Religious Freedom and reaping the whirlwind

Everybody wants to be a weatherman. There’s great money to be made in being able to accurately predict the future — and reputation or influence to be won. Especially if you can predict a cataclysm.

There are two narratives circulating, like cyclones circulate (that is to say with great destruction) to explain the current debate about religious freedom in Australia and why it is going so badly (or so it seems) for Christians.

One is that this was always a category five system of extreme destruction — that the same sex marriage debate was a Trojan Horse; a referendum on a host of LGBTIQA+ rights and a larger political agenda. This is what Lyle Shelton and the ACL/Coalition For Marriage/Australian Conservatives argued. Then they lost. And now instead of seeing that they positioned the debate as a referendum such that the winning side has a mandate, they keep pointing to all these flow on debates saying ‘told you so’ and ‘now we need to stop’ — whereas, if their narrative is correct, this agenda is exactly what the majority of Australians signed up for.

I have significant doubts about this narrative — I don’t doubt that there is a political movement committed to securing full equality and particular rights and freedoms for the LGBTIQA+ community (here’s a news story announcing a lobby group committed to just that), I just don’t believe that the Australian public was voting on more than simply the legalisation of same sex marriage in our nation. I’m not suggesting there’s not a relationship between this right and the move for other rights — that would be naive — but it’s the religious community who have made this a zero sum game; especially by failing to see how the postal survey was an opportunity to extend a freedom to others in our community, a pluralist democracy, where free expression of sexuality is essentially religious in nature as it is seen as being essential to human identity and flourishing by a particular community. What did we expect when Christians publicly campaigned against (religious) freedom and then turned around to ask for our freedom to be protected and upheld? How did we expect those we ‘othered’ and fought against, rather than those we loved and co-operated with across our differences in the program of a pluralist democracy, to act when they won? How did we seek to use power? What would we have done for them if we’d won?

Everyone wants to be a prophet. Everybody wants to be a weatherman.

The second narrative is one I’m more sympathetic to, but still disagree with — it’s connected to the first — but it’s the idea that the postal survey wasn’t a ‘slippery slope’ or Trojan horse, but a ‘precipice’, pace Stephen McAlpine, who sees things in more apocalyptic terms — with the notion that the marriage survey reveals a deep commitment to ‘the sexular age’ (a term I like), that brooks no opposition such that religious freedom outside the dominant sexular religion. Here’s what he said in his ‘one year on’ reflection on our headlong rush off the precipice.

“Turns out, the “much to be done” is less to do with vows and cakes and your first dance as a married same sex couple, and more to do with ensuring religion is no longer allowed to get away with its refusal to sign up to the Sexual Revolution.   Clearly that is where attention has been turned in the past twelve months.  Clearly.

Because of course this was always a precipitous matter, never a slippery slope.  And the naysayers, even among the progressive Christian crew, have gone strangely silent on how wrong they have proven to be in their much vaunted public refutation of this.”

I think this account is equally problematic. Certainly, there has been a ‘turn’ to a new battleground. Certainly this wasn’t a slippery slope (the activists campaigning for same sex marriage had previously campaigned for such rights as the overturning of legislation that made homosexuality illegal). Certainly religious freedom has to be part of the conversation for how we navigate life in a post-Christian, pluralist, society — for the good of all… but a narrative that places the blame for this moment we find ourselves in on those agitating for an expansion of rights, at the expense of the religious, rather than a narrative that sees the responsibility for the circumstance we find ourselves in as shared, is incomplete. And perhaps this is why the ‘progressive Christians’ aren’t coming to the party as quickly as their conservative brethren might like? I’ve found those on the progressive side of politics are committed to listening to accounts of systemic injustice — sometimes to the point of paralysis on our part, certainly — and to acknowledging our culpability for that injustice — sometimes to the point of not asking for more privilege, certainly.

I’m not suggesting that religious freedom for those who have a religious framework committed to some sort of ‘natural law’ created by a God is not a competing right; in competition with the modern push to be free from physical ‘nature’ when it comes to our identity. The LGBTIQA+ movement is, in many ways, a move to free oneself from ‘natural law’ in order to express one’s true self — to live embodied lives that reflect our inner desires and values whether on gender or sexuality. Whatever the non-religious, or non-Christian, impulse for the definition of marriage that operated for the majority of human history, and still operates in the majority of the world today, it’s tied to biological fact, rather than our individualised or tribal pursuit of authentic identity. This isn’t to suggest there aren’t complex interplays between biology, desire, and experience — the reality of intersex, and the component of gender dysphoria and sexual attraction that appears to happen at the level of the structure or operation of the brain are also realities that make living out ‘nature’ something that requires an admission of tension and complexity (and requires religious believers to grapple with that complexity). Those committed to a physical, biological, or divine account of a certain sort of nature — brute physical fact — when it comes to sexuality and gender are outside a newly emerging orthodoxy — and this includes most versions of the major monotheistic religions of the world. To continue to hold this position freely, seems to be the subject of a contest of rights. A contest we’re not well equipped to have in our public conversation. What I’m suggesting is that accounts of the current conflict that do not acknowledge the culpability of Christian voices in this debate, and grapple with a way forward, are a guaranteed way for us to reap the whirlwind as it were — to make it even more difficult to have such a conversation.

There was an op-ed in the Fairfax family of publications this week from the deputy dean of education at Alphacrucis College carrying the warning — a storm warning at that — that to target Christian schools and restrict their freedom would be politically diabolical; that this would lead to Labor reaping the whirlwind (a phrase from Hosea 8), and they should act according to their political self-interest, rather than according to what is right and good for their constituents. In short, that they should act for the good of their Christian constituents because we’re a powerful voting block too…

“What goes on in Australian religious schools, after all, affects several million Australians.  Including grannies and siblings, this is a voter base of about four million  out of a voting population of 13 million. They are hard to mobilise and slow to awaken. But perish that legislator who startles them, with rash actions, from the long slumber of our fat peacetime. They might reap the whirlwind.”

This is an interesting approach to the conversation and one that continues the Hungry, Hungry Hippoes zero-sum game that has got us into this mess of competing rights in the first place.

Every man and his blog (or woman and her blog, but that isn’t as punny) wants to be a weather man. A long range forecaster. We all want to say ‘I told you so’ and ram current events through our paradigm. But hey. I predicted this too. This state of affairs. It’s up to all of us, when the storm is hitting, to ponder which account is actually going to help us predict its movement, and the future. My account, my reason for opposing the postal survey and for not voting was that to vote against the religious freedom of others would come back to bite us when it came to seeking our own freedoms. It wasn’t ‘they’re out to get us’ but ‘what happens to us if we’re perceived as being out to get them’? Why an ‘us and them’ at all rather than a commitment to figuring out a broader ‘us’… a commons where we might operate together in disagreement and charity?

A commitment to the idea that the best possible playing field for shared life — the best commons — here in Australia is a generous pluralism not a theocracy means a deep commitment to religious freedom; but it means that commitment also has to be extended to those who are seeking freedom not for explicitly religious reasons, but from categories we religious people recognise as religious. I don’t want Australia to be a Christian nation; I don’t think that’s possible — I do want the church to be able to operate as an expression of the Kingdom of God, or the ‘city of God’ within our polis though. And here’s my bold prediction of the current climate: the religious freedom debate, as it is currently framed, is destined to fail unless we, the church, repent for restricting the religious freedom of others (and by this I don’t mean other explicitly religious people), and unless we work to specifically uphold and defend those freedoms in the commons so that we can hold our own views in the commons, not just in private.

Currently, when it comes to religious freedom, we religious people are reaping the whirlwind of our own making; it’s time to sow something different, or be wiped out by the coming storm.

It’s time to consider that ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ and ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ should shape how we Christians approach politics; that this means gently speaking from conviction about what is good and true, hoping to have the freedom to live out that vision of what is good and true, and extending the space in our society for others to do the same. Maybe it’s time to find or cultivate shared spaces for hospitality and love of the other, where we can talk through these competing visions with our neighbours, not just to appear to clamour for our own rights at their expense — or our right to exclude others as though their visions of the good life are never up for conversation.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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