Dodging The Bullet

It seems like just yesterday that Christian organisations in Australia dodged a bullet that had their names on it.

Just a few years ago BC (Before COVID) we had a Federal Election which was purportedly a shoo-in for the Australian Labor Party.

The ALP was so confident that it would win, that not only was Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, packing boxes for The Lodge, Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, was warning (by written letter no less) that all positive discrimination legislation that permitted faith-based organisations to hire (and fire?) on the basis of adherence to their ethical frameworks around sex, would be rolled back.

Mr Dreyfus was clear. There would be no religious exemptions. Those days were over.

All of the talk in Christian education boardrooms around the country, was that we were not ready for what was likely to happen. It was sombre and sobering.

We were going to have to fight a fight that would be costly, difficult and most likely unwinnable, as the new government would use its mandate to ensure that the ethical distinctives that mark faith-based organisations would be viewed as hostile and untenable.

So we dutifully girded our loins, closed our eyes, took a deep breath, and waited for the punch to the stomach that would come when an avowedly progressive government took the reins.

And we waited. And waited. We slowly opened one eye. Then the other. And everything was calm. And we began to realise there was going to be no gut punch after all.

Against all odds (or at least against the mainstream media consensus), the Coalition, led by pragmatic, but conservative Christian, Scott Morrison, had been re-elected.

Bullet dodged right there. Rejoicing all around.

But now? Two years later? All of the talk is around when the next Federal Election might be, with dates as early as late this year, or as late as early next year being bandied around.

And while Bill Shorten may no longer be Opposition Leader, Mark Dreyfus is still Shadow Attorney-General. He has not changed his views on the matter, and if anything the ALP is even more settled in its stance that progress must be made, and that religious discriminations must be rolled back. This is despite the party losing ground in its heartland over a suspicion that the ALP is hostile to people of faith.

Yet by and large this has not translated to the polls. There appears to be no groundswell of opposition to such moves. The election is clearly not going to be fought over it. Few elections are! It’s as if the question of religious freedom, and the right to determine the ethical makeup of those who work in faith based communities is not on voters’ radars.

Which of course it isn’t. Outside religious communities there is little understanding of the issue, never mind little stomach for a conflict over it. Organisations such as Christian schools have become victims of their own success, with people beating down the doors to sign up to such educational institutions, based not on the roots of the gospel proclamation, but on the fruits of the gospel practises. Pastoral care, a commitment to values, these are the things that parents sign up for.

But the sexuality stuff? Not so much. Most secular parents who send their children to faith based education institutions believe that love is love is love. The philosophical Mobius strip of extreme autonomy based around consent is the baseline narrative of the vast majority of people signing their children over to Christian schooling.

Simply put, it’s all a bit “meh” to them. Meanwhile, for those with a far more strident and progressive framework who send their children to avowedly secular schools, (especially in inner suburbs of Australian cities), the sooner such faith schools lose the bigotry battle the better. Those Christian schools are no longer safe places for diversity to flourish.

And now the next federal election is coming. The bullet that has been dodged may not have been a bullet after all. It may well have been a boomerang.

The question must be asked: How well have alternate ethical communities, such as schools, done in preparing themselves for what seems an inevitability, if not this election, then the one after that or the one after that?

It would seem foolhardy to rely on the political process to keep throwing up curveball election results.

Besides politics is downstream of culture. The culture has shifted ever left-ward over the last three decades to the point that those who are considered conservative economically, often hold to strongly progressive values socially. The assumption that a conservative political party actually houses – or is even led by – someone who is socially conservative on these matters is exactly that, an assumption.

Thankfully there are many still, who while holding to a strongly progressive stance on sexuality, also see the need to maintain true diversity in our culture, and hold to religious freedom in these areas on principle.

Meanwhile there are others who are pragmatists, and realise that government heavy-handedness in this area would be counter-productive. The key for any organisations is to speak to the political leaders and influencers in the middle.

The narrative from Christian groups must be that we too are pitching a vision – and practice – of human flourishing, that belies some of the hot language around the topic, language such as “harm” or “bigotry”.

Whatever the outcome of the next Federal election, the boomerang is coming, and when it does it will be those wise organisations that have lent into the reality of our changing culture; that have positioned themselves nimbly for change; and that have maintained a clear, and distinct voice on sexual ethics and other religious freedom matters, who will not simply dodge it, but will grasp it, and will be able to go onto the front foot and meet the challenges ahead.


Stephen is a pastor, blogger and ex-journalist who writes on issues of theology, culture and the church. He works at a national level for City Bible Forum, developing and presenting evangelistic material for a project called Third Space. He and his family reside in Perth's eastern suburbs.