There’s a point in a bushfire where it’s too late to leave. Too dangerous to get out of your house, find the car in the smoke, heat and haze, and reach the road. Too late to drive along the road safely without careering into another panicked driver blinded by the inferno. There’s a point in a bushfire where you just have to stay and ride it out as best you can. That’s the reality for many people in this hot, dry land we call Australia.
When it comes to the issues of individual liberties and religious freedom in Australia at the moment, we’ve left our run to late. The fire is coming. With the Yes vote on same sex marriage coming down the valley and then picking up speed on the way up to the city on the hill, it’s pretty much a case of staying and riding it out as best we can, and surveying the damage on the other side.
For as Paul Kelly, the editor-at-large of The Australian, points out in a searing article this morning, there is neither the will nor the way to protect religious freedoms in Australia in the wake of a Yes vote prevailing.
It’s not that the population does not realise this. A full 62 per cent have said they want religious freedoms protected, that’s five per cent more than the latest poll suggests are going to vote Yes for same sex marriage. Freedoms matter to Australians it seems, whether that’s the freedom to marry a person of the same sex, or the freedom of conscience in the public square to dissent.
Notice that? In the public square! As Kelly rightly observes, it’s to their shame that political leaders on the conservative end of the spectrum suggest that the only issue is with whether priests and pastors will be forced to marry same sex couples. That’s never been the case, and never will be the case in a country with no state church.
But that just shows the poverty of thinking about religious life in this most secular of countries. Do the likes of our Attorney General George Brandis, a self confessed classic liberal, really believe that a commitment to a truth claim is only permitted in private? Perhaps he has been so shaken by the church’s public protest over the treatment of asylum seekers and his own shameful role in it, that he is eager to shut down the church’s voice on this pressing issue.
Former Human Rights Commissioner, and current Liberal MP, Tim Wilson saw this coming several years ago when he said that religious freedoms are grossly under-protected and that, as a gay man, he believed the church was fighting the wrong battle. I have always been convinced of this, even though I am a proponent of the traditional definition of marriage on both religious grounds and, in light of that, in terms of natural law.
Paul Kelly’s article sums up succinctly my own view and concerns. He states, and I quote him at length:
Claims of the Yes camp that this plebiscite is just about gay marriage are intellectual fraud. They are designed to deliberately mislead. The real issue is about competing rights. In essence, it is about how our nation will manage and reconcile competing rights. It is about whether same-sex marriage will be legalised with or without the loss of other rights.
Australia is not going to be transformed by having a few hundred or a few thousand gays get married. But it is going to be transformed by legalising same-sex marriage in a framework where religious protections are weak and where the ongoing campaign for gay rights and transformed norms in our society is designed to further weaken the freedoms attached to individual liberty and religion, some of the most vital freedoms we possess.
This is a longstanding objective of the Greens. It is the position of wide sections of the ALP left. It is an ideological aspiration of much of the progressive class in this country and in the West. The idea we legislate same-sex marriage and nothing else happens — as the Yes case pretends — is surely the joke of the year. How long can people tell us this with a straight face?
The joke of the year will leave many with a grimace on their face rather than a smile. I am resigned in a pluralist context to saying that I cannot control how the state legislates marriage. Unlike many of my fellow believers, I do not fear the redefinition of marriage, which is inevitably coming. But that same pluralist context – or supposedly pluralist – seems unable to bear the weight of a public square in which deep difference is permitted.
At least the more radical of the Yes vote admit as much. This is not about a private matter between a few percent of consenting adults. This is the permanent revolution. And if the bulk of Yes voters, who all seems like gentle souls who just want to affirm that “love is love”, but don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to see where this is headed in terms of religious freedoms, unwittingly sign up to the deeper agenda, then so much the better.
I have plenty of friends voting Yes. And most of those plenty are nice people who have no church affiliation, no understanding of how freedom of conscience is supposed to play out, no understanding that spirituality is not merely a private affair, but something that works itself into the very fabric of our beings. They’ve grown up a-religious. They have no understanding of the issue of competing rights.
Add to that the vast bulk of evangelicals who think that the gospel is a case of “asking Jesus into your heart as your personal Saviour”, and you can see why religion has been reduced to a private role, the design of which is to satisfy the inner self.
The truly sad case for me is those Christians who will be voting “yes” who claim “we can figure out the religious freedoms later”. I have heard that said a number of times. First of all, who is “we”? I put it to them, are YOU going to be the ones on the front line? My guess is we will see neither hide nor hair of you once this thing has swept through.
But secondly, it shows that in terms of competing rights, such people have drunk the progressive Kool Aid. As Kelly states in his article, this “is about how our nation will manage and reconcile competing rights”. Why is it that it takes avowedly secular writers to point this out to those within the church who cannot or will not even attempt to hold these two things in tension?
I point none of this out to wail and bemoan our fate. I just read 2 Timothy 1 this morning and marvelled at the hope and life found in the gospel that permits even Paul in chains to rejoice and glory in spite of perceived shame. Let me be clear, we are not owed any of the rights we currently have. And Jesus is the sovereign king over all whether we have them or not. He alone is our hope.
But what we are not owed, we are still to enjoy as a gift and fruit of the gospel. For indeed the human rights we have, now detached in the secular state from the Christian frame, are clearly not universal rights. They have been born out of the gospel and spring only from places in which the gospel made significant inroads. Don’t believe me? Go live in a nation in which the gospel has not touched the political or cultural landscape to any great level. Common grace ain’t so common, let me tell you.
Hence we should be grateful for our rights, speak out in defence of them, and not assume they cannot be taken away. For they can be. And as far as I can see it, they will be. We need to extend those same rights to others, which is why I am somewhat ambivalent about how we can hold back legislation on same sex marriage. But that same ambivalent is matched by my determination for us not to lose the right, in the public square, to hold the opposite position without fear of prosecution.
Tim Wilson is right. We will lose both battles. And we will lose both battles because as a nation we have not been prepared nor had the will or intellectual foresight to be prepared. Australia has always been a deeply pragmatic country. At the very time we need strongly principled leaders we are being severely let down.
You don’t fill the water tank, clear the leaves from the gutters, create firebreaks around the property, and write up your evacuation plan at when the fire is screaming up the hill on a 42 degree day. You do those things in the cool of early spring in preparation for the heat of summer.
Well, summer is almost upon us, and we are not ready. The smell of smoke is in our noses already. It’s a case of when, not if, the fire will arrive. As a nation I am glad that we are free to vote Yes. But if you haven’t thought about life after the Yes, or if you think we can figure it out later, don’t be surprised when your sifting through the ash heap of the house looking for what little you can salvage when the fire’s gone through.