A return to common sense pluralism in Victoria?

Matthew Guy, leader of the Victorian State Opposition, has announced that “a government I lead will bring back religious instruction in schools because it’s very important.”

This is encouraging news, not only for Christian families but also for Victorians in general. Let me explain.

But first of all, it is important to premise my commentary with this statement: when I talk about various policies or pieces of legislation, one shouldn’t read into this an advocation for any one political party.  I don’t believe it is the role of a pastor to dictate or to suggest to their congregation (or to others) how to vote. I also recognise that there are many important issues which influence the way we vote and on these Christians may differ. One, however, may comment on specific policies, for such things are designed to influence and to shape aspects of society, and therefore they can very real consequences for constituents. It is a misstep however for the reader to conclude that either giving praise or criticism is a signal to vote in any one direction.

img_9452

Having said that, let’s address the issue at hand.

In 2015, the Victorian State Government announced that Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes would cease in our schools, during class hours, as of January 2016. This was not a policy that State Labor took to the election.

At the time, Education Minister, James Merlino, offered this reason for SRI’s removal, ‘We can’t have kids missing out on essential teaching time.’ However, he then announced that a new program will be introduced to schools, replacing SRI, which includes instruction on faith and ethics. The reasoning behind the axing morphs again when the Australian Education Union supported the decision, stating that SRI is at ‘odds with Victoria’s secular education system’.

To be fair, Mr Merlino also made it clear that SRI could continue “outside the curriculum.” I am sure that Mr Merlino was and is aware of what every parent knows, and that is our children already have multiple programs running during lunchtimes and after school. During those breaks when they are not having sport or music practice, they need that downtime to relax and to play with friends.  Yes, schools are permitted to run SRI, but the goal posts were moved so frequently that almost no one knew what was permissible, and the red tape has been wound so tight that most schools were unable to give students an option. Despite the rhetoric about schools being allowed to run religious classes, by design, there is a massive disconnect between optics and what is actually possible on the ground.

One of the results of this move is that many Victorian families no longer feel welcomed in State Schools, and instead have been pressured into moving their children into religious schools, often at significant and unplanned cost to these families. This movement may have benefited independent schools, but our State Schools are the poorer for it. Matthew Guy’s announcement is welcoming and sends the message that all children are welcome.

It is also important to note that under the current Government (and the previous Government), important lessons were learned in relation to the training of religious instructors and to preferring an opt-in approach. Mistakes were made by SRI providers, but the sensible answer, however, was never to rid schools of these classes.

Once again, I understand that Matthew’ Guy’s announcement is enmeshed in politics and an upcoming election; so let me repeat, that’s not my interest here. What can be said is that (whatever the motivation) the Liberal’s position on this issue better reflects the Australian ethos than does the current position on religion in schools. The announcement permits and encourages healthy pluralism, as opposed to the narrow ideology that is currently being forced upon an entire generation of children.

A return to opt-in SRI also better reflects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948:

‘Every child shall enjoy the right to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.’

Art5(2) Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981)

Replacing Safe Schools with a curriculum safe for our children

Matthew Guy has also announced that a Coalition Government would remove the  Safe Schools curriculum from Victorian schools. This is a safe option for our children.

While some of the intent of Safe Schools needs affirming, it was unnecessarily but inextricably enmeshed in unscientific and dangerous theories that have potential to cause immense damage upon our children. To teach our children to respect others, regardless of their sexuality, is right and important, but to teach that gender is fluid, to encourage exploration in sex, and to encourage children to transition to another gender despite research indicating that most children will recover from dysphoria with maturity, it is morally and intellectually reprehensible to have such things taught in our schools. To label children who believe in heteronormacy as ‘sexist’ is itself sexist, and demonstrates the hypocrisy that’s woven into the program. The whole saga has been troubling; Safe Schools isn’t about anti-bullying, it’s about forcing on our children a particular and narrow view of sexuality. When the very authors of the curriculum pointed out this fact, the Government were quickly dismissive.

Since the introduction of Safe Schools, two separate and academic reviews have been conducted (the first by Professor Louden and one by Professor Parkinson), both demonstrating significant flaws and problems with material, including dependence on fake statistics, unscientific theories, and in places presenting as fact ideas that remain highly contested within the medical fraternity. Following Professor Louden’s Review, the Federal Government announced significant changes to the curriculum, but Victoria has insisted on ignoring the findings and implementing the program without change.

What has happened in Victoria over the past 3 years is that a ½ hour opt-in religious program was removed and then replaced with compulsory curriculum (not only Safe Schools but also Respectful Relationships). In addition, the Government began designing a ‘general religious’ curriculum course for schools, which is to be compulsory across our schools (I am not aware if this course has been implemented as yet).

Don’t fall for revisionist views of secularism

According to The Age, “Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said special religious instruction had no place in the curriculum of secular public schools.

She said there was already room to learn about religion and its role in society and history in state schools.”

“But it shouldn’t be taught by unqualified people who come into the schools with a very different purpose.”

These remarks prove the point. Contrary to Meredith Peace, secular does not mean non-religious or keeping religion out of public education and other public domains. The definition of secularism is not private religion, as Peace implies. True secularism allows for and encourages the plurality of ideas.

Also contrary to Meredith Peace, it is sensible that those who teach the Bible, should be qualified people (whether teachers or volunteers) who understand and believe the Bible’s message, rather than skeptics who explain away and misrepresent the Bible’s message.

Neutral education is a fairy tale, and it’s simply disingenuous for anyone to suggest such. This bias is clearly demonstrated by the Department’s own statements in the draft general religious studies program. As someone who holds an honours degree in theology I am in some way able to speak to the following statements.

According to the Education Department, these are the key premises of Christianity:

“There is one God, consisting of the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. God became human in the person of Jesus, the Son.

People have one life and its purpose is to live in a loving relationship with God, with others and with the world. The life and teachings of Jesus show how this is done and make possible the life-giving changes needed in individuals and society. Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit and are called to demonstrate God’s love, compassion and justice in all their relationships and interactions. Most Christians believe in an afterlife; that after their physical death, they will live forever with God.

The Bible is the sacred text for Christians. The Bible has two parts, known as the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament contains Jewish books and teachings, before the time of Jesus. The New Testament records the teachings of Jesus as well as the history and teaching of the early Church which is based on the teaching and example of Jesus.”

Some of the above statements align with Christianity, while others are blatantly wrong, and some of the most central tenets are altogether missing.

Here is one example of a basic error, ‘Most Christians believe in an afterlife; that after their physical death, they will live forever with God”. No, all Christians believe in an afterlife, and this life beyond death will be physical.

Notice how there is no mention of sin, Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection, and of salvation on account of God’s grace. There is no mention of hell. Without these things, there is no Christianity. It is not enough to make the excuse, we can’t say everything in a few paragraphs, the core of Christianity has been ripped out and in so doing it is presenting a Christianity that is inauthentic and inaccurate.

To quote the Bible, Christianity is about “Christ and him crucified”.

My point is this, if the Education Department is unable to fairly and accurately summarise the Christian faith, how can we trust what they want to be taught about any and all religion?

Would we want our children being taught maths by a teacher who doesn’t understand algebra? Would we be happy to learn that the school biology teacher doesn’t believe in male and female anatomy? Is it acceptable for sports teachers to deny the value of physical exercise? Why is it, therefore, acceptable when it comes to Christianity specifically, and religion more generally.

This is not about imposition, this is about recognition.

Why shouldn’t we give our children an opportunity to explore the greatest book that has ever been written? A book to which we owe more than any other? A book that has given shape to millennia of civilisation (not only in the West but also in the East), and has given our society its ethical and political moorings?

An intolerant secularism that is claiming the public space.

The version of secularism that now dominates much public and political conversation in Victoria feints intellectualism and freedom, but it is simply the guise for a new wave of intellectual totalitarianism, where dissent is squashed by a tirade of shout downs.

Barney Zwartz made this astute comment in the The Age,

“This attitude masks a more serious problem in the widespread contemporary misunderstanding of what “secular” means, one that I suspect is shared by Fairness in Religions in School. It has never meant, as many imagine, the absence of religion from the public arena but simply that no religion should be privileged (as, for example, the Church of England is in Britain).

Properly understood, that works to protect people of all religions and none, and to foster an open, vibrant, tolerant public culture.”

Are we so frightened of the Bible that we must prevent our children from spending 1/2hr of the week from exploring it in a safe and fun environment? It is sad to see children having taken from them the freedom and opportunity to explore what is the greatest book to have influenced Australian life and culture.

I said it in 2015, and it remains the case today; 20 years from now, a generation of Victorians will look back upon the decisions that have been made, and we will recognise the diminished experience that we have given our children, having kept from them the very ideas that gave birth to Augustine and J.S Bach, C.S Lewis and Martin Luther King, and many of the greatest thinkers, scientists, artists, writers, and humanists of history.

I would encourage the Government to reconsider their own policies on these issues, and to realign them true secularism and with best scientific and medical research. Surely for the good our children and the future of the State, it is worth it.

Religious Freedom and Civil Speech: the insane, the fair, and the good

Narrative is important. In 2018, the winning argument doesn’t rely on facts and accurate information but depends upon telling a story which will garner the outrage of one’s constituents. Anger is power. Anger is persuasion. Truth-telling has become optional; useful when it supports one’s thesis, and redundant when it does not.

In this current age of rage and rhetorical bashing (which both progressives and conservatives are utilising), alternative narratives are often not presented with accuracy and fairness. It is proving increasingly difficult, and at times, near impossible to engage in civil discourse, because the climate is reaching temperature levels that resist reasoned and gentle speech.

The test case was the now infamous 2017 conversation promoted by the Bible Society and featuring Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that it is possible to conduct a civil conversation over a beer while disagreeing on same-sex marriage.  Apparently, the very notion that Australians could enjoy polite disagreement on SSM was too much, as beer drinkers all over the nation raged and smashed bottles of Coopers’ Beer in protest. Coopers’ was threatened with boycotts to the point that they were forced to recant and join those waving rainbow flags (despite the fact that they were never sponsoring the video in the first place). Sadly, this response is now normal in Australia today.

One month ago, most journalists in the country were saying very little about the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom…until a Christian became Prime Minister. Since then there has been an almost absurd flurry of attention given to this review in which the Government is still yet to release its decisions. Don’t get me wrong, there is a legitimate story here as to why the Government has been so slow in releasing its findings from the Ruddock review, but instead of waiting to find out what the Government’s position will be, media outlets began hypothesising and arguing points based on speculation, and when a summary of the Ruddock report was leaked to the media, everyone went nuts.

In the first few days, Fairfax published no fewer than 19 articles, in which they argued that the Government was taking steps to give religious schools freedom to expel gay students.

It soon became apparent that this was not a measure that the Government was considering, in fact, this provision already existed and it was introduced by the Labour Government in 2013. More importantly,  Christian schools across the country came out, saying that they were not aware of this policy and they certainly did not support or practice it. Eternity newspaper made inquiries around the nation and found the whopping sum total of schools who were expelling gay students to be zero. The other day I asked a teacher who works at a Christian school in Melbourne and they were stunned that the media would argue that this was a practice inside Christian schools.

In other words, the whole story was a beat up. But it hasn’t stopped anti-Christian hysteria, with numerous social commentators and now members of Parliament attacking this dangerous practice that doesn’t exist.

ABCs Media Watch presented an excellent summary of this sloppy journalism.

To be fair, since publishing the first 19 articles, Fairfax has now allowed two pieces which finally offer an alternate perspective. Both articles are indeed excellent and worth reading.

Come this morning, I wake up and the top of my Twitter feed is sprucing another article, with this title, “Sydney Anglicans set to ban gay weddings and pro-LGBTI advocacy on church property

9033538-3x2-340x227

The problem with this piece is that it is neither new news nor is it news at all. The Sydney Anglican Diocese, like other Anglican Dioceses around Australia, already have a position on marriage and their clergy and property is already constrained to practice weddings that conform to their definition of marriage. I realise that journalists are under growing pressure to write articles that are provocative and opinionated because such writing can increase audience reach and circulation, but this does not cultivate better public conversation. 

Deep into the article, after readers have already been won over to once again tut tut these  incredulous Christians, Michael Koziol, adds this important detail, one which in fact completely debunks that click-bait headline,

“Bishop of South Sydney Michael Stead, the senior clergyman who authored the proposal, told Fairfax Media that the use of church property had “always been governed by various regulations” and the new policy merely sought to consolidate those into a single document.

“The new policy doesn’t represent a change in our position and I wouldn’t expect it to have an effect on any activities currently occurring on church trust property,” he said.

“Because the federal government has changed its definition of marriage, the policy makes clear the church’s doctrine of marriage has not changed and that property use scenarios relate only to man/woman marriage.”

Is it so shocking that a Christian denomination should reaffirm their already stated beliefs? Is it so outrageous that Christians should practice what they preach? How dare Christians believe what Christians have always believed and practiced!

There is literally no point in publishing this article on the Anglican Synod, other than trying to add weight to the narrative that’s being spun, namely that conservative Christians in general, and especially Sydney Anglicans, are awful people who are intolerant, and who are fighting a rearguard action against the inevitable tide of sexual and moral progressiveness. Just so readers come away believing that Sydney Anglicans are really out of step, Koziol finds a few quotes to suggest that most Christians (certainly Anglicans) don’t support this out of touch view of marriage. Readers are told that Sydney Anglicans are just playing power games of ‘privilege’.

There you have it; it doesn’t matter what’s true or not, just insert one of those key intersectionality words, like ‘privilege’, and the story is complete; Sydney Anglicans are bad!

I’m reminded of a conversation that I had with a Fairfax journalist not so long ago. They shared with me how most journalists have little understanding of religion, in general, let alone comprehending Christianity. Of course, sometimes Christians add to the confusion by doing and saying things that are not true of Christianity. This kind if misinformation happened in the time of the New Testament Church. Take, for example, Alexander the metalworker whom Paul mentions as having “done him a great deal of harm”.

There are many fine journalists around Australia, some are Christians, many are not. I wonder though, how can we reach out to journalists and help educate them as to what it is Christians do and don’t believe?

Regardless of what one’s personal suppositions and moral inclinations are, Australian society needs to find ways to reduce the dangerous and at times disingenuous reporting and commentary that is taking over the public square. It would be great if our politicians would show the way, and societal conversations would certainly be strengthened if media outlets stepped away from speculative and sensationalised reporting.

Regardless of how others decide to debate ethical and political issues, Christians must follow the guidelines that are set out by the very Scriptures which our society deems as foolish and immoral.

Early this week I was reminded of this timely words written to Timothy by his friend and mentor, Paul,

 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,  and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:22-26)

That’s not a bad place for us to begin.

Don’t “mess” with laws on freedom of religion, fix them!

At the start of the week, a news reporter stood outside on a North Carolinian street during Hurricane Florence, facing the heavy rain and struggling against winds. It looked as though he might be blown over at any moment. As he clenched his muscles and defied the hurricane’s power, two men passed by behind him, walking casually and without any trouble or concern caused by the winds.

Not all news is fake, but sometimes journalists exaggerate their case or they forget to mention other pertinent information. Maybe it’s due to ignorance, while at other times there is an agenda which they reckon can’t afford nuance or balanced reporting. I cannot say which is the case for Wednesday’s Editorial in The Age, “No need to mess with laws on freedom of religion”. Let’s assume the best and that the writer, Alex Lavelle, is simply not on top of the issues he is addressing.

Lavelle has stated a simple case, arguing Australia does not need further religious protections. Responding to the Prime Minister’s suggestion that religious freedoms require legislative protections,  Lavelle contends,

“There is a real risk such undue interference by government, which could undermine separation between church and state in a secular democracy, might unleash further discrimination, including the refusal to employ or provide goods and services to people of other religions or from the queer community. In short, Mr Morrison risks needlessly reducing the rights of many.”

Two important corrections need to be made.

First, existing laws do not adequately protect people of faith.

Alex Lavelle cites Section 116 of the constitution, which reads,

‘‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’’

His point is that Section 116 provides adequate protections for religious people in Australia. What Lavelle ignores or is perhaps unaware of, is that  Section 116 has been interpreted so narrowly by the High Court that no successful litigation has ever been brought under it. Also, this section of the Constitution only binds the Commonwealth, not the States and Territories, and most of the growing problems in relation to religious freedom have arisen at a state level where S116 cannot help. 

When it comes to state laws, protections for religious freedom are inconsistent and often weak. In Tasmania, you can find yourself in serious trouble for doing nothing more than teaching the basics tenets of one’s religion. And in NSW, religion is not even a protected attribute for anti-discrimination law.

Second,  examples of religious restrictions are real and growing

The second major problem with this editorial is Lavelle’s reason as to why Australia is considering religious protections. He suggests,

“The issue exists only because former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull commissioned a review by former Liberal Party minister Philip Ruddock to assuage minority concerns about same-sex marriage.”

This is simply not the case, or at the very least, it is not the full story. The Ruddock Inquiry was initiated because there already is an issue relating to religious freedoms in Australia, and there are concrete reasons for thinking such freedoms will be further weakened and even denied.

Recent examples abound:

  • Archbishop Julian Porteous wrote to Catholics, explaining Catholic teaching on marriage, and he soon found himself facing the anti-discrimination laws of Tasmania
  • A Presbyterian preacher in Hobart wrote a blog article in which he addressed same-sex marriage from a Bible and pastoral perspective. The Anti-discrimination commissioner accepted a complaint against him.
  • A Queensland doctor is currently in trouble with the Medical Board for committing the horrendous crime of retweeting a selfie of Lyle Shelton and author Ryan Anderson (and expert in transgenderism), with Lyle encouraging people to read Anderson’s book.
  • In 2016, the Sydney University student body attempted to deregister the Evangelical Union, because it required students to affirm, “Jesus is Lord”.
  • Last September at the University of Sydney, a mob of 200 students violently attacked a small group of Catholic students who were peacefully handing out literature on marriage and encouraging a ‘no vote’ during the marriage plebiscite.
  • Churches were vandalised in the lead up to the marriage plebiscite.
  • A young university student asked another student if she would like prayer. He was told by university authorities that he had challenged a student’s beliefs, and was subsequently suspended. The university informed him that he was to attend fortnightly counselling and that he would be forcibly removed should he step foot on the university campus.
  • The Victorian State Government is seeking to ban ideology that does not fully embrace transgenderism and homosexuality. It may become unlawful to even question a person’s sexual self-identity or to present the Biblical view of abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage. Federal Labor is also putting forward for their national platform, policies that will include as child abuse, any persons (including parents) who do not support young children in transitioning from one gender to another.
  • The chief executive of a Queensland Baptist agency sent an email to staff, calling for people to respect differing views on marriage while also presenting his case against same-sex marriage. One employee complained and a case was taken to Queensland Industrial Relations Commission.

We praise Qantas when they wrap themselves in rainbow colours and when their chief executive officer publicly advocates gay marriage, but it’s deeply offensive and outrageous for a religious person to express an alternate view in their organisation (and a religious organisation at that!)? Had the Baptist chief executive sent an email to staff in favour of same-sex marriage, the outcome would be vastly different. To begin with, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission would almost certainly be disinterested. On the off chance that he sent an email in which he advocated for a ‘yes’ vote in last year’s plebiscite, and one of his staff complained to the Baptist Union of Queensland, and he was reprimanded as a result, can you imagine the public outcry? How dare Baptists stifle this man’s freedom to voice an opinion and to share his views amongst his staff!

The Federal member of Goldstein, Tim Wilson, was asked about the particular case on Sky News only two weeks ago. Mr Wilson said,

“it’s not a good trend. It’s not a good principal, and it’s certainly inconsistent with the very basis of free speech”

He also pointed out how in the workplace free speech needs to be used “reasonably and respectfully”, and from what he had seen, this Queensland Baptist case hadn’t crossed that line.

Maybe Alex Lavelle is unaware of these and many other examples that have been disclosed in recent times. Perhaps he is unaware that his own newspaper has reported on some these cases. Perhaps he is also unaware of Fairfax journalists who have written articles arguing for the restriction of religious freedoms. To cite two examples,

Auberry Perry

“This survey offers us a conscious opportunity to make a firm stand in support of a secular government and to reject discrimination or favouritism based on religion. It’s our opportunity to say that religion has no part in the shaping of our laws. A vote against same-sex marriage is a vote for religious bias and discrimination in our legislation, our public schools, our healthcare, and ultimately, in the foundation of our social structure.”

Matt Holden,

“‘the best guarantee of religious freedom is keeping religion out of politics”.

DMJzz1jVwAAKJDy

I  imagine that a decade ago most Australians would probably have agreed, there is little need to offer legal reform in relation to religious freedoms, for most Australians accepted that we should have freedom of association, and be free to speak and to have a conscience that accords with our religious convictions. Australia has changed and is changing. The move away from cultural and philosophical pluralism and toward domesticating and conditioning religion according to the zealotist rules of humanistic secularists is no mere trickle.

We can choose to ignore the evidence and to proffer that there is no issue, but we can only pretend for so long before that leaky tap spills over the sink and floods the entire house. The agenda to squeeze out religious beliefs from politics and schools and businesses and universities is all too real, and the fact that many cases are already reaching anti-discrimination tribunals demonstrates that there is a problem. Even if some of these cases are being thrown out or overturned, the tide is persistent, and without proper and positive protections in place, we will see an increasing number of religious Australians losing their freedom to believe and practice their faith.

The only good Christian politician…

The only good Christian politician is one who has the prefix non sitting at the front. Or, if they insist on believing in God, make sure it’s not the Christian God. Or, if that too fails, just make sure the god being worshiped is domesticated and progressive and doesn’t really believe what the Bible says.

It only took a few days, but elements of mainstream media have established their narrative for Australia’s new Prime Minister: Scott Morrison is one of those whacky Christians who believe in prayer and who hates gays and refugees. He’s dangerous because he isn’t following the script, the one that is being redrafted continuously by social progressives as they cherry pick scientific research and dismantle moral parameters that don’t fit with their already fixed social theories.

 

ZZa43Ifa_400x400.jpeg

Tony Wright, yesterday sent our bodies into spasmic motions of laughter as we read his classic tales of Christian mockery and parody, Scott Morrison’s Sermon on the Murray. Love: it’s for Australians.

“Love, exhorted Australia’s latest Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, pacing like an old-time tent preacher. Love!

“I love Australia,” he cried.

“Who loves Australia?” he demanded.

“Everyone,” he answered himself.

“We all love Australia. Of course we do.

“But do we love all Australians? That’s a different question, isn’t it?

“Do we love ALL Australians? We’ve got to.

“That’s what brings a country together. You love all Australians if you love Australia.”

Call it Scott Morrison’s Sermon on the Murray.

It turned out to be a stream of consciousness devoid of policy announcements, starting and finishing with pledges to uphold Menzies’ legacy, and heavy on folksy family tales, love and, yes, prayer.

In the midst of a long and dreadful drought, glory be, it rained in Albury on Thursday.

Morrison wasn’t about to let that go by without homage.

“It’s great to see it raining here in Albury today,” he said, roaming the stage with a hand-held microphone.

“I pray for that rain everywhere else around the country. And I do pray for that rain.

“And I’d encourage others who believe in the power of prayer to pray for that rain and to pray for our farmers. Please do that.”

And in case there were those in the audience who weren’t God-fearing, Morrison included them, too.

“And everyone else who doesn’t like to do that, you just say, ‘Good on you, guys. You go well’. Think good thoughts for them. Or whatever you do.”…

The room by then was fairly oozing the love. No one had the poor form to note out loud that Morrison’s love for everyone apparently stopped firmly at the coastline he once defended by Border Force, or that supporters of that other Mardi Gras might not share his happy sense of family, given his well-known thumbs down to equal marriage…

No. He’d come to give his Sermon on the Murray. Family and prayer and individualism.

Yes. And love. Lots of love. For everyone, so long as they’re Australian.”

 

Ok, I have to admit, the “Sermon on the Murray” line is kind of funny, but mainly because I spent some of my childhood in Albury Wodonga and my name is, well, Murray!

Like every Prime Minister before him, Scott Morrison is creating a narrative of his own, and he has chosen to be upfront about his Christian faith. Good on him. Why should he hide it? We’re not living in North Korea, are we? Or in an Islamic country?

I’m not suggesting that Christians should be beyond scrutiny. Christians serving in the public sphere should not be exempt from serious questions on relevant policy and views. Christian beliefs are not beyond the scope of impassioned dialogue and debate. Indeed, as we read the story of the Bible we discover countless examples of the Apostles inviting careful investigation. Equally so, the Christian life ought also to display the character of Christ,

 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

Don’t misunderstand me, Scott Morrison is no Messiah. I assume that our new PM, like every other Christian, will sometimes get things wrong, and that means that some of his decisions won’t always best reflect the Christian worldview that he upholds. For instance, do I think the Government’s policy on Asylum Seekers best reflects a Christian view of refugees? No, I don’t.  I think it’s cruel and unnecessary. But are our atheistic secularist friends really wanting an Australian Prime Minister to adopt policies that are shaped by Christianity?

If a politician or public figure makes their religious convictions known, it is entirely appropriate for journalists to note hypocrisy and inconsistency. However, it’s clear that the derision toward Scott Morrison’s Christianity doesn’t stop there; let’s mock the PM’s belief in prayer. Why? The issue isn’t even the fact that Scott Morrison has called for prayer, but that he’s praying to the wrong kind of god. The God who is revealed in Jesus Christ and who authored the Bible doesn’t preach their ‘progressive’ gospel of sexual fluidity, abortion, and non-heterosexual marriage.

Many of the same political pundits who are critical of Morrison’s Christianity are very quick to praise the sloganeering of religious figures like Rod Bower. They can’t get enough of his tirades of abuse toward conservative politicians. The more heretical his signs, the louder the applause. Yes, Australia remains ardently religious, and even the irreligious can’t help themselves. They’ll keep mocking religion that doesn’t fit their agendas, and they will praise from the heights (or lows) of twitter any Aussie in a clerical collar who preaches their message.

Mocking the right type of Christian will win ‘likes’ on social media, and will ensure our parodies are published in the paper, but it is all rather dull and unoriginal. This kind of mud-slinging has been going on since, well, since the time of Jesus. The Roman soldiers had a riot of a time while they mocked Jesus, before crucifying him, and the religious elite joined in the fun as Jesus hung there on the cross.

My advice to Aussie Christians is, don’t get too upset by the latest round mocking Christianity. Didn’t Jesus have something to say about insults in the Sermon on the Mount?  After all, remember the strangest irony of all, our Churches are filled with once-upon-a-time mockers. Our congregations are made up of people who once didn’t believe in prayer but have now discovered pray is effective. Today’s Christians were often yesterday’s critics; we once argued how the Bible is an archaic and immoral book, but now we have become convinced that the words of Scripture are true and good. Anti-theists become theists and worshipers of Jesus Christ.

Here ends today’s Sermon by Murray!

Banning ‘Conversion’ Therapy, what does it mean?

Media outlets have renewed a campaign to outlaw gay conversion therapy (GCT). The Age published an article on the weekend with the title, Churches, LGBTI Christians urge crackdown on ‘conversion’ therapy.

The headline is somewhat misleading, for according to the SOCE website (the group who are asking the Federal Government to ban GCT), only four churches have signed their statement along with 3-4 church ministers. No doubt there other supportive Churches, but nothing like the groundswell of ecclesial enthusiasm that the newspaper implies.

If The Age had asked Christian leaders and Churches from across the country, I suspect that they would find partial agreement with the folk at SOCE Survivors, and also significant disagreement.

Screen Shot 2018-09-05 at 9.54.24 am.png

To begin with, testimonies of gay conversion therapies are disturbing. Far from being ‘normal,’ these practices belong to fringe religious groups, finding little or no support amongst mainstream Christian Churches and theology. As a Christian, I do not support or agree with gay conversion therapy, as defined in terms of using pseudo-scientific and unbiblical spiritual methods to change a person’s sexuality. I feel for those who have undergone these traumatic experiences, wishing that they had not, and praying that they will find true and lasting recovery and peace.

The conversation is important because the health and life of LGBTIQ Australians matters enormously. They are not pawns to be played in political games, but human beings made in the image of God, and who ought to be treated with dignity. This, however, does not mean that every sexual preference and activity is morally good and beneficial, and neither does it mean that people who choose celibacy are somehow less complete or fulfilled as human beings.

It is interesting to learn that the SOCE Survivors statement makes the repeated observation that most organisations who once practiced GCT have now folded or no longer use such programs. If this is the case, then why are LGBTIQ groups and two political parties campaigning to have gay conversion therapy banned by Governments? If the aim is to inform the public of these formerly used and egregious methods, that’s fine, and yet their stated goals extend far beyond this. Why is there a concerted campaign to make illegal, practices that are no longer employed? As one reads further into the document, a picture emerges that their primary focus is no longer with GCT  but with any ideology that does not fully support LGBTIQ identity and lifestyles.

The statement argues that “many expressions of SOCE exist at the micro level, making them difficult to recognise, quantify, and regulate. The underlying ideology is firmly embedded in the everyday life of many faith communities as a collection of messages, beliefs and practices.”

According to their document, the key to this ideology is the erroneous and harmful belief (in their opinion) that “heterosexuality is the intended order”. Among these unacceptable practices are sermons that “talk about and reinforce traditional gender roles and ‘living as men and women of God”.

How broad is the net of unacceptable teaching and practice in faith communities? It certainly feels sufficiently broad to include the majority of Churches and Christian organisations. That’s part of the problem with the SOCE website, and also with the reporting in the newspaper, their descriptions of gay conversion therapy are vague, so much so that depending on how one reads in between the blurry lines, preaching a sermon on Genesis chs.1-3 or Romans 1:18-32 could fall foul of the authorities.

Definitions matter. The meaning of words and phrases is essential, lest we import a wrong sense or create confusion by speaking across each other. At the same time though, ambiguity and breadth are also proven rhetorical devices that gently and unassumingly push the envelope open even further.

In the Bible, God calls Christians to sexual purity. This does not necessarily mean there will be a change in sexual orientation. Some men and woman find their sexual desires and identity change with time, and to argue otherwise is to ignore the weight of personal testimonies. Indeed, researchers have demonstrated that the majority of children who experience gender dysphoria will grow out of it by adulthood and will happily identifying with their biological sex. However, the fact is, when becoming a Christian, many gay and lesbian people will not become heterosexual.

The Bible may not state that a person’s sexual orientation will change, but it does teach conversion. Christianity by definition is a conversion religion, where human beings made in the image of God, shift from looking for freedom in the myth of post-enlightenment moral relativism, and instead discovering the greatest freedom in the person of Jesus Christ. Let me repeat, I am not suggesting that people cease to struggle with aspects of their past, including sexual orientation, but it does mean that they now want to be godly in their sexuality. According to the Bible, this sanctification includes affirming that sex belongs to the loving, exclusive, mutually consenting, covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

Does believing and teaching the above, and encouraging Christians to practice the above, push me outside the moral parameters of SOCE? Keeping in mind that none of the above views are new or novel, for they sit perfectly within orthodox Christian teaching and practice. Nonetheless, should this standard Christian view be considered wrong and harmful, and to be scrutinised by the authorities?

Anything other than the full affirmation of lgbtiq individuals as fully equal (including in the church, with a move toward correcting the poorly translated words currently classed as “homosexual” in the bible) is really unacceptable.”

While the SOCE Survivors document is vague at points, a spokesperson from SOCE has this week responded to a friend of mine who was also seeking clarification from them. The spokesperson said,

“The conversion therapy movement is very broad. Eg. theologically driven celibacy of lgbtiq people, prayer ministry, sermons that veer into exgay ideology leading to harm. They all need firm interventions. The survivors who wrote the statement are very keen to keep the definition broad. Anything other than the full affirmation of lgbtiq individuals as fully equal (including in the church, with a move toward correcting the poorly translated words currently classed as “homosexual” in the bible) is really unacceptable.”

The SOCE representative also asked,

“Would people who attend this group be encouraged to avoid being in a long-term committed same-sex relationship on theological or psychological grounds?”

When my friend suggested, ‘yes’, he was then informed that,

“I would say this group falls under the umbrella of the ex-gay movement. As you can see from the statement, the ex-gay movement has been viewed through many lenses over the years – from conversion therapy, to ex-gay programs that are less about therapy and more about solidarity. Regardless, such a group goes against the latest biblical scholarship, as well as a significant body of research detailing the harm caused by attempts to suppress or change a person’s orientation or gender affirmation on religious grounds. Thanks.”

There you have it. The agenda is wider than banning rare and harmful practices, but includes ministry and preaching that encourages the classical Biblical understanding of sexual holiness and human identity.

One might choose to ignore this most recent reporting of the issue, believing it’s another example of Christian philistinism. However, SOCE’s agenda is being adopted by two of the nation’s major political parties (ALP and the Greens), and the current Victorian State Government is also considering legislating on the issue. In other words, there is a strong possibility that these views will be shaped into legislation in the not too distant future, and could be used to against Christian Churches across Australia (and especially in Victoria). In case we assume there will be no severe implications from such legislation, as one example, the ALP platform speaks of removing children from parents who fail to affirm children in their self-assigned gender and sexuality, referring to this as child abuse.

Rather than chasing the culture down the rabbit hole of fluffy and imprecise language, Churches need theological and pastoral precision. This is a time for Christians to repudiate unsound, unbiblical, and harmful practices that have been used in the past, albeit by marginal and whacky groups. This is a time to repent of resentment toward LGBTIQ Australians and to ask for forgiveness where we have wronged them. This is also a time to embrace God’s good ways that are revealed in the Scriptures.

The future of Christianity does not depend on Governmental or societal approval, but it does hinge on whether Churches will “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” Christianity didn’t survive and flourish in the Roman Empire because they allowed the sexual norms of the day to define the Church, or because they played dodge-the-bullet with broad and vague language, but because they believed and lived the freedom that was brought about by Jesus Christ. Clarity in an age of confusion; that is what is required of Christians today: humble clarity and gracious conviction that God’s purposes are good and true.

Cricket and Fair Play

Cricket Australia is in the Australian news once again. This time, the issue isn’t sandpaper and ball tampering, but abortion.

Cricket Australia employee, Angela Williamson, had her position terminated following comments she made on twitter in relation to abortion laws in Tasmania.

Williamson had criticised the Tasmanian Government over its restrictive abortion laws, which resulted in her flying to Melbourne in order to have her child aborted. In her frustration, she tweeted,

“Most irresponsible, gutless & reckless delivery in early ever #politas”

Cricket Australia released a statement, saying it “respects an individual’s right to their opinion”…and it also “expects that employees will refrain from making offensive comments that contravene the organisation’s policies.”

Do I think Angela Williamson’s views are gross and immoral? Absolutely. Let’s stop hiding the reality of what we’re talking about behind clinical words like ‘abortion’ and ‘medical procedure’, and behind power words such as ‘women’s rights’. No matter how you look at it, this is about killing children, taking away their right to live.

Despite me strongly disagreeing with Angela Williamson’s views on abortion, should this have been a sackable offense?

Like others, I struggle to understand how an employee of a ‘secular’ organisation can lose their job for making a political comment of this nature. Perhaps there is a clause in her employment agreement which she has clearly broken (apparently this was the second occasion), perhaps the issues are more complex than Williamson and the media are presenting, I don’t know.

Let’s assume that the issue is no deeper than what the media has presented. If this is the situation, and it appears to be so, then I agree with those voicing concerns over Williamson’s dismissal; not because I like what she said, but because in a civil society, citizens have a right to voice opinions about social and political issues. How can public policy ever be resilient if commentary and opinions are squashed? In the case where the integrity of the organisation is put into question as a result of an employee’s public comments, it is understandable that a disciplinary process would be undertaken, but it’s hard to see how this could be the case here.

What’s been most interesting to watch over the last 48 hours, is the level of protest being voiced in the media and by various social commentators. Oh, the irony!

John Birmingham of The Age wrote,

“CA demonstrably does not respect anybody’s right to voice any opinion that might make things a little awkward in the members pavilion the next time some freeloading politician is there hoovering up the triangle sandwiches and complimentary fairy cakes.

And it can expect whatever it wants, but it has no legal authority to decide what makes a comment offensive, and it has never even tried to explain how Williamson contravened any written policy of her employer. Mouthing the words after the fact doesn’t make it so.”

And on last night’s The Drum, Dr Kerryn Phelps said,

“I’m concerned about this case. What extent is there a crossover between peoples’ personal views on social media, and their employment? Can you be gagged in your job for something that you feel very strongly about personally?”

Screen Shot 2018-07-31 at 7.12.29 am

Only a few months earlier, Dr Phelps said of Israel Folau,

“People are entitled to their views, but not everyone is entitled to express their views if they’re hurtful to a group of people and you’re a celebrity.”

There is more spin here than Warnie on his best day. This isn’t about fairness and consistency, but a team of socially left ideologues complaining when the umpire’s decision doesn’t go their way. As it happens, I agree with their appeal for ‘not out’, but let’s not pretend that the current outrage is about defending peoples’ “right to voice any opinion”. This is about defending those views that conform to the narrative being created by social progressives, and it’s about denouncing voices who dare raise a different story.

If we are to take them seriously, where are their voices speaking up for religious Australians who are being bullied into silence forever daring question the morality of same-sex marriage? How many of these social progressives stood on the field to defend Israel Folau? Where were the Fairfax and ABC opinion pieces jumping to the aid of Julian Porteous who did nothing more than publish a gracious word to Catholics about the Catholic view of marriage? How many of our journos,  political progressives, and gender revisionist advocates drank a Coopers Beer in protest against the vile reaction to Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie? The two men sat down over a Coopers beer and enjoyed a civil conversation about marriage. Within minutes pubs across the nation were boycotting Coopers, and tirades of abuse hit social media. So incensed were non-beer drinkers and craft-beer drinkers across the nation, that they bought bottles of Coopers beer only to smash them in alleys across the nation until Cooper’s management joined the fight for same-sex marriage. The implications are clear: There is public backlash and even financial loss for those who will not openly affirm the current and popular philosophic views of sexuality.

The Federal Government is expected to shortly release their report, following the Ruddock review on Religious Freedom. Religious groups are not asking to change the rules of society, but rather, to hold onto the freedoms that have been, until recently, assumed and enjoyed by all Australians.

Sadly, cricket in Australia today is no longer about how you play the game, it’s become about ‘winning at all cost’. And no, I’m not talking about the sport. With groups like Amnesty International calling for faith-based organisations to lose their funding, should they not sign up to the new sexual ethic, and with the public square demanding total allegiance, it is reasonable for Christians and Australians of other faiths to expect unfair dismissals.

It is important to note that there are Christians defending Angela Williamson, despite disagreeing with her opinions. Michael Kellahan (Executive Director of Freedom for Faith), said, “Cricket Australia – you no more own Angela Williamson’s conscience than Rugby Australia owns Izzy Folau’s soul. Big mistake to sack her.” Unfortunately though, the same cannot be said of a growing number of institutions and public commentators who have little interest in keeping to the same standard for other Australians. Many Australians are losing confidence that our society is willing to play fairly and consistently, and until we see a change in the rhetoric and public views of many authoritarian secularists, these doubts will remain.

 

Baptists believe in Freedom of Association

Until Friday, I had never heard of Logan Robertson or Pillar Baptist Church in Queensland. Today, all Australia knows his name.

Logan Robertson and two other men have been charged with public nuisance offences following events that took place during the week at two Brisbane mosques. The incidents were ugly, offensive, and without warrant.

Mr Robertson is a New Zealand national who has already gained notoriety in his homeland for extreme religious views, including being subject to a police investigation regarding his public conduct. Prior to entering Australia a year ago, Robertson was cautioned about his behavior. Tonight he is in custody and will be shortly deported back to New Zealand.

Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 9.46.15 pm

To begin with, along with Christians across the country, I wish to apologise to our Muslim Australians who were subjected to Robertson’s unruly conduct. People of any religion should be permitted to worship in freedom and without threat. We have seen other nasty incidents in recent months, usually with Christian churches and groups being targeted. On this occasion though,  the perpetrators were a group who purport to be Christian. We do not want Westboro or Münster type religious fanatics interfering with peoples religious freedoms, regardless of what their religion may be.

It is understandable that this story has made headline news across the country; this is a time when religious freedom is a topic of national conversation and we await the Government’s report on the Ruddock review. In the middle of these discussions, here is a ‘Christian’ minister intruding on a Muslim time of prayer and intimidating worshippers, including teenage boys.

Why does this matter? There are two issues here. First, there is the criminal charges and social ills that Robertson and others have allegedly engaged in. We should not intimidate other Australians by entering their worship spaces and interrupting religious services. Second, it is important to address this story, because just like the fake gynaecologist who was caught out and imprisoned in Melbourne this past week, a fake Baptist should also be called out because of the dangers in misrepresenting what Baptists, and Christians in general, believe.

While Logan Robertson self-identifies as a Baptist, as the media have rightly stated, he and his church have no affiliation with the Queensland Baptist Union and the Baptist Union of Australia. Indeed, there is little about Pillar Baptist Church that can be called Baptist.

As with all Christians, Baptist beliefs and practices are shaped by the Bible. What Christian Churches share in common is far greater than any differences. For example, while Baptists don’t baptise infants as do Anglicans and Presbyterians, and our church governance differs, otherwise,  we share the same beliefs that have been taught and lived out for 2000 years.

I have read the Doctrinal Statement of Pillar Baptist Church, and it does not resemble any Baptist confession that I have ever read before, and it includes some very strange ideas indeed.

Most Baptist Churches in Australia belong to the Baptist Union of Australia, and so they are in formal association with one another. There are also independent Baptist churches, and these vary in their beliefs and practices. Independence does not alone denote what a church is like, but as with every church (including those belonging to a traditional denomination), we ought to examine their doctrine and life closely. At the very least, when a Church states that it “reject[s] the teaching of the universal church” and does not associate with other Christian groups, that ought to raise serious questions.

Not only does Robertson’s Church have a doctrinal statement that doesn’t fit with historic Baptist faith, and not only are they unrelated to any formal Baptist association, it is clear that Logan Robertson has abrogated two important Baptist principles, namely that of freedom of conscience and freedom of association. While these principles are not owned by Baptists, they are closely aligned with Baptist thinking through the Centuries. Freedom of thought and freedom of association found clear expression among Baptists in the 17th Century, at a time when religious freedom didn’t exist but was often controlled by the crown, by Parliament, and by establishment churches. Baptists were often oppressed and even imprisoned for holding these beliefs. The author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, was twice imprisoned because he believed in and practiced freedom of religious association.

These two principles are not saying that Baptists agree with other religions or that we think that these religions are intellectually coherent, spiritually healthy, and morally good. Baptists are not theological and moral relativists. It does, however, mean that we believe Christianity is accepted through persuasion not by coercion, by gracious explanation and not by galling intimidation. Freedom of belief is not about privileging  one religious group over another, but positively guaranteeing that all Australians can speak and live their beliefs without harassment. Neither the State nor individuals in the community should resort to browbeating in order to change another person’s mind on an issue. We cannot create a healthy society by thuggery, whether it is noisy secularists forcing out Christians from the public square or religious fanatics spitting out their dogma in our faces.

Australia needs honest conversations about the big questions of life. We need these discussions happening in public spaces and in private meetings, and yet sadly, people like Logan Robertson caste a shadow on our optimism, and authoritarian secularists are throwing even darker clouds over the social and religious freedoms that we have long enjoyed in this country.

It is easy to say that Logan Robertson’s behaviour is unAustralian, but I’m not sure if I want to indict my New Zealand friends on this occasion! Robertson’s ideas and behaviour are certainly anti-Baptist, and therefore they have caused confusion over the beauty and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus met people with whom he held profound disagreement, he loved them and he went to a cross to die that they might come to know and enjoy God forever. That is how Australians can tell a Christian, not that we agree with your beliefs, but that we love you and above everything we desire for you to know the Lord Jesus Christ, not to force him upon you, but with grace and fervour, with openness and humility, to explain the reason for the hope with have in Him.