Is it really OK to vote YES in the government’s same-sex marriage postal survey? Do the motivations some Christians have for ticking YES stack up? And are they good enough to justify a YES when the proposed legal changes could have some drastic consequences for marriage, families and our freedoms of speech, conscience and religion in Australia?
Previously, I looked at one reason Aussies who identify as Christians might be inclined to support the proposed changes to the Marriage Act. My aim in this post is to tackle another…
Christians should promote a vision of society where people are free to pursue whatever they understand to be necessary to living “the good life,” without being constrained, compelled or coerced by Christian beliefs about virtue and morality.
While our previous motivation/justification was concerned with the issues of how we understand law and human rights, this one is more about the intersection between theology, philosophy and politics (with our approach to changing or maintaining laws, like the Marriage Act, being determined by these considerations).
Understanding this motivation for voting YES
Christians who adopt the above stance are positively saying that God’s people should seek a society where every citizen has maximal freedom to pursue what they believe to be essential for happiness and human flourishing (the usual proviso being that this pursuit does not cause significant harm to others or infringe their rights to do the same). Freedom to define and practice marriage in accordance with one’s personal convictions falls within this framework.
Negatively, Christians who hold this position are saying that it is not our role to engage in politics in such a way that restricts our fellow citizens from pursuing their understanding of “the good life,” if our desire to restrict is based on Christian notions of morality, rather than concerns over harm being caused to others.
Some concrete examples of this position
Creek Road Presbyterian Church in Brisbane is intentionally refraining from telling Christians how (or even whether) to vote, but they have suggested the following reasoning a Christian might use to vote YES:
A believer in the Gospel of Jesus might vote yes in the survey because we enjoy the freedom to practice our faith, and uphold our own Christian definition of marriage within the broader community, and we believe it is right to extend that freedom to others. This might keep preserving our freedom, and it does treat others as we would have them treat us.
Lee Herridge, an Australian political libertarian and self-identifying “conservative, evangelical, Protestant” has written in the Spectator Australia that Christians cannot be consistent if we refuse to tolerate same-sex marriage, while tolerating the legality of others things we think are harmful to society. If we are willing to extend freedom of speech and religion to heresy and non-Christian religions – when these things are harmful to people’s souls – why not accept that our gay and lesbian neighbours are free to have their understanding of marriage legally recognised?
It is important to recognise that both examples I’ve cited equate the freedom of same-sex marriage advocates to change the definition of marriage with religious freedom.
In the first example, the freedom of our gay neighbours (and their “straight allies”) to legally redefine marriage to match their convictions about the goodness of committed, long-term male-male and female-female relationships is the same kind of freedom Christians currently have to define and practice marriage according to the Bible.
In the second example, extending the freedom to gay and lesbian couples to practice “marriage” on their terms is the same kind of freedom as allowing our Muslim and Hindu neighbours to practice “worship” on their terms.
In sum, to adopt this kind of motivation for voting YES, it would seem that it is necessary to understand the freedom to marry according to your convictions as being analogous to the freedom to worship according to your convictions. Christians shouldn’t legally interfere with the former, because we don’t legally interfere with the latter. And because we wouldn’t want someone who disagreed with our understanding of marriage/sexuality or worship to prevent us from practicing our convictions freely, we shouldn’t restrict those who we disagree with.
Responding to this motivation
There are a few reasons that I believe this motivation/justification doesn’t really make it OK for Christians to vote YES in the survey.
1. The equation of the right to define marriage according to one’s personal convictions with the right to freely practice one’s religion is dubious.
Religious freedom allows Australians of all faiths to worship God according to their understanding, freely practice the tenets of their religion (to the extent that it does not harm others, cause public disorder or infringe upon others’ right to religious freedom) and teach/propagate the doctrines they hold to be true. This is a precious freedom in and of itself and those who enjoy it should be wary of anything that might muddy the waters concerning the nature of this fundamental liberty. This would include treating the rights being claimed in the SSM debate as analogous or equivalent to freedom of religion.
Even if we grant that unbiblical sexual practices and understandings of marriage are by-products of idolatry (i.e. they proceed out of absolutising/worshipping something other than God/Jesus), saying YES to the legal recognition of marriage is less like an acknowledgement of the freedom to be idolatrous and more like an acknowledgement of an idol as true.
Christians have the freedom to practice their religion, but not the entitlement to compel others to treat our religion as though it is true. You can’t stop me from proclaiming “Jesus is Lord,” but I can’t force you to acknowledge that he is. A Catholic can call their priest “Father,” but a Protestant isn’t legally obliged to do so.
Nor can we force others to redefine their religious institutions to accommodate our convictions or demands. A Pentecostal church that ordains women as ministers can’t force a Presbyterian church to recognise Pastor Sue as a pastor or elder. And an atheist can’t demand a Muslim recognise a pork sandwich as halal.
Marriage under Australian law is not about freedom to do whatever you believe with the person you love and leave others to do what they want. It comes with the expectation that all Australians will recognise anyone married under the Marriage Act as validly married. Religious freedom does not (and indeed cannot) compel the citizen who says “Jesus is Lord” to also confess “Muhammed is the Prophet” (or vice versa). But people who believe marriage is a divinely-instituted union between one man and one woman will be expected to acknowledge SSM with declarations that gay and lesbian couples are validly married.
2. Endorsing a change to the legal status of marriage that is incompatible with one’s own biblical beliefs is not necessary for the promotion of maximal freedom of religion/worship.
Some Christian groups (notably Baptists & other Independent/Free church movements) have had a theological commitment to freedom of religion and separation of church and state from the early days of their movement. Western societies adopted this kind of approach as part of a recognition that while most people in their society had a religion – there were significant disagreements over a range of issues. The religious toleration we now take for granted only gained universal acceptance in the West after ugly conflicts and oppression arising from religious intolerance.
While many Christians who believe in the principle of religious freedom are averse to the idea of coercing non-Christians to live like Christians, through legislative measures – it does not follow that one must promote alterations to the law where it reflects what one sincerely believes to be the best for society.
Many, perhaps most, Christians who have been deeply committed to religious freedom in the period since the seventeenth century have not adopted a neutral or indifferent stance to public shifts away from values or institutions that are biblically attested to as good. Seeking to preserve God’s good and gracious gifts to our society is not the same as seeking to impose our morality on an unwilling populace.
As brighter Christian minds than mine have pointed out, all laws are coercive to some degree (the legal consequences for illegal activity compel obedience) and all certainly proceed from and promote a real moral framework (i.e. every law reflects a belief about what is good/bad or right/wrong and commends this understanding to the public). It is not a stretch to see the proposed changes to the Marriage Act as the state declaring that it is wrong to withhold recognition from some gay relationships as “marriages,” because such unions are a recognised public good with full equivalency to that of heterosexual marriages. And it is not unreasonable to anticipate wide-ranging legal penalties for those who disagree with the “goodness” or “rightness” of these “marriages.”
It seems paradoxical for Christians to vote YES in the name of principled non-coercion, when doing so will hand the government and sexual revolutionaries a means to coerce dissenting Christians and non-Christians alike to accept an unbiblical view of marriage and sexuality.
Which brings us to the next point.
3. It is unloving and irresponsible to grant a legal freedom to one group in society that will be feasibly claimed as an inherent right and used to interfere with the genuine rights of others.
Our previous post established that SSM is not a human right, nor is denying it to people an act of legal discrimination. The key verb in the postal survey is “allow.” In this case “allow” means granting a freedom and legal entitlement to citizens that do not have an inalienable right to what is being granted. Australian law may grant such a freedom/entitlement, but there is no violation of rights if this does not occur.
International evidence strongly suggests that if SSM is granted as a legal entitlement in Australia, it will be used by some members of the political faction lobbying for marriage redefinition to infringe upon actual, fundamental rights belonging to citizens who conscientiously object to the “truth” of SSM. A Christian who votes YES for the sake of extending freedom to their gay neighbours must recognise that they are gambling the rights to freedom of speech and religion of a wide range of other neighbours by taking such action.
Evangelical Christians may be willing to suffer persecution for their fidelity to biblical beliefs about marriage if faced with legal coercion to go against our consciences. But is it really loving our neighbours if we are inviting legal ramifications or violation of conscience upon Australians from outside our religion? Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, members of smaller religious minorities and even people with traditional cultural beliefs about marriage that aren’t terribly religious – will all face potential problems if the law compels them to recognise gay partnerships as marriage, against their beliefs.
4. This approach removes any grounds for Christians to seek to preserve any other aspects of the present, legal definition of marriage in the future.
If Christians should not oppose marriage being redefined to change the gender requirement of one man and one woman – we have no basis to oppose the abolition of any of the other requirements that determine what a marriage is. By the above reasoning, as long as we can continue to practice marriage according to our own convictions, we should not express opposition to marriage being redefined to include an indefinite number of people or an incestuous union between consenting adults.
If we are to positively “vote in” the freedom of same-sex couples to “marry,” we in effect admit that it is something we should have been advocating for all along. Therefore, Christians should be at the forefront of encouraging those Muslims whose vision of the “good life” includes polygamous marriage to push for their rights in society – even though we don’t agree with their understanding of marriage.
Further, we all know people whose life seems to revolve around a pet or an inanimate possession. Are we so detached from the general, societal definition of marriage that we should hypothetically support the right of Australians who idolise their cat or absolutise their sports car to redefine marriage according to what they regard as the most meaningful “relationship” in their lives?
There are of course real differences between the above examples and same-sex relationships and it may be unlikely that these hypothetical marriage redefinitions ever receive the same kind of public push as SSM. I’m merely seeking to point out that Christians who adopt the above position don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to opposing any such redefinitions.
At the time of publication it is unclear to the author as to whether online communications shared on personal blogs fall under the legal purview of the Marriage Law Survey (Additional Safeguards) Act 2017. Should that prove to be the case, the author acknowledges that this piece attempts to persuade Australians entitled to vote in the survey to do so in a certain manner and that this has been done in good faith without any intention to vilify, intimidate or threaten to cause harm. Should the Act require it, this communication is authorised by Y. Johnston, Brisbane.
 Michael Coghlan Adelaide Mosque flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)