The ALP national conference recently changed their platform to support marriage equality for same-sex couples. A part of that motion was the following; These amendments should ensure that nothing in the marriage act imposes an obligation on a minister of religion to solemnise any marriage.
I’ve been trying to write about the moral responsibility we have to defend others’ freedom of religion. I want to discuss why the above quote in the motion should have been included, not just as a sop to opponents of gay marriage to get the motion through but for its own good reasons.
The reason I want to write this is very specific. I want to write against an ugliness that is in my own heart. It’s a drying up of sympathy and a simmering anger. It’s a frustration with those who have been in power for so long and only now are having to share it. Even now they are refusing to let go of that privilege. We have to tear it from their hands pulling each finger back at a time. We have to do this while listening to them whine about their oppression, about how it’s so unfair that they might have to acknowledge gay relationships or at least not refuse them service. All this while they’ve never seemed to notice how much their own relationship celebrations along with all their religious concerns about our relationships overwhelm the rest of us.
Unfortunately the size of this ugliness inside me is so large I can’t write past it. I certainly can’t write over it. In the words of the song “Going on a Bear Hunt” we have to go through it. I need to look directly at what’s bothering me about discussions of religious freedom before I can address my question.
To be clear; I’m not bothered by the idea that gay marriage is wrong. I may disagree with that idea but I’m happy to engage with it and know good hearted people who hold it. It’s the idea that conservative Christians are victims in our society, with gay marriage the latest attack on them that I’m over. I was once at a dinner party entirely of conservative Christians and me. When I said “I see the recognition of gay relationships by the state as freedom of religion” I copped a screeching “They’re taking our rights.” Yet it’s only the right to exclude others from a special status for your enjoyment that’s being taken away. If this feels like a loss of rights to you, you must think a disproportionate amount of respect and power is your right. It’s because you’ve grown fat and sleek and round on other people’s deference. Any discussion of religious freedom is plagued by that expectation of deference.
There’s a great piece of advice in the Bible though. It’s that we should remove the plank from our own eye before the splinter in another’s. Nobody recognises their own privilege and I like the average conservative Christian am often whining on my throne. When I was a kid I liked to believe I was oppressed as a left hander. When I was older I briefly occupied bisexuality as the site of my oppression. Seriously I am a pretty lucky man in a wealthy country and the rest is largely indulgent crap. I am not oppressed in any significant way – not as a non-theist in a theistic family either. Having to argue your opinions is not oppression. I do have crap teeth though so you know, woe is me.
Even acknowledging all this there are probably still privileges and power I hold and don’t see. I know that I feel the concessions I am obliged to make towards religious people and assume I never ask the same of them. One way that “secularists” do this is through the very definition of secularism as a sort of non-religion and non-philosophy. Secularism as a non-biased basic social language that allows all religions and the irreligious to thrive is a fantasy. Of course there are religions such as the church of the randomly violent or the fellowship of drunken crane operators that we don’t allow to practice. Saying that all churches can operate freely within the law just dodges that the law is how we restrict religion. Nowhere is this more apparent than with discrimination legislation.
Within half a century Conservative Christians in the UK, the U.S. and Australia have gone from being able to close down any establishment that allowed same-sex dancing to being unable to refuse service to unrepentant homosexuals in their own establishments and to being sued for promoting homophobia in the workplace. Back then many peoples’ careers were forfeit if their homosexuality was known with imprisonment or forced psychiatric treatment real possibilities. Now there are almost challenges to the rights of conservative Christians to try and cure their own gay children. Certainly there would be publicly funded services that would support any child who refused such treatment.
It should be obvious that these changes restrict the religious freedom of Conservative Christians. To say otherwise is to play word games with either freedom or religion. However that doesn’t mean that these changes restrict religious freedom overall. The religious freedom of gay dancers is massively increased. This isn’t a war on religion or freedom – if that were so there would universally be more regulation whereas same-sex dancers (let alone conjugators) will assure you for them there is less.
Furthermore it should be obvious that this isn’t any kind of attack on conservative Christians except an inadvertent one. The end point of these cultural and legislative changes is not to oppress Christians but to enable those who want to, to disregard them. The motive of the Queer politic within secularism is to ensure people can live as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender without obstruction and harassment. From a queer perspective if this crosses conservative Christianity that’s conservative Christianity’s fault. It certainly isn’t the queer activist’s objective. This isn’t just playing with words. The second half of the ALP motion is really just stating the obvious.
This sense of oppression is helped along by the tension between conservative Christians and science. When the entirety of peer reviewed science tends to support evolution then Creationists are in the same position as climate change deniers – either they’re wrong or there’s a conspiracy against them. But Creationism isn’t the only way conservative Christians can bang up against science. You can’t find a credible peer reviewed piece of psychology that says homosexuals are sick anymore, not since Evelyn Hooker forced the American establishment to look at its biases. Sure you still get crank research put out by “Family” Associations but nobody will publish it. The reason why is that it fails basic standards of research (often taking correlation for causality and failing to use a proper control). From the conservative Christian perspective though, this research is “buried” by an agenda driven scientific establishment.
This false sense of oppression becomes collective wisdom; disputing it threatens your belonging to the group. Consequently I can wake up to my privileges a whole lot easier than someone inside a conservative Christian church. This does actually mean that I have some sympathy for conservative Christian whining, at least initially. By the umpteenth manifestation of the persecution complex with the next must-read piece of dodgy research my patience wears thin. I start to feel that maybe the kindest thing I could do is a swift whack up the side of the head to wake them up to themselves. I want to scream that this is not a debate about whether everyone’s out to get you. This is us witnessing the slow maturing of the Conservative Christian’s perspective half a lifetime later than it should have happened.
None of this frustration has any logical relation to the question of how defending religious freedom is a moral responsibility. It’s just a huge emotional cloud covering my thinking and blocking my writing. My brother recently commented that while he can see that gay marriage possibly should be legal he’s overall leaning is towards the opinion it shouldn’t be. I’m not just leaning towards the belief that conservative Christians should have the legal right to not officiate a gay marriage. I feel fairly convinced of it. I’m also leaning slightly towards the belief that schools which teach that homosexuality is an abomination should lose their licence to teach. I find it immensely difficult to articulate exactly why in both cases. I still feel that’s something I should try to do but I had to get this off my chest first.