Protecting religious freedom…or not

There was a column on the New Zealand news and opinion site Newsroom the other day, written in the wake of the Australian same-sex “marriage” referendum result, challenging the notion that Christians (or no doubt people of other faiths who hold that marriage is of one man and one woman, for life) should be free to practice, proclaim, and live consistently with their beliefs.  These are, of course, beliefs that have been largely uncontentious –  and reflected in life, practice, and legislation –  in our cultural traditions for a very long time.

The column was by Caroline Blyth a British religious studies academic at the University of Auckland.  She appears to live in a homosexual relationship herself.   Although she teaches and researches in biblical studies, in digging around it isn’t obvious whether she has any particular religious faith commitment herself.  From the tone of her column, I suspect not.

Blyth does not even like the provision in New Zealand’s own legislation that lets religious celebrants choose not conduct a same-sex “marriage”.

These exemption clauses essentially grant legal recognition to the fact that religious institutions (particularly the Christian church) are deeply invested in preventing certain people from enjoying the same civic rights as everyone else. In other words, the clauses offer a legal mandate for these institutions to preserve and protect their intolerance of individuals and communities who do not comply with established religious doctrine.

Well, that is certainly one way of interpreting that (rather limited) protection.  It could equally be argued that any citizens were free to marry (subject to finding a willing potential spouse etc), but that since marriage was innately something between a man and woman, almost any male/female pair could marry.   The law did not prevent homosexuals living as they chose (most especially since the civil union provisions were introduced) but they couldn’t call their relationship a marriage, because it wasn’t (and isn’t –  in any true sense of the word) one.

And if Blyth really thinks that private bodies, and groups of citizens, should not be able exclude from their membership those who cross boundaries of acceptable behaviour/belief, she is pretty much giving up on any sort of democratic pluralism from the start.   Should the Labour Party be able to exclude from membership people who urge voters to vote, say, ACT?  Of course, it should. Should the womens’ bowls club be able to exclude male members?  Of course, it should.   Should a church be able to exclude from formal membership someone who denies Christ as their only Saviour, and lives a scandalous life?  Of course, it should.  Humanist Association should be able to exclude Christians too?  Indeed

Allowing religious celebrants not to conduct same-sex “weddings” is the bare minimum freedom of religion.   Without that protection, Christian churches serious about a traditional view of marriage should simply abandon civil marriage to the state, and conduct their own –  more important – religious ceremonies for their own members (and any others who sought the blessing of the church).

But that objection was just a start for Dr Blyth.

what interests me more is the way that these clauses testify to the continued power and privilege of religious institutions within self-identified “secular” countries, such as Australia and New Zealand.

Power and privilege?  Wow.  I’m not sure adherents to traditional Christian faiths (let alone their Muslim or Jewish counterparts) would quite recognise any sort of power or privilege.  The maximalist requests –  whether in Australia now, or in US – have really become not much more than a request to be left alone, to practice and live as we believe.  Discipleship I think we call it.

This isn’t Dr Blyth’s Britain with an established church, or some northern European country with a “church tax”.   Perhaps the provisions of the charities legislation under which the advancement of religion still counts as a charitable purpose, but it is really hard to think of much beyond that.  Clergy these days –  perhaps particularly in New Zealand – are welcomed into the public square when, and only to the extent that, they parrot secular liberal/Green agendas.  Other than that, it is a distinctly Christmas and Easter phenomenon –  noting, in passing, that those are actually Christian festivals.    And that is the clergy.  Is there these days a single prominent media figure willing to articulate a traditional Christian perspective on marriage, abortion, sex or (in fact) anything where such a view might be out of step with the mainstream consensus.  And pity the practising Christian who doesn’t want to be part of his employer’s championing of (say) a gay agenda.

Dr Blyth goes on

In certain hands, religious doctrines, traditions and teachings can become powerful weapons that are wielded to validate and sustain homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia. And, while religion is by no means the only or original source of these prejudices, it can undoubtedly play a part in their perpetuation, granting them divine authority and thus enhancing their influence and appeal.

I don’t suppose anyone is going to defend “phobias”, but actually most of things Dr Blyth talks about here having nothing to do with fear at all.  They have to do with sin.  The Christian religion –  as in Judaism before it –  is fundamentally about the reconcilation, at God’s initiative, of man and God, removing the barrier that sin puts in place.  And the response to act of grace, is the call to holiness, to putting off sin.

Sin takes diverse forms.  Some, sadly, in almost any age are socially acceptable.  Others aren’t.  But there is, these days, little overlap between those distinctions, and the standards taught by the Christian church over the centuries.    Covetousness is sin.  Murder is sin  So is adultery.  But looking on another person with lust in our hearts is, Jesus says, sin.  Theft is sin.  Greed is sin.   Fraud is sin.  In many circumstances divorce and remarriage are sinful.  Dishonouring the Sabbath is sin.  And so is any sex outside the confines of marriage (defined as between a man and woman), and thus all non-heterosexual sexual acts.   Homosexual practice isn’t a more serious sin than any other.  They all put up a wall between humans and God, and they all need to be humbly repented of.  The message of the gospel is about repentance, and the grace of restoration and renewal.  When we do church well, we take quite seriously the fact of our sin –  each and every day –  and our grace-filled status of forgiven sinners.  That doesn’t make us take sin hereafter more lightly; if anything we strive all the harder, by the grace of the Spirit, to grow in holiness.   Whatever Dr Blyth’s conception of Christianity it clearly isn’t that one.

She concludes, asking of the Australian churches

How do these institutions feel about being nationally and globally renowned for their intolerance of diversity and inclusivity? What do they think about their global reputation as formidable roadblocks to legal reforms that seek justice and equality for already marginalised and vulnerable groups? What do they make of the power that they wield in contemporary secular societies – a power which compels governments and lawmakers to placate their interests at the expense of committing fully to LGBTI rights? Is this a reputation to be proud of? Is this the legacy that religious institutions wish to be remembered by in years to come? And how will they minister to their own members who also belong to the LGBTI community, all the while clinging on to legal exemptions that deny these members justice and equality?

I wholeheartedly applaud Senator Smith’s bill, and agree with Senator Penny Wong that the bill’s religious exemption clauses give it a far stronger chance of passing into law. Yet these clauses, I suggest, should be regarded by religious institutions less as a welcome safeguard for “religious freedom” than a source of utter shame, which betrays their unrelenting failure to acknowledge the legitimacy and value of LGBTI lives.

I’m quite sure hers is simply an unrecognisable description.  If there is shame, it should be that the church has so manifestly failed, over the last thirty years or more, to proclaim the Gospel compellingly, in ways that might have prevented the continuing degradation or our societies, and the abandonment of the institutions of Western civilisation, including marriage as traditionally understood.  Perhaps same-sex “marriage” really does just normalise what a majority of our fellow citizens have come to accept, but that makes it only something to lament rather than to celebrate.  The Christian church calls followers to a life set apart, a life in which we (perhaps ever so slowly) put on holiness, and put off sin.   That is as true of sexual sin –  important as that is, as one of our most basic human urges that all civilisations channel and disciple –  as of any other sin.  Sin is sin.  And every single member of every single Christian church lives –  or should live –  with the  knowledge that they themselves are sinners, redeemed only by grace.  Unrepented sin –  again of whatever nature –  needs to be dealt with, and failure to do so leaves a blockage in any sort of life of discipleship.

In the meantime, presumably Dr Blyth would be quite comfortable with laws requiring Christians to provide services to same-sex “marriages” –  be it cake-decorating, photography or whatever?  Presumably she would be happy to penalise, say, any teacher who told her class that she happened to believe that marriage was something for one man and one woman, while noting what the current law is?  Would she be happy to see prosecuted a Christian who wrote, or openly spoke, in favour of a restoration of a traditional understanding of marriage to our law books?  Perhaps she would, be if so it would be another step on the slippery slope towards abandoning the freedom of faith and practice our ancestors fought for in centuries past.   That sort of repression won’t change the truth of the gospel, but it will test the extent to which Christians are willing to live openly for their faith and, if necessary, pay the price.

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One response to “Protecting religious freedom…or not

  1. Michael

    The great preacher Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones once said with regard to conversion:
    “No man truly comes to Christ unless he flies to Him as his only refuge and hope, his only way of escape from the accusations of conscience and the condemnation of God’s holy law…”
    The church gains nothing by compromising with the world in an effort to seem welcoming. Grace isn’t received without repentance, and proud, defiant people don’t repent. If we have to suffer the likes of Dr Blythe and the Green contingent for pointing out the utter depravity of the world, so be it.
    With regard to clergy who “parrot liberal Green agendas”, 1 John 2:18 applies, does it not?


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