Photo: Tony Abbott portrayed as Satan in a Sydney mural (via: quadrant.org.au) I don’t know about you, but on more than a few occasions I’ve heard people speak about “sectarianism” (i.e. social division between religious groups) in Australia as a negative element of the past. In … Continue reading Australia’s New Sectarianism
“It’s OK to vote NO” I’m told by some of my friends’ Facebook profile pics. But as the same-sex marriage (SSM) postal survey gets mailed out this week, we also need to ask: is it really OK to vote YES?
When I ask, this question – I’m primarily concerned with Christians who may be entertaining the possibility of responding in this way. I’m not asking whether Christians have the right as democratic citizens to express a YES to the question being put to Australia. We do.
I’m asking whether it’s OK to vote YES if we’re seeking to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus, witnesses to His gospel and loving neighbours?
I’m asking whether the reasons a Christian may think justify saying YES to SSM make it OK to invite the Australian government to alter a fundamental, divinely-sanctioned human institution so that it includes an expression of sexuality abhorred by God?
In short I’m asking whether God will be OK with Christians saying YES to SSM?
I’ve identified 3 main motivations that might lead Australians who identify as Christians to support a change to the law to allow SSM.
- A sincere belief that the current Marriage Act enshrines discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians and denies them one of their human rights.
- A sincere belief that 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.
- A sincere belief that SSM is an inevitability and that voting YES now would enable better legislated protections and exemptions for conscientious objectors to SSM (including Christians), because the current government is more sympathetic and responsible in this regard than the opposition would be.
I will attempt to deal with each of these possible justifications for a Christian to vote YES. Because a detailed response is necessary, I’ve tackled the first one below and will follow up with a response to the others in the near future.
- The current Marriage Act enshrines discrimination against gay and lesbian Australians and denies them one of their human rights.
This has the potential to be a powerful justification. Denying people their human rights is a serious matter that fair-minded people are naturally inclined to avoid. But the fact is, the Marriage Act doesn’t discriminate unfairly against homosexual couples. And calls for “marriage equality” are more demands for social recognition than they are claims of a genuine human right.
The Marriage Act defines marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” This 2004 amendment to the 1961 Marriage Act simply clarified what marriage had meant in Australian law and society since the time of federation (and for a much longer time in the British legal tradition from which the legal and social frameworks of modern Australia are derived).
This does prevent gay and lesbian unions from being interpreted by Australian law as “marriages,” but it equally precludes bigamy, polygamy, forced marriages and marital unions where one or more parties are incapable of legally giving consent. It’s all there in that definition. No unfair discrimination exists, because all Australians have the same right and freedom to marry under the law. Any adult can marry a consenting, non-married adult of the opposite sex who isn’t a close biological relative.
The fact that some citizens of homosexual orientation choose to seek fulfilment in committed relationships with members of the same sex and can’t legally call that relationship a marriage is not unfair discrimination. It’s simply the case that they’ve chosen to pursue a relationship that has never fit the definition of marriage in this country.
Denying people their human rights?
But that brings us to the human rights claim. We often hear that being able to marry the person you love is a basic human right that needs to be enshrined in Australian law.
But is that really the case?
As I’ve argued elsewhere, what is really being claimed – even demanded – by SSM advocates, is that all Australians be compelled to legally and socially recognise committed homosexual relationships as marriages: even if they don’t personally believe them to be so.
International law has refused to recognise same-sex marriage as a genuine human right or hold nations accountable for human rights violations if they fail to legislate SSM. The courts in Northern Ireland – where SSM remains illegal – recently found that a gay complainant had no claim to his human rights being abused by the government’s refusal to recognise gay partnerships as marriages.
“Marriage equality” may feel like a right to those who are passionately fighting for a change to the law. But it just isn’t a right the way that our rights to life, political and religious liberty and basic essential provisions are true, universal human rights.
Everyone has the right to marry. But no one has an innate right to redefine what marriage means and compel their fellow citizens to accept the new definition.
So if a Christian is inclined to tick YES in the postal survey, because they believe they need to support gay and lesbian couples in their struggle for freedom of discrimination and enjoyment of human rights – that’s unfortunate. Because our laws do not unfairly discriminate, nor deny anyone their human rights.
POSTSCRIPT: When “Christians” adopt this position because they affirm homosexuality as good in and of itself…
There’s actually a more serious issue that could be at play for some who identify as Christians and want to say YES for the above reason – which I’ll attempt to deal with briefly in closing.
It may be that someone who adopts the anti-discrimination/human rights rationale does so because their underlying view of homosexual relationships is that they’re good for those who are involved in them and that homosexuality is a neutral or positive – rather than negative – expression of human sexuality.
This is a serious problem, because if someone calls themselves a Christian but affirms homosexual relationships as good, they are giving support to a change in the law due to a completely unbiblical understanding of human sexuality and marriage.
Australian Marriage law corresponds with the biblical vision of marriage as affirmed by the creation account of Genesis, Jesus Himself, the apostles and the climactic vision of the Book of Revelation. To want the law in Australia changed because you believe the Bible gets it wrong on marriage and sexuality is an untenable position for a Christian to hold.
While I believe that other reasons a Christian might have for voting YES are mistaken and misguided, actual in-principle affirmation of homosexuality as good and acceptable is of more serious concern than all other motivations. Because when someone adopts such a position it is no longer a case of a difference in opinion over political and personal engagement with this issue and those affected by it.
Affirmation of homosexuality is nothing other than a step on the path of apostasy. If you hear someone who’s supposed to be a Christian leader doing this, beware of them. They don’t speak with God’s authority behind them. If you know a Christian who’s thinking this way – it’s much more important that you seek to win them back to the biblical truth than it is to convince someone to vote NO in a survey…
Short responses to Nathan Campbell’s 10 reasons for abstaining from participation in the postal plebiscite on same-sex marriage.
[N.B. This is a postscript to my recent article on the issues surrounding the plebiscite. NC’s comments ennumerated and italicised, my responses in bold. I have added [a] & [b] to his original text for some points to enable ease of response].
1. I believe the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) isn’t just a nice idea, but an important command for Christians to pursue as we live together with neighbours who disagree with us
Response: I believe the second greatest commandment (as cited by Jesus): “Love your neighbour as yourself” precludes the encouraging, endorsing or enabling of any behaviour, activity or attitude that is inherently harmful to one’s neighbour(s).
2. [a] I believe the Christianity we see in the New Testament assumes a society and moral order that is fundamentally different in outlook to the way of being in the world produced by the Gospel, and [b] it’s not our job to police sexual morality outside the church (1 Corinthians 5).
a. Agreed, but the conundrum of how the apostles might have responded to imperial proposals to change any law from approximately agreeing with biblical morality to rejecting it – is an open question.
b. Agreed, but neither are we called to indifference towards sexual morality outside the church. Almost no churches or Christian leaders are calling for renewed legal penalties for private sodomy – that would be policing morality. Public recognition of what constitutes a marriage is different.
3. [a] I believe the best version of a liberal, secular, democracy is pluralistic; that our life together as citizens of Australia works best when we allow for and accommodate a diversity of views on what a good or flourishing human life looks like. [b] If I want my definition of marriage recognised by law, and it comes from my convictions, as a Christian, about what God says a good and flourishing life looks like, then I should be prepared (because of the Golden Rule) to make space for others to have their definition of marriage recognised by law.
a. I broadly agree, in the sense that I too am a political pluralist. What ‘liberal,’ ‘secular’ and ‘democracy’ mean to NC and whether I agree with his appropriation of these concepts as a fellow Christian with differing views on our participation in society, I’m not sure.
b. This logic is concerning, as it presumably surrenders any meaningful say for Christians in the limitations of what can be regarded as marriage. This Golden Rule ethic can’t realistically stop at male-male “marriage” and “female-female” marriage…
4. I believe that religious freedom is a big part of pluralism, and that all people are worshippers, whether they worship God, or something like sex and marriage; that worship is about our primary love and our vision of the good or flourishing life. That’s part of our humanity. This means everybody defines marriage through the prism of their worship, or love, or vision of the good life (Romans 1 seems to make a connection between what we choose to worship (creator or created things) and how we live in the world. I believe that if I, as a Christian, want the legal freedom to define marriage as God defines it within our church community, and as a Christian in the community, then I should allow my neighbours to have their definition of marriage receive the same legal freedom within the context of a liberal, secular, democracy.
Response: This doesn’t differ in substance from 3b above, except for the introduction of the freedom of religion element. Some people could be said to absolutise their relationship with their pet dog or cat in the same way that self-identifying LGBTI&c people absolutise their sexuality and relationships. Surely we are not proposing pagan marriage to animals if it represents what our neighbours treasure most in life?
5. [a] I believe the plebiscite is a bad idea (and poorly executed); that democracy is not about populism and ‘majority rules’ but about balancing competing and different visions of the good life, and making space at the table for all views to be protected and represented in our life together. [b] I think Christians should be particularly concerned about how minority groups in our society are treated both while we have power (because of the Golden Rule), but because I’m not sure we’ll have that power for much longer.
a. This is confusing democracy with pluralism. NC may be a principled political and religious pluralist, but many of his fellow citizens aren’t. The only thing that stops democracy from becoming populism or ‘majority-rules’ is a commitment to something deeper or higher than democracy itself. I fear those deeper commitments are disappearing across Australia.
b. There isn’t much to disagree with here on the surface, except to flag that adherence to the “Golden Rule” shouldn’t necessarily anticipate reciprocation. That is, the goal of treating minorities well is not to be treated well when one becomes part of a minority.
6. I’d much rather encourage people in my congregation to love their neighbours, regardless of their religion or sexuality, because it’s in our Christ shaped love for those who are different (our following of the Golden Rule), that the message of the Gospel as the ultimate account of human flourishing actually has sense. I don’t want to fight for Christian morals apart from the Gospel, because seeing the world God’s way and living in it as those being transformed into the image of Jesus actually requires his Spirit (Romans 8).
Response: Loving people who are different and earnestly seeking to share Christ with them is not mutually exclusive in relation to opposing change that is bad for society. Voting NO to changing the Marriage Act is not necessarily forcing non-Christians to accept Christian morals apart from Christ. It’s simply expressing what you believe is the best for the society in which you dwell. SSM does not promote the good of homosexual people, nor children, nor Australians who uphold the traditional understanding of marriage, nor the wider nation because of the adverse side-effects it will bring about.
7. I believe that our current public posture (as the ‘institution’ of the church in Australia, or the political arm of Christendom) is damaging the Gospel by, amongst other things, failing to take points 1-6 into account. I want to be a different voice to those voices (also by failing to speak the Gospel at all, a Crikey essay on the ACL I read this week claims they deliberately avoid religious language in their lobbying).
I too have concerns about the way in which some Christian organisations approach social issues – especially if their engagement is carried out in the name of Christianity, but devoid of meaningful representation of Christ Himself. I do however feel that disdain for the ACL drives NC to over-correction with respect to Christian political involvement.
8. I have big problems with any ‘Christian’ activity that feels coercive or manipulative, or like an attempt to apply our power or clout to the lives of others outside the church. I don’t think coercion is consistent with the Gospel of the crucified king who ultimately renounced human power and influence; and I believe the Cross is the power and wisdom of God, not the sword (or the democratic equivalent). I think lobbying and special interest groups distort the operation of democracy.
I also believe that coercive use of power by Christians – and especially the institution of the Church – is dangerous. I don’t believe that acting in a way that upholds the legal definition of marriage in Australia is inherently coercive. Furthermore, voting to prevent “forced recognition” of same-sex relationships as marriage is simply using legitimate democratic participation to say NO to coercion being used against our brothers, sisters and neighbours. You don’t vote for things that restrict religious freedom, nor should we remain silent when they are proposed.
9. [a] I don’t want to talk to my gay friends and neighbours about why the church doesn’t want them to enjoy what they understand as a basic human right in the context of telling people how to vote in the plebiscite, I want to talk to them about the goodness of Jesus, and the (I believe objectively) better life that is produced if we worship the God who is love, and created us to love, rather than what’s wrong with their ‘worship’… [b] I believe, like the old preacher Thomas Chalmers, that what is required for people’s loves to be changed is ‘the expulsive power’ of new loves, not the creating of a vacuum.
a. I can appreciate this and I think it shows the heart behind the approach. A sincere desire to engage non-believers with the gospel and not get sidetracked by red herrings, hobby-horses and rabbit-trails is positive and commendable. It is too easy for non-Christians to mistake the church’s core business as involving being against those we think are the problem with society. We don’t want anyone, gay, straight or whatever to make that mistake.
But it is not a one-sided matter of Christians driving people who identify as homosexual away by our stance on marriage – it is also their sin driving them away from the truth. Not voting in the plebiscite might seem like a way to build a bridge, or at least avoid burning one down, but I don’t know that it will appease anyone or make them more receptive to the truth.
b. Chalmers was right on the money. I doubt very much that he’d say that the power of an expulsive affection leaves no place for the civil law to uphold a certain understanding of marriage though.
10. I don’t want to bind people’s consciences to follow my lead, or my vote, because I recognise that within my church community, and denomination, there are many different views on the last 7 points, and coercing or manipulating people to act according to my understanding of the world fails the Golden Rule too.
I also hope that none of my Christian brothers and sisters feel coerced to go against what they think and feel about this issue and how to approach the plebiscite. But because I believe voting NO is critically important, I’m hoping that many will agree and act accordingly.
The Liberal Party will hold a special meeting this afternoon to discuss what action to take regarding a proposed private member’s bill on same-sex marriage (henceforth, ‘SSM’). It is likely that a commitment to a plebiscite of some kind will prevail – but the situation is anything but certain. This piece argues that the “postal plebiscite” option might be the best hope the nation has of putting the issue to rest one way or another in a democratic way.
4 Reasons why a postal plebiscite might be the best way forward:
- The issue is not going to go away without definitive democratic action
To be very clear I support a plebiscite of any kind with the utmost reluctance. I support marriage being left alone and attempts at legislative change ceasing. But that cannot happen in the current political climate and there currently remains more pathways for pro-SSM activists to keep pushing their agenda than for conservatives to quash the issue.
The only chance we have of putting the matter to rest for the next few terms of parliament is by allowing Australian voters an equal chance to affirm or reject it. Rejection by the public is the most effective means of shutting down the issue in the current and next terms of parliament. Though we can expect activists to keep trying to push their agenda forward no matter what (they believe their cause is righteous and will stop at nothing to achieve it) – those in Parliament with no will to change the definition of marriage will have their hand strengthened by a no vote and be able to move on to addressing other matters of national importance.
- Legislation for a regular plebiscite will be blocked in the Senate
Since the government needs to pass legislation to hold an ordinary plebiscite, but cannot get support for such legislation, the option proposed by Peter Dutton – a postal vote which would not require legislation to hold – is a viable means of resolving the issue. The government can commit to taking the outcome of such a vote seriously and act accordingly.
- A postal plebiscite will see the side that can best mobilise people to vote for their convictions win.
Pro-SSM activists are worried about the nature of an optional vote working against them. But such a huge issue is actually better resolved by people who care about it than the “can’t-be-bothered” mob who exclude themselves from having a say in an optional process. If SSM advocates win such a vote it will be because they campaigned successfully and got people who really believed in changing the definition of marriage to have their say. Likewise for conservatives.
Whichever side loses likely only has themselves to blame for not motivating enough people to vote about the future of marriage – or else we may conclude that they never really had the widespread support they claimed (be it the gay lobby’s supposed 70+% or the conservatives’ supposed “silent majority”). With all the negative effects that will come about as a result of legalising SSM, marriage should never be redefined unless an overwhelming majority are strongly for that change.
- The Government has an electoral mandate for a plebiscite – whereas parliamentarians have no mandate to change the definition of marriage without a public vote.
If SSM was the major issue on everyone’s minds when they voted at the last election, Bill Shorten would be the PM. He offered the clearest pathway to SSM – passage of legislation within 100 days of taking office. Most Australians voted for the parties they did while prioritising other issues above this one.
It’s true that a resounding ALP win could justify implementing SSM as part of their election platform – but Australians have not accepted the full package Mr. Shorten & co. are offering and so the public have not voted in a party that will bring change.
Turnbull didn’t really win the election – like Gillard in 2010 he simply stopped short of losing it completely. But the electors who did vote Coalition knew that a plebiscite was their proposed way of dealing with the issue.
So by rights, the two possible courses of action for non-government parties in this parliament should be:
a) Accept that no one has a sufficient mandate for change and stop pursuing SSM OR
b) Reluctantly admit that the Coalition has a mandate (however slight) for a plebiscite.
The Government is responsible for either:
a) Pursuing some form of public vote as it promised at the election OR
b) Continuing the course which it has been on for the past few months
(i.e. moving onto other more pressing issues due to the plebiscite legislation being blocked by the Senate).
Several objections to such a plebiscite refuted
“It’s a travesty to our democracy if we hold a public vote to do something that our political representatives were elected to do! This is the job of Parliament.”
Many proponents of SSM support a free vote in Federal Parliament, but insincerely pretend that this is because of their high view of parliament’s role in our democracy – rather than mere political opportunism. If Parliament’s authority to resolve the issue is respected, the issue should be dropped – as change has been rejected by previous Parliaments (and there was bipartisan support in 2004 for the clarifications to the Marriage Act made by the Howard Government).
Since many have a two-faced disregard for Parliament’s power to resolve the issue – in any way other than deciding in the affirmative for their cause – the matter must be taken away from the politicians and resolved definitively by the people.
Incidentally (as many have pointed out), it’s a bit rich for the ALP to pressure the Government to hold a “free vote” instead of holding to the party position, when they intend to force all their Senators and MPs to vote for marriage equality (irrespective of their personal beliefs) if the matter isn’t resolved by 2019. They don’t believe in a “free vote” any more than they do the sanctity of Parliament.
“A plebiscite is an unnecessary waste of tax-payer’s money, because we’ll spend millions on a referendum-style vote when the Constitution doesn’t need to be changed to bring in ‘marriage equality’”
This is almost completely farcical when used by the Opposition, for two reasons.
1) Shorten & Co. now support not one, but two votes on a Republic (revisiting an issue that has already been dealt with by the Australian people less than twenty years ago) – one of which would presumably be a plebiscite (“Do you want a republic?” doesn’t actually propose a concrete change to the constitution, that’s why they need another vote later). They also support another referendum on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition in the Constitution. It turns out, if we go with Bill it’ll be quite a bill!
To argue against a vote for cost reasons is disingenuous.
2) Marriage is a constitutional matter and changing it’s definition is at least as serious as matters requiring a referendum.
The Constitution gives the Federal Parliament power to make laws related to marriage in the Commonwealth. I recognise the government’s legal right to change the Marriage Act as it sees fit. I don’t recognise its moral right to fundamentally change what Australians understand by the word marriage without properly consulting the populace.
When the constitution was drafted, marriage referred to the legal, social, domestic and almost always sexual union of a man and woman considered by society to be of appropriate age and mental capacity; not already in a marital relationship and not closely related by blood. If the Federal Government wants to use its powers to fundamentally change what the legal definition of marriage is – it should do so with the clear backing of the vast majority of the population. Any proposed changes need to be owned or disowned by the Australian people. Otherwise this is an abuse of power and an unacceptably liberal reading of the constitution.
While the adverse effects of a republic on our political system remain to be seen until the day citizens become silly enough to walk blindfolded into one – the Aboriginal recognition issue is less likely to impact the lives of people across the country to the extent that radically redefining marriage will. An issue that will impact people’s freedom of speech and religion and their educational and workplace environments far more than adding a preamble to a constitution would needs to be weighed by the voting public and then corporate responsibility borne for the road taken.
“Any kind of public vote which gives airtime to ‘bigots’ will cause psychological and emotional harm to LGBTI Australians and even risk driving vulnerable people to suicide.”
You know who else faces a higher than normal suicide risk than other members of the general population? Aboriginal youths. And yet the same people that feign concern about LGBTI suicide risk – if a plebiscite is held about their ‘right’ to marry – want to hold a referendum where there will be public debate on whether Aboriginal people hold a special place in our society that should be recognised in our highest law.
This is a sickening ploy by political manipulators that are weaponising young, at-risk people in an attempt to guilt-trip you into rolling over and letting them walk all over you with the changes they want to bring in. Meanwhile, they don’t seem to be worried about other at-risk youth at all. Nor did they seem horrified that Ireland was irresponsibly putting lives at risk when it held its referendum on the issue. Suicide and mental health issues amongst gay and lesbian Australians – or any other members of the community – should not to be taken lightly. But nor should they be used as pretexts to steamroll democracy.
“A postal plebiscite may not even be legal”
If this proves to be the case, of course it should be dropped. But then SSM advocates ought to allow the government to hold a legal plebiscite or be unsurprised when it continues on with business as usual instead of giving into their political tactics on the issue.
“A postal plebiscite will favour older, conservative Australians and potentially disenfranchise younger citizens, people living or travelling abroad and those in remote areas.”
Refer to reason #3 for a postal plebiscite provided above. If young people don’t care about democracy enough to enroll before an electoral deadline they don’t deserve to have a say on such a pivotal issue. If people abroad or in remote areas get plenty of notice that a postal plebiscite will be held and they care enough about the issue one way or the other – are we seriously supposed to believe they will not have a chance to express their views?
This objection translates to: “We’re afraid that people we lazily claim as supporters may be apathetic enough to not make any effort to help us win a vote.” If that’s the case it’s simple – they aren’t actually supporters of the gay lobby’s radical redefinition of marriage.
We know the activists are good at lobbying pollies, running biased surveys and orchestrating media campaigns to make people feel like their view is the dominant one and the only reasonable position on marriage. But could their post-Brexit, post-Trump fear be that they just can’t motivate ordinary people to take action for the radical change their polls claim 70+% of the country believes in?
They claim it’s time for marriage equality. I say it’s time for Australians who actually care about the future of marriage in this country to have their say in a democratic vote.
This is the second of two posts responding to a recent speech by Senator Penny Wong on the rationale for same sex marriage ‘rights’ to be granted to gay and lesbian Australians. Please read Part 1 first and perhaps take the time to read Senator Wong’s speech for context.
Assertion #2: Australia is a secular society & religious belief has no part in law-making
People of faith (as Wong herself claims to be) would be wise to reject the categorisation of Australia as a “secular society” – or at least insist on strict boundaries on what such a phrase is intended to mean.
We undeniably have a secular government: in the sense that there is no religious test for holding public office (a problem that long plagued the United Kingdom, but which was partly demanded by their unique historico-political circumstances). Nor is there any constitutional power held by the federal government to establish a national religion, nor any appropriate role for the government to interfere in spiritual, liturgical or theological matters.
But when we speak of a “secular society” or “separation of church and state” we must always be careful that we are not ceding too much ground to “secularists.” By secularists, I mean those members of society who take a combative attitude towards all forms of organised religion, supernatural belief and transcendent morality and seek to bar it from every aspect of public life and prejudice the national mind against all kinds of faith.
We see a very active secularist push in the United States, where many political figures, educators and commentators are uncomfortable with the potential for enormous influence on the nation’s politics by a sizeable devoutly religious segment of the population. A more hardened form of secularism is entrenched in modern France, where the revolutionary spirit has driven the political culture to seek to completely sideline the Catholic Church from exercising its once powerful influence in the country. The most extreme and – arguably the most successful – projects in secularism have been Communist countries, where the regimes have eliminated both religious and political freedom, made Marxism a kind of religion of its own and thus kept religious views completely out of public life (N.B. secularists in democratic societies would likely contest my categorization of communist countries as secular, but I am suggesting it is the probable end-point of a secularism pushed too far).
Wong pays lip-service to the idea of ensuring that secular is not interpreted as meaning “anti-religious,” but her attitude toward religious beliefs she disagrees with suggests that she is masking her secularism to make her intentions appear more benign than they actually are. She doesn’t believe that Christian (or any other) religious beliefs about marriage should have any bearing upon the legal definition. And she seems happy to silence those voices in favour of exclusively heterosexual marriage by trumpeting her idea of secularism.
Australia should be more helpfully understood as a ‘pluralistic’ society. People of faith do have a right to express their views publicly (because we are a democracy) and seek what they think is best for the nation (because we are a ‘commonwealth’). Citizens who vote – and participate in the political process in other ways – have real beliefs about life, God and the universe and these views will naturally affect how they approach political and social questions.
Just as we might be exhorted not to leave our brains at the door when going to church, we should not be expected to leave our soul at the gate when we enter the polling booth.
Secularism prejudicially preferences atheism, humanism, agnosticism and religious indifference over sincerely held religious beliefs. Pluralism recognises that society is a complex combination of people with certain shared absolute values and beliefs and certain disputed ones. Secularism seeks to silence religious voices by telling them to keep their personal beliefs private. Pluralism accepts that people of any or no religion can freely express their honest opinions on a subject in the public sphere. These views will then be assessed and either accepted, modified or rejected by politicians and other members of the public in the course of the debate.
Secularism attempts to safeguard the religious neutrality of the state and government by limiting religious freedom and denying religious individuals and organisations political influence. Pluralism achieves a multi-religious society by legally enshrining religious freedom and preventing the establishment of a state religion. But it welcomes the input of all citizens in political life – irrespective of how much their religion shapes their political views.
Principled pluralism is a better way forward than hardened secularism.
- “Liberal democracy is not compatible with fundamentalism of any description, whether ideological or spiritual.”
There is a deep irony and lack of self-awareness in this statement. Senator Wong implies that you mustn’t take your religious beliefs “too seriously” (the majority of Australians would agree with the sentiment): because this might come at the expense of the paramount values of a liberal democracy. But she fails to acknowledge that there is a kind of sexual fundamentalism raging across Western civilisation which is seldom condemned as incompatible with liberalism and democracy by those who share its understanding of sexuality.
Perhaps the average Australian can more easily identify the difficulties posed to social cohesion by hardcore adherents of Christianity and Islam or the threat to political liberty that is inherent in communism and fascism. But it is time to wake up and acknowledge that a cultural revolution that idolises sexual orientation but detests religious liberty is continuing to unfold in this country (and others). Sexual fundamentalism and progressive fundamentalism promote their own forms of strict orthodoxy and are not hesitant to use tools of coercion and oppression to enforce their views and punish dissent.
“Religious freedom means being free to worship and to follow your faith without suffering persecution or discrimination for your beliefs. It does not mean imposing your beliefs on everyone else.”
This is one of the central themes of Senator Wong’s address. Religious beliefs are being wielded as weapons which harm the rights and freedoms of other members of society who do not share such views.
She later adds:
“Religion-based moral codes continue to limit the freedoms and the rights of those who, in the view of religious groups, do not ‘conform’ to their views. In advocating, and indeed proselytizing, their own views, they too often restrict and constrain the rights of others.”
This is proof that the Senator is herself a hardened secularist. She purports that secularism entails: “the ability of everyone to believe what they wish, to practise their religion as they see fit, to express their ethical and moral preferences, to say what they wish – but all without imposing their beliefs and views on anyone, and without inflicting injury or hurt.” But this amounts to saying that freedom of religion (and associated acts of free speech) must be exercised separately from any freedom to participate in the political process. If you have religiously-influenced views on marriage you can express them (until those rights are taken away by a future government anyway), but you are disqualified from acting in any way that advances those views in the political process.
Because Wong argues that “In a secular society, ‘the norm’ is not the view of the majority,” there can be no question of persuading the majority of your fellow Australians that your view of marriage is the one society should recognise and celebrate (especially by way of getting them to accept your religious worldview). Even if 15 million of the 16-17 million eligible voters in Australia could be convinced that marriage should legally remain defined by the current definition indefinitely, Wong’s moral casuistry would demand that the government still legislate in favour of SSM, because it supposedly proceeds from an inviolable principle of equality (the idea of which was rejected in part 1).
Arguments made from a non-religious stand-point are not inherently better than religiously-informed ones. Politicians seem to recognise that certain moral issues are better decided by a conscience vote in Parliament when there are serious ethical questions involved. In Australian history, such issues have naturally been resolved by MPs voting in accordance with their deeply held beliefs about life, death and humanity – often overtly religious in nature. Matters of marriage and sexuality have been resolved in this manner in previous Federal parliaments and funnily enough, the ALP repeatedly calls for a “free vote” on the issue, in which members from both sides could be expected to vote with their conscience and beliefs.
If politicians are entitled to vote in accordance with their conscience and core principles (something which the Senator and her party only believe in when it suits them), surely people of faith who vote, pay taxes and contribute to the well-being of society are entitled to vote according to their own deeply held values and petition their representatives to advance those views inside and outside of parliament? A hardcore secularism that won’t allow for this is no longer liberal or democratic. If Senator Wong pursues this path, she risks committing the very crime against the heart of our society that she accuses opponents of SSM of doing.
Unless something changes soon, a future government in which people with the same attitudes as Senator Wong hold the reins of power will foreseeably damage freedom of religion in Australia; pass laws that open the doors for persecution and discrimination on the basis of genuinely held beliefs; and impose their own (non-religious, but nonetheless ideological) beliefs upon the rest of us.
It’s time to stop being complacent and apply the blowtorch to politicians that want to use the idea of a secular society to curb religious freedom. Because they need to start feeling the pressure they’re trying to put on people of faith. Australian democracy must learn to thrive as a principled pluralistic society, or it will be slowly choked to death by a secularism that will squeeze the life out of religious liberty and silence millions of voices.
For more Christian responses to Senator Wong’s speech, check out David Ould’s sterling effort on ABC’s the Drum last week or my former theology lecturer Dr. Michael Bird’s response at The Thermidorian. John Piper has also written about the Christian commitment to pluralism – instead of secularism or religious coercion – in the context of seeking to glorify God as supreme in all things.
This week, Australia’s most prominent homosexual politician, ALP Senator Penny Wong, gave a lecture promoting the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry in Australia. While endless ink has been spilled and air expired concerning this ongoing social debate, it is important that Australian Christians listen, consider and respond to the latest arguments being made by perhaps the most significant proponent of same-sex ‘marriage’ in federal politics.
Senator Wong makes a sweep of assumptions and assertions in this speech that must not escape our notice. I will not deal with each point individually, but have provided a summarised list of these below:
1) Legal Marriage is a ‘right’ for all loving relationships, irrespective of sexuality.
2) “At the centre of the opposition to equality of marriage rights for gay & lesbian members of the community is the conflation of religious concepts of marriage with secular concepts of marriage.”
3) Social conservatives “remove from marriage the idea of love, companionship, common enterprise and the creation of family” and make it about ‘utilitarian’ child-rearing
4) a. Australia is a secular society and religious belief has no part in law-making
b. “Liberal democracy isn’t compatible with fundamentalism of any description, whether ideological or spiritual.”
5) “Discrimination against people on the basis of an innate characteristic, like sexual orientation, is anti-liberal and anti-democratic.”
6) “Religious freedom means being free to worship and to follow your faith without suffering persecution or discrimination for your beliefs. It does not mean imposing your beliefs on everyone else.”
7) Safe Schools style education programs are “essential” for Australian society
8) Why “should the gay and lesbian community be merely ‘tolerated’ when the heterosexual community takes for granted ‘acceptance’ and recognition of their sexual preference as ‘the norm’?”
9) A secular society is the creation of its own freedom, which is itself a consequence of the basic equality of human beings.
10) “the strongest argument for equality by lesbians and gay men rests on the assertion that . . . respect for natural rights depends on a foundational commitment to equality as the first moral good and a defining feature of our political and legal traditions”.
That’s way too many to tackle in a blog post, but the core of Senator Wong’s lecture boils down to two main assertions.
1) Same-sex marriage is a legal right being denied to homosexual couples (mainly) at the behest of religious opposition.
2) Australia is a secular society in which personal religious beliefs and convictions have no place in forming public policy or legislation that affects the wider community.
Or we could distill this further to problem and proposed solution.
Problem: Same-sex couples in Australia are being denied a basic right: the right to marry. The law must change.
Solution: The Marriage Act can easily be changed if religious-based objections to change are discredited and dismissed as irrelevant in a secular society.
I will deal with these fundamental assertions that lie behind the rest of Senator Wong’s arguments, by arguing two counterpoints.
1) We should reject the idea that Same-sex marriage is a genuine legal right.
2) We should reject the suggestion that Australia is a “secular” society – to the extent that this means silencing religious viewpoints in the public sphere.
Same-sex marriage is a claimed and invented (human/legal) right, not a genuine, fundamental right
In opening her speech, Senator Wong sends a signal to “those who deny marriage rights to gay and lesbian Australians.” In doing so, she assumes a point that is in fact at the very centre of the same-sex marriage debate.
Is it actually a “legal right” (or even a “human right”) for two gay men or two lesbian women to have their relationship recognised by the rest of society as a “marriage”?
Homosexual individuals have real human and legal rights that must not be encroached upon. But the right to redefine the legal and social meaning of marriage to suit their own preferences and desires is not one of them.
No one in this debate is trying to deprive homosexual people of their basic rights to life, food, shelter, welfare, health care, political representation, free speech, religious freedom and protection under the law from violence, deprivation of liberty and discrimination in the workplace.
Homosexual citizens enjoy the same rights and freedoms in these areas as heterosexual ones do. And in fact, it is not facetious to say that they enjoy the same marital rights under Australian law as well.
The Marriage Act of Australia’s definition of marriage reflects the reality of a unique kind of human relationship.
An exclusive social, sexual, economic, domestic and legal union between a man and a woman for life is qualitatively different to any other kind of relationship – romantic or otherwise. That’s what marriage is and every Australian adult – even gay or lesbian ones – could legally enter into such a union, irrespective of their race, language, skin colour or religion.
The fact that most people who are not sexually or romantically interested in members of the opposite sex would not wish to make use of this right – and prefer an alternative arrangement under the law – does not mean they are being denied a right. Their quest to have marriage redefined – according to their idea of what it should be – is an option they can pursue in a democracy. But it is in no sense a human or legal right.
But even if the gay lobby succeeds in changing the legal definition of marriage (as has happened in other countries) – it does not change what marriage is. Homosexual relationships are inherently incapable of becoming marriages, because marriage is by definition a lifelong union between two members of the opposite sex. Changing the Marriage Act so it no longer reflects this reality is simply misdefining a different kind of relationship as though it is the same as marriage, when it isn’t
You can’t be entitled to a right where the thing being claimed doesn’t actually exist. Nor is it reasonable to seek such a redefinition as a legal right, when this novel view will then be imposed upon every member of society. There is no right to “forced recognition” of homosexual unions as marriages. To dress up such an incursion on other people’s liberties as a core right is dangerous sophistry that must be rejected.
Regrettably, we already see an analogous example of this at work in our society. The ability of a woman to wantonly engage in whatever sexual activity she wishes and then avoid the natural biological outcome of sexual intercourse by contracting the murder of her child is constantly defended as her fundamental “right to choose.” In this case, the freedom to behave promiscuously and then avoid the consequences of sex is dressed up as a fundamental right of bodily autonomy. But this supposed “right” requires the negation of another human being’s essential right to life, if it is to be exercised.
In the SSM debate, the purported right “to redefine marriage so that other people have to recognise my homosexual relationship as completely equivalent to a heterosexual marriage” is dressed up as a fundamental issue of people being free to marry the person they love. But like the abortion issue, this concocted right comes at the expense of a more fundamental right held by others. Freedom of speech and religion will be curtailed to force people to recognise homosexual relationships as something they aren’t. Members of society who sincerely believe that marriage is between a man and a woman will suffer – legally and socially – for maintaining this stance.
Senator Wong is wrong to suggest that there are religious people in Australia trying to deny a basic right to others. There is no genuine right being denied to homosexual people under the legal status quo. But can the Senator explain how people’s genuine, fundamental rights to religion and free speech will be protected if marriage is redefined by Parliament and the new definition is enforced with legal penalties?
I’ll address the question of whether Australia should be understood as a “secular society” in the next post…
 Kate Lundy “Penny Wong May 2012” wikipedia (CC BY 2.0)
It strikes me as peculiar that 90s RnB group Salt’N’Pepa had a hit with a song that presented the irresistible invitation: “Let’s Talk about Sex.” After all, it hardly makes sense to suggest a conversation topic that everyone already talks about almost incessantly…
Perhaps “Let’s keep talking about Sex”, “Let’s not talk about Sex” or “Let’s talk about sex less” would have been more apt suggestions. And yet, a quarter of a century later, there’s certainly no shortage of talk about sex in the media, workplace, playground and cyber-world.
When it comes to the intersection between Christianity and topics relating to sex, many people have the unfortunate impression that Christians view sex as dirty and dangerous or, at best, a necessary evil. While some who bear the name of Christ have undoubtedly contributed to this public perception, it is in fact a terrible misrepresentation of the biblically informed, Christian position.
In an age which manages to somehow worship sex while simultaneously treating it as something base, common and profane – Christians simply believe sex is sacred without being absolute.
It is sacred precisely because it is a good gift from God, designed to affectionately and physically communicate the committed and lifelong, social and relational bond that exists between a man and woman pledged to one another in marriage. Its potential for pleasure and procreation are positive elements, naturally flowing from such a bond, and intended for enjoyment exclusively in such a relationship.
To divorce sex from commitment and the possibility of procreation is to exalt the aspect of pleasure at the expense of all others and cheapen sexual activity to a mechanism for achieving physical stimulation. Personal gratification becomes the absolute feature, which eliminates the possibility of expressing one’s sexuality in a meaningfully loving manner or channelling one’s sexual desires into something that can contribute positively to society through a stable, loving marital relationship and potentially the production of the next generation.
For many, sex has become a sort of “gospel” in and of itself. We constantly hear “preaching” that tells us we need it; that our lives will be better if we have it; and even, at times, that we can’t possibly be fulfilled as a person without experiencing it.
If you are having sex and it isn’t making you happy and fulfilled, the problem can’t be sex itself. Either you’re doing something wrong, or you’re having sex with the wrong person. In the words of the RnB artist, Lecrae, we are constantly encouraged to feel the kind of discontentment that leads us to search for “A new somebody to lay with, coz the last 5 just ain’t make it.”
On the one hand, our secular culture’s gradual, debilitating abandonment of all things spiritual and transcendent leaves the sensory stimulation of sexual climax as possibly the closest thing someone can have to an ecstatic or transcendental experience in their dull, material existence. Hormonal rushes, chemical reactions and positive psychological responses have necessarily replaced any hopes for heavenly euphoria or even a soul-enriching encounter with the Divine – since such things are held to be impossible.
On the other hand, some cultic groups and New Age versions of spirituality mysticise sexual intercourse, so it becomes a supposed means of spiritual elevation. While the appeal of such an idea is not hard to see (i.e. how many people could honestly say they wouldn’t enjoy experiencing both sexual pleasure and a spiritual high for the price of one?), it is nothing other than a deceitful tool of manipulative “spiritual teachers” who find opportunities for their own base sexual gratification by enticing naïve seekers of spiritual advancement with the promise of enlightenment or elevation through sexual participation with their guru or cult leader.
For Christians, sex can never be the gospel, since in the context of Christian marriage, its sacredness consists especially in its role as a symbol of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. The marital union, including the sexual aspect, reflect the loving, committed relationship between Christ and His Church (see especially Ephesians 5:22-33). While any element of sexuality between Christ and His people is absent, the sexual intercourse between a loving husband and wife is analogous to the spiritual intercourse and perpetual, mystical union between the Lord Jesus and those He died to purchase as His Bride.
This is important, because it allows a Christian to live a happy, faithful and fulfilled life without sex if they remain single. Not only did Jesus Himself never require a sexual experience to fulfil Himself while on earth (and therefore we can take comfort if we are called to follow His example in this regard), but the single Christian can be confident they will receive the glorious enjoyment of spiritual union with Christ that Christian, marital sex signifies – irrespective of whether they ever enjoy the short-lived pleasures of the sign in this age.
It’s equally important for married Christians, who are able to live in committed relationships and enjoy sex as a good gift from God, without relying on it to bring us ultimate fulfilment and satisfaction. If sex isn’t all you dreamed it would be, it could due to any number of reasons, eg; your own unrealistic or sinful expectations; the fallenness of our broken world (which can mark even some of the best things in life with difficulties and imperfections); or even the design-limitations of sex itself.
Because sex points us towards the grand truths of the gospel, you don’t need “better sex” and especially not a better partner/spouse to make you happier and fulfilled. You both need Jesus and the unfailing, all-satisfying enjoyment of Him that He promises to give to all who believe at His coming.
Sex is good. But even the “best sex” in the world falls far short of the best things God offers us in Christ. Those who fail to come to Christ and receive the greatest enjoyment possible for a human being may in fact find the most pleasure they’ll ever experience in sexual activity. But that’s a tragedy – not something to be envied.