It’s almost bizarre that one of the levers being pulled in the last week of the Federal election campaign is whether the Australian Prime Minister can unequivocally state that gay people are or are not going to hell.
Yet that’s the squirmy question that the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten presented, unprompted, in a media stop this afternoon. Here’s how the Sydney Morning Herald reports it:
When Mr Shorten was asked if he believed gay people would go to hell, he said: “No, I don’t believe gay people, because they’re gay, will go to hell. I don’t need a law to tell me that. I don’t believe it.”
The Opposition Leader then criticised Mr Morrison for not being able to give a direct answer to the same question the previous day.
“I think if you want to be prime minister of Australia you are going to be prime minister for all people. And I just don’t believe it. The nation’s got to stop eating itself in this sort of madness of division and toxicity.”
Quite apart from the fact that secular Australia simply has no framework to describe categories such as “hell” or “sin” – and will simply eisegete such terms with visuals gleaned from movies, paintings or perhaps a religious school upbringing -, it is astonishing that such conversations are in the public square.
Morrison’s retort should be to simply ask the Australian media what they even mean by those terms. The level of religious ignorance in Australia, particularly the media, is astonishing. After all we’re in a situation that week after week, The Australian newspaper tells us that a rugby player whose name I will not mention has been attending Pentecostal Mass! Never mind what the Pentecostals think about that, what must the Catholics be thinking?
Here we are in this most secular of landscapes and questions about sexual predilection and eternal destiny are part of the national conversation in the lead up to the most hotly contested election in years. Could we even have believed this about fifteen years ago, when the primary concern among many Christians was that no one was talking about faith?
It’s clear that Mr Shorten believed that there would be some serious traction to be gained by challenging the seeming equivocation of Prime Minister Scott Morrison on this vexing matter.
Shorten is a political genius par excellence. He has seen off (knifed?) two sitting PMs; been an unpopular Opposition Leader for most of his time, yet sits on the cusp of leading his party to victory. He asked that question because he knows there’s mileage in asking it. He asked that question because he knows that in the minds of many Australians it is a pivotal question about what type of Australia we wish to see in the future.
And Shorten knows that the issue for the Australian population is not whether Morrison would do anything about his beliefs about gays and hell, but simply the fact that Morrison might believe it! And not believe it in the abstract, but about actual people. When Shorten says “gay people” he’s not speaking a “generic mass”, but brothers, sisters, spouses, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters. It’s that personal.
It begs the question what’s Morrison trying to hide? Is a man who believes that – even privately – fit to be PM? That’s what Shorten is getting at. It risks becoming an electoral nightmare for Morrison, just as the former Parliamentary leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, Tim Farron, whose career was ended by his Christian perspective on this issue, not as public policy, but as private conviction.
So it’s not altogether unsurprising that Shorten puts this issue out there, given how much it has been front and centre in our nation for the past four or five weeks thanks to a certain rugby player. Not surprising, but still somewhat bizarre.
When Morrison became Prime Minister I observed that he was going to have trouble maintaining what are his private convictions about matters of sexuality, from his public role.
Not that he would personally have trouble with it, but that he would not be given wiggle room to hold different stances on ethical issues such as this in private and public. The sexual ethics question is the soft underbelly of Australian traditional Christians in the public square, and Shorten just twisted the knife. Anything Morrison says now looks shifty, and desperate.
And that will increasingly be the future. It won’t matter how woke you look, or how right on you are about other issues, if you can’t sign off on the sexual ethics issues, and be seen to be enthusiastic in doing so, you’re time in public office will be short-lived. Make no mistake about that.
Shorten is right of course. The PM has to be PM for all people. And some of the PM’s own candidates need to take a good long look at themselves about how they have spoken recently. And Shorten’s right too that the nation has “to stop eating itself in this sort of madness and toxicity.” Well until this Sunday at least.
And this is where it’s difficult for the Christian. The fact that Christians believe that anyone goes to hell for anything is completely outlandish for most secular Australians. And probably outlandish for most Australians who have yet to suffer any form of monstrous evil.
I wouldn’t want to single out any one grouping as being destined for hell, at least not in the public square, simply for the reason that the secular frame has no category for religious conviction that is publicly and palpably, universally true. And nor, given I do believe in hell, wish anyone to end up there. To do so would be macabre.
Yet I do believe that people will end up in hell. I find that truth horrifying, but no less the true for being so. And not for their sexual distinctions or preferences per se. Our sexual practices outside of God’s command, along with a whole bunch of other stuff, are merely out-workings of the deeper problem that humans have, namely that they are cut off from the life and love of the one true God by dint of their rebellion against him.
Yet even if Scott Morrison believes all of the above, and I suspect he does, it’s highly inappropriate and unhelpful to use such deeply held beliefs to shape public policy. And if you’re a Christian in the public square going into the future, you’re just going to have to hold those two things in tension.
Explicit in the whole debate is how Australians can live with deep differences. And my fear is that they cannot. As someone who believes in an orthodox view of sexual ethics, and at the same time holding a deep suspicion about modern day identity tags being used as coveralls, I still want all of my neighbours to flourish.
I want an Australia where the gay blokes down the road from me who who walk past of an evening and have a chat with me, are safe and secure from abuse and harm. I still want it to be the case that we can have some common ground, and even to meet there! It’s often said that many evangelicals don’t have many openly gay friends, and I suspect it’s true the other way around as well (though I can often see why that’s the case).
And I still want an Australia where alternate ethical communities that hold to traditional sexual ethics are not used as pawns by an increasingly hard Leftist agenda to further their utopian vision, a vision that is increasingly being taken up by the ALP, as Mark Dreyfus has recently indicated. Schools are to sign up to the Sexular culture or risk sanction. I still want an Australia where I can disagree, politely, about such things. But I suspect those days are long gone, given the either/or nature of the precipitous conversation about same sex marriage.
Of course schools and other institutions are clever enough to get around how laws are written, but the loopholes will be closed one by one. If you don’t believe that, then check out how Ofsted, the UK schools inspectorate, coolly dispatches schools that don’t sign up to the check list of “British values”.
I still want an Australia that is robust enough to allow those who they vehemently disagree with on these matters to have a seat at the table. I do, after all, sit on the board of a Christian school that has an employment policy that employs staff that hold to and practice an orthodox Christian sexual ethic.
In other words, I don’t want a divided and toxic Australia, but the fact is we pretty much seem to have one. And I’m not sure that either Bill Shorten or Scott Morrison will be able to do much to turn that around.
Which is pretty much a good reminder that we don’t put our faith in politics, do we?