Steve McAlpine blog

This is Not About the Postal Vote

A lot’s going to be said about that postal vote before it’s all done and dusted.  This is not about that postal vote.  This is about what the landscape may look like afterwards as far as religious expression in the public square is concerned down the line.

I have a lot of respect for rising Liberal star, House of Representatives member Tim Wilson, the former Human Rights Commissioner, who is both gay and a proponent of same sex marriage.  He has a sharp mind, honours his opponents and has a track record of calling for religious exemptions in this country.

He personally told me, prior to his election as an MP, that the safeguards for dissenting religious voices in the corporate world, and for faith organisations in general, are woefully inadequate in Australia.  And the likely introduction of same sex marriage will test this inadequacy.

This has been clearly confirmed by a sobering article from The Australian’s venerable Editor-At-Large Paul Kelly this morning, himself a proponent of same sex marriage.  Have a read of it here.

Wilson believes that religious leaders should have concentrated more on the issue of religious freedoms over the past years, and accepted that, along with other Western nations, same sex marriage is inevitable here. In short he believes they poured their time and energy into the wrong thing and will, as a consequence, lose both battles.

And as Kelly’s article points out, while religious leaders have failed to raise the matter, political and legal leaders have also been derelict in their duties to protect religious freedoms after same sex marriage comes in, which it seems like it will.

Often that’s because they don’t understand religion at all.  The idea that any true active faith is a public faith – indeed it is not faith if it is not performed publicly in day to day life – is beyond the intellectual reach of most of our political, cultural and legal leaders. For all of their abilities, their understanding of what a faith life looks like doesn’t extend beyond what they might hear on Oprah’s couch.

Is same sex marriage in Australia an inevitably?  I think it is.  Primarily because most people in the middle of the debate don’t really care either way.  The echo chamber of the 10 per cent on either side of the debate is convincing us it is the primary thought in many people’s minds.  But for those without a vested interest, it just isn’t.  Yet culture shapers don’t occupy the neglected middle, they exist on the edges, from where they can speak into and direct the middle.

It is five years and a lifetime ago that our Parliament (yes the one in Australia) voted by a majority of two to one to maintain the current definition of marriage.  This turnaround may prove that culture changes quickly, or it may simply prove that most politicians voted against the change because they are they nervous nellies we all suspect them to be.

It’s clear that political Australia has not led this push publicly, and that corporate Australia, (along with global corporations with reach into Australia), has.  Corporate Australia was once viewed by progressives as being in bed with conservative politics. Large corporations were routinely rounded upon by a collection of social justice campaigners for their poor work practices and exploitation of overseas labour.

Now, however, due to either a cynical internal campaign strategy, or deep moral convictions about their corporate behaviour that have until this point bypassed most of our multinationals in terms of social justice, the corporate world is suddenly viewed by progressives as the emancipator of the oppressed.

It’s a brilliant move. Just as the elite universities in the US can claim the moral high ground through their moves to be more inclusive sexually and ethnically, whilst ensuring that it’s the sexual and ethnic rich who get a seat at the table, so too our corporations.  And the poor as the primary expression of those who are oppressed?  They’re so 1985. Or is that 1984. So Old Testament.

At the same time, as a recent article in the National Review (don’t worry I only get it for the articles) observed about the US situation, it is not the political and judicial sphere that is making it hard for religious freedom of conscience and expression in the public square.  Indeed judicial rulings recently have confirmed such rights and ensured liberty of conscience for those who were adversely affected.

So where is the push coming from? Corporations mostly.  Large multinationals are hunting down dissent on this issue in countries where same sex marriage has been introduced, and ensuring its staff and management comply both publicly, and in many cases privately, on all matters pertaining to progressive sexuality,  or risk their jobs. Universities have long since given up pretending that diversity extends to religious freedom to dissent on such matters. They are now bastions of fundamentalism.

A strange thing happened.  A thing the conservative side of politics did not envisage. The old corporate world so beloved of the political conservatives is no more.  It has been swept aside by the tech companies and cultural shapers who exhibit all of the sensible corporate ideology of the old world when it comes to making a pile, but who exhibit, indeed lead the way, in championing the cultural ideology of the new world. If you want to grow influence and make money in this new world, you have to do it like that. And the old corporate world is now cottoning on and signing up.

And to be frank, it is the cultural ideology of the new world.  I believe that same sex marriage is inevitable because of what most people value about themselves whether they agree with SSM or not: That they have the freedom to do what they wish, to find happiness and satisfaction how they wish, especially in the area of sex.  That’s the cultural frame of this new world.

As Dale Kuehne argues in Sex and the iWorld, any politician who pushes against this new world idea of deep autonomy, especially in the area of sex, will die a horrible political death.

Ladies and gentlemen (I’m still allowed to say that), I present to you the inevitable, and horrible political death of many a politician in Australia on this issue in the coming months and years.

It seems astonishing that, what with all that is going on in our country, that this is the issue will bring down a government. Which it will. This issue is exposing that there is neither an overarching grand narrative governing our country and our political leaders, nor the will to enforce one.  The age of consensus is over.

But back to religious freedom.  Regardless of what your view is about same sex marriage, the moment it is enacted – or at least after the confetti has settled and the party is over – is the moment we see if our religious freedom laws are strong enough to ensure that dissenting voices can continue to dissent publicly without fear of retribution on the other side of the marriage decision.

Tim Wilson himself has even written publicly in The Australian, as recently as 2015, that he worries this will not be the case.  And as Kelly’s article points out, nothing has changed in the two years since then. Our politicians have, to their shame, taken their eye off the ball.

Part of this is to do with language.  Marriage equality, as it is being called, is being termed a “human right”.  But as Kelly notes marriage is not a human right, and never has been viewed as such across the globe.

But religious freedom and freedom of conscience are viewed as basic human rights  – at least in theory – across the globe.  And they are so on the basis that for a power to be able to tell you, coerce you,  in terms of what you can and cannot think strikes at the very core of human autonomy.

However this has now changed. Our sexual selves are now viewed as the core of who we are as humans.  And since this is now assumed, marriage and all that it offers and demands, finds itself in the territory of rights.  And not just in the territory, but as the new foundation of human rights.   And in this battle of rights, it’s not hard to guess which one our corporations, universities and cultural centres will preference as being bedrock.

Religious freedoms will have to give way to sexual freedom because all of the conditions in our culture to preference sexual freedom as the basic human right are in place. Make no mistake about that.  You can huff and puff all you like, but if you say otherwise in most places you will be viewed as one views an exotic animal in the zoo.

I believe that is what makes this issue so vexing for Australian Christians who, while holding to the orthodox view of marriage, are not too vexed by the probable introduction of same sex marriage.

They’re wondering if it’s possible to allow the same relational status in a secular culture that they enjoy, while at the same time safeguarding their right to public dissent in word and corporate dissent in practice (religious schools, charities etc).  None of the signs from elsewhere give them any confidence.

They see Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democratic Leader in the UK, hounded from the role over what he thought, even though he publicly held the party’s progressive line on every matter to do with sexual and gender rights. Indeed he was a champion of liberal values in the public square.

While he defended the media’s right to question him on any topic it wished, Farron said this when he resigned:

 “I seemed to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in — in which case, we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.”

For many Christians it is an in-principle decision that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. Yet they realise, just like Farron, that we no longer expect others to see it that way, and that we will have to live with things we don’t agree with. That’s no biggie as far as I am concerned.

Indeed there is a coherence to the Christian world view that can live with tension, and increasingly that coherence will be attractive to a world wearying itself over an elusive pursuit of idealised identity.

I can live with the tension of same sex marriage being enacted because I am under no illusion that everyone must think as I do, nor act as I do.  Christianity flourished in such conditions in the past, it can do so again. Same sex marriage won’t be the solution for many who hope it will be. But neither will it be the problem that others fear it will be.

But no such coherence exists in the mish-mash of late modern secularism, bereft as it is of any true centre.  It cannot agree to disagree and will, without adequate checks and balances, force people to a narrow view of secularism that brooks no dissent.  Late modern secularism portrays itself it as confident, when all the signs point to the fact that it is brittle.

This is why, once same sex marriage becomes law, the truly hard work of creating a society capable of living with deep differences begins.  This is why we need to get our religious freedom laws sorted out.

That is the underlying tension among many religious people in Australia. Not all religious people, as it’s clear that many within the Christian religion especially who hold to a revisionist view of the biblical text, support same sex marriage enthusiastically. Christians who hold traditional views on marriage, yet who hope that they will receive public support from their affirming brothers and sisters on this point, should not start holding their breath.

And for many gay people and their supporters who feel aggrieved for real and perceived injustices, this may well be a time for a deserved payback against a worldview that they believe was out of date thirty years ago and is starting to smell. A mopping up operation so to speak, to ensure that the last of the resisters don’t start, like you know, resisting!

Many are not in the mood to take prisoners, and to be honest, it’s not hard to see why they would.  Not everyone has the magnanimity or insight of a Tim Wilson, though many gay couples just want this issue sorted out so that they can get on with their lives and let everyone else get on with theirs.

Yet this is not about whether clergy will be forced to marry people they don’t want to marry, that’s tosh.  Clergy can pick and choose who they wish to marry now and that won’t change.  It’s about whether the secular frame is confident enough to allow people to dissent publicly on these matters without fear of retribution after same sex marriage is enacted.  And I don’t think it is.

Tim Farron is right.  We are kidding ourselves.  For me, same sex marriage has not been the issue.  I think it will be enacted and I can live with it.  I don’t think the roof will cave in if it does.  The house will not collapse if same sex marriage is allowed.

The house will collapse because refusing to celebrate the pointy end of the sexual revolution publicly; to hold a dissenting view on it within the public square or the corporate office, will result in censure at the very least, and prosecution at the worst.  All the signs point to that, there’s just too much evidence from overseas that this will happen.

Can we live with that?  Yes of course. Our hope is in our Creator and Saviour who one day will usher in the true marriage between his church and himself. That’s the marriage we’re waiting for.  It may well strengthen the church.  It will certain continue the winnowing process and sort wheat from chaff.

And if a bit of cultural strife means we start to read Scripture again as the perceived cultural losers rather than the cultural overlords then that’s a good thing. That’s the context the New Testament was written in to, just read Revelation to see that.  We can live with it.

But do we have to live with it?  No we do not.  Should it be an inevitability that just like Tim Farron, we’re just going to have to vacate certain sectors of the work force and public life, or face being hounded from it?  No it should not be. But all the signs say that it will.  Indeed I have had plenty of anecdotal evidence from friends in high corporate places that it’s just getting tighter and tighter for them to keep their heads down on this one.

Note that? Not getting tighter and tighter to have their say.  But tighter and tighter to sit there, shut up and smile, without being viewed as an abstaining dissenter.  Already several are preparing exit strategies should they be pushed.

Our political and legal leaders should have been better prepared in this matter, but as the postal vote proves, they haven’t been able to get their own houses in order. It’s been such a poisoned matter that most Australians just want it done already, whatever that means.

So don’t hold your breath for any political leadership on religious rights. There’s precious little energy left to burn protecting religious freedoms. Not after they’ve used it all up protecting themselves.  Honourable exceptions include folks like another rising star of the Liberals, and Tim Wilson’s Coopers beer mate, Andrew Hastie.

And the corporations?  The universities?  They’ve got energy to burn. And that’s what they intend to do with it.


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Posted: 12 August 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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