Same-sex marriage 'Yes' vote: High Noon in the Christian religion

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons

'Such is the privilege of the religious conservatives, they feel that disagreement with their beliefs is tantamount to persecution ... Being white, privileged, Christian and largely male, they can, unlike the truly persecuted, go anywhere at any time — probably travelling business class.' 

Dr Jennifer Wilson

WHEN I ticked "Yes" in the despicable marriage equality postal opinion poll – to which we were all subjected because Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull lacked the courage to deal with it in Parliament and, instead, outsourced the decision in an effort to appease the right wing of his party – I did not notice anywhere on the form a question about the protection of religious freedoms as a consequence of a "Yes" victory.

1. “Protection of Religious Freedom”

And yet, the right wing has assumed a mandate to demand amendments to the Marriage Act that have nothing whatsoever to do with marriage equality and are, for the most part, covered in our anti-discrimination legislation which, inexplicably, already gives religious institutions the right to discriminate against fellow human beings.

Treasurer Scott Morrison has seized the opportunity to parade his leadership credentials by demanding that parental rights and “conscience protections” be included in the marriage bill and that the “very fundamental issues of faith and belief” are adequately covered. Morrison is a Pentecostal Christian.  

Anti-discrimination exemptions are not extended, thankfully, to bodies or individuals other than the religious.

It remains a mystery to this writer that:

a) religious institutions need to be discriminatory;

b) they are not required to pay taxes; and

c) our secular state panders to religious exceptionalism.

Why are we even tolerating Senate debates as to the nature and extent of proposed “protection of religious freedoms” and why are we not, instead, questioning the very existence of this concept in our secular Parliament?  

Our Constitution covers the matter of religious freedom. I have seen sensible interrogation of the proposed amendments currently before the Senate that suggests they may, in fact, be in breach of Section 116 of the Australian Constitution Act, which states:

'The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.'

With any luck, protection of religious freedom will be the next challenge to front up to the High Court. Crowdfunding, anyone?

2. “There is no other country for us to flee to if we lose”

If you assumed the above quote is a heart-wrenching lament from the men currently enduring inhuman treatment on Manus Island, you’d be wrong, though understandably so.

In fact, it’s a quote from a vow made by the Federal minister for Adani, Senator Matt Canavan, to “fight to ensure conservatives don’t become a persecuted minority post the voters’ decision in favour of marriage equality.

The trope of the persecuted Christian is nothing if not persistent. A quick glance at the Twitter timeline of the Australian Christian Lobby’s CEO Lyle Shelton, reveals a man slavering with anticipation of persecution — his pathological desire for martyrdom likely to remain unsatisfied even if we send in the lions.

An unanticipated (?) consequence of the marriage equality opinion poll is the opportunity it has provided for the conservative religious cohort to find each other anew and reunite in their sense of unjust exclusion from the views of the majority of Australians. Religious conservatives have long promulgated the view that they are the “silent majority”.

The "Yes" result has apparently catapulted them from their silent majority status to that of a persecuted minority, literally overnight. Immediately after the "Yes" result was announced, we see Shelton hosting a conference titled, "Embolden17", at which various homophobic leaders, such as Senator Cory Bernardi, gave keynotes designed to stoke the fires of fear and resentment, and consolidate the sense of bonding provoked by an imaginary threat of “losing”, and a subsequent flight from persecution. Much like Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the Israelites out of Egypt just before he received the Ten Commandments.

Says Lyle Shelton:

"There are powerful voices trying to intimidate and silence your voice. This is not a time for silence. It is a time to be emboldened."

End times, baby. Embiggen me.

Such is the privilege of the religious conservatives, they feel that disagreement with their beliefs is tantamount to persecution. Given that several of them are members of a Government that is currently torturing refugees in off-shore detention, their claims of persecution and possible statelessness are no more than revolting and hysterical self–dramatisation. Being white, privileged, Christian and largely male, they can, unlike the truly persecuted, go anywhere at any time — probably travelling business class. 

On the other hand, most Western nations have already legalised marriage equality, so if that’s what they’re trying to avoid, their options are limited.

"There is no other country for us to flee to."

 Sad, that.

3. Divisions within the Christian religion run deep, so whose side is God on?

This impassioned piece by Julia Baird in the Sydney Morning Herald, 'Same-sex marriage result was a defeat for only one type of Christianity', reveals the depth of disagreement among Christians on the topic of marriage equality. Baird opens her piece with the question: 'Who speaks for God?'

Because I find the concept of the male Christian god entirely baffling, I find the argument about who speaks for him on the civil and secular matter of marriage equality both bizarre and irrelevant. Christians do not and have never had ownership of marriage. And while as Baird points out in her piece, the aforementioned Australian Christian Lobby may not speak for many Christians, the Anglican Church, which donated $1 million to the "No" campaign, surely does. Not to mention the Church of Rome — vocal and insistent in its advocacy for what it calls, 'marriage between a man and a woman'.

Regular churchgoers, Baird claims, are at odds with their hierarchies, however, as there is no data available as to the number of practising Christians who voted "Yes", this claim is as unsubstantiated as is that of Paul Bongiorno’s recent surprising tweet, in which he states:

'On reflection, it is sad that the ethnic minority communities of Western Sydney – victims of discrimination and prejudice – are incapable of extending equality to the Queer minority. Out of synch with the nation.'

As Twitter was quick to ask, where has this data come from, and who exactly has done any analysis of it that could lead one to this crude conclusion? It was a voluntary postal opinion poll, with no usual survey safeguards, not a referendum or a plebiscite.

Let’s also not forget that the "No" campaign was led by the very people identified in Baird’s article — none of whom fit Bongiorno’s profile of members of ethnic minority communities in Western Sydney. Most of these leaders, I am willing to argue, have never experienced serious discrimination and prejudice of the kind refugees in Western Sydney fled their homelands to escape.

For mine, the religious divisions addressed by Baird in her piece have little place in public discourse on marriage equality. Surely they can sort it out among themselves — and if they can’t, they can always pray. Marriage equality is a human rights matter, not a religious matter. The point about freedom of religion is that it is about freedom for the religious to practice their faith: it isn’t the freedom to impose that faith on everybody else.

Religious interference in our secular state is so normalised that we have our Senate debating protections for religious freedom that, if passed, will inevitably discriminate against someone and our media offering platforms to warring religious sects who are squabbling about which one of them speaks for the god they share. It’s High Noon in the Christian religion. Pass the popcorn.

I have no issue with religious people believing whatever they wish to believe. I have no idea why they can’t happily do their thing, without feeling compelled to impose that thing on everybody else. This is a secular country. We ought not to be pandering to religious exceptionalism. Christians have the vote, just like anyone else. That ought to be the extent of their influence on government. Our Constitution demands the separation of church and state for excellent reasons.

Amending the Marriage Act could not be more simple. Former PM John Howard did it in 2004 with no fuss at all. We can do the same.

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

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