Well, Australia has voted “yes” in the much-debated Postal Survey on marriage. As I write this the Prime Minister is addressing a press conference speaking about an “overwhelming”, “emphatic” and “unequivocal” decision. The actual result was 61.6% in favour on a turnout of 79.5% (12,727,920 people voted).
So let’s be clear on a few things:
- It’s obviously a credible mandate. There is now an imperative for the Australian parliament to pass legislation to change the Marriage Act.
- It won’t hold to argue that since this is not an outright majority (i.e. only 49% of all eligible voters voted “yes”). This was a free vote and everyone who wanted to was able to express their opinion. To effectively suggest that almost everyone who didn’t vote would have voted “no” is, frankly, silly. If we’re honest the reality is that apathy was more likely to be found in the “yes” camp given their assumption that this was a foregone conclusion.
- Almost 4 in 10 voters said “no”. This is a substantial number. Despite the language of a “resounding” vote it should now be clear that there are large numbers of people for whom this move is a step too far. Their reasons for holding this position are, in the main, clearly thought through and have integrity. It would be wrong to compare the relative weights of the result with general election results; it’s a single but complex issue and quite obviously not straightforward (every pun intended). In some places there was a clear “no” vote including our electorate here. Interestingly, many of those places voting “no” were Labour seats and many Liberal/Nat seats voted “yes”.
So what should Christians do now? Well there are a number of principles that should guide us. First, a proper respect for the process and our government in general:
Rom. 13:1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
We ought to give thanks that we have a free vote! That is no small thing. Paul wrote these words to the church in Rome who lived under a despotic ruler. Yet the Scriptures call that “an authority established by God”. We have it far better. Any hint of a rejection of the validity of this process is, at its heart, a rejection of God’s goodness to us in giving stable government (and yes, it really is stable notwithstanding the current citizenship debacle – we have a court giving clear guidance on the topic. For actual instability look to places like Zimbabwe which is falling apart as I write).
Second, the truth doesn’t change.
Matt. 19:4-6 “Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
This will now become a progressively harder thing to say in public. So I’m grateful for our Archbishop making this prompt response to the survey result:
I said to the PM 18 months ago, on behalf of other religious leaders, that if the vote was yes then I would recognise that outcome. I will continue to teach that marriage is, in God's plan, between a man and a woman. But I acknowledge that will no longer be the law of the land.
— Archbp Glenn Davies (@AbpDavies) November 14, 2017
That seems to me to be exactly the right way to respond.
Now the attention will be turned to what exactly the legislation will look like. Debate will centre around what should be done for freedom of conscience. Assoc. Prof. Neil Foster has an excellent piece setting out the key issues in that area.
Without going into it in great detail, the Paterson Bill picks up many of these points and is designed to provide better religious freedom protections. (For a slightly expanded summary, see this Summary of the Explanatory Memorandum posted by Senator Paterson.) The Bill:
Ensures ministers of religion and celebrants have a right to refuse to solemnise a same sex wedding (new sections 47, 47A);
Establishes a limited right of conscientious objection, to ensure no-one is forced to participate in a same-sex wedding against their sincerely held beliefs (new sections 88KA, 88M);
Protects freedom of speech so that Australians can discuss their view of marriage without fear of legal penalties (new section 88KA, though not so as to authorise “threatening” or “harassing” speech);
Enacts a narrow anti-detriment clause that prevents governments and their agencies from taking adverse action against someone with a traditional view of marriage. It does not apply to non-government organisations, businesses, or individuals, preserving freedom of association (new sections 88K);
Guarantees parents’ right to choose their childrens’ education by allowing them to opt out of classes that conflict with their values (new section 88R).
The track record in other jurisdictions is already clear. A vote for “yes” is seen as the validation of not just a small change in the Marriage Act but an affirmation of all manner of associated ideas. That’s not in itself wrong. “Yes” does represent a shift in culture on all sorts of related matters. It’s been a rapid shift but it’s a shift nonetheless; to think otherwise is naïve. Like it or not, this is where we’re going. We’re a little behind some other western nations (and that’s really because of politics) but we’ve now arrived here and the question for us is how to make the best of it and contribute well to the ongoing debate.
And there is still much debate to be had:
- Just what freedom of conscience will be protected in any legislation? When I appeared on Lateline a couple of months ago the other panel member in the studio was a Reformed (i.e. theologically liberal) rabbi who argued that “freedom of religion” meant her freedom to conduct a same-sex marriage and my freedom not to. That is, frankly, an absurdly narrow view of freedom. For many of us the great concern is not ministers of religion (a rare breed, almost as rare as actual same-sex couples seeking to be married) but the general population. Here in Werriwa constituency 63.7% voted “no”. I know many of them and they did so not out of deep-seated hatred but proper consideration of the issues. They are genuine conservatives. What will happen to them? Will they be free to quietly speak their mind? I already have many people I can point to who have felt silenced over this issue.
- What of the utter inconsistency of application of principle? For the past 2 hours I have listened to “yes” campaigners tell us that “this is for all of us” and “unconditional love always has the last word”. Except, of course, it’s not for everyone and there are many types of “unconditional love” that are still massively proscribed and left hanging out to dry by the “yes” campaign. The reality is that we’ve had special pleading for one particular group of people. Now that obviously doesn’t invalidate the result, but in the days and weeks to come keep listening to the arguments being raised and ask yourself quite how the principles being appealed to actually rule out polyamorous or incestuous relationships. I can’t see how they do and any genuine consistency would now wrap them into the upcoming legislation. I don’t write this to shock anyone, just to point out some glaring intellectual holes.
Of course, as Christians we have our own extra questions to ask. How does this change things for us? Stephen McAlpine has helpful things to say
All the talk is, risibly, of bakers and florists, when the more important matters concern how religious schools, for example, that hold to a different sexual ethic (the Bible, the Koran etc), will be free to provide education from a religious perspective that includes orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy among its staff, without the risk of censure or falling foul of anti-discrimination laws.
The inability – or steadfast refusal – of our elites to discuss how our pluralist society can live with its deepest differences, while still permitting the state to both sanction and fund religious entities that aid human flourishing is a sign that rough times lie ahead, whatever the promises made over the coming months to shore up support. No one has answered that question adequately, not our Prime Minister, and not our Leader of the Opposition.
Here in Australia, even prior to the law changing, we have witnessed preachers in Tasmania being brought before a tribunal for explaining the Bible’s view of marriage, and a Catholic Archbishop who wrote a leaflet for fellow Catholics, outlining their position on marriage.
If proper protections are not provided, we can expect an erosion of personal freedoms for anyone not subscribing to the new morality. Indeed, if, upon changing the law, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience is lessened from what we enjoy today, November 15th, this country will have taken one giant leap into a shark tank.
Today is not a day for outrage, but for mourning. We must learn to weep like Jeremiah, and we must learn to live as Daniel. We must learn to accept injustice as did the Psalmists, and we must come to terms with the truth of Jesus’ words, ‘take up your cross and follow him’.
Still much to be done and, God willing, we will have chance to do some of it.
But more fundamentally, nothing has really changed. The gospel is still true, Jesus is still risen and ascended, and one day the great Bridegroom will come to claim his bride. I’m actually tempted to suggest that if we think the result today made it harder to be a Christian then we’ve not really been that public and noticeable in our Christian witness up till this moment. Having said that, perhaps today is the moment for many Christians to quietly decide to say more; not simply about marriage but (far more importantly) about the goodness of Jesus. It would be a shame for us to complain about losing freedoms that so many of us never actually exercised. If today you’re concerned about where we’re going as a nation then quietly determine to make a difference where it really counts – telling people about Jesus.