Anzacs as having left a national “creed” of personal courage, initiative and common purpose. The rhetoric of sacrifice is strong around occasions of formal commemoration. But if we speak of sacrifice, should we not ask to what, and for what, those sacrifices – a noble euphemism for death, injury, trauma and grief – were made?

In the first place, the language of sacrifice was a valuable psychological defence against the trauma of war and the despair of grief; the thought that all the death and destruction had been for nothing was unbearable to grieving families and responsible leaders; it was necessary that it be given transcendent meaning.

It is generally not well remembered today that at the time of the outbreak of World War One, war was often justified in terms drawn from social Darwinism (popular at the time). According to the social Darwinists, the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest meant that struggle between national groups was inevitable, and war was the ennobling mechanism by which such struggle would be furthered and humanity improved. It was to these ideals, much more than for democracy and freedom (often referenced today in speeches and writing around Anzac) that these young men were sacrificed.

More than that, Anzac has often been identified as the “creation myth for White Australia.” Australia Day, and the colonization of Australia by British settlers, have become divisive in the Australian community, particularly over the issues of the treatment of Indigenous people. In contrast, Anzac day allows the glossing over of a problematic colonial past, and the marginalization of other formative experiences for the nation, in favour of the “one day of the year” on which Australians can be united, across racial, cultural and religious barriers, in celebrating a supposedly inclusive national identity.

All of this was repackaged in the politics of nationalism in the 1980s and onward. Anzac Day took the focus off the issues popularized by the “black armband” view of Australian history, and put in the spotlight something against which there was less resistance (although critique was not entirely absent).

National identity

The first key part of the national identity supported by the focus on Anzac is that of distinctiveness from England. The stereotypical Anzac is an idealized Anglo-Celtic male; tough, with a wry sense of humour, leery of authority but loyal to his mates; practical and hard-working. He is independent, rugged, made tough by the sunburnt country which produced him, in contrast to English men who were not formed in such tough conditions. The celebration of Anzac is a celebration of a nation come of age and come into its own.

In this vein, it is worth nothing that the British monarch sends a formal message to Australia every 25th April acknowledging the occasion. In the early decades after the war, when Imperial praise still mattered, these messages were published on the front page of newspapers. Although the messages continue, their relevance is not still such that they are published at all.

There is also the question of how war relates to national identity. A nation which sees a battle as its wellspring of identity is likely to normalize militaristic values and support for past, present and future war. All wars become an extension of the one event, animated by the “Anzac spirit,” in which all Australian military personnel participate. This is reflected in the involvement in Anzac day ceremonies of veterans of later conflicts, and provides a justification for the ongoing deployment of Australian forces overseas in conflicts not directly touching Australia (“wars of choice” rather than necessity), and particularly the “war on terror.”

Despite this, Anzac as a civil religion does not make great moral or spiritual demands on its supporters; except one, that of loyalty and respect. Questioning of Anzac Day or its associated mythology is likely to provoke a strong response. It would seem that the minute’s silence – “Lest We Forget” – is ironically extended to muffle those who would seek to remember that the national identity promoted by Anzac is not one in which all are equally able to see themselves reflected (including many feminists, pacifists, proponents of multiculturalism, and those who are suspicious of aggressively asserted nationalism, all of whom find themselves attacked for their views).

Rituals (in particular, Anzac Day)

Anzac Day ceremonies have changed over time. Originally, they were largely an occasion for personal mourning, for the expression of grief, regret and remorse. However, as those who participated in World War One have died, this has allowed others to shape the ceremonies to meet a changing set of needs. Today, Anzac Day is just as much a festival of national pride and national identity in the form of the “Anzac spirit.”

These ceremonies do not take this form accidentally. Significant government funding, publicity and official rhetoric goes into shaping these events. Commemoration programmes have been seen as creating significant job opportunities. School resources have been developed by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. (This department also funds and administers “commemorative missions” to overseas theatres of war, which are part of on ongoing programme of public rituals). The inclusion of children and grandchildren of veterans in the marches extends Anzac beyond its historical context and promotes the sense that the “spirit of Anzac” is perpetuated and extended through the general Australian community.

“Pilgrimage” either to Gallipoli, or to the Kokoda Trail (a World War Two site), has also become a popular ritual associated with Anzac observances. This sort of pilgrimage is seen as a character-building exercise, a forging of a personal identity in line with the Australian identity. Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke described this practice as a “regeneration of the spirit of Anzac,” and the Australian government has worked hard to ensure continued Australian access to these sites for this purpose.

The Anzac mythology and the national identity which it promotes are – at this level – official government policy. “On this day,” according to Former Prime Minister John Howard, “we enrich ourselves” by drawing on the resources of this part of our past.


World War One memorials began to be erected before the war had ended, in part in order to inspire or encourage (or indeed shame) other young people to be prepared to serve. This was particularly an issue in Australia, where two referenda on conscription were defeated and all soldiers were volunteers. In New Zealand, where conscription had been introduced, there were fewer memorials, they were erected later, and they tend to carry only the names of those who died. In Australia, memorials often also carry the names of those who served and survived; shaming those who did not serve by their omission.

In addition to this, there were restrictions on the type of monument which could be erected. Those deemed “inappropriate” – that is, those which might undermine support for the war on the home front – were refused permission. Such restrictions were maintained after the war, for example, in the NSW Local Government Act, which required all memorials to be approved by the War Memorials Advisory Board. One of the sculptors commissioned to make several memorials is recorded as finding the restrictions difficult, “an incentive to effort but not art.”

Records of the unveiling of memorials describe speeches which expressed hope that the memorial would inspire the young to emulate the men whom it honoured. And yet, even then, some local newspapers reported such unveilings in headlines like “War Glorifier Unveiled”; local communities did not always gather around such memorials without disagreement as to their meaning. War memorials were often opposed by veterans who felt that they glorified war, rather than being honest about the reality of it.

There is one very unusual aspect of war memorials in Australia, and that is their ubiquity in churches. Church “honour boards” listing those of their congregation who served brought this aspect of Anzac into explicitly sacred space and claimed for it a level of sanctity not otherwise seen, creating a nexus between civil religion and the church on this matter.


This brief survey has attempted to tease out some of the psychological, historical, and political ways in which the Anzac story and related observances have been developed and used to shape the attitudes and behaviours of contemporary Australians.

The question, for readers, is whether the values of nationalism, militarism, and the marginalization of all but a very narrow view of Australian heritage, identity and values, are those which they wish to adopt as their own? Or do we each individually, and together as a community, need to do more work in order to shape a national identity which will articulate different values and reward different behaviours? That is a conversation in which I hope I can encounter – and be enriched by – a great diversity of viewpoints and values.

For further reading:

Lake, M. et al. “What’s Wrong With Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History.” University of New South Wales Press: Sydney, 2010.

Melleuish, Gregory. “Religion and Politics in Australia,” Political Theology, Vol. 11 Issue 6, 2010, pp909-927.

Rainbird, Paul. “Representing nation, dividing community: the Broken Hill War Memorial, New South Wales, Australia” World Archaeology, Vol. 35 Issue 1, 2003, pp22-35.

Rickard, J. and Spearritt, P, (eds). “Packaging the Past?: Public Histories.” Melbourne University Press: Melbourne, 1991.

Thomson, Alistair. “History and ‘betrayal’: The Anzac controversy,” History Today, Vol. 43 Issue 1, 1993, pp8-12.


3 comments on “Anzac as ‘civil religion’

  1. Hannah says:

    oh my goodness I could talk about this all day

  2. Hannah says:

    If I ever get back to Marvellous Melbourne again, can I come round for a chat (and maybe a bikkie?)

  3. paidiske says:

    Please do! In the meantime, feel free to expand on what I’ve written here…

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