In 1916 and 1917, during World War I, Australia went through two divisive referenda dealing with the issue of whether men could be conscripted for overseas service. In 2017 we have gone through a divisive plebiscite on the issue of whether only heterosexual couples can legally marry. One of the strange features of the whole business was the numerous expressions of moral outrage without any basis in a thought-out moral system. This is disturbing but hardly surprising.
Unaccustomed as one is to agreeing with anything David Marr comes up with, he did recently point out in the Guardian that the Christian case against same-sex unions has not relied on any straightforward claim that sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage is morally wrong. As he puts it: ‘the strategy is to soft-pedal Sodom.’ Now, as a strategy, there is much to be said for the Christian venture into the public arena to combat the giant of same-sex marriage. The emphasis was on the two related issues of freedom of conscience and expression, and the raising of children, and these are vitally important. That should be obvious to all except to those addicted to the same-sex mantra, which is surely dishonest, that these issues are completely separate.
It is perfectly in order for Christians not to raise the central moral issue when arguing a case. In pressing for the abolition of the slave trade, William Wilberforce admitted: ‘I have urged many things that are not my leading motives’. Yet he was driven by far more urgent motives, and declared:
There is a principle above everything that is political; and when I reflect on the command which says ‘Thou shalt do no murder,’ believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare to set up any reasonings of my own against it? And Sir, when we think in terms of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?’
Wilberforce would argue, for example, that slavery was against the economic interests of the plantation owner, but, in the end, as Wilberforce himself put it: ‘A man who acts from the principles I profess reflects that he is to give an account of his political conduct at the Judgement seat of Christ.’
As strong as the case against same-sex marriage is, it is ultimately built on the foundation that God who is holy tells sinners not to engage in immoral sexual behaviour. That moral foundation is missing today, and it is common for Christians to argue that we ought never appeal to it in the public arena. In the longer term that moral foundation will need to be re-established for any religious language to make sense.
A parallel example concerns the Reformation. To celebrate the Reformation as the trigger to democracy makes some sense, but it is grossly misleading. The 51% can do great harm, and in any case, Luther was mainly concerned with how a sinner could be in right standing with God. In January 2016 two philosophy teachers from Texas, Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, lamented that philosophy in the last century or so had lost its way when its ceased to be connected to goodness. Their sad conclusion was: ‘The pursuit of philosophy now is to be smart, not good. It has been the heart of our undoing.’
The NSW Department of Education has recently issued an ex cathedra decree which declares that sex education must not be taught in Scripture lessons, as the subject should be taught by professional educators according to the Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) curriculum – the same crew who brought the Safe Schools program to us. This has been accepted by Christian authorities to mean that we cannot teach all of the Ten Commandments or all of the Sermon on the Mount, or even read through all of Mark’s Gospel (because of passages like Mark 6:14-29; 10:1-12, 19). The prime text that is left concerns rendering unto Caesar all that is Caesar’s – and it appears that whatever Caesar says is Caesar’s is Caesar’s.
We can argue a good case in all areas, but ultimately Christians engaged in politics, philosophy, history and education need to point out that all these things find their meaning in Christ, who is the head of all things (Col.1:15-17).
Rev Dr Peter Barnes is currently the pastor at Revesby Presbyterian Church and Church History lecturer at Christ College, Sydney.