I have watched the Gay Rights movement with interest and have witnessed profound shifts in attitudes within Australian society since the 1970's. I grew up in the era where homosexuals where labelled poofters and were treated appallingly by society. Homophobia (fear of homosexuals) was widespread and Heterophilials wielded their power. Violence was common and some groups of young men considered it a fun night out to go "gay bashing". So it is not surprising that the gay community has mobilised and engaged in a phenomenally successful campaign to shift public attitudes. They have succeeded to the point where a question on gay marriage was the most popular question put to our Prime Minister in a recent social media forum.
Yet there are some things I find disturbing about the nature of the public debate around this issue. Before raising these concerns, I wish to make it clear that regardless of personal opinions – however deeply held, I believe there is no reasonable legal or ethical basis for a secular pluralistic state like Australia to oppose gay marriage. There is no reasonable basis for denying equal opportunity, social security and other entitlements to people in relationships based on sexuality. However as we live in an alleged democracy – my personal view is that the issue of changing the Marriage Act should be put to a Referendum, or at least a valid, well constructed poll after some quality public education and debate. Sadly I doubt the capacity of the Government or Media to do either.
So what are my concerns? Much opposition – but far from all – comes from groups who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds. They are notorious for using specious arguments that really have little validity. The main ones are slippery slope arguments (what next – marrying dogs?), moral danger (what next – legalising paedophilia?) and natural order (marriage is for procreation). These really have almost no evidential basis. The primary valid religious argument is that gay marriage is against the teaching of a person's faith – and if we truly value religious freedom – then they are entitled to that view – however much larger society may disagree with them. Equally valid is the position that they simply disagree and have no need to justify their opinion to the rest of the world. People have the right to believe what they believe. Society has no right to compel an individual to believe something they do not wish to. This is the essence of Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience. The corollary of this is that they are entitled to voice their beliefs publicly. This is the essence of Freedom of Speech. However I wish they would do it directly – rather than attempting to support their position with fallacious arguments. Faith based arguments can be discussed evidentially, but it has to do with the accuracy, reliability and interpretation of religious texts – not simply on the basis that a religious person holds a view that someone doesn't like. A vocal group of proponents of gay marriage are deliberately or unwittingly undermining three important freedoms – freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. I hope this group is simply a noisy minority.
My chief concern is that when anyone expresses a contrary view, whether it is on religious, or like our PM - sociocultural grounds - they are abused and labelled as homophobic and intolerant. A friend of mine who is an Ethicist refuses to engage in public debate around this issue because of the behaviour of the public. Homophobic is actually a very poor word. Literally "fear of homosexuals" - (and the real semantics will argue it is "fear of similarity") - it is not accurate. For some hatred and fear are real drivers of their opposition. However my experience is that most people who oppose, disagree or feel uncomfortable with homosexuality do not hate homosexuals. I'm not denying that some do – but my experience is that most do not. "Homophobic" then becomes a weasel word. It does not add anything to the understanding of either party's position. It is commonly a form of abuse. It is interesting that those campaigning against abuse, and in favour of rights are so keen to abuse their opponents and violate their rights.
This touches on the issue of how we deal with personal difference in a civilised society. I may not like the music of Nicki Minaj – yet that does not mean that I need to engage in a campaign to eradicate her and her followers from planet earth. I can even have genuine, respectful friendships with a total fan. I do not need to engage in a personal campaign to ban her music (or to legislate it as compulsory content in the music curricula). I can debate the artistic merit of her music without having to abuse her or her followers. Yet both sides of the gay marriage debate frequently resort to vitriol, abuse, name-calling and semantic nit-picking. If there is one lesson from history it is that today's ascendant majority can quickly become tomorrows oppressed minority – and vice-versa. It is in everyone's interests to learn civility, tolerance and respect in the face of significant difference.
We need what philosopher Os Guinness describes as a:
...vision of public life in which people of every faith -- Christian, Jewish, atheist, Muslim, Mormon, Scientologist, etc. -- are free to engage in public life on the basis of their faith, with freedom of conscience. We must engage publicly within a framework of what's agreed to be fair for all. What is a right for Christians will be automatically a right for an atheist, a Jew or a Muslim. A right for one is a responsibility for the other; it's very important to guard each other's rights.
This flows into the legislative issue which highlights the problem of church and state. Since Constantine – western civilisation has been intermingled with various flavours of Christianity. Despite popular opinion and caricature, this brought many positive and civilising influences into our culture (as well as some horrific persecution and unchristian violence and abuse). The Christian church has played this politically to their advantage. However it is clear that Christian influence is declining and some of the manoeuvring in this debate has been attempts by Christians, and politicians fearful of electoral backlash to shore up their position.
We now live in a pluralistic society and that old mixture is unworkable. Indeed the framers of the US Constitution foresaw this danger over two centuries ago and rightly legislated to separate church and state – although it harder to do in practice. There is a subtle difference between legislation which protects the rights of certain groups and legislation which promotes or actively favours that group. There will always be arguments about boundaries between what is universal law and what is in the realms of belief and practice. For example, while most would not support infanticide on religious grounds, there is real conflict over abortion law, and real debate over whether after-birth termination should be considered. Some countries have legislated what women are not allowed to wear, even if it is freely chosen on the basis of belief. We do regulate many expressions of sexuality and behaviour – whether it is freely chosen, socially or biologically driven. It is not as simple as anyone insisting that their preference is a right. That is why I see true participatory democracy as the only real way forward in the modern world.
The Christian Church does not need the state to support its vision of marriage, sexuality and relationships. They are (and should remain) free to create and maintain their own teachings and rituals, whatever the state legislates. They do not need to compel the state to legislate their perspective. Likewise the state should not compel churches to act contrary to their beliefs. There is some fear that they may be compelled to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies against their wishes.
Another concern is that valid scientific and sociological concerns are being buried in political rhetoric. What is the true nature of sexual orientation? Is it biological, socially constructed, personally chosen – or as I believe a mixture of all three. How do we deal with the very real issue of internal conflict over one's experience of sexuality and gender? What are the implications of this? In the realms of sexuality this does have implications for our understanding of homosexuality, paedophilia, incest, polygamy and infidelity and beyond sexuality into the realms of criminality and "personality disorders". What is the impact on children – and how much of any negative impact is socially determined? Given the human condition, how can we intervene to create a better society for all? These are valid concerns and it is in our interest to continue asking and exploring. Within this context, I fully support the observation that the best thing the heterosexual community can do to protect marriage is to have better marriages. That is evidence based.
Christians need to continue to engage theologically, sociologically and scientifically with the nature of sexuality in culture. Yet as I read the Bible, there are much bigger issues than whether a secular state should change some text in a law to support a well-established cultural practice. Even if they succeeded in preventing legislative change – it does nothing but harm their mission to declare and practice the love of God. I would suggest that love – or how we engage in relationships with each other is a much bigger concern. Love in culture embraces economics and social justice, which are being ignored by large slabs of the Christian church – and by our political "leaders". Gay marriage is inevitable. Love and justice are not. I know where I want to focus my energies.
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