Thursday 10 December
The opposition of Australian bishops to equal marriage is ignored by the public and will ultimately be faced down. But not before the established church threatens mayhem and terrifies politicians in defence of the status quo
The power of the hard men of God is one of the great political puzzles of this country. They are the only opponents of equal marriage. They don’t remotely have the numbers. But they have log-jammed reform.
I’ve been tracking the power of these people most of my professional life. It’s no wonder. When I was a kid journalist, sex for men like me was a crime nearly everywhere in Australia.
Kissing was assault. One year in the early 1980s, a Sydney magistrate fined a man $50 for tongue-kissing another on the dance floor of an Oxford Street club. Fucking carried a prison sentence of 14 years.
In that lost world, hardly anyone was thrown behind bars. The point was the threat and the shame. The upshot was corruption and violence. Lives were ruined.
And just as they are fighting today against equal marriage, warriors of the cloth battled with everything they had to keep it that way.
They fought from the pulpit, in the press and along the corridors of every parliament in the land. They fought in the name of children – and, yes, some of these men turned out to be protecting paedophiles. They vilified homosexuals. They declared the fate of western civilisation was hanging in the balance.
Australians wanted these cruel laws changed. We are not a profoundly conservative country. Support for keeping sodomy a crime had collapsed here just as it had in the rest of the western world.
What made reform such an agonising business in Australia wasn’t overcoming public reluctance but defeating the preachers. They can’t promise votes. They can threaten mayhem.
Politicians are terrified of them. Grappling with churches is about the most distasteful contest they can imagine. The faiths remain the most resilient, most respected and the best-connected lobby in the nation.
Whether the issue is homosexuality, divorce, abortion, euthanasia or equal marriage, religion has the power to shatter party discipline.
Neville Wran, an atheist premier with a fat majority, shilly-shallied over the change for the best part of a decade. He could count absolutely on the people of New South Wales. Their support for decriminalising homosexuality was never in doubt. But he feared humiliation at the hands of his caucus.
Sydney Mardi Gras was already touted round the world before Wran acted. That was in 1984. Already over the line were South Australia, Victoria and the ACT. Tasmania was the last state to stare down the preachers in 1997.
The battle for equal marriage brings back to the field the same old rhetoric, the same fears, the same tactics and the same combatants.
This is not a pitched battle between Christian and secular Australia. Many Christians find the fight against equal marriage embarrassing, even barbaric. Their voices are hardly heard.
Politicians fear the defenders of the citadel: Catholic and Orthodox bishops; evangelical Anglicans; Presbyterians and other protestants who shunned the Uniting Church; mighty Hillsong and those who gather under the umbrella of the Australian Christian Lobby. Their (mostly) silent partners in the struggle are Muslims and conservative Jews.
Miraculously they are holding the line.
Much deeper than bigotry
I know many of these warriors. I’ve debated them, read their work and reported their campaigns. To call them bigots is too simple. Though without the loathing of homosexuality, there would be far fewer recruits to their crusades.
Disgust comes gorgeously packaged these days. “God made every person unique and irreplaceable as His beloved images in this world,” the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, preached this past winter. “If God loves people with same-sex attraction, so must the church.”
Fisher said nothing that cold night at St Mary’s Cathedral about his church’s rule that these men are bound for hell if they ever have sex with one another. Perhaps he didn’t need to. The teaching is so familiar.
Disgust comes gorgeously packaged these days
And though he spoke of the “justice and compassion” Catholics offer homosexuals, he forgot to mention the exemptions his church – and most faiths – demand from anti-discrimination laws so they can go on refusing to employ lesbians, transsexuals and homosexuals or sack any they discover on the payrolls of their schools, charities and hospitals.
The faiths call this just discrimination. As Fisher said so piously that night: “All forms of unjust discrimination must be opposed.”
This goes much deeper than bigotry. It’s about claiming the most intimate power over believers, the power to forbid any sex without the blessing of the church. That means never before marriage; never outside marriage; and, of course, never with the same sex.
These ancient rules were law for centuries. Judges and police were supposed to jump to the aid of bishops and preachers. The noose and the stake sent the worst offenders to hell. Shame did the rest.
Nearly every one of these laws is dead and gone after titanic brawls we tend to put out of our minds because they seem, in retrospect, so absurd. This is a mistake. The lesson is that we’re fighting the one battle here, over and over again.
And because the warriors of the faiths know the tide of popular opinion is running strongly against them, they fight for keeps. They realise no defeat will ever be reversed. It’s once and forever.
So they dig in with a particular and at times comic ferocity. The example of the world counts for nothing in their eyes. Though equal marriage has been embraced by nearly every Western nation, the warriors are fighting to the last – just as they fought no-fault divorce, the morning-after pill, IVF for lesbians, smut on television and sparing gays the useful terror of prison.
Australia is the land of the warriors’ last resort.
But the troops are deserting them. The faithful are no longer as willing as they were to obey the ancient Christian sex rules. They have shrugged off the power of their bishops and preachers.
Just like the rest of us they live together before they marry. They use the pill. They have abortions. They divorce. They remarry without annulment. They aren’t much troubled by their homosexual brothers and children. And most back equal marriage.
When Crosby Textor asked Australians in 2014 if they supported or opposed allowing same-sex couples to marry, they found support high across the faiths as well as Australia:
Total support: 72%.
Christians generally: 59%.
Anglican and Uniting: 57%.
The bishops aren’t speaking for their flocks. And while the Australian Christian Lobby blasts marriage reform with startling ferocity, pollsters make it clear these preachers speaks for few of us.
According to Crosby Textor only 21% of Australians oppose equal marriage. For every opponent there are three or more Australians who support equal marriage. Success should be a lay down misère.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a pastoral letter earlier this year called Don’t Mess with Marriage. The pictures are gorgeous. Disdain for homosexuals is buried beneath the usual gauzy rhetoric about love, respect and justice.
“We wish,” say the bishops “to engage with this debate.” There’s no debate. They simply assert in various ways on page after page that marriage can only ever be “an institution designed to support people of the opposite sex to be faithful to each other and to the children of their union.”
A complaint about Don’t Mess with Marriage has been taken to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Board. This is ludicrous. Homosexuals don’t need to run to tribunals for protection from the insults of the clergy.
And the case is a gift to Christian hardliners. They are crying liberty.
“Same-sex marriage ideology is incompatible with freedom,” the head of the ACL thundered. “All of the debate of the past five years has been about forcing people of conscience to bow to the new definition of marriage.”
News Corp columnists have taken up this line with extraordinary passion. In prose that wouldn’t disgrace the King James Bible, Paul Kelly warns of “a calculated strike by parliaments and anti-discrimination boards using the cover of same-sex justice to achieve a quantum reduction in religious freedom and a pivotal change in the norms of our society.”
In early November, the attorney general, George Brandis, spoke of “an alarming emergence of intolerance of religious faith” by some of the most voluble elements in the community” when he opened the Human Rights Commission’s “roundtable” on religious freedom.
“It is the work of the roundtable,” Brandis said, “to develop strategies and understandings which promote a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect within a culture of freedom.”
Australians have grown cynical about claims that the faiths are the true guardians of families and children. That’s looking, after a couple of years’ evidence to the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, a little shop soiled.
But we care about religious freedom. We remain tolerant of churches. We loathe interfering in their affairs. As much as possible we want to leave them to themselves. We are oddly reluctant even to name them as opponents – often the only opponents – in political contests of this kind.
This is an asset for the faiths that gives them strength beyond their numbers. And they are even stronger because this secular, respectful country doesn’t have much appetite for interrogating their claims. We say: that’s just them.
But as the fight over equal marriage takes this turn, it has to be asked what the hard men of God mean when they say liberty of faith is under threat in Australia? Is there anything at stake here other than them wanting to go on belittling homosexuals at maximum volume?
Two fundamental claims lie behind the rhetoric of freedom imperilled.
First, the warriors say abuse is forcing them into the shadows. They want to be loved as they pursue their ancient quarrels. Men who might once have faced lions for their faith are whinging about ridicule.
Here is Fisher a few weeks ago: “When people like me … enter the fray on marriage we now expect to be tagged ‘ultra-conservative’, ‘tedious imbecile’, ‘delusional nutter’, ‘evangelical clap-trapper’ and even ‘nauseating piece of filth’ not just in the anti-social media but even in the mainstream.
“What is new is that such ad hominem hails not just from fevered activists and net trolls but from respected journalists and public figures.”
The warriors of the cloth ought not to be abused. But men like Fisher are strangely unwilling to grasp why their opposition to equal marriage might stir ugly passions. Right or wrong, they seem unable to acknowledge the profound change of heart in this country to both homosexuality and marriage.
Men like Sydney Anglican priest Peter Kurti see themselves not as collateral damage in a great shift of values but targets of an “aggressive secularism that wants to drive religion out of the public square”.
“This campaign seeks completely to drive away religion, particularly Christianity, from the social and cultural realm where faith is practised, to the private and confined realm of the mind.”
That deserted public square is a key image in this debate. But men like Kurti, Fisher and Lyle Shelton are as active as ever in that space. They have all the platforms they have ever had to pursue their causes. They may not have the airtime they would like, but in a year or so there is to be a national debate on same-sex marriage on which Canberra has promised to spend $160m.
They aren’t victims. They just don’t have the traction they once had. They aren’t as respected. They aren’t as believed. They have lost their veto.
Abusing them is inexcusable, but what has happened to Christian fortitude? Aren’t the warriors of the faith supposed to boast rather than complain that standing against the zeitgeist earns them no applause?
I have read thousands of words trying to identify any freedom at stake that doesn’t involve demeaning homosexuals
The second fundamental is the claim allowing equal marriage would mean the inevitable loss of religious liberty.
It’s apparently a zero sum game for the warriors: freedom won is freedom lost. When two blokes are allowed to marry, the faiths are no longer free.
I have read thousands of words over the last weeks trying to identify any freedom at stake in this exchange that doesn’t involve demeaning homosexuals in the name of their God.
Alas, in the words of the old song, that’s all there is.
Fisher promotes a grim dystopian future should equal marriage ever become the law of the land. It’s easy slippery slope stuff: allow this, and what other horrors – like forcing churches to pay tax – might follow?
Of this mythical Australia of 2025 he said: “Already one Catholic bishop has been briefly jailed for refusing to apply the state-approved ‘LGBTIQQ safety protocols and awareness program’ to the schools in his diocese; and parents at Jewish and Muslim schools have been advised that they may not withdraw their children from such programs.
“Many clergy and teachers in faith-based schools have been cowed with threats of prosecution for ‘hate speech’ if they teach that divine law limits marriage to people of opposite sex.”
Disdain for homosexuals is key to these fears, but they go deeper than bigotry. Allow men to marry each other, and what happens to church teaching that marriage is the sacred gateway to sex?
Opposition to same sex marriage isn’t about freedom, it’s about privilege. It’s a last ditch stand to keep the most fundamental of the sex rules of Christendom entrenched in law.
Fisher and his kind know they will never be forced to perform same-sex marriages themselves. Nor would any Australian government compel them to allow their churches to be used for such ceremonies. Yet in a world that accepts same sex-marriage they see such “niggardly exemptions” as not enough to guarantee their freedom.
This is where they talk of small town martyrs in North America: men and women of profound faith compelled to bake wedding cakes, take wedding photographs and offer double beds to honeymooning gay couples.
Fisher is calling for these “ordinary believers and their businesses” to be exempted from anti-discrimination laws. Hardliners across the board want the legal privileges enjoyed – and fiercely protect – by their religious organisations to be extended to the faithful.
As each month passes, this astonishing demand to bust anti-discrimination schemes across Australia is looking more and more like a deal being offered by the faiths to government.
“The terms of their defeat are up for grabs,” says David Glasgow, an Australian lawyer working at New York University Law School. He has watched the same demands being made by the faithful across America since the supreme court approved equal marriage in June.
“Many religious people object to all homosexual activity and relationships, not just marital ones. If baking a cake makes a business owner complicit in the sin of same-sex marriage, a wide range of activities could make them complicit in the sin of same-sex relationships.
“What’s to stop an architect from claiming that it violates his or her faith to build a home for a same-sex couple, or a police officer saying the same when asked to keep the peace at a pride march … this is religious liberty on steroids.”
The end is nigh
I won’t be rushing to marry. It didn’t turn out so well the last time. And I reckon that after nearly 20 years, my partner and I are as married as two people can be. No kids of course, but absolutely married.
How Australia has changed even in those years. One marker I love of that transformation was Bob Katter’s refusal a couple of years ago to allow two candidates for his Katter Australia Party to fly the flag of homophobia.
One tweeted he would never allow a gay person to teach his children. The other equated homosexuals with paedophiles. Both were dumped. Even a man running a breakaway party based in rural Queensland could see this was poison at the ballot box
So why do politicians take it seriously when it’s delivered from the pulpit?
The politics of salvation are always on the boil in this country. But this is not an entirely bleak story. Within the churches, fine men and women continue to struggle against the forces of punitive Christianity. Christians everywhere have joined the fight for equal marriage.
And the wishes of the people can’t be denied forever. That’s the lesson from the brawls of my youth over gay rights. Good, secular sense wins out in the end. It always does.
Equal marriage will happen. There are more rounds to fight. But even the most hardline contenders know it will happen. God’s work is in the delay, in making change as painful as possible.
But Australia will get there in the end