The results of the same-sex plebiscite were announced on 15 November 2017, and a few weeks later Australia became the 26th nation in the world to legislate for same-sex marriage. The Prime Minister was beside himself, as he punched the air, like an Aussie batsman who had just scored a century against the old foe, England. ‘Australia has done it,’ he proclaimed, ‘What a day for love, for equality, for respect.’ Step aside Neville Chamberlain who was overjoyed at guaranteeing peace in our time in 1938. Here is Malcolm Turnbull in 2017: ‘This belongs to us all. This is Australia – fair, diverse, loving and filled with respect for every one of us. This has been a great, unifying day in our history.’1 Even some Christians who voted ‘No’ publicly congratulated the ‘Yes’ camp on its victory.
Christians now have the opportunity to evaluate and re-evaluate the strategies adopted during the campaign, and the consequences which might flow from having lost it. Three points might be raised here.
1. The plebiscite campaign concentrated on outcomes, but there needs now to be a concentration on the morality of same-sex sexual activity.
The ‘No’ campaign concentrated on two issues, namely, freedom of conscience and the raising of children, especially with the safe-schools programs and their ilk in schools. The campaign was well-conducted, and was probably effective in winning votes over to the ‘No’ side. However, it relied on a fading moral dislike of homosexual activity. For that matter, there were too many on the ‘No’ side who went out of their way to say how much they supported same-sex civil unions, or respected the rights of the homosexual community. David Marr seized the opportunity to gloat that the Christian case against same-sex unions had not relied on any straightforward claim that sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage is morally wrong. As he put it: ‘the strategy is to soft-pedal Sodom.’2
The first Gay Mardi Gras in NSW was in 1978, and by 1979 it was declared legal, meaning that the promoters did not have to apply to the police for permission but only inform the police that it was to take place. There has been a rather obvious direct line from this event to the recognition of same-sex – or any sex – marriage. There can be no long-standing opposition to what is perceived as morally neutral. Indeed, what is morally neutral – like whether or not you like beetroot – must over time become endorsed, even welcomed enthusiastically. That is precisely what has happened.
The moral argument – that homosexual activity is an unnatural perversion (Lev.18:22; Rom.1:26-27; 1 Cor.6:9-11) – needs to be dusted off and be used in the public arena. This will be confrontational and dangerous, but necessary. Christians have already lost the larger debate anyway. We must return to the biblical view of morality where, for example, homosexual behaviour is like fornication and adultery, not like being tall or short, or an eskimo or an African. It is not a matter of physical or gender identity but of moral attitudes and behaviour.
The British High Court has recently upheld a university’s right to expel a student, Felix Ngole, for using Scripture to defend what is called the traditional view of marriage. Ngole’s appeal was rejected, and he cannot now practise as a social worker. Jennifer Oriel, a columnist for The Australian, comments: ‘I don’t credit Ngole’s view that homosexuality is a sin, but a nation that permits the purging of political dissidents from economic activity is a nation sleepwalking into a totalitarian trap.’ 3One has good reason to doubt that the foundational civic virtue in any society is freedom. More is required, and that is goodness.
Human beings invariably think in terms of right and wrong. Given the way the debate has been framed, Christianity is increasingly being portrayed as a moral evil. In his Ethics the imprisoned (and soon to be Lutheran martyr) Dietrich Bonhoeffer recorded: ‘Everything established is threatened with annihilation. This is not a crisis among crises. It is a decisive struggle of the last days.’ 4 The cause and effect could be readily identified: ‘The west is becoming hostile towards Christ. This is the peculiar situation of our time, and it is genuine decay.’5
2. Laws to protect religious freedoms and freedom of conscience may be of some help but ultimately they will be trumped by sexual freedoms.
If same-sex marriage is the triumph of love and equality, it will always trump the freedoms of Christians and others to reject it. Guarantees before the plebiscite that Prime Minister Turnbull was more committed to religious freedom than even he was to same-sex marriage were yet another of the many deceptions proclaimed as high truth during the campaign. Bill Shorten almost spoke the same language, but his assurances are as meaningless as those of the Prime Minister.6
The Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, tried to reassure a Freedom for Faith conference in 2016:
There is no need to oppose marriage equality on the basis of religious freedom. The two are not related. I challenge anyone to stand up and tell me today that their personal belief system will be weakened by a stranger getting married to the person they (sic) love.7
Dreyfus seemed to have forgotten that his own party had taken away the right for any political representative to hold views opposed to same-sex marriage. The Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, has also taken to justifying coercion from the high moral ground with his oft-repeated declaration: ‘Love is love, fair is fair, and marriage equality is not negotiable.’
The notion that the recognition of same-sex marriage will have a minimal effect on society is a naïve one. Brendan O’Neill, an Irish atheistic journalist, warns: ‘Coercion is built into gay marriage.’8 Even before any legalization of same-sex marriage, precious freedoms and rights to conscience have been assaulted. The Catholic Archbishop of Tasmania, Julian Porteous, was told in 2015 by the anti-discrimination commissioner that he had a case to answer for his mild booklet Don’t Mess With Marriage which offended a Greens transgender candidate for the federal elections, Martine Delaney. The case was only dropped because of the elections; otherwise, Porteous faced at least two years and tens of thousands of dollars in battling the case. The Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Campbell Markham, and a Presbyterian evangelist, Matthew Gee, are now facing a similar trial. ‘If they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’ (Luke 23:31) Those who trust in Philip Ruddock as the commissar for freedom are due to have their hopes dashed. In the battle of competing freedoms – LGBTI rights versus the rights of conscience – the former will win. After all, who runs all the Anti-Discrimination Boards?
3. There are signs of some fracturing in old political allegiances.
One cannot prophesy how this will turn out, the plebiscite revealed some intriguing results, out of the 133 electorates which voted ‘Yes’ and the seventeen which voted ‘No’. Some Western Sydney Labor-held seats – such as Blaxland, Watson and McMahon – voted ‘No’ when their sitting member was voting ‘Yes’. In fact, nine of the most decided ‘No’ voting electorates are currently held by Labor. Tony Abbott’s electorate of Warringah was an example of the reverse: a resounding ‘Yes’ vote of 75% in a constituency with a ‘No’ voting member.9
The multicultural centre-pieces appear to be less fond of diversity than their advocates might have expected. This may provide an opportunity for a socially-conservative political body to tap into somewhat disaffected voters of Muslim, Maronite, and evangelical persuasion. Many ‘rusted on’ Labor voters are appalled at Labor policy, but the Liberals appear only marginally better. Where that might lead us is beyond certitude at the moment.
The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, has certainly realised the problem, and wrote to religious leaders in the western suburbs of Sydney in soothing tones: ‘I can assure you that Labor understands your concerns, and takes them most seriously. In the event that Labor forms the next government, I can guarantee that I will continue to be available to work through any concerns that you may have in relation to religious freedoms in Australia.’10 All this from the man who in May 2016 promised that Labor would set up a full-time commissioner for LBGTI rights, at a cost of $1.4 million. Presumably the successful applicant would be given plenty to do – or be able to manufacture plenty to do.
What is clear is that any exuberant claims that the same-sex plebiscite and legislation have unified Australia in love is fantasy even by today’s low standards. If the Muslim community experienced some alienation from Western values before all this, that alienation has just become much deeper. The rhetoric and the reality are never very close in politics, but now there is a great chasm between them. True freedom is joined to goodness, both being defined by the law of our creator, not Mardi Gras organisers. Two very different worldviews are confronting one another, and the result is not unity and love. The walls of Jericho are shaking.
Rev Dr Peter Barnes is currently the pastor at Revesby Presbyterian Church and Church History lecturer at Christ College, Sydney.
- Michael Koziol, ‘Same-sex marriage legalized in Australia as Parliament passes historic law’, license article, Sydney Morning Herald, December 8, 2017.
- David Marr, ‘In the same-sex marriage vote, the bishops have soft-pedalled on sin’ in the guardian, 20 October 2017.
- The Australian, 20 November 2017.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, London: SCM, 1971, p.85.
- Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p.87.
- The Australian, 14 November 2017.
- Cited in Darren Middleton, ‘A naked Mark Dreyfus and those Northern Irish bakers,’ Spectator, 31 October 2016.
- cited in David van Gend, Stealing from a Child: The Injustices of “Marriage Equality”, Redland Bay: Connor Court Publishing, 2016, p.9; see Brendan O’Neill, ‘The new dark ages, where the perfectly normal are branded bigots’ in The Australian, August 19, 2015 and ‘Gay marriage and the death of freedom’ in The Spectator, 6 December 2014.
- The Australian, 16 November 2017.
- The Weekend Australian, 9-10 December 2017.