It felt like we dodged a bullet. The unexpected electoral result of a few weeks back cleared my calendar. As a board member of a Christian school I was assuming an ALP government wold come to power, a party which had vowed to cut all religious exemptions for Christian schools.
And that would mean a whole lot of meetings to first try and dissuade an already settled -in-its-mind government to change its course of action, and then if that didn’t happen, to figure out a way to negotiate a future for faith-based schools with a government hostile to alternate ethical communities.
Remember the words of would-be Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, in the lead up to an electoral victory he thought was assured, stating that he would ask the Australian Law Reform Commission:
“…to provide recommendations on how best to remove the exemptions from discrimination against LGBTQI students and teachers contained in commonwealth legislation as a priority”.
That statement wasn’t a slip of the tongue during a door stop after he’d had five hours sleep following a late sitting of Parliament. That was a written statement in a letter circulated to the representative bodies of Christian schools around the country. It was settled. All we had to do was wait for the votes to be counted on the Saturday of the election and it would be all systems go.
And it was off the back of a concerted campaign by the Opposition and some in the mainstream media to paint a picture of Christian schools discriminating against gay students willy nilly. Well that sort of discrimination didn’t happen, doesn’t happen and won’t happen.
Board members would sit around at meetings amazed at the misinformation campaign being waged against them, unable to recognise these nasty schools being presented to them by the likes of the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC.
And now the removal of exemptions isn’t going to happen. Turns out it wasn’t all systems go, because those pesky voters threw a spanner in the works, for the next three years at least. Our board meetings in the future just got a little less fraught looking, and Dreyfus, and the rest of the ALP, have at least one electoral cycle to figure out how to reframe their take on religion.
So we dodged a bullet. But what next? Is there a strategy other than throwing a party, going “Whoopee!”? There better be, because sitting on our laurels is not going to stave off future attempts to interfere in the religious practices of mediating institutions such as faith-based schools.
But it’s not merely external societal and legal pressures that schools are dealing with, there are internal pressures as well where schools have no clear strategy in terms of navigating an uncertain future. The next three years are a good time for schools to put their houses in order to ensure they can meet whatever future is coming their way.
Dealing With External Pressures
- Be Firm But Friendly. It was a shock to many Labor MPs that their party was being viewed by many voters as hostile to religious people and their communities. And the very early signs were there, a week after the election, that they would take this seriously. However, predictably, this early mea culpa has faded, with frontbencher Chris Bowen saying that there was “a perception” among the electorate that Labor had abandoned the religious. Sorry, but there was not a perception, there was a fact. To put it as voter perception is classic denial at best, and the behaviour of a bully at worst. You’ve maybe heard it said to you “I’m sorry that you feel that way about what I said or did.”, which is simply them blaming you for their bad behaviour. Bowen is pretty much saying that the voters’ perception was actually wrong, that the ALP is indeed okay with religion and it’s just that the message wasn’t heard correctly. Sorry, but that is taking us for mugs. It’s time to be firm but friendly with our local Labor MPs. Meet up with them, tell them why your perception matches reality, with plenty of proof such as Dreyfus’ comment, and then ask what they think. If Christian schools were to do this, it would go a long way to making future progressive governments think again.
- Counter the Fake News. As I’ve said before, progressives in the media live in an echo chamber, but they also seem to have deep intent to portray faith-based schools in a permanently negative light. And much of this is off the back of a post-institutional, Anything But Christianity approach to religious matters. Of course good news stories don’t make the news, because they’re not actually news! But faith-based schools need a good front foot strategy when it comes to engaging with the secular media, not merely a back foot strategy. It’s probably time to bypass some of the mainstream media because there is an element there that is extremely hostile to orthodox Christian views on sexuality etc, and will continue to ply stories that don’t match reality! It also means countering the cheap and cheerful half-truths about faith-based education sucking up tax money (religious people pay taxes too, and we assume that much of that tax often goes to fund things we disagree with). Christian schools, indeed those of other faiths, need to be clear in the public square about the difference between a secular society and a pluralistic one.
- Assume Culture Will Continue In a Progressive Direction. Politics is downstream of culture. Politicians are always in danger of losing their jobs, through the ballot box. They will say anything and do anything to obtain power. And once in power they will say and do anything to stay there. But culture is here to stay. It will never lose its power, and soft cultural power sets the agenda for all politics in the late modern world. The dazzling display of surface diversity that the Sexular Culture presents to us in soft focus and panoramic shots is beguiling, impressive and persuasive as it drip-filters its way into our intellectual and emotional reflexes. Progressive soft power is not going away, indeed it is being shored up by big tech and other non-government actors. The culture is turning towards the progressive, regardless of who is in short term political power. So we dodged this bullet, but progressivism is as relentless as a Gatling Gun, so just assume that work will always need to be done to show why alternate ethical communities, and other mediating institutions, are important platforms in a healthy society, and are indeed platforms that can stay the long arm of government overreach.
- Don’t Overplay The Persecution Line. Christian, and all faith-based schools, are part of the common good. Religion in the public square is also part of the common good. And there’s certainly been an increase in the temperature around the religious conversation in Australia recently. But hostility is not full-blown persecution. While the scandals among some church figures and indeed within some wings of Christian institutions have resulted in some of the hostility (and rightly so), there’s always going to be a rejection of the gospel among those who don’t believe. We should expect that. Religious freedom is important and is part of a subset that includes freedom of conscience and freedom of association. We shouldn’t have to go cap-in-hand to ask for it. Let’s call out the belligerence from those who hate the faith, but let’s not have a woe-is-me attitude. Let’s be clear and confident and meet spurious arguments, and indeed hatred, with clarity and conviction.
Dealing with Internal Pressures
- Ensure Your School Is What It Claims to Be on the Tin. Like all workplaces, schools (including faith-based schools) are struggling with the changing dynamics of employment in the late modern world. There are increased stresses, tensions and demands in the workplace, and schools are no exception. If school boards are going to ensure that a faith-based school is even worth attending, indeed if they present them as great workplaces then they needs to get to grips with staff well-being and school work culture in these transitioning times. What’s the point of having a great Christian Living program with all of the bells and whistles, yet the teaching staff themselves are not being treated with grace and understanding? If there is high staff turnover and low morale, then actual Christian living among the staff may be absent! And it also means Christian school staff should live exemplary lives in terms of their own sexual practices. Let’s not tut-tut at what is going on, or being championed in the culture, if we don’t have our own house in order.
- Don’t Settle For Gospel-Lite. Winston Churchill observed that a public school education (the UK equivalent of our private system) equipped a boy for life and damned him for eternity. If we’re going to present the gospel to our school students, many of whom never darken the door of a church, can I suggest we don’t settle for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, as Christian Smith and Melinda Denton called it. Let’s not settle for a vague God who is going to help us realise our already predetermined dreams. Jesus is not here to serve us, we are here to serve him. He DID serve us at the cross, so make that the centre of your gospel message. We’re already being offered an alternate good news by the culture, one that is toxic, hostile and directly the opposite of the gospel the Bible offers. Let’s not fall between two stools for fear of offending. If the past few years are any indication we have a secular culture in which opportunity and choice are aplenty, but meaning and purpose are strangely lacking. Forget the milkshake Christianity, go for the full grain version, and let the kids – and parents – at least know what they are rejecting. If we’re not doing that we may as well let the school settle into a secular framework and go and find something else to do. And this crunchy gospel will include loving those who are not like you, and finding ways for students of diverse backgrounds and sexual identities to discover a place of safety and love despite difference. That may be a hard path to walk, and will need sensitivity, but it’s possible to do, while still holding to orthodox Christian ethics.
- Offer A Superior Product. Tim Keller reminded churches that their aim is to ensure that if they ever left a neighbourhood that those who disagreed with them about their faith would still miss them and would have to raise the local taxes to cover their absence. So too with us. Let’s present a superior product as Christian schools: A good, solid education, well-trained teachers who see their role vocationally, and who are regular attendees at their churches where they serve and worship and get equipped for serving during the week. Teachers who display that same “excellent spirit” to their students – Christian and non-Christian alike – that so enamoured Daniel to King Darius in Babylon. Let’s not fall into the trap of simply thinking because we’re Christian we’re better. Let’s be better because we’ve got a hope beyond this age, a meaning and purpose to what we’re doing that is superior to what the world offers. That’s got to be catching I reckon. If year after year thousands of students come through our doors and they’re either not discipled towards Jesus, or indeed are discipled away from him, then we might need to question our reason for existence.
- Predetermine What Hill You Will Die On. It struck me that many schools were in the “wait and see” approach and hadn’t figured out what they might do with their employment situation, and subsequently their funding situation, if predicted religious exemptions were tied to funding. That led to a lot of nervous nellies, and it ensured we were always in reactive mode. Schools need to have contingency plans. Don’t assume “we’re just too big to fail” because that’s what Lehman Brothers thought, until it failed. A future government that is hostile to faith-based schools that hold to an alternate sexual ethic could indeed come up with new and interesting ways to put the squeeze on. So figure out early what your non-negotiables are. And then stick to them. If your school sticks to its guns on the make-up of its staff, and has to shrink to survive, then figure that out now. Speak to your membership and your staff now, not when the electoral cycle pressure is upon us again. As they say “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
- Unity With Other Christian School Networks. I’m going to be brutal. There were statements in the lead up to the election by some top-end-of-town schools that for all intents and purposes threw a lot of the smaller faith-based schools under a bus , especially in terms of what was being said about staff employment. There was a distinct lack of unity about what a Christian school actually was, and a lot of huffing and puffing from some schools that were used to a seat at the cultural table, and who appeared fearful of losing it. It felt like the classic “I for one welcome our new government overlords” line, a shape-shifting approach depending on who might be in government. So, for example, certain religious leaders were talking about how faith-based education was all about “Christian ethos” – some sort of spiritual chimera – independent of Christian ethic. That is a form of gnosticism, and it’s the death knell of any meaningful faith. I hope some of those associations can eat some humble pie and acknowledge that self-interest (that least Christian of all attitudes) and self-preservation was most unhelpful, and indeed divisive, as the campaign was being waged by the ALP and the progressive media.
Well that’s enough to think about. The bullet has been dodged. For the moment. Time to get our houses in order for the next bullet that comes along, whatever that looks like.