Discrimination exemption for churches? No thanks. I’ll have religious freedom please.

It seems to me the number one issue for Christians in this election has hardly been addressed by the major candidates. Namely, religious freedom.

My assumption is that within the next decade—more likely the next term of government—same-sex marriage will be legalised in Australia. For better or for worse, that is probably going to happen. And it will mark a crucial moment in this debate. For the first time, Christians will stop being the mainstream on this issue. We will become the minority and we will soon find ourselves needing the basic protections of religious freedom.

Bill Shorten MP made it clear this week that he is “not interested in telling religious organisations how to run their faith-based organisations.” At least “at this point in time” (Sydney Morning Herald). In short, as Matthew Knott summed it up in the linked article, Labor will “maintain exemptions for religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws.”

Ok. So let’s forget that this is only “at this point in time.” Let’s forget that exemptions can easily be removed. We’ll eventually be required to bend to the rule or face the penalty for our actions. But let’s forget all that for now.

Let’s focus instead on the patronising slap-in-the-face we just got and didn’t even notice. Yes, did you catch it? We get an exemption from anti-discrimination laws. Great! Since we’re Christians and have gotten away with it for centuries, we’ll be allowed to continue to oppress and mistreat minorities and the vulnerable. This is how they see us. And this is what they are agreeing to. And we’re taking it as a win!

Surely we must grant that Christians deserve this treatment to some degree. We have indeed been bigoted and discriminatory on various issues at various times in history. At least some of us. Instead of welcoming the same-sex attracted with open arms, we have often marginalised and persecuted them. But not always. In fact, an honest look at history suggests that Christians have often been on the frontlines of ending discrimination. Whether it be lepers in Africa, widows in India, or victims of domestic violence in Australia, Christians have often led the charge to love and support the outcast, the downtrodden, the marginalised.

So why are we being painted as bigoted and—more importantly—why are we letting ourselves be painted this way? I think we should straighten out the story. I think we should humbly admit that we have failed to be liberal-hearted and broad-minded at times; that we have been on the back end of social reform too often. But I also think we should assert the facts. We have led the charge in many areas and continue to do so across the country and across the globe. And then I think we should insist on that most basic human right we claim to affirm in Australia: Religious freedom.

We have every right to believe what our religion teaches—and has always taught. We’ve been right here doing what we’re doing for thousands of years. We should be at the forefront of protecting gay people from being persecuted and marginalised in our society. And the fact is, many Christians are.

But that does not mean we make no moral demands on the activities of Christian adherents. For instance, we’ve spoken against extra-marital sex for millennia. “But you can’t criticise someone’s lifestyle choices!” Of course we can. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years and we can and will continue. In fact, our stand against lying, slander, dishonesty, and speaking evil means we criticise the lifestyle of many of our politicians! We’re not going to stop doing that either. And Australia is better off for it.

So what’s the problem here? Well, I think one of the fundamental problems is that those who are writing the social narrative in Australia have been lazy and sloppy in their thinking. What exactly is discrimination? And why exactly is it wrong? If we’ve reached the point that disagreement is discrimination, we’ve reached the point of absurdity. If we draw the line at acting on our disagreement, then voting is highly discriminatory.

So we’ve got to go back to the beginning and reframe the argument in terms that are reasonable. Reasonable definitions can be applied across the board. To Christians and non-Christians alike. And the truth is, we Christians are daily subjected to the most ignominious slanders and misrepresentations and yet there are no laws to protect us from these. Surely laws which pick and choose who is worthy of protection and which of their tenets religions may hold are unjust and unreasonable laws.

Tolerance, of course, is sometimes slated as the across-the-board principle behind the laws, but this is nonsense. If tolerance for them means to allow me to believe as I choose, then it cannot for me be not only to allow them to believe as they choose, but to affirm them in those beliefs. In short, tolerance requires allowance, not affirmation. And we currently have allowance. So tolerance is a red herring. No, the real issue here is religious freedom. For us. And for them. Freedom to disagree. And to act on our beliefs.

I encourage Australian Christians to use every opportunity this federal election season to raise the matter of religious freedom with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Will they protect it? And if so, how?

For a more nuanced and technical handling of this issue, consider Neil Foster’s comments here.

Grace to you.

Jason