Steve McAlpine blog

Progressive Christian: Where Art Thou?

Progressive Christian in Australia, where art thou?

Where is your voice among the growing voices that the same sex marriage matter is inextricably tied to matters of freedom of conscience and religious freedoms? It’s not there.  I can’t hear it.

Progressive Christians have gone strangely silent, missing in action, in the same sex marriage debate when it comes to defending freedom of religious expression in the public square or freedom of conscience.

And this is a great pity, albeit not surprising. For some time now I have been asking some Christians on the progressive side who have pushed me hard on the issue of same sex marriage being a universal right, whether or not they would defend my right in the public square to disagree with them.  Not defend me as a fellow citizen, but as a fellow brother in the Lord.

I never get a straightforward answer to that question.

I believe it is because Christians on the progressive side have become captive to the secular progressive agenda in a way that they had hitherto not realised.  I hesitate to say that they are captive to it in a way they had realised, as that sounds too harsh. Perhaps it’s more likely that they had not realised that for many which whom the align on this issue, same sex marriage is a zero-sum game.

For so long progressive Christian groups have been at the forefront of rights issues, ever able to drive a truck through the smallest of holes in a human rights argument. Constantly in the public square, rightly so, on issues of refugee rights in Australia.

But where have they been when it comes to the growing conversation among every other sector of Australian society, religious or secular, in regards to how religious freedoms will be protected, they are airily expansive?

And more to the point I have become convinced that should such religious freedoms be curtailed (and no, I don’t simply mean churches will have to marry gay people), the progressive voice in the church will not rise in support of Christian brothers and sisters with whom they disagree with on this matter.   And that worries me.  That tells me that they’ve either lost some courage, or they are in fundamental disagreement on more than just religious freedoms.

Day after day on social media I see progressive Christians, some of whom I know and admire, airily and expansively wave their hands when queried about religious protections and say “Oh we can figure that stuff out later.”  I read blog posts which predict a confident pluralism in Australia which will only target extreme homophobia, as if the recent brittle pluralism on this matter (Coopers anyone?) is merely an anomaly, a blip on the radar that will magically correct itself with the objective is achieved.

On a matter of significant rights there now seems to be no urgency, no sense that we should figure this out first before we then trigger a social change of this magnitude.  And yes it is “magnitude”, because while it will not numerically affect even a large minority of people who cannot currently get married, language redefinition always mean that Rubicon is being crossed

Yet the silence I hear from my progressive brothers and sisters is either extreme naivety or extreme desperation.  The concerns about religious freedom have now been expressed by both conservative and religious Christian groups and commentators.  And now a phone survey of some four thousand Australians has confirmed that support for SSM falls dramatically if the issue of safeguards for freedom of conscience in the public square is factored in.  Even the Yes campaign is aware of this and worried about its ramifications.

And on top of this, there is now a growing admission among many progressive secular commentators and activists that this is just the start, that the aim of their push is for much wider social change than a mere redefining of one word to be more inclusive, noble though that single aim be. In other words, as the issues draws closer, the voices of those calling for radical change beyond the vote is louder and more confident.

Article after article in the progressive wing of the mainstream media now insists that the aim is not a discrete marriage definition change, but a wider social change that will, with some government help, sweep away the final dogmas of the old world religious frame.

Those comments are made openly.  They are not restricted to the tawdry fringes of the sweary lewd Twitter crowd.  That’s the point of progressive activism – there is no “we’ve arrived” in their vocabulary, there is always some new hill to take.  And one after that. And one after that.

No doubt there is a lot of concern among progressive Christians about the mental health issues in the LGBTQI community, and I see those concerns, but an admission at least from some that there might just be the tiniest problem in the matter of religious freedom would at least convince me they’d have my back as a fellow believer in a matter of freedom of conscience in the public square.  It would certainly be an opportunity to show a unity that defies other differences, and in which they would not be ashamed of a brother or sister who thought differently.

Well, as they say, you can’t fatten the pig on the way to the market.  If my fellow brothers and sisters on the progressive side aren’t at least voicing concerns now, when the conditions are more favourable, there is little chance they will do it then, when the winds have changed.

Yet again it takes the venerable, well-respected political commentators such as Paul Kelly in The Australian this morning, to say what others won’t say.  It’s worth reading this extended quote, in which he references the University of Sydney’s Patrick Parkinson, who laments that despite numerous religious protection bills being introduced over the years, all of them offer minimal protection at best.  Kelly observes:

The Yes case bases its campaign on human rights but misses the exquisite irony that you cannot cherry-pick human rights and keep your integrity. As Parkinson said, consistency of principle means those who justify their campaign on human rights need to give proper consideration to how rights can be balanced.

That hasn’t happened in Australia, not even remotely. Every sign is Australia will legalise same-sex marriage devoid of any serious attention to religious freedom issues and, as a result, religious protections will be exposed and sacrificed.

The politicians are doing this because they think they can get away with it. They are entitled to that judgment. What they are not entitled to is a gross deception. The assurances they give on religious protection are worthless — their inaction proves that. People, regardless of how it affects their vote, need to know the reality.

 You can read the rest of the article here.

But did you get that line: “Devoid of any serious attention to religious freedom issues.” Australia has gotten here, because by and large we are intellectually lazy.  Our “she’ll be right” attitude is being exposed to the gale of social change sweeping the Western world. Suddenly we’re trying to nail timbers to the windows, tied down the loose items in the garden, and stock up on small goods.  But it’s too late.  What’s done is done, and whatever is coming on the other side of the vote is coming into a largely unprotected religious rights setting.  That’s not an emotive opinion, it’s just cold fact.

I have, I admit, a certain ambivalence to the issue of marriage in a secular state, holding zero expectation that the modern liberal state would preference any one view of marriage, or that even this next step is the end of the line. I draw a sharp distinction between church and state in my expectations – perhaps naively so. But that is an entirely different matter to the one we are facing.  There is no confidence in Australian pluralism.  We just haven’t done the legwork on that one.

Australians, lulled by the desire for a life of comfort and ease, need to know the reality of the situation for refugees on Manus Island and elsewhere.  The brutal nature of the political game and how it chews up lives.  Our progressive brothers and sisters in the church have been vocal, admirably so, in addressing this and keeping it in our nation’s collective conscience.

For this we thank them.  But, actually so have many – if not most – of our conservative brothers and sisters.  As secular commentators note, the church seems strangely united on the matter of refugees, and they draw the conclusion that it has everything to do with the Jesus we worship and how he welcomes in the stranger.

But there is no consensus on the marriage issue in the churches.  And even less on the need for protection for religious freedoms.  And that tells me that for progressives, one right has trumped they other already, and they don’t appear to have the stomach, the will or the philosophical framework to address this urgent matter.

In the end we are getting into a car that has not had its brakes tested. And a section of the church that for so long has poured time, energy and money into the finer details of automobile maintenance; whether the engine has enough oil, whether the spark plugs are clean, even the direction the car is facing, now seems cheerfully optimistic about getting behind the wheel and taking the car for a spin, all the while assuming there won’t be some sort of car crash for which they could bear some collective responsibility. And that’s just not good enough.

Oh progressive brother and sister, where art thou?


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Posted: 13 September 2017

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Steve currently works as a pastor and church planter for Providence Church, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. He lives with his family in the eastern Hills of Perth – a vantage point just high enough to give him a good idea of how incredibly fast the city is growing.

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