What’s wrong with the Australian Christian Lobby: Can “lobbying” even be Christian anyway?

A little while back somebody on Facebook suggested that I seemed to not like the Australian Christian Lobby but not say why. I thought that was odd, because I thought it was self evident. I don’t like the Australian Christian Lobby because by not talking about Jesus and talking about issues, they are presenting a message that is not the good news of grace, but the bad news of law and morality.

But that challenge got me thinking, as did a question raised on my last Christian/politics rant, asking whether I’m suggesting there’s no place for Christian lobbying. Other people have previously also suggested it seems by being opposed to the ACL, careful when it comes to trying to “protect marriage” by legislation, and wary of government funding for school chaplaincy, that I’m advocating some sort of political quietism. My answer to this suggestion has always been that I’m not pushing for quietism, but that I think we need to be careful with how we raise issues. I think our priority, in any public “Christian” statements, should be to be Christian. To be clear about the gospel, and not making the gospel unclear by adding layers of morality. As it stands, most Christian contributions to public debate are incoherent because of several fatal methodological and philosophical/theological flaws.

First, the ACL seems to me to be a modernist organisation speaking to a post-modern world. They’ve got no sense of needing to use narrative or stories, rather than proclamation of absolutes, in order to change people’s thinking. This is why it appears that the gay marriage issue is splitting a generation in the US, and in Australia. This is also where I think the ACL ultimately fails on the communication front – their proclamations of right and wrong are too abstracted from real life, they never show the human face of what they’re talking about, but rather engage in high fallutin logical arguments about where society will head if changes are made. People want to know how an issue will change life for them. The pro gay marriage lobby has made the issue all about real couples who are wanting their real love recognised by the government. We haven’t been able to combat that because our arguments are just “this is wrong therefore don’t do it,” or perhaps worse “(the) God (you don’t believe in) says this is wrong.” This is why I’ve argued elsewhere that not only is it important to show how a moral stance relates to the gospel, because that keeps the gospel clear, it’s also important to show how the moral stance comes from a cohesive and legitimate worldview. Otherwise we’re just playing politics like it’s a numbers game, and the numbers are going to change (I’ll get to this below).

Second, the ACL comes from a pseudo ecumenical standpoint, aiming to speak for all Christians. Which is problematic because while Christians might broadly agree about moral issues, they’ll have some pretty fundamental disagreements about the root cause, and how to fix it. So, for example, reformed Christians believe that all people are totally sinful, that sin is natural, and that choosing to follow God requires divine intervention, while Catholics have a much higher anthropology where people are essentially a blank slate, and can naturally choose to follow God. There’s no way we’re going to articulate the gospel the same way when we’re talking about issues – as we saw from George Pell’s appearance on Q&A. If the ACL’s stakeholders can’t actually agree on what the gospel, or the Christian message on moral issues is, then the so-called “Christian” case is never going to be clearly presented.

While most theists, even Muslims, will agree on issues of the sanctity of life, and sexual morality, once you chuck Christian in your name you’d want to start speaking from the points of common ground for all creedal churches, which means sticking to Jesus. The fact that Catholics and protestants, and even types of protestants (so your Liberals, your Arminians who have a slightly more Catholic understanding of human nature, your fundamentalists who want to enshrine Old Testament Laws) disagree so completely on what it means to be a human, and what it means to have a relationship to God, or to live as one of his people (ie a Christian), means anything beyond this common ground is going to become incredibly difficult to articulate in a convincing, cohesive and winsome manner. If the Australian Christian Lobby isn’t speaking about Jesus then they can’t really claim to be speaking for Australian Christians, after that point we’re a very broad church, so broad that even speaking about Jesus doesn’t necessarily represent those who claim the moniker. This the fundamental reason I don’t think an ecumenical approach to social action works – but I can see that in order to mount a convincing political argument in this poll driven iteration of politics, that suggesting you’ve got a big bunch of voters who vote in a block standing behind your statements is politically expedient and a good strategy for lobbying. Which again leads me to my next point…

Thirdly. I don’t think Christians should be lobbying. The role of special interest groups in distorting the political landscape, where better organised and funded activists produce non democratic results, is a blight on the modern system, no matter how well intentioned the lobbyists are. Decisions should be made on what is the right thing to do, on the strength of an argument, whether there is one voice behind it, or a thousand. By participating in lobbying we’re not speaking against a broken system, but using it for our own gains. We’re perpetuating the broken, market driven, approach to democracy, a system the social tide is slowly turning against. And it’s seriously going to come back to bite us – either if “lobbying” becomes vastly unpopular quickly, or if a well organised anti-Christian lobby led by people of my generation as they come into positions of power run a cleansing campaign to finally remove Christianity from public life in Australia.

The idea that Christians should somehow be using political clout, obtained through numbers, to enshrine our worldview, might seem appealing in the short term, but, given the two objections outlined above – namely that there’s a whole generation of people who are watching how the church does politics, and being turned off church, and a whole generation of people listening to what the Christian voice is saying, and not hearing the gospel, we should probably be rethinking how we do political engagement anyway.

I’d argue that employing the language of “lobbying” presents a really harmful message for the non-Christian. We don’t like the tobacco lobby. We don’t like the gun lobby. We don’t like the gay lobby. We don’t like the climate lobby. We don’t like people putting special interests ahead of the common good – which is exactly what “lobbying” implies, it speaks to a strategic organising of people to push their own agenda. It speaks of an unhelpful approach to power and the state which I don’t think is really consistent with the counter-cultural message of the gospel. Particularly for those in my camp, the reformed evangelical types, who think that human nature has been broken by sin, where sin is the natural state of affairs for all people, and the Holy Spirit is required for real change of behaviour, we’re never going to be starting from the same presuppositions as other people in society, and we’ve got to work harder at defending that worldview before legislating from it.

Lobbying isn’t adopting the old Christian maxim of speaking truth to power. It’s trying to speak power to power. It’s playing a numbers game, enforcing the idea that might makes right, that somehow a majority view is what should determine how legislation gets passed. How does this work when the numbers aren’t in our favour? Though the dictionary definitions are almost identical, I wonder why the ACL didn’t choose advocacy as a definition of its work, advocacy at the very least is free of some of the special interest baggage. Especially if our advocacy is framed as protecting the innocent (which we tried with gay marriage after the horse had bolted by arguing about children needing a mother and father – this was a good argument far too late, and on the wrong legislation). Advocacy would free us up to work a bit better with people we disagree with broadly but agree with on specific issues, because it’d be more issue driven than based on arguing for some mythical cross-denominational Christian unity. Scott Stephens, the editor of the ABC’s Religion and Christian Ethics page, gave a really insightful critique of this distinction, as it relates to the gay marriage debate, in a conversation with Steve Austin on mornings last week. I don’t think the answer he puts forward to how Christians should participate in public life is on the money, it’s a little too wishy-washy, and doesn’t start with Jesus, but his diagnosis of the problems in this debate are spot on.

So there, in three nutshells, is why I “don’t like the Australian Christian Lobby” and why, when well meaning members of the ACL (and they are all well meaning, and generally lovely people, who are generally interested in serving God and his kingdom) tell me that I should join the ACL and help them do better, I answer that I’d rather stand apart from them and do my bit to speak truth to the power they’re trying to wield. Basically their policies aren’t good for Australia in the long run, because they’re going to damage the church and the understanding of the gospel for the average Australian, and they’re employing a political methodology that I think is fundamentally antithetical to Christian witness. So [pq]I pretty much think the ACL should change every word in their name to something else.[/pq]

If we are going to do social engagement well, and, as history demonstrates, I think Christians have an incredible role to play in the public sphere, then perhaps we should learn from our successful forbears, who relied on the strength of their argument, building support for change from the ground up, not relying on some powerful numbers play (Wilberforce), and relied on demonstrating a better way rather than simply telling people they were wrong (so the early Christians who cared for abandoned children, and the sick, in a way that made the empire feel guilty), who participated in the process of policy making from within the system rather than holding out the carrot and stick of a voting block (Wilberforce again). Or perhaps we should sacrificially seek out the minority groups who already feel vulnerable, showing that we love them, in a way that opens us up to persecution from the government rather than expects the government to bow to our whims (like, say, Jesus), rather than shouting from our lofty perches in a way that further alienates them from Jesus, who came to make broken people whole, by grace, and only through the Spirit, not by law and holding out the false hope that a moral life, other than the perfectly moral life of Jesus, counts for anything.


Brad says:

I think there is a place for “Christian” “lobbying”. I think Christians ought to speak out about issues where there is a threat to religious freedom (rather than enforcing Christiany moralism others like the ACL does). How this is done, I don’t care, but to get a message across, there needs to be some sort of authority – best achieved by speaking on behalf of a group of people (eg. a church leader or head of a lobby group). I think there is also a place for Christians to push social justice issues (but not adopting a particular view on how justice is best achieved – i.e. from a particular ideological framework).

Nathan Campbell says:

I made comments to that effect on this earlier post, but I’m moving away from that position because I don’t think there’s any need for “lobbying” for religious freedom that can’t be similarly provided by carefully and thoughtfully “advocating” for it.

Brad says:

Well our difference is probably semantic then (lobbying vs advocacy). I suppose lobbying is more active engagement in policy, while advocacy is just stating your position and rationale? If that’s the sort of distinction you’re making then I guess I generally agree that advocacy is best approach.

M B Andrews says:

We should all thank God for the ACL. They cop enough shelling from the centre left hegemony without us Christians passing the ammo. Pray for them. Join them. Influence them. Go to the fundraisers and gently lend your best counsel.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Matt,

I wonder what it is I should be being thankful for if my three criticisms above are legitimate? I would rather they closed their doors than continued to exist, I personally think their brand is beyond redemption so far as positively contributing to social change, and I think they have done significant damage to gospel ministry.

I don’t think the ACL is redeemable in the same way that political parties are (ie I don’t think they’re as interested in being influenced by a membership base), I think their priorities and agendas are set by the people who provide their funding, and I don’t even think their place at the table is legitimate. I’d much rather see politically minded people joining political parties – as we’ve discussed before.

While I’m in broad agreement with their stance on moral issues (with the exception of the clean feed, and some other things that seem pro-censorship) I think their approach has been harmful to those causes. I suspect if you talk to others of my generation, Christian or otherwise, and asked them what the type of Christianity the ACL advocates is, you’d get an answer that boiled down to a gospel of morality, which is no gospel at all. I think this is particularly true for people my age and younger – we’ve lost the ability to put forward nuanced criticism of, for example, the gay issue, because of the black and white approach put forward (or at least reported) by the ACL. So a post like this one from David Ould today should be what we’re contributing to the debate, and we’re not, and I don’t think this sort of nuance plays well with the ACL’s methodology, theology, or supporter base.

Fitzy says:

So what you are trying to say is you “think” a lot?

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Fitzy, I might be overthinking this – but is there something behind this question that I’m not getting?

Brad says:

If they copped a shelling because they are doing God’s work, then I would thank him for them. They usually cop it for good reason.

David Ould says:

Brad, I think Nathan’s point is that they’re not actually doing God’s work if they’re promoting moralism, not the gospel.

It’s a big call, but then it’s the same argument we have about the Apostle Paul’s right to call the Judaisers in Galatians horrible names. And, one should note, over the same issue.

Not that I’m 100% with Nathan on this one, but I think he makes a very important point.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi David,

I thought Brad was agreeing with me but disagreeing with MB.

David Ould says:

yes he was – but I thought your point was still relevant in answer to him ;)

Wendy Francis says:

Thank you. Wendy Francis, Qld Director of ACL. Currently under fire from people who hate Jesus and people who love Jesus.

Brad says:

Wendy, everyone is entitled to an opinion. What I dislike is people claiming to represent others without their endorsement. Calling yourselves the ACL sets you up as a representative of all Christians in Australia. It is impossible to respectfully represent us all. I was embarrassed by comments made by the ACL throughout the gay marriage senate hearing and I resent those comments being presented as “Christian”.

eon1 says:

Hate Jesus? A typical example of the ACL trying to polarise and create an emotional argument. I am a non-Christian but to say I “hate Jesus” (being that your Jesus is, from my perspective, a semi-fictional historical figure) is just garbage. If I did in fact want someone of your faith to represent me I would certainly hope in a situation such as this they may have an actual contribution..

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi eon1,

Thanks for the comment. I’m wondering though how Jesus can be both semi-fictional and historical, I’d love to hear how that works, and how you got to that conclusion…

Brad says:

I’d love to hear from you on this point, Wendy, if you have time. Why does your organisation feel it has a mandate to speak on behalf of all Australian Christians?

Gary Ware says:

Helpful and constructive post.
I appreciate the insight behind the lack of narrative in engagement.
I think it is problematic that Christian unity is being promulgated on secondary issues and apart from the Gospel while the central issue of who is Jesus and what did he do that we may be saved as understood from the Scriptures is assumed or, worse, set aside as divisive.
It is counterproductive if people think we are about moral reform and not God’s transforming new birth.
Yet there is a difference between maintaining the standards which God sets forth (and which can be soundly deduced from) the Bible for all humanity and moralism. Moralism is stating or implying that God accepts us because of our obedience. Christians contend for God’s moral commands and applications thereof because while their performance wrongly motivated is wrong, disobeying those commands is a greater sin. And understanding personal inability and failure to keep / or outright transgression of those commands is a necessary aspect of receiving Christ as Saviour and Lord.
I think there has to be a place for a collective voice, (while sharing a fair degree of your reservations about the ACL for the reasons listed above), simply, and if for no other reason, than political and social bodies know we have positions on these issues (derived from Scripture or not) and want to know what they are. (For a variety of reasons.)
We teach them to folk, we publish books, articles and blogs about them. Telling folk we only want to talk to them about Jesus won’t play.
In reading your post I’m looking forward to the expression of narrative based expressions of why being a follower of Jesus means that we have to hold the particular and counter-cultural beliefs and practices that we do. When being asked in some contexts a question we should be able to tell a story about someone who came to know Jesus, and as a result of knowing Jesus are living in a particular way.
Good job.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Gary,

Re your penultimate paragraph – one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out, in terms of the use of narrative, is how much the type of collective voice we’re talking about should simply be providing a platform for people to share their own stories – I think that might actually be where the strength of this model is, there’s something broken with the system where people sign a petition that fires off a form email to a politician as though we all think the same thing. I think sharing other people’s stories is probably better than a simple black/white statement of right and wrong, but I think it’s personal testimony that is going to carry the day.

And I wonder if that means, in the gay debate, for example, the church working hard to encourage its members who struggle with a conflict between their sexual identity and Christian identity (so, for example, Same sex attracted Christians) to be comfortable in sharing their experiences without fearing some sort of backlash from other Christians. I think that the testimony of those who are trying to figure out how that works are going to be much more powerful to the gay community than our current approach to the issue. It seems this has been somewhat pre-empted by the negative press gay-to-straight programs get (even that branding is bad, gay-to-celibate is arguably a more realistic target). I think the more we hold out the very real hope that Jesus changes real lives in a real way, telling stories about real people, the less abstract our arguments seem. It’s also better PR. It’s much easier to get a story up about people than about ideas.

Tim D'Arcy says:

Excellent article. The fundamental problem with society is not gay marriage or progressive left wing ideologies, but a lack of belief in the living God. Christians should be politically active, but not to push a Christian morality on those who have no reason or desire to follow Christian morals. If anything we should strive for a political and social landscape where Christian practise is not either restricted or coerced.

The only thing I can see to reform society is firstly a reformation of the church. As the proportion of Christians in Australia rises, so too does the political influence. We should turn our attention first to the preaching of the gospel and second to political involvement. It is becoming more and more apparent that we are strangers in a foreign land that is no our own.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Tim,

Thanks for the comment. I think I fundamentally agree with what you’re suggesting we should strive for, you should check out the other posts I’ve written about the ACL.

Cameron says:

I haven’t done a lot of research on the issue, but it occurred to me the other day that virtually all the moralising and prophecy against sin in the Bible was directed towards the people of God. In the Hebrew Bible God wasn’t overly concerned with warning the non-Israelite nations of their sin. In Jonah the message was simply that God was going to destroy Nineveh. In Micah there’s a bit of sermonising toward the non-Israelites, but that all gets turned against Israel anyway.

In the New Testament there’s lots of judgment and moralising going on, but it’s always towards the church. There’s never anything about the evils perpetrated by Rome, except by way of warning the church of persecution. Paul mentions Greek idols in Acts, but the only overt denunciations of idol worship are reserved for his letters to the churches.

I certainly don’t see him using his audiences with ranking officials to lobby for whatever travesty the Roman powers were visiting upon their people. He was more interested in telling the court what Jesus had done and was doing.

Maybe if we concentrated on telling people the Good News rather than lobbying Caesar to keep people in line…

AndrewF says:

And I wonder if that means, in the gay debate, for example, the church working hard to encourage its members who struggle with a conflict between their sexual identity and Christian identity (so, for example, Same sex attracted Christians) to be comfortable in sharing their experiences without fearing some sort of backlash from other Christians.

this > http://wesleyhill.tumblr.com/post/23287192708/in-my-case-when-i-became-a-serious-adult

Fitzy says:

So I read your article. I thought about it. I thought a lot (I too think a lot is seems). I came to the conclusion that I agree with you. Your points are well reasoned and evangelically speaking, bang on the money.
Here layeth the “but”….
There was a problem that took me a while to put my finger on, let me ask you a couple of questions.
Did you submit this to Jim Wallace or Lyle Shelton prior to posting to your public blog? Did they have a chance to respond to your critique?
If so I commend you. But even if so, I would into question your judgement on posting.
There is no benefit in attacking such an organisation publicly. It may make you look clever but is unnecessarily divisionary. You are not going to win to Christ the disaffected by attacking others with differing views. After all is this not the point you are making?
Your blog, your call. But remember, discretion is the better part of valour.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Fitzy,

I submitted this to Queensland’s ACL director, Wendy Francis, after I posted it. I have sent previous ACL related posts to Lyle and Jim and based on previous correspondence I am aware that they keep tabs on what I’m saying.

I’ve given them chances previously to respond to the foundational point of my criticism – that they aren’t on about Jesus enough to legitimately be speaking for all Christians. And they’ve said they were going to take that feedback on board. And nothing changed.

I am committed to making sure when I write a public criticism the people or organisation I criticise has every chance to respond. I don’t censor responses – and if they asked to have a guest post I would happily supply the platform.

I disagree with your statement that there is no benefit in posting this sort of criticism. I believe the benefits are threefold.

1) The ACL needs to see that this criticism isn’t just some guy in Queensland slagging them off by email or over the internet. They’re a lobby group, predicated on being able to claim the support of their constituency. I believe speaking truth to power should be effective, and I would say they, as designated spokespeople for Christianity so far as the Australian media is concerned wield immense power and responsibility. I want the ACL to change. I’ve tried the direct approach. I hope that this post is constructive criticism, not just destructive. I hope that the people who want to be agents of change in our society, in the service of Jesus, start thinking about how they might better represent him to others, and how they might more effectively speak of Christianity to a generation they’re quickly losing.

2) Other Christians need to think about whether they want the ACL speaking for them, or claiming to, and need to be in a position to voice their opinions of the ACL both directly to the organisation, and to their local members. Personally, and this is my personal blog, I’d like Christians to be doing what we can to be on about Jesus, and not on about morality, and I’d like to use this platform to get as many people thinking that as possible. I don’t want to “lobby” the lobbyists. I hope that my arguments will be taken on merit, not adopted because other people are interested – but I want as many people as possible to consider the argument – especially the ACL.

3) The ACL is a public organisation making public statements about Christianity to Christians and non-Christians alike. As such, their work is fair game for public comment, and since I think they are distorting the gospel by not talking about Jesus that’s a criticism I want to make as loudly and as publicly as possible – for two reasons, the ones outlined above, and so that non-Christians know that they don’t speak for me, and for others. I want to both create distance between my identification as a Christian and theirs, and question the legitimacy of their existence.

I disagree with the idea that “division” is necessarily bad for the gospel. And I think this is a necessary issue to divide over. The ACL, by promoting the idea that Christianity is about morality, are moving away from Christianity being about Jesus and his work on the cross to save sinners – even creating the idea that somehow Christians aren’t sinful and are the moral ideal is a bad idea. I don’t think division is bad for Christian witness. I think hypocrisy is. I think being lumped in together with the people who make Christianity sound like a religion of bigotry rather than a faithful acknowledgment that we’re all sinful, and Jesus graciously saved us, is going to further alienate the disaffected. I think you’ll find if you read through the comments on this, and other similar posts here on this blog, that the disaffected are much more interested in hearing winsome, Christ centred arguments about social issues, than shrill, morality centred, assertions about why they’re wrong and need to change.

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