While You Were Sleeping

While you were sleeping or watching Netflix last night, the Australian Government sold religious freedoms in this country down the river. But don’t worry, it didn’t cost much, because this Turnbull Government comes cheap.

After all of the promises made that nothing would be changed once gay people were allowed to marry, – that we could all get on with living our privatised lives -, those promises have been shown up to be exactly what they were.  Lies.

But it was always going to be the case.  Last night in the Senate, as The Australian newspaper reports, the future for dissenters was plain for all to see:

Comprehensively defeated.  And that’s with a supposed Liberal government, one that prides itself on small government and its support of mediating institutions.  The Labor Party and The Greens must be beside themselves over this.  Wildest dreams come true!

I totally get points one and two.  I didn’t expect anything different on those, and can’t really see an argument around them.  But to refuse protection around “relevant beliefs” about marriage?  That opens the door to all sorts of activism, and it will cost religious groups dearly.

But it’s that idea that the Parliament does not see fit to protect people with a traditional view of marriage from having action taken against them by governments and other agencies that is particularly unfortunate.  You can hear the knives sharpening already, can’t you?

I remember Tim Wilson, one of the leading conservative MPs in our country, who is both gay and actively promoted the Yes campaign, saying to me that religious leaders in this country would lose both the same sex marriage vote and religious freedom.  He was right.  I just didn’t know that he was happy for both to be the case.

There’s talk, of course, of next year’s review of religious freedoms by former leading Liberal pollie, Philip Ruddock.  You may remember Big Phil, he of the ashen disposition with a personality to suit.

He’s not big on freedom actually, given his role in ensuring boat people didn’t get too much of it either.   He prided himself on his role then too, going to great lengths to ensure locked up migrants didn’t get too cosy, even cutting out massage therapy for detained migrants, just in case “it could be misinterpreted by the Australian public.”  What, I wonder, could we have misinterpreted massage for?  A sign that the Australian government cared for people or something stupid like that?

Of course many of us have been saying that this sealing off of freedoms was inevitable, and that the door for religious freedom on this issue would be given a hearty push closed.

 And if you’re a Christian who voted Yes, you might feel the  weight of  responsibility that you actually bear for this.  I do forgive you, though, for not perhaps thinking it might have further ramifications that might affect even you. I just don’t know why you thought it would all be okay.

I could write a list of the names of those Christian writers who scorned those who said that religious freedoms wouldn’t be left intact.  You know who they are.  A few of you even said “let’s worry about that when the vote is sorted.”  Well, now’s that time people. But hey, you don’t write, you don’t call…

I completely understand secular politicians, Left or Right, who don’t get that religious life expresses itself publicly. I really do.  Why would they?  I completely understand the average Aussie who has no interest in religion.  Why would they think about religion at all.  They don’t.  As long as they can get on with a quiet life without too many God-botherers knocking their doors on Sunday morning, they’re going to be happy.

But I completely understand – in an altogether different way – those liberal, progressive Christians who have no interest in protecting their traditional brothers and sisters who hold different convictions than they do.

I completely understand that underneath that Christian exterior, there’s pretty much a secular heart beating in time with whatever the culture decides.  Actually beating just behind the culture, because at no stage does progressive Christianity ever lead the culture, merely follow it.

None will bat an eyelid or raise a voice for the sake of their brothers and sisters.  I completely understand that orthodox Christianity and its progressive iteration are basically different religions.  They hold diametrically opposite viewpoints on human origins and endings, sexual ethics, biblical authority, the centrality of the cross, the means of grace and how one is justified before a holy God, if God even is holy, or even is God.  Who even knows?

Still, for all of the pain this will cause, it does have a refreshing side, it really does. I’ve often said that this thing – this post-evangelical falling away – hasn’t bottomed out.   The blowtorch will be turned up, and painful though that will be, it will sort a few things out.

Traditional Christians will soon be cultural transgressors. And that sounds fine. Unless, of course, you need the approval of the culture, and then you’ll do just about anything, give up just about anything to gain that approval.

So this, as it should, puts us with Jesus.  There’s a real sense that the higher the obstacle to a radical, orthodox faith the more likely those who really wish to get on with doing that will be left to do so.

In a sense the orthodox Christian can get on now with being the sidelined. Get on with figuring out what it means to live with joy and conviction nonetheless.  Get on with exploring the creative part of what it means to be a creative minority. And there’s something like a home-coming about all of that.  Something that is visceral and real, even if it costs some of us our livelihoods. Something that perhaps we’ve been missing out on – the promise of some backlash for being faithful to Christ and his call.

Which, inevitably, there will be. Backlash, that is. It won’t cost us our lives – we’re a long way from that I’d say.  But it will hit the well-heeled of us where it hurts, our jobs, professions and livelihoods. A well regarded Christian surgeon approached me the other day to say that already in his field  the pressure is on for him to sign up to certain ethical statements, and that if he does not, it could one day end his career.

He asked me if, like when the Nazis came to one’s door, we too could lie for the greater good. He wasn’t thinking that was a good idea, just wondering how to negotiate the future that has arrived quicker than he’d expected.

Apart from the Godwin’s Law overreach, my main concern with that idea is that the true comparison is more akin to the early Christians being encouraged to say “Caesar is Lord” and putting a pinch of incense on the altar.   Many did not.  But many did, especially during times of persecution.  And the clean up after the persecution died down was costly and painful. It divided the church for decades thereafter.

For some, back then. the fear of loss was too much, and they signed away their birthright for a bowl of stew. Anything for a quiet life and all that.  Yet to repeat that today would surely  be the ultimate betrayal.  For there is no greater good you can do in the face of a culture that is keen to marginalise you, than to say “Jesus is Lord!”  Anything less is not good, but bad.

True, we still have relative freedoms compared to Christians around the world, so let’s be careful not to claim a persecution Richter scale number that we don’t own; in reality it’s an earth tremor at this stage.  But it’s not an aftershock.  It’s the presence of something bigger to come.

And there’s nothing ho-hum about losing those freedoms.  They do matter. They were hard fought for over a long period of time in the West by Christianity itself, and for the sake of others too.  And now they’re being whittled away in next to no time.

The great irony is that the culture that so enjoyed the fruit of this gospel for so long is, bit by bit, dismantling the very structures that enabled it to flourish in the first place.  And now, suicidally, it assumes it can hold itself up in thin air.  If you can’t see Wylie Coyote in your mind’s eye, just before gravity pulls him down over that cliff, then take a moment to picture it. It’s the look of “too late” in his face that nails it, isn’t it?

The Attorney General, George Brandis said these words tonight: “legalising same-sex marriage will be among the signature achievements of the Turnbull government.”

It surely will. But I guess when your other achievements are hardly worth putting your name to, then getting your signature onto any piece of legislation, whatever its unintended, or indeed intended, consequences is a price some governments are willing to pay.

Australia was caught sleeping.  Not just last night.  But over an extended period of time.  I wonder when we’ll wake up?

* I have amended my blog to remove the section from The Australian that reported that  military chaplains would not receive exemptions to ensure they do not have to conduct same sex marriages if it goes against their conscience.  They will be in fact be exempted. 

First published on Stephen McAlpine’s blog https://stephenmcalpine.com/


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.