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Why the religious Right needs to be victimised to know it’s alive

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Political activist and former head of the Australian Christian Lobby Lyle Shelton has been vocal about religious free speech (Screenshot via YouTube)

Christian organisations in Australia have been given a chance to play victim in their pursuit of freedom of speech, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

THE PHENOMENON of privileged elites resorting to claims of victimisation when their privilege is challenged is increasing across the globe and perhaps nowhere is this perverted attempt to hold onto power more apparent than in the activities of the religious Right.

It is the purpose of the religious Right to establish a dominant system of religious belief over all aspects of society, a dominance that suppresses dissent while maintaining for itself the privilege to unquestioningly condemn any point of view other than its own. Their influence is not yet as great in this country as it is in the United States, however we would do well to contemplate the extent to which our politics is subtly and not-so-subtly succumbing to these influences.

Many conservative religions are exclusive and exceptionalist, employing an “us and them” mentality from which to forge their group identity and ensure bonding. Those on the outer, the non-believers, are regarded as “sinners” who will be denied the rewards of an afterlife and/or consigned to an eternity of torment. This is certainly the case in the Pentecostal religion followed by Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. It is worth noting that Morrison is the first Pentecostal to hold such high office and that the PM attributed his victory to a “miracle” and the energising of Christian voters because of his faith.

Organisations such as the Australian Christian Lobby work to ensure a conservative Christian influence in politics.

In its mission statement the ACL claims that:

In Australia as well as across the western world, truth in the public square is being attacked and suppressed. The greatest stronghold of truth – Classical Christianity – is being pathologised and blamed for significant harms.

 

To this end, Christian institutions are being undermined. Churches are being pressured by new moral and legal norms. Individuals who speak or live consistent with truth are made a prey.

Victimhood is an essential aspect of Christianity with persecution interpreted as a validation of Christian commitment. There is a tradition within Christianity of extolling suffering and sacrifice, however, sadly, the opportunities for privileged Christians to suffer for their faith are limited. The alleged defence of “truth” in the face of changing societal norms offers a rare instance in which privileged Christians can take up arms against perceived oppression in the “public square”.

Which brings us to the recent sacking of footballer Israel Folau by the Australian Rugby Union. Folau, a profoundly religious man, published a list of what he considers to be “wrongdoers” on social media with the threat that they would go to hell. Homosexuals featured on his list. This contravened Rugby Australia’s inclusion policy, a policy Folau agreed to observe and respect when he signed his contract. After a couple of warnings, the organisation terminated that contract.

The matter will now go before the court with Folau citing Section 772 of the Fair Work Act which details all the reasons an employer cannot terminate a contract, including religion. The case will revolve around the degree to which an employer can inhibit an employee’s religious expression, an issue that has never been tested in Australian courts and may not be in this instance, as a settlement between the parties is a possible outcome.

Former ACL CEO Lyle Shelton is taking the lead on the “victimisation of Christians and Folau and the battle for free speech” narrative:

In Australia, all religious institutions are exempt from anti-discrimination legislation in the matter of employment, the provision of services and who they will or will not accept as students in their schools. These exemptions are based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This discrimination is legalised because it is motivated by religious beliefs, one of which is that being homosexual is a choice consciously made in defiance of God.

Given that a discriminatory and false religious belief is already enshrined in law in this country, it isn’t surprising that the religious Right feels at liberty to demand that public condemnation of homosexuals is also their right and that they are being denied freedom of speech if expressions of homophobia incur consequences. What degree of cognitive dissonance is required to say yes, you may refuse to employ and educate homosexuals because of your religious beliefs, however, if you publicly threaten them with hell, we will take action against you?

This is in no way supportive of discriminatory commentary; my aim is to point out the inconsistencies in our laws and how giving the religious Right an inch has encouraged them to take a mile. It has also provided them with a golden opportunity to claim they are being victimised.

Planting our feet firmly in the realm of the rational for the moment, the notion that privileged Christians in Australia are being silenced and persecuted, citing Folau’s situation as the justification for this hyperbole, is ludicrous. Nobody has prevented or attempted to prevent Folau from saying anything he wants to say. He is engaged in a workplace dispute with his employer and remains free to speak as he wishes outside of that workplace.

There are legitimate questions that need to be asked about the extent of any employer’s right to control any employee’s speech outside of the workplace. There is also an argument to be made that an employer’s control over employees is tantamount to silencing them when loss of employment is a threat. However, this is in no way equivalent to the persecution of Christians and denial of their free speech. Indeed, the hyperbole is cruelly disregarding of the faithful in other countries who suffer all manner of indignities, brutality and even death in their pursuit of their faith.

However, this has not dissuaded Archbishop Glenn Davies from weighing in on the Folau furore, claiming that the footballer’s right to speak about Jesus has been denied him:

Sadly, Folau did not choose to speak about Jesus, who himself had nothing to say on the matter of homosexuality. Instead, Folau chose to cite the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. You’d think the Archbishop of all people would see there is a considerable difference, but no. Apparently, once you are committed to travelling the path of alleged persecution and victimisation, not even the truth can be allowed to get in your way.

It’s worth noting that Christians arguing for the “Folau-as-victim” perspective are the very same Christians who are legally permitted to sack those whose views do not coincide with their religious beliefs. This is an outstanding example of religious exceptionalism at work — “you have no right to control what I say and do, but I reserve the right to refuse you education, employment, or to sack you because of what you say and do. My justification for this is, my religious beliefs.”

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like persecution. And it doesn’t come much more privileged than exemptions from the laws that apply to everyone else and a tax-free status to go with it.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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