December 8, 2018

Religious Freedom And Sexular Culture: A Tale of Two Gospels

The reason that we are at such an impasse in Australia over religious freedom/ discrimination is simple:  It’s a tale of two gospels.  Competing views about good news.  And as such, with so much at stake, there can be no backdown and no middle ground.

Not that I would not like there to be middle ground.  Against all my hopes I would wish to see an Australia where gay people were not discriminated against and where religious freedom to teach and promulgate a faith position that holds to a Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) sexual ethic is not under threat.

But let’s be clear, it’s not about discrimination versus religious freedom, it’s about which form of discrimination will win the day.  Or to put a positive spin on it, which gospel will win out.

Progressive activists need to claim the word “discrimination” for this cause, because to allow religious people to also claim it would be to cede the language battle.  And all of our battles in this post-truth age are centred around language.  And in the current match-up religious freedom is a goal down in the first minute of play because it’s had the “discrimination” word wrested from its control.

That the two discriminations cannot co-exist is clear, despite what the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader wish to assure us.  It seems a cruel irony that at the very time we need some stability and intellectual rigour in our Parliament, we are lumped with a restless political churn and two party leaders who are, let’s face it, not exactly top-drawer thinkers.

Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten are two men who, over time, have proven to be ineffective communicators, with a poor grasp of language that reveals a lack of intellectual rigour.  They seem constantly incapable of using language the way George Orwell called politicians to use it (to reveal meaning), always erring on the side of what Orwell warned against (using language to hide meaning).

Both men are pragmatists. Both men are political beasts.  But we don’t need pragmatists and political beasts in this cultural moment, we need men with intellectual and moral fibre.

And what’s become more than clear is that being a self-confessed Christian does not make one a better leader, nor give one a particular wisdom that befits the state of Prime Minister in complex times.

Sure pray for Scott Morrison if you like, we’re called to do so by Scripture, but you can’t fatten the pig on the way to the market, as the saying goes.  The time for him to do some intellectual, theological and philosophical training in preparation for such a task as leading the nation was way before yesterday.

Once again it’s left to public intellectuals and commentators such as The Australian newspaper’s Paul Kelly to nail the issue. Kelly has been surveying the political and cultural scene for some time in Australia, and along with his fellow journalist, Greg Sheridan, has a keen eye and a sharp pen that cuts through the cant.  Here’s Kelly in today’s The Weekend Australian:

It is tempting to think the Liberal-Labor deadlock is merely about different legal interpretations or disputes about the most preferable mechanism to reconcile the stakeholders. Tempting but false, since this conflict is about competing world views. It is a conflict between how Australia resolves secular and religious norms. Are religious schools to be allowed to teach marriage is a union between a man and a woman or insist all students attend chapel or propound traditional biblical narratives — or will the state impose censorship on such teaching and activity by saying it discriminates against LGBTIQ students who must have legal resort against discrimination? There is an alarming scenario — that the conflict is unresolved until the election and triggers a descent into inflamed emotion and prejudice.

Competing world views.  And, I might add, competing world practices.  Deeply embedded in the difference is the matter of ethics.    And they are completely irreconcilable.  One of them is either going to have to give ground, or be forced to give ground.  And which of them do you think is going to yield of its own volition?

Certainly not the gay lobby, which just one year ago was assuring one and all that this was only ever about the right to marry.  But that gaudy rainbow haze disappeared quickly and the thunderstorm clouds gathered.

Not long after the vote for same sex marriage, Parliament voted down a series of amendments that would guarantee freedom of conscience in the workplace (bakers/photographers etc).  And voted them down to the various howls, yelps and cheers of the parliamentary gallery, including the media.  I wrote about that here.

But this latest round is not being done while we are asleep.  It’s not being done in the dark.  It’s being done in broad daylight.  And our Parliament is simply a coalesced, more intense, version of our nation.   Yet, why do I have the impression that most churches – and many other faith organisations – are sleepwalking towards the precipice on this one?  It’s as if it could not happen.  It’s as if they assume that there is a via media, a way forward, that must be there.  But as Kelly said, there isn’t, and it’s an alarming scenario.

These two gospels, two competing visions of the good life, have been facing off against each other in the wider community for some time.  It should come as no surprise that it’s reached the pinnacle (or nadir, depending on how cynical you are towards the political process), of our national conversation.

And, like the nation, the Parliament is at an impasse.  Even the more progressive Fairfax media group has, finally, shown some concern that “love is love” might have some consequences beyond what they had envisioned through their rose coloured glasses.

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent, David Crowe, backed a call for a conscience vote on the bill before Parliament, stating:

The tension between religious teaching and personal freedom is inherent in the bill.

There was Buckley’s chance the ALP would offer a conscience vote, and so it proved.  And everything came to a grinding halt.

Until next year.  And what might happen next year?  There’s the unlikely event of the major parties coming to agreement.   During that time the same activist group that so successfully campaigned for same sex marriage, has promised to start a new campaign to push through to completion what it began.  As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald:

The Equality Campaign will rebrand as Equality Australia and will be led by new chief executive Anna Brown, a former director of the Human Rights Law Centre and a key player in the marriage equality movement.

Brown states this in regards to the Ruddock Inquiry set up after the Parliamentary debacle of last year:

The genesis of that inquiry was this flawed idea that equality for LGBTI people somehow poses a threat to religious freedom. We reject this utterly.

Really Anna?  Well, tell us the secret to such an irenic outcome.  Tell us what amazing pathway through the impasse you can see that no one else can?  What insight do you have?  After breathlessly pitching the line that same sex marriage was a discrete matter that would have no wider consequences, are we supposed to believe you now?  “Okay we got that one wrong, but trust us this time.”  Fool me once Anna, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me!

Over all of that there’s the extremely likely event – the confirmed event – of a Federal election next May, at which point the Morrison Government will be swept from power and the ALP will, along with The Greens and some cross-benchers, enact what it wanted anyway.   The Gospel According to Sex will have its way.

And then the fun will begin.  From that point on, whether the government of the day will have the energy to prosecute it, there’ll be something deliciously transgressive about standing up in a Christian wedding, and reading these words from Genesis 2:

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.  So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.  And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

I don’t think we realise what subversive words they were when written back then and how subversive they still are today.  Time has smoothed its rough edges.  Time and assumption.

I don’t think we realised how wrong they are on so many levels in a culture that worships and serves the creature rather than the Creator.  I don’t think many of us grasp how transgressively “asymmetrical” (Creator/creature, human/ animal, man/woman) this narrative is in a world which wishes to flatten all distinctions in order to hide from its Creator.

I don’t think we realise just how abhorrent many people feel about those words and the ideas they have germinated down the millennia; ideas (and practices) that we took for granted up until now in our Christianised culture.

But I do think that some time in the next year or so we’re about to find out.







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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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